Gemara: The Essence of the Talmud

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Although the Yerushalmi was completed earlier (with material spanning roughly 200-500 C.E.), it was eclipsed by the much longer Bavli (200-600 C.E.). The Bavli’s popularity may be due to the work of the Gaonim of Babylonia, who cited that work in the legal judgements (responsa) that they sent to communities throughout the Diaspora. Both Gemaras were written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic dialects and share the teachings of sages known by the term Amoraim (in the singular, Amora).

Both Broad and Deep

Gemara encompasses several literary genres, and subject matter ranges from the sacred to the profane. While it is often misrepresented as merely a commentary on the laws of the Mishnah, the Gemara has an intricate relationship with the Mishnah and a far greater scope. Although it is organized in accordance with the structure of the six orders of the Mishnah, mishnaic teachings are, for the Gemara, the launch pad for diverse topics: prayer, holy days, agriculture, sexual habits, contemporary medical knowledge, superstitions, criminal and civil law.

The Gemara contains both halakhah (legal material) and aggadah (narrative material). Aggadah includes historical material, biblical commentaries, philosophy, theology, and wisdom literature. Stories reveal information about life in ancient times, among Jews and between Jews and their neighbors, and folk customs. All of these genres are blended together with the halakhic material, in what is sometimes described as a stream-of-consciousness fashion filled with meaningful tangents and digressions. 

The Relationship of Gemara to Mishnah

In dealing with the teachings of the Mishnah, the Gemara has multiple functions. It explains unclear words or phrasing. It also provides precedents or examples to assist in application of the law and offers alternative opinions from sages of the talmudMishnah and their contemporaries (known as Tannaim). Whereas the Mishnah barely cites biblical verses, the Gemara for nearly every law discussed introduces these connections between the biblical text and the practices and legal opinions of its time. It also extends and restricts applications of various laws, and even adds laws on issues left out of the Mishnah entirely (for example, the key observances of Hanukkah). Multiple opinions of sages are weighed against one another, often without presenting a conclusion.

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