The Essential Talmud


By Adin Steinsaltz

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A masterful introduction to the to the great repository of Jewish wisdom, the Talmud

In The Essential Talmud, the renowned Israeli scholar and teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz succinctly describes the history, structure, and methodology of the sacred text by which the Jewish people have lived and survived through the ages. Rabbi Steinsaltz summarizes the Talmud's main principles, demonstrates its contemporary relevance, and captures the spirit of this unique and paradoxical text as a human expression of divine law. This expanded edition features a historical overview of life in the times of the Talmud and an in-depth look at the content and appearance of the original Talmudic page. As Rabbi Solomon S. Bernards of the B'Nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League puts it, "this book is indispensable to those, Jews and Christians alike, who would like to gain an insight into what it is that moves the contemporary Jew."





Adin Steinsaltz

Translated from the Hebrew bys
Chaya Galai


This slight book is not so much a preface to the Talmud as it is an overview of it. For many, many years, the Talmud has been terribly maligned by those who do not know it. It needed some kind of explanation, an introduction—from several perspectives—of its basic parameters.

The Talmud is a very hard book to define. From content to style, every definition is incomplete or contradictory. The Talmud is completely unique—a book that has no parallel anywhere. By way of an oxymoron and paradox, the Talmud may be called a book of holy intellectualism.

Because there is nothing quite like the Talmud, it is helpful to have not just one perspective, but two or three, so that one can have a sense of the multifaceted and often contradictory sides of this large, very complex work. This book, then, tries to provide a comprehensive view on the Talmud in its many aspects, as much as one can from the outside.

The first view is more or less a complete historical background of the Talmud from its very beginning to modern times, because—as mentioned in the book itself—the creation of the Talmud began at the same moment with the written law and it will never really be finished. A second way to look at the Talmud is to describe the way it is structured and the subjects it deals with; this includes the many different areas of Jewish law, as well as philosophy, biology, psychology, legends, proverbs, and wisdom. The third is to discuss the methodology of the Talmud, to reveal its way of thinking.

This edition contains some new material that was not in the first edition that sheds light on life during the Talmudic period and describes the layout of the Talmud page.

It is my hope that this book will continue to be used to understand the significance of the Talmud and as a guide to entering the world of the Talmud itself for anyone who is interested in seeking its knowledge.


March 2006

part one

What Is the Talmud?

IF THE BIBLE is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar, soaring up from the foundations and supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice. In many ways the Talmud is the most important book in Jewish culture, the backbone of creativity and of national life. No other work has had a comparable influence on the theory and practice of Jewish life, shaping spiritual content and serving as a guide to conduct. The Jewish people have always been keenly aware that their continued survival and development depend on study of the Talmud, and those hostile to Judaism have also been cognizant of this fact. The book was reviled, slandered, and consigned to the flames countless times in the Middle Ages and has been subjected to similar indignities in the recent past as well. At times, talmudic study has been prohibited because it was abundantly clear that a Jewish society that ceased to study this work had no real hope of survival.

The formal definition of the Talmud is the summary of oral law that evolved after centuries of scholarly effort by sages who lived in Palestine and Babylonia until the beginning of the Middle Ages. It has two main components: the Mishnah, a book of halakhah (law) written in Hebrew; and the commentary on the Mishnah, known as the Talmud (or Gemarah), in the limited sense of the word, a summary of discussion and elucidations of the Mishnah written in Aramaic-Hebrew jargon.

This explanation, however, though formally correct, is misleading and imprecise. The Talmud is the repository of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom, and the oral law, which is as ancient and significant as the written law (the Torah), finds expression therein. It is a conglomerate of law, legend, and philosophy, a blend of unique logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, anecdotes and humor. It is a collection of paradoxes: its framework is orderly and logical, every word and term subjected to meticulous editing, completed centuries after the actual work of composition came to an end; yet it is still based on free association, on a harnessing together of diverse ideas reminiscent of the modern stream-of-consciousness novel. Although its main objective is to interpret and comment on a book of law, it is, simultaneously, a work of art that goes beyond legislation and its practical application. And although the Talmud is, to this day, the primary source of Jewish law, it cannot be cited as an authority for purposes of ruling.

The Talmud treats abstract and totally unrealistic problems in the same manner in which it refers to the most prosaic facts of everyday life, yet succeeds in avoiding abstract terminology. Though based on the principles of tradition and the transmission of authority from generation to generation, it is unparalleled in its eagerness to question and reexamine convention and accepted views and to root out underlying causes. The talmudic method of discussion and demonstration tries to approximate mathematical precision, but without having recourse to mathematical or logical symbols.

The Talmud is best understood through analysis of the basic objectives of its authors and compilers. What were they aiming at, those thousands of sages who spent their lives in debate and discussion in hundreds of large and small centers of learning? The key is to be found in the name of the work: Talmud (that is, study, learning). The Talmud is the embodiment of the great concept of mitzvat talmud Torah—the positive religious duty of studying Torah, of acquiring learning and wisdom, study which is its own end and reward. A certain talmudic sage who has left us nothing but his name and this one dictum had this to say on the subject: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is contained in the Torah. Regard it and grow old in it and never abandon it, for there is no greater virtue.”

Study of Torah undoubtedly serves numerous practical purposes, but these are not the crucial objectives. Study is not geared to the degree of importance or the practical potential of the problems discussed. Its main aim is learning itself. Likewise, knowledge of Torah is not an aid to observance of law but an end in itself. This does not mean that the Talmud is not concerned with the values contained in the material studied. On the contrary, it is stated emphatically that he who studies Torah and does not observe what he studies would better never have been born. A true scholar serves as a living example by his way of life and conduct. But this is part of the general outlook of the Talmud; for the student poring over the text, study has no other end but knowledge. Every subject pertaining to Torah, or to life as related to Torah, is worthy of consideration and analysis, and an attempt is always made to delve into the heart of the matter. In the course of study, the question of whether these analyses are of practical use is never raised. We often encounter in the Talmud protracted and vehement debates on various problems that try to examine the structure of the method and to elucidate the conclusions deriving from it. The scholars invested all this effort despite the fact that they knew the source itself had been rejected and was of no legislative significance. This approach also explains why we find debates on problems that were relevant in the distant past and were unlikely ever to arise again.

It sometimes occurs, of course, that problems or debates once thought impractical or irrelevant gain practical significance in some later age. This is a familiar phenomenon in the sphere of pure science. But this development is of little consequence to the talmudic student, as, from the outset, his sole objective has been to solve theoretical problems and to seek the truth.

The Talmud is ostensibly constructed along the lines of a legal tract, and many people commit the error of thinking that it is legal in essence. It treats the subjects with which it deals—basic halakhah, biblical verses, or traditions handed down by sages—as natural phenomena, components of objective reality. When a man has dealings with nature, he cannot claim that the subject does not appeal to him or is unworthy of perusal. There are, of course, varying degrees of importance to issues, but all are alike in that they are—they exist and note must be paid to them. When the talmudic sage examined an ancient tradition, he perceived it, above all, as a reality in itself, and whether binding on him or not, it was part of his world and could not be dismissed. When the scholars discuss a rejected idea or source, their attitude resembles that of the scientist contemplating an organism that has become extinct because of its inability to adapt itself to changing conditions. This organism has, in a manner of speaking, “failed” and died out, but this fact does not detract from its interest for the scientist as a subject of study.

One of the greatest historical controversies was that between the methods of the “houses” (schools) of Shammai and Hillel, which lasted for more than a century. It was eventually resolved in the famous dictum: “Both are the words of the living God, and the decision is in accordance with the House of Hillel.” The fact that one method is preferred does not mean that the other is based on a misconception. It, too, is an expression of creativity and of “the words of the living God.” When one of the sages ventured to say a certain theory was not to his liking, he was scolded by his colleagues, who informed him that it was wrong to say of Torah, “This is good and this is not.” Such a view is analogous to the case of the scientist who is not permitted to say that a certain creature seems to him “unappealing.” This does not mean to imply that evaluations (even of appeal) should never be made; they should, however, be based on consciousness of the fact that no man has the right to judge or to determine that a certain object lacks beauty from the purely objective point of view.

This analogy between the natural world and Torah is ancient and was developed at length by the sages. One of its earliest expressions is the theory that just as an architect builds a house according to a blueprint, so the Holy One, Blessed be He, scanned his Torah in creating the world. According to this viewpoint, it follows that there must be a certain correlation between the world and Torah, the latter forming part of the essence of the natural world and not merely constituting external speculation on it. This way of thinking also engendered the view that no subject is too strange, remote, or bizarre to be studied.

The Talmud reflects so wide a range of interests because it is not a homogeneous work composed by a single author. When several people collaborate on a book, they have in mind a certain specific aim which lends the work character and direction. But the Talmud is the end result of the editing of the thoughts and sayings of many scholars over a long period, none of whom envisaged a final written work at the time. Their remarks were inspired by life, growing out of the problems submitted to them and the exchange of views between the various sages and their disciples. This is why we cannot discern a clear trend or a specific objective in the Talmud. Each debate is, to a large extent, independent of others and unique, and each subject is the focus of interest at the time it is being discussed. At the same time, the Talmud has an unmistakable and striking character of its own, which does not bear the imprint of an individual, or of the editors, but is collective, reflecting the quality of the Jewish people over a given period. Not only where the thousands of anonymous views are concerned, but also in cases where the identity of the author or proponent is known, the differences between individuals are blurred and the general spirit prevails. However violently two sages may differ, their shared traits and likemindedness must eventually become evident to the reader, who then discerns the overall unity that overcomes all differences.

Since the Talmud is concerned with subjects, ideas, and problems, there evolved over the centuries the custom of quoting various views in the present tense: “Abbaye says, Rabba says.” This stylistic habit reflects the belief that the work is not merely a record of the opinions of the scholars of past ages, and it should not be judged by historical criteria. The talmudic sages themselves distinguished between personalities and periods (clarification of such questions is, in fact, an integral part of study), but the distinctions are only cited when strictly relevant and are not employed for evaluation and discussion. For these scholars time is not an ever-flowing stream in which the present always obliterates the past; it is understood organically as a living and developing essence, present and future being founded on the living past. Within this wide-ranging process, certain elements take on more stable form, while others, pertaining to the present, are flexible and much more changeable; the process as such, however, is based on faith in the vitality of each element, ancient as it may be, and the importance of its role in the never-ending, self-renewing work of creation.

This process of renewal is closely connected to the centrality of the query in the talmudic debate. To a certain extent, the entire Talmud is framed by questions and answers, and even when not explicitly formulated, questions constitute the background to every statement and interpretation. One of the most ancient methods of studying the Talmud attempted to reconstruct the question on the basis of the statement that served as a response. It is no coincidence that the Talmud contains so many words denoting questions, ranging from queries aimed at satisfying curiosity to questions that attempt to undermine the validity of the debated issue. The Talmud also differentiates between a fundamental query and a less basic inquiry, a question of principle and a marginal query. Voicing doubts is not only legitimate in the Talmud, it is essential to study. To a certain degree, the rule is that any type of query is permissible and even desirable; the more the merrier. No inquiry is regarded as unfair or incorrect as long as it pertains to the issue and can cast light on some aspect of it. This is true not only of the Talmud itself but also of the way in which it is studied and perused. After absorbing the basic material, the student is expected to pose questions to himself and to others and to voice doubts and reservations. From this point of view, the Talmud is perhaps the only sacred book in all of world culture that permits and even encourages the student to question it.

This characteristic leads us to another aspect of the composition and study of the Talmud. It is impossible to arrive at external knowledge of this work. Any description of its subject matter or study methods must, inevitably, be superficial because of the Talmud’s unique nature. True knowledge can only be attained through spiritual communion, and the student must participate intellectually and emotionally in the talmudic debate, himself becoming, to a certain degree, a creator.

Life in the Talmudic Period

MOST OF THE ISSUES with which the Talmud deals are abstract, and their significance and concern are not restricted to a particular period or way of life. Nevertheless the Talmud is very closely connected with real life, since the subjects and issues raised in the Talmudic discussion and Halakhic debate frequently derive from specific problems of everyday life. On a more general level, historical events and developments are referred to in the Talmud and provide background to the Talmudic discussion, to the relations between the various personalities, and even to the Halakhic debate. The following sections throw light on certain aspects of the background against which the Talmud was created—those aspects that have a direct connection with the Talmud itself.

The Political Background Eretz Israel

During the entire Mishnaic and Talmudic period (approximately 30 B.C.E.–500 C.E.) Eretz Israel was ruled in fact, if not always in name, by the Romans. Roman rule in general, and the problems Roman government and its representatives posed for the Jewish community in particular, provide the political background of the period. From a political-historical point of view the Mishnaic period (c. 30 B.C.E.–200 C.E.) and the Talmudic period (200 C.E.–500 C.E.) coincide with two distinct eras of Roman rule, and can therefore be regarded as two distinct periods.

During the Mishnaic period Roman imperial power was at its height. As a rule, the Roman emperors exercised their power vigorously and effectively, and their authority was felt throughout the Empire. Internal public order was well maintained, and the Romans imposed international order as well—the Pax Romana. During most of the period relations between the Jewish community in Eretz Israel and the Romans were bad. Nevertheless, short intervals of tranquillity did provide opportunities for such important events as the building of the magnificent Temple by Herod, the participation of Herod’s grandson Agrippa in the life of the people, and the editing of the Mishnah in the days of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Most of the time, however, the Jewish community was in conflict with the Roman overlord and his local representatives. The tense relationship with the House of Herod and the Roman governors of Judea led to the great Jewish revolt, which the Romans crushed, destroying the Second Temple (70 C.E.). A number of other uprisings occurred after the destruction (the “wars” of Quietus and Trajan), culminating in the Bar Kokhba revolt, the failure of which brought ruin upon Judea. The centers of Jewish life and culture were then transferred northward to Galilee.

During the Talmudic period (approximately 200 C.E.–500 C.E.) Roman authority was shaken. The central government of the Empire disintegrated, giving rise to periods of anarchy and wars between rival claimants to the imperial throne, and bringing about economic collapse. Simultaneously, the power of Christianity increased, and by the end of the fourth century it had become the official religion of the Empire. Because of international developments, pressure from the authorities on the Jewish community in Eretz Israel constantly increased. To maintain itself, the government imposed crippling taxes on the population, which undermined the economy (there were instances when the scholars permitted working the land during the Sabbatical Year in order to alleviate the burden of taxation). Local security was adversely affected, and toward the end of the period the Christian minority also exerted pressure, which went beyond tale-bearing and petty persecution and extended to the systematic suppression of Jewish life. The scope of internal Jewish self-government was gradually reduced, and the Jewish community declined in numbers because of emigration to other countries, either to the center of the Roman Empire or to the Persian Empire. These developments brought about a decline in Torah study in Eretz Israel, compelling the scholars to undertake a hasty summary and incomplete editing of the Jerusalem Talmud, with no possibility of completing it. Political pressures and persecution severely weakened the remaining Jewish community. Lacking leadership and central direction they devoted their creative efforts to the area of Aggadah and piyyutim (liturgical poetry).


The beginning of the Amoraic period in Babylonia also coincides with a division between two periods in Babylonian political history. Until this period Persia was ruled by the Parthians, an Iranian people who established a quasi-feudal regime, leaving very broad powers in the hands of the local rulers. The central government scarcely intervened in the lives of the various peoples living in the country. Culturally, the country experienced considerable Hellenistic influence —Greek—is the expression used by the Amora, Rav). In 226 C.E., however, the Parthian kingdom was conquered by the Sassanids. Unlike the Parthians, the Sassanids strengthened and promoted the Zoroastrian religion and its priests or —“magi”), and strengthened the power of the country’s central government. The wars with the Roman Empire, which had subsided at the end of the Parthian period, now flared up again, affecting the border regions. The centers of population moved eastward. At first the Sassanids were rather hostile to the Jews, but with the passage of time good and even cordial relations developed between the leaders of the Jewish community and the Persian government. As a result of the increased centralization of government power, the power of the Jewish Exilarch (the “Resh Galuta,” head of the Jewish community) likewise increased.

The relative calm within the kingdom and its stable economic situation both enabled the Jewish community to grow and encouraged immigration of Jews from other countries, mainly from Eretz Israel. Despite friction with the Persian priests (the habbarim), the Jewish community developed almost undisturbed.

In the time of Rav Ashi (toward the end of the fourth century C.E.) relations with the Persian government were excellent, enabling the Sages to undertake the great project—the fundamental general editing of the Babylonian Talmud. In the next generation, however, a period less favorable to the Jews began. Decrees, mainly religious restrictions, were enacted against the Jews during the reigns of Jezdegerd II and Peroz (described in our sources as —“the wicked”), reaching their climax with the ascent of Mazdak. In response, a Jewish revolt broke out at the beginning of the sixth century under the leadership of the Exilarch, Mar Zutra. The final years of this period also reflect a major decline in spiritual creativity, which was limited to the final editing of the Talmud. Only after the Persian kings relaxed their religious extremism was stability restored to the Babylonian Jewish community, bringing about a renewed spiritual renaissance during the period of the Geonim.

Internal Administration Eretz Israel

The Roman emperors generally did not involve themselves deeply in the internal administration and local affairs of the Jews, nor did their representatives in Eretz Israel, the House of Herod. Later Tannaim, such as Rabbi Yose, draw an idyllic picture of Roman indifference to local affairs and of Jewish self-rule during the Second Temple period. However, as early as Hasmonean times, this picture had ceased to be accurate. The later Hasmonean kings, and certainly the Herodian kings and the Roman governors, deprived the Sanhedrin of most of its authority to decide national issues, and ultimately also of its jurisdiction over capital offences. According to tradition, “forty years before the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin was exiled from it and met in the markets” (Avodah Zarah 8b). This was in reality a voluntary exile, in which the Sanhedrin relinquished its right to judge capital cases because it lacked the authority to implement its decisions. However, the Rabbinical Courts and the scholars did retain jurisdiction over ritual matters, and also the power of decision in monetary disputes and local affairs.

Since most of the Jewish community was concentrated in towns and villages entirely populated by Jews, the forms of Jewish local administration were still preserved. The affairs of the town were managed by a committee, most probably elected, of the —“the seven elders [lit., ‘best men’] of the city”—and decisions of especial importance were most likely reached by public voting, “with all the men of the city present” ; see Megillah 26a). The local Rabbinical Courts, consisting of three judges, received their authority from the Nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin. They decided all matters of a ritual nature, and Rabbinic scholars were appointed as the leading scholars or spiritual heads of the locality.


  • "Offers a fascinating introduction to the codified oral tradition."—Christianity Today
  • "Steinsaltz is a consummate master of the subject...extremely helpful."—Commentary
  • "Rabbi Steinsaltz not only organizes and clarifies a vast amount of highly complex material, but manages to suggest the magnetism of the Talmudic commitment through the centuries...[a] worthwhile introduction to the character and genius of the Talmud for non-Jews and a refresher course for Jews who wish an uncluttered layman's view."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Mar 17, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Adin Steinsaltz

About the Author

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, hailed by Time as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” is internationally regarded as a leading scholar and rabbi. He founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, and has written many books on subjects including the Talmud, Jewish mysticism, religious thought, sociology, historical biography, and philosophy. His published works have been translated into Russian, English, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Japanese, and Dutch. He lives in Jerusalem.

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