Torah versus Talmud?

I'm hoping that you can clarify a few terms that are not clear for me. What is the difference between Torah, Talmud, Mishnah, Gemara and Midrash. If the Bible is the written law, then is the Midrash the commentary?

I went to Hebrew School and had my Bar Mitzvah, but they never explained any of this to me. I'm drowning in a sea of unfamiliar terminology. Please help!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The first thing to know is that the Torah consists of two parts: The Written Torah, and the Oral Torah.

The Written Torah totals 24 books, including the Five Books of Moses and the prophetic writings – e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.

The Five Books of Moses – comprised of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – was written down by Moses in 1273 BCE, and includes all 613 commandments (mitzvahs).

Perhaps part of the reason for your confusion is that the Five Books of Moses has many names. It is referred to as the Bible (meaning "book" in Greek), the Chumash (Hebrew for "fifth"), the Pentateuch (Greek for "five scrolls"), or generically "Torah" – Hebrew for "instructions," because its purpose is to instruct. (Jews consider it insulting to call it the Old Testament, as this implies a New Testament, which Jews reject.)

But whatever the name, it refers to the best-selling, longest-running book in the history of mankind.

So what is the Oral Torah? Its name derives from the fact that it was not allowed to be formally written down but had to be taught orally. It contains the explanations of the Written Torah. One cannot be understood without the other.

In 190 CE, persecution and exile of the Jewish people threatened the proper transmission of the Oral Torah. Therefore, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi compiled written notes on the Oral Torah called the "Mishnah" (Hebrew for "teaching"). Rabbi Yehudah arranged the Mishnah into six sections: Laws of Agriculture, Festivals, Damages, Marriage, Purity, and Offerings. Rabbi Yehudah wrote the Mishnah in code form, so that students would still require the explanation of a rabbi – since this information was meant to remain oral.

In 500 CE, the Jewish people again suffered an uprooting of their communities, and two Babylonian rabbis – Rav Ashi and Ravina – compiled a 60-volume record of rabbinic discussions on the Mishnah, called the "Gemara." Together, the Mishnah and Gemara comprise what is commonly called the "Talmud."

The Oral Torah also includes the Midrash, an explanation of the Written Torah, comprising both ethical and legal components. Much of this material is also contained in the Talmud.

The Oral Torah also includes the works of Kabbalah, a tradition of mystical secrets of the metaphysical universe received by Moses at Mount Sinai. It was first published as "The Zohar" by R' Shimon bar Yochai (170 CE), and elucidated by the Arizal (1572 CE).

Torah is not to be regarded, however, as an academic field of study. It is meant to be applied to all aspects of our everyday life – speech, food, prayer, etc. Over the centuries great rabbis have compiled summaries of practical law from the Talmud. Landmark works include: "Mishneh Torah" by Maimonides (12th century Egypt); "Shulchan Aruch" by Rabbi Yosef Karo (16th century Israel); "Mishnah Berurah" by the Chafetz Chaim (20th century Poland).

I hope this helps solve your confusion. Now only one thing remains – to go out and learn the entire Torah!

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