The Evolution of Torah podcast transcript

Posted On Dec 12, 2019

The following are transcriptions of the podcast The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors. 

Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5

Announcer: Welcome to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature, a JTS podcast introducing you to the first 1,000 years of rabbinic literature with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz. This is Episode One, “Who Were the Rabbis?” 

Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz: A wise person once said, the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. And I think this is the central question of history. Are we more like people in the past than we know? Or are we essentially different from them? The first thing I want to start with is a distinction between the religion with practice today, which we call Judaism, and the religion that the Rabbis, the classical Rabbis, of about 1800 years ago, practiced. 

Their religion, which I would call Torah and mitzvot rather than calling it Judaism, was somewhat different from our own. A lot of the practices were the same, but I think that the goals were quite different. The goal of their religion really wasn’t to find personal meaning. Ours is. Ours is to create a sense of community, or maybe to make a commitment to the Jewish people, create Jewish identity. Or maybe even to make the world a better place.

And all of these things were important to those classical Rabbis, but they were really side benefits. The main goal of rabbinic religion, from the time of the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, until the Crusades, about 1000 years later, was to please God. And demonstrate love and fear of God by following the commandments and embodying Torah. 

This goal allowed for a lot of broadness, a great variety of practices and a diversity of beliefs. But all of those different Rabbis I think shared that main goal. There were different ways that the Rabbis were in the world. They oftentimes had ideals, and they tried to live up to those ideals. But just like all human beings, there were times that they failed. 

So I’m going to try to show you, using three stories, what the rabbinic ideals were, and also what the rabbinic reality was. I want to be clear that I’m not telling this story as something that historically happened. It may have happened, in some version, but that’s not the primary reason I’m using these stories. These stories illustrate what I think are rabbinic values. 

So these three stories appear in the Talmud. Some of you might be familiar with at least one of them. I think I’m going to start here. I’m going to tell the stories in order, and I’m going to start with the rabbinic ideal of authority, and the authority that rests in their knowledge of both the written Torah and a second Torah that they believed existed, which was an accompanying oral tradition, which they called the Oral Torah. 

So there was an incident involving a non-Jew who came to see Shammai. The Gentile said to him, “And how many Torahs do you have?” And Shammai replied, “We have two. We have an Oral Torah and we have a Written Torah. The Oral Torah explains the Written Torah.” The non-Jew replied, “Listen, I can believe in the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah. I want to convert, but I only want to convert on the condition that you just teach me the Written Torah.” 

So Shammai shouted at him and he threw him out of the building. From there, he went to see Hillel, who converted him immediately. He began teaching him the Torah, meaning just the Written Torah. And he said, “First you have to learn the alphabet.” So on that first day, he taught him aleph, bet, gimmel, daled, and so on. And the next day, he reversed the order of the letters, and he told him that an aleph was a tav, and so on and so forth. 

And the convert said to him, “But yesterday you didn’t say that.” So Hillel said to him, “You see? It’s impossible to learn what is written without relying on oral tradition.” Meaning, relying on me to tell you what the real names of these letters actually are. So you have to accept my authority. You have to accept what I’m telling you in order to be able to properly learn what Torah is and how it works. 

As I said, this first story is about the authority that the Rabbis have. It’s pretty clear that Shammai is actually a foil here. That even though Shammai might represent the way that some Rabbis actually are in reality at the time, that they are insular and separate from the larger community, they want to be more like Hillel. They want to be open to the world and accepting, but they also want to maintain their authority. And that authority comes from their special knowledge of the accompanying oral tradition. 

A wise person once said that religion begins in mystery, but it ends in politics. Politics is how we bind ourselves together into groups, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the ways that we establish an affinity for each other is by having a shared belief, and in this particular case we saw that it was the oral Torah. In the next story we’re going to see that a shared trauma can bind us together into a group and actually make for a new beginning. 


The second story goes like this. There was another incident involving a non-Jew who came to see Shammai. And he said to him, “Convert me, on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” This is the story that some of you might find familiar. Shammai chased him away with the builder’s cubit, which is something like a yardstick, some kind of measuring device for construction that he was holding in his hand. 

This same non-Jew came to see Hillel, and Hillel once again converted him right away, and said, “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to another. That’s the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” 

So this, as I said, is the most famous of these three stories. It’s actually the middle story. It’s not even the last of these three stories, which would be sort of the punch line of the stories. And we often tell this story to talk about, you know, the Golden Rule. It’s what we use often in Hebrew schools, to teach the idea that we shouldn’t treat others in a way which is negative or bad. 

I think there is something even more radical going on here. I think that the idea here is actually that the way that we show our love for God is through the way that we treat other people. Like I said before, the goal of the Rabbis was always to show love for God, fear for God. But in fact, here, what we see is the way that that can be accomplished is through the way that we treat people. When we hurt other people, we hurt God. 

This story could also be about violence. And violence was something that the Rabbis universally hated. The symbol of the builder’s cubit could be about a kind of violent pedagogy. The ruler that is waiting to come down, or to push the student out. Hillel instead is accepting. He wants to have an encounter with this student, where he actually is able to reject that kind of pedagogy and to reject the idea of violence as a whole. 

Another thing that could be going on here, in the builder’s cubit, is that it could be a symbol. It’s an implement of building. An implement of creation of a physical space. And we have to remember that this is a group of people who feel the loss of a physical space, the loss of the Temple, quite deeply. They also feel it in the loss of priestly holiness, which is something that we’ll talk about in the next story.


So here’s the third and final story in the cycle. This story also involves a non-Jew who comes to Shammai to convert. This time, the non-Jew comes to Shammai and says, “Convert me on the condition that I become the High Priest.” Shammai doesn’t tell him that in fact there’s a hereditary priesthood. That in fact you cannot become the High Priest unless you come from a particular priestly family. 

So he casts the non-Jew out of his study hall once again, and once again the non-Jew goes to Hillel. And Hillel says to him, “I’ll convert you, but first you have to learn, before you become the High Priest, what are the rules about the High Priest.” So he goes and he starts studying Torah. And he discovers that in fact, the priesthood is hereditary. That only the descendants of Aaron can become the High Priest. 

And at that point, you might expect that he would become disappointed, that he would walk away. But in fact, Hillel had faith that the process of Torah study would bring him in. And this seems to be what actually happens at the end of the story, because he ends up praising Hillel for accepting him immediately. 

We can see from the conclusion of this story that it seems as though the convert no longer cares about becoming the High Priest. And that this new perspective, this new way of understanding what’s important in the world, has come through the process of Torah study. And I think that’s one of the things that’s going on here, that in fact Torah study has replaced sacrifice and the hereditary priesthood. And it’s specifically Torah study under the supervision of Hillel, who represents, as we’ve said, the ideal rabbi. 

So I think this story actually is about the Temple and about the hereditary priesthood. One of the things that’s actually going on here is that the Rabbis are relating to the priesthood and the importance of the priesthood and the Temple. It was the central institution of Jewish life. It was the way that Jews related to God. Even if they were living far away from it, they sent their taxes every single year. They would actually send off to have sacrifices made on their behalf. 

And when the Temple was destroyed, it created a vacuum. The Romans, when they destroyed the Temple, thought that they were destroying Judaism. And in some ways, they were right. The Judaism that came after was very, very different than the Judaism that existed when the Temple was standing. 

And one of the things that the Rabbis had to do was to find a way to fill the vacuum that the absence of the Temple created. And I always use the analogy of a prosthetic limb. That in fact, one of the things that happens, when a person has a loss of part of their body, which this is equivalent to, is they have to come up with something new, a new way of acting in the world. A new way of understanding how their body works. 

The Rabbis created that. And even if they didn’t intend for it to happen, they supplanted the Temple. They replaced the priesthood. They became those who stood in the place where the priests, the kohanim, once stood. And the way that they gained their authority was through learning. 

So now I want to go back and just remind us: what are the ideals that we see the Rabbis putting forward? What are they projecting? 

These were the Rabbis. They were people who believed in an accompanying Oral Torah that actually determined the meaning of the written Torah, and they thought that all of that was God’s manifest will in the world, that that represented their authority. They also were people who hated violence, and rejected violent resistance in favor of a more gentle, spiritual resistance. And they were people who displaced the Temple and the hereditary priesthood, whether they intended it or not. 

And there’s also a fourth element here, which is even though they have a tendency, and they recognize that tendency, to be separate and isolated and sequestered, they have a desire to actually be inclusive and to reach out and to be part of the world. 

So this is now the question. How did this small group we call the Rabbis begin to remake Judaism? It is through Torah study and through text. And we’ll see that next time when we explore the oldest text from the rabbis that we have, the Mishnah. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature from JTS, with Professor Mordecai Schwartz. It was recorded here at JTS by Larry Cameola and produced by Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at And you can send us an email at Please support JTS podcasts and other community learning programs by visiting to donate.




Announcer: Welcome to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature, a JTS podcast introducing you to the first 1,000 years of rabbinic literature with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz. This is Episode Two, “The Mishnah: The Earliest Voices.”

Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz: During the siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai tried to save some element of Judaism. He saw that the Temple was going to be destroyed, and he came up with a plan to escape and see the Romans. The way that he did this was by pretending to be dead. He took a dead cat and laid it next to his bed, and the smell spread. The people around thought that he was dead. This allowed his two students to carry his body, which others thought was a corpse, to the city gate.

When he arrived there, the guards said to the students, “Let us stab the body so that we can ensure that in fact he’s dead.” They said to him, “If we do that, then the Romans will say that we desecrate the bodies of our teachers.” This allowed them to remove Yohanan ben Zakkai from the city, to leave him outside the city walls, so that he could actually escape and make it to speak with the Roman general.

He managed to make it inside his tent, and encountered Vespasian, and even predict that Vespasian would become the emperor of Rome. This made Vespasian very favorable towards Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. And when at that moment, messengers arrived from Rome declaring that he was indeed the new emperor, he said to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, “What is it that you ask? What reward can I give you?”

Yohanan ben Zakkai said, “Give me Yavneh and its sages.” Yavneh was a city along the coast of the land of Israel, between modern day Tel Aviv and the city of Ashdod. And there, he’s supposed to have gathered all of the rabbinic survivors of the Roman revolt. This new center was supposed to have been the seat of the Sanhedrin, the great court that had existed before the destruction of the Temple.

And there he was able to reformulate and to gather all of those traditions that would have been lost after the destruction of the Temple. Now, we don’t know if this story is historical fact. We don’t know if this story has a mythic quality. We don’t even know if there really was a Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. None of those things are ultimately important for us.

What’s important for us is this story tells us how the Rabbis thought about themselves. Instead of seeing Yavneh as perhaps some kind of displaced persons camp, or as an organic gathering spot, they saw a calculated move on Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s part, to gather all of the Rabbis together, to collect all of those traditions, to gather testimonies about what the practice of Judaism had been before the destruction of the Temple.

And it’s this activity that we know happened, this collection of traditions, that would eventually result in the creation of the Mishnah. And as I talked about last time, the idea that there needed to be some kind of prosthetic limb or some sort of replacement for the Temple has its manifestation in the creation of the Mishnah. This text and the process of Torah study is actually what replaces the missing element that’s created by the loss of the Temple.


The book we call the Mishnah is the earliest voice of rabbinic Judaism. The earliest statement. The meaning of the word Mishnah comes from the Hebrew root shin, nun, hey, which means to repeat. The word shannah, which some of you might know, comes from the exact same root. The idea is that each year repeats one after the other.

The meaning of Mishnah is also repetition. The idea is that these traditions need to be repeated again and again in order to remember them. The Mishnah seems in its origins to have been a memorized document. And if you want to think about a culture of passing memorized traditions, much like the way we remember jokes and tell jokes one to another, that might be a helpful way of thinking about it.

The Rabbis who transmitted these early Mishnah traditions were called tanna’im, singular tanna, and they had this culture of passing along these teachings one to another, and these kind of set, formulated traditions mirror the way that we have formulations that we use when we tell jokes. If you can think about jokes being organized by, for instance, how many X does it take to change a light bulb? Or, a minister, a priest, and a rabbi walk in a bar. We categorize jokes this way. And the same way these traditions are categorized, or were kept together by their linguistic qualities.

At some point, over the course of this period of time, when they’re collecting these traditions, gradually they began to be gathered together into categories that would be more than just linguistic. The Talmud says that Rabbi Akiva’s role, the famous Rabbi Akiva who we’ll talk about more later, was in fact “putting the wheat with the wheat, the barley with the barley, and the figs with the figs.” He was grouping them by subject matter rather than merely by the linguistic features within the Mishnah.

It’s this grouping by subject matter that allowed the Mishnah to take its character as a book and to actually have the great influence that it had in the centuries to come. So I want to show you a piece of the Mishnah, a passage of the Mishnah, to show you the kind of thing that I’m talking about. We have two different terms, the Mishnah, which is a book, and a mishnah, which is a passage. You might hear me use those terms, that’s the difference between those two things.

The passage I’m going to show you actually comes from the tractate, the section of the Mishnah, that deals with Passover. It’s a mishnah that deals with the checking for leaven, the checking for chametz, on the eve of Passover.

It says that “on the night of the 14th, one should check for leaven using the light of a lamp.” You’re using an open flame to check if in fact there’s any hametz, any leaven that’s left in the house. That little section, just those words—”on the eve of the 14th, we check for leaven using the light of a lamp”—that seems to have been, at its earliest core, those kinds of simple statements, what Mishnah actually was.

It’s a way of recording a tradition that was actually a lived tradition, in language that could be easily memorized and easily passed on from one person to another. This seems to be very old. How do we know it’s old? Because the very next line in that same passage in the mishnah, is an interpretation or an expansion upon that first part.

So the mishnah continues and says, “why is it that they said two rows in a wine cellar? Because that’s a place where people take leaven.” The idea is, that an individual when they’re eating a meal, they’ll have their piece of bread in front of them. They’ll run out of wine. And they’ll go into the wine cellar, and they might accidentally end up leaving that piece of bread.

Someone, someone anonymous, at some point said, that in fact you have to check the first two rows of the wine cellar. And that’s an expansion upon that first part that just talks about checking the house using the candle.

A third element we often have in a mishnah would be attributions, attributed statements, explanations of anonymous statements. So in this mishnah, there’s a third part, that talks about a dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, these two old schools of thought. They are interpreting what it means to talk about the first two rows of the wine cellar.

So “Bet Shammai says, it’s the two rows that are on the entire face of the wine cellar.” And Bet Hillel says, no, it’s just the two upper, outer rows. Just those two rows at the top of the wine cellar. And we can see that this is an explanation. So that we have then these three parts: Part one, an ancient tradition that tells you you have to check for leaven using a candle. Part two that says, yeah, in addition to the house you have to actually check the wine cellar. And part three, where we have this dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, about which parts of the wine cellar you have to check.

This in general is going to be a pattern that we see repeating again and again in a mishnah. And this is the way that the Mishnah, as it came to be over the course of time, was put together.

The Mishnah that we have today is organized in six orders. The orders are the following.

Zera’im means seeds. It’s laws related to agriculture. Mo’ed, means a set time. It’s laws relating to a festival. Nashim, means women or wives, and it relates to family law. Nezikin, means damages, and it relates to criminal or civil law. Kodashim means holy things, and it relates to sacrifice. And Toharot means pure things, and it relates to ritual purity and impurity. I’ll talk a little bit more in the next section about how the Mishnah was put together.


There is a book that we call The Mishnah. That book was put together by Rabbi Judah the Prince, who in Hebrew we call Rebbi. His period of activity was near the end of the second century, near the beginning of the third century. And he put together what we today think of as the canonical collection of mishnayot, of mishnahs, that we call The Mishnah, the book that we call The Mishnah.

The Tosefta is something we should talk about also. It’s a supplement to the Mishnah, and it has its origins in the early third century. It’s a layered text, and it contains material from both before and after the Mishnah was compiled. Some of the contents are passages of early Tannaitic texts, that Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi didn’t include when he compiled the Mishnah. And then there are also later comments on the Mishnah by Rabbis who lived after his compilation.

So it’s possible for the Tosefta to contain passages that respond to the Mishnah on the one hand, and also passages that the Mishnah post-dates and responds to. Now, because of all of this complexity, and because of the difficulty of the texts, the study of the Tosefta is going to be restricted generally to really learned scholars of rabbinics.


I mentioned before that there are six orders in this book. I mentioned that one of them deals with “wives” or “women”. I want to tell you a little bit about that order now. And also it gives me an opportunity to talk about the role of women in this early developing rabbinic movement.

First of all, you should know that in fact there is a lack of direct women’s voices in the Mishnah, and in rabbinic Judaism in general. It’s thought that there was an ongoing kind of oral Torah that was in fact passed from mother to daughter, but those things were ultimately not thought of by the larger Jewish society in the Middle Ages or at the beginning of the printing press as important to write down, and so many of those things were lost. We have indirect testimony of those types of things. But any time that I talk about women now or later in this discussion, that we’re talking about indirect testimonies. It’s men talking about women. And I apologize for that, but that’s all we basically have.

So in the ancient world, you may know that there was male domination. There was patriarchy that existed. Male society seemed to have been the dominant kind of elite society. And women were more at the margins. Women were more under male control than they are today, when we’re sort of in a period of relative equality.

That said, there are different kinds of patriarchy. There are different kinds of male domination. There’s male domination that’s actively hateful of women, and then there’s male domination that is centered on men, but not actually actively hateful of women.

It’s very clear from the Mishnah that the Rabbis in this time period, while they were not proponents of equality between men and women, they had a general principle of fairness. They might not have wanted things to be equal, but they did have the idea that human beings are human beings, and all human beings should in fact be treated fairly.

Now, women are a constant presence as a subject of thought in the Mishnah. And it’s clear that there’s a kind of feudalistic understanding of the relationships between men and women. In other words, the husband is at the center, and there are concentric circles around where the wife is next in line. After that, children. Then slaves, which they did possess in this period. Animals, and then finally moveable property and land.

Now, when I talk about that feudalistic relationship, you can see that relative to the other people in that set of concentric circles, women are closer to the center rather than further away. And so their status is relatively higher. The fascinating thing is that even though there is this inequality of ritual and family law in the Mishnah, when it comes to economic regulation and criminal law, women are completely equal as far as the Mishnah is concerned.

So if a woman has a business, and she gets into a dispute with another person, she can bring a suit in court in the exact same way that a man can. And there are lots of cases in the Talmud of women being victorious in lawsuits.

The other piece that I want to talk about here is the question of who the Rabbis saw themselves as, in contradistinction to women. Now, the Rabbis have a very strong God in their imagination of who God is. They also imagined sort of a “God the Father,” that God is in some ways gendered male. And since they see themselves as being God’s spouse, they often see themselves as taking on this kind of feminized role.

I talked in a previous episode about gentleness and non-violence being sort of rabbinic masculinity. That’s absolutely the case. And one of the things that we see happening in tractate Nashim is a metaphor developing where they see marriage, rabbinic marriage, as being a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel, and more specifically between God and the Rabbis.

So this metaphor for relationships, this metaphor in which God is kind of male gendered and is in relationship, almost a kind of marital relationship with the rabbis, brings up for our generation the following question: is there homoeroticism in rabbinic culture? And we’ll discuss that next time, when we discuss the Talmud, the next major statement of rabbinic Judaism.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature from JTS, with Professor Mordecai Schwartz. It was recorded here at JTS by Larry Cameola and produced by Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at And you can send us an email at Please support JTS podcasts and other community learning programs by visiting to donate.




Announcer: Welcome to The Evolution of Torah, a history of rabbinic literature, a JTS podcast introducing you to the first 1,000 years of rabbinic literature with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz. This is Episode Three, “The Talmud(s): Creating Torah through dispute.”

Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz: One day, Rabbi Yohanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Reish Lakish, who was the leader of a band of brigands at the time, saw him and jumped in after him. Rabbi Yohanan, seeing Reish Lakish, said, “Your strength is fit for Torah study.” Reish Lakish replied to him, “Your beauty is fit for women.” Rabbi Yohanan said to him, “If you come with me, and pursue Torah, I will give you my sister in marriage, and she is more beautiful than I.”

Reish Lakish agreed to study Torah. But when Reish Lakish wanted to leap out of the river, he discovered that he had lost his great physical strength, and he was unable to. Rabbi Yohanan taught Reish Lakish scripture, and Mishnah, and eventually Reish Lakish became a great Rabbi.

This story tells us a great deal of how the Rabbis thought of themselves. It tells us a great deal about the ways they thought about masculinity, male friendship, and a new form of Torah study, which is the dispute form. Clearly we see here that the masculinity that the Rabbis imagine as being the ideal way to be a man in the world is quite different from the ways that we normally think that masculinity works.

In Roman society, in Hellenistic society, the way that a man proved his stuff, that he had the stuff, was through martial skill. His ability to jump and run and fight and use a sword. That’s clearly not the kind of masculinity here. The way that a rabbi proves his bona fides is by his knowledge. His knowledge of scripture, his knowledge of Mishnah, and his ability to argue.

We also see here that male friendship works in a different way. Male friendships, here, instead of being channeled through physical competition, are channeled through competition around scripture and Mishnah. And replacing violence or pseudo-violence as part of that process is the dispute form, an ongoing back-and-forth argument between rabbis.

The continuation of this story does indeed talk about how Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan become this kind of battling figures. Not battling physically, but battling intellectually. This dispute form, the back-and-forth argumentation, really does work as one of the origins of the Talmud. About a third of the Talmud really is made up of this material.

The great Rabbi Yohanan is one of the most important figures in the Talmud. These two figures, Rabbi Yohanan along with his study partner Reish Lakish are the two most mentioned rabbis from the Land of Israel in the Babylonian Talmud. And they set a paradigm for a new type of rabbi. Previously we’ve talked about the tanna, the repeater, the transmitter of tradition, when we’re talking about the Mishnah.

But now, this new paradigm is the paradigm of the amora, the amoraim are sayers, literally. Which implies that they are saying something new. There’s a kind of interpretive, argumentative process that goes on with these amoraim. We’re going to see that this really does set the paradigm, and that this form moves to Babylonia and is expanded by two new rabbis that we’ll talk about in the next section.


The Babylonian Jewish community had been the most important diaspora community for 1,000 years. They had been instrumental in the creation of scripture. Whole books of the Prophets were written in Babylonia, including one of the most important, the great book of Ezekiel. And then the Mishnah came to Babylonia. And when the Mishnah arrived, it was a watershed. It completely changed the culture of Torah in Babylonia, starting in the second century.

The early Rabbis in Babylonia at that point began interpreting the Mishnah in a variety of different ways. But the really important changes took a while. In the fourth century, there was another great change in the Torah culture in the land of Babylonia.

Two important Rabbis, named Rabbah and Abaye, were the originators of a new method of study. These two rabbis and their circles contrasted and compared material from the Land of Israel and material from Babylonia. When they did this, that allowed them to come up with a variety of new kinds of interpretation, novel imaginings of the way that the sources from the Land of Israel compared to the sources from Babylonia.

Often what we find in the Talmud is a pattern in which Rabbis will be quoted from the Land of Israel, and then Babylonian rabbis will step in with novel interpretations, comparing the interpretive traditions from Babylonia with the interpretive traditions from the Land of Israel. This will be followed by a long set of arguments, the kind of back and forth, the dispute form that I was talking about earlier.

Another element here in the fourth century, in these circles, was that perhaps these rabbis played an editorial role. That for the first time, the Talmud is becoming a book. That these passages are being strung together on clauses of the Mishnah. And it’s taking the form of a commentary on the Mishnah, but it’s actually much more than that. It’s stepping past its role as a commentary on the Mishnah, and becoming something else.


Meanwhile in the Land of Israel, the Rabbis there had not stopped working on their own Talmud. When we talk about the Babylonian Talmud, we’re talking about “our” Talmud, the Talmud that became authoritative. But there was an alternate tradition. This alternate collection we call the Yerushalmi, in Hebrew. In English it’s often referred to as either the Jerusalem Talmud or the Palestinian Talmud.

It’s ironic to note that even though we call it the Jerusalem Talmud, it seems not to have been written in the south of Israel or even in the middle part of Israel, but it was written in the north, in the Galilee, or along the coast.

This Talmud is significantly different than the Babylonian Talmud in a number of different ways. One thing to note is that its interest in Mishnah is exclusive. It is not as interested in Scripture as the Babylonian Talmud is. The Babylonian Talmud does seem to have a special interest in scripture. But the Jerusalem Talmud seems to be really interested in halakhic discussions, Jewish legal discussions concerning material that we find in the Mishnah.

One reason for this is that in the Land of Israel, they seem to have had separate collections for the interpretation of Scripture. We find that the Babylonian Talmud is about three times the size of the Jerusalem Talmud. One possible reason for this is that they had no other collections, that all of the interpretation of scripture in Babylonia was put into the Babylonian Talmud.

In fact, if you put the Jerusalem Talmud on the same shelf with all of the midrashic collections, all of the other collections from the Land of Israel, it will come out to be about the same size as the Babylonian Talmud. Midrash is terribly misunderstood. When people encounter Midrash, they often find its interpretations to be wild or ridiculous or silly. And there’s a cultural reason for that encounter.

Another misunderstanding is that people often think Midrash refers to a single book, when in fact it’s lots of different collections with many different interpretive modes and techniques and ways of looking at scripture. Next time, we’re going to look at some of these collections of Midrash from the Land of Israel, and a bit of what they contain.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature from JTS, with Professor Mordecai Schwartz. It was recorded here at JTS by Larry Cameola and produced by Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at And you can send us an email at Please support JTS podcasts and other community learning programs by visiting to donate.




Announcer: Welcome to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature, a JTS podcast introducing you to the first 1,000 years of rabbinic literature with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz. This is Episode Four, “Midrash: Making meaning.”

Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz: David Zvi Hoffmann was a rabbi in Germany in the late 19th century. He was also one of a new breed, a modern scholar of rabbinic literature. He was aware of several collections of Midrash that had disappeared. One of these was the Mekhilta Derebbi Shimon bar Yohai, an important midrash from the school of Rabbi Akiva. 

This work had been lost. It simply didn’t make the transition to the printing press from the texts that were copied out by hand by scribes in the Middle Ages. But certain passages were preserved in medieval commentaries on the Torah. New travel technologies like steam and rail allowed previously isolated Jewish communities to share their texts with each other.

Yemenite collections of Midrash made it to Europe in the 19th century. Among these was a midrash that was called the Midrash Hagadol, the big midrash, literally. This midrash anthologized from earlier midrashim, but it did not contain any citations or references to the texts from which they had anthologized.

Hoffman claimed he could tell just by the style of the paragraphs in the Midrash Hagadol which of those paragraphs came from the Mekhilta Derashbi. He took these paragraphs, and edited them together as a way of reconstructing the midrash that he thought had existed.

He published his results in 1888, calling it the Mekhilta Derebbi Shimon bar Yohai, and it was published under that name. A little bit less than a decade later, when the Cairo Geniza was discovered and came into the hands of Solomon Schechter, amongst the various fragments that they found there were copies of the Mekhilta Derebbi Shimon bar Yohai.

And the amazing thing is that Hoffman had been largely right. He really had been able to reconstruct this midrash.

The midrashic tradition was large indeed, and many midrashim were lost. As I mentioned in the last episode, the reason for the small size of the Yerushalmi, one possible reason anyway, is that the Talmud of the Land of Israel was not the main focus of rabbinic learning in the Land of Israel. There was a huge midrashic tradition.

In many ways, Midrash preserves lost rabbinic traditions. Or alternative paths that could have been taken. Though we don’t have all of these collections, what we do have expands our knowledge of the diversity of the rabbinic movement in the Land of Israel.

So now I’m going to ask, what is Midrash? It is a genre of rabbinic literature. It’s a genre that’s deeply tied up with scripture. It’s interpretations of verses and of smaller units within the Torah itself. If there is no verse, then it is not Midrash.

One simple example, the Shema passage from Deuteronomy 6 tells us that we should say it, “beshokhbekha u-vekumekha,” “when you lie down and when you rise up.” But it’s not clear what that means. Does it mean, personally when I go to sleep? Personally when I wake up? Midrash fills this in. It says that it’s when most people go to sleep, that is, when nightfall occurs. And when most people wake up, that is, the first third of the morning.

We call this Midrash Halakha. Midrash Halakha is mostly legal. Halakha is the term that we use for Jewish law. That said, it also deals with narrative portions of the Torah. What makes Midrash Halakha really Midrash Halakha is that it is from the same time period as the Mishnah.

There seemed to have been two schools of Midrash Halakha. The school of Rabbi Akiva, which accepted more fanciful interpretations of verses. And the school of Rabbi Yishmael, that insisted on the simple meaning, the most basic meaning of the verses and the language of those versus.

The popularity of the study of Midrash Halacha amongst 19th century rabbinic scholars was because of the diversity of the techniques that one finds in these collections of Midrash. They represent rabbinic paths that were not taken. And for modern Jews, this feels very relevant because of the diversity of practices, the diversity of approaches that we see in the modern period.


I want to talk now about narrative Midrash. We call this Midrash Aggadah. Aggadah means narrative. We can sort of think of this as rabbinic fan fiction. The Rabbis are fans of the Torah, but just like fan fiction, there’s a dissatisfaction when there are gaps in the narrative, or when there’s a lack of detail. And so they create this narrative Midrash as a way of filling in these gaps.

So I want to give you two examples from a collection we call Genesis Rabbah, which is on the book of Genesis. Two examples from the childhoods of our patriarchs, which is missing in these narratives in the Torah itself. So the first of these is a story that many of you might know, the story of Abraham and the idols. That when Abraham was a child, according to this midrash, he already objected to idol worship. Which was a problem, because his father was a seller of idols.

So the story concludes with him smashing these idols to make an ideological point. And this story comes and fills in the gap about Abraham’s childhood. Many people think this story is in the Torah, but it’s actually not. It’s in a collection of Midrash.

Another story that we have is about the childhood of Jacob and Esau. That when Jacob and Esau were young, when they were school-age, they went to the study house, and both of them followed their parents’ dictates. But when they turned 13, Jacob went one way, to the study house, and Esau went another, to worship idols.

And the story here concludes with the idea that a parent is no longer responsible for their child after the age of 13, that the child is able to make his or her own religious decisions from that point on. And the midrash even includes a blessing that is often recited at children’s b’nai mitzvah.

So we see here that we actually do have some kind of a practice that comes out of this midrash. But this is a little bit unusual. There is a clear shift of focus from legal midrash to narrative midrash in this somewhat later period of the 2nd century.

So why did the focus shift? It’s not entirely clear, but we think that it was the Mishnah, which we called a watershed before. That it had a major cultural effect of ending direct legal interpretation of scripture, and from that point on, it was really the interpretation of Mishnah that determined legal practice. Whereas Midrash became more focused on understanding the narratives of the Torah.


So what else is Midrash? In my opinion, we can look at other Jewish interpretations like Kabbalah or modern Midrash and we can actually see that there are some versions of these things that are real Midrash, that use real rabbinic techniques of interpreting verses.

So what is Kabbalah? It’s a form of Jewish mysticism whose early works are really kind of like midrashim in that they’re focused on verses. But instead of trying to derive a halakha, a law, from those verses, or to understand the gaps in a narrative, it’s focused on using those verses as a way of encountering God directly, to gain a mystical experience.

There’s also something we call modern Midrash. Is this really Midrash? Yes. You can make Midrash today. If it is grounded in the knowledge of the rabbinic tradition, and followed the tradition of interpreting the verses of the Torah itself. People today use modern Midrash as a way of creating new practices and filling in narrative gaps in a way that is more palatable to a modern taste.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, who is an alumnus of JTS, has multiple collections of modern midrash which attempt to include previously marginalized members of the Jewish community, including women, LGBTQ Jews, and disabled Jews.

There are also new forms. Peter Pitzele created a form called Bibliodrama, which attempts to use a kind of theatrical workshopping of the verses to uncover new meaning in the verses and to fill in narrative gaps.

So I think what we have here is what Barry Wimpheimer, who is a scholar of rabbinics at Northwestern, calls an expanded Talmud. That when you think of the Talmud, you shouldn’t just think of the collection that we call the Babylonian Talmud. But you have to think of the whole of rabbinic tradition. All of these midrashim, including modern midrashim, and a whole range of medieval and modern commentaries.

So this brings up the question, what do we mean when we talk about the close of the Talmud? When we talk about the Talmud as a canonical text that has a specific end point in time? And we’ll talk about that next time.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Evolution of Torah:  a history of rabbinic literature from JTS, with Professor Mordecai Schwartz. It was recorded here at JTS by Larry Cameola and produced by Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at And you can send us an email at Please support JTS podcasts and other community learning programs by visiting to donate.




Announcer: Welcome to The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature, a JTS podcast introducing you to the first 1,000 years of rabbinic literature with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz. This is Episode 5, “The Talmud after the Talmud.”

Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz: In the 10th century, the Jews of Kairouan, a city in North Africa, asked a Babylonian rabbi named Sherira Gaon about the authorship and composition of the Mishnah and the Talmud. They noticed that there was a line in the Talmud, in Bava Metzia, that said that “Rav Ashi and Ravina were the close of instruction.”

Many had taken this to mean that Ravina and Rav Ashi, two fifth century figures, were the last Rabbis of the Talmud, that they were responsible for the editing and compilation of the Talmud. And traditionally-minded Jews will tell you that Ravina and Rav Ashi closed the Talmud even to this day. However, the problem is that there are rabbis cited in the Talmud after Rav Ashi, including his own son, Mar bar Rav Ashi.

So the question is, what does this phrase that Ravina and Rav Ashi closed instruction really mean? The phrase appears in a kind of fanciful story about despair, and I think that that’s one of the possible meanings that this phrase could actually have. That no one could teach like Rav Ashi and Ravina, and after their death, the Jews of Babylonia were bereft of teachers. That there were no more real rabbis after that.

So if that’s the case, when did the Talmud close? Put more simply, what happened after the last cited Rabbis of the Talmud? What happened after the Amoraim? It isn’t easy to talk about the last Rabbis of the Talmud without speaking about the first rabbis after the Talmud, the Geonim.

This is because the Geonim are the source of most of our information about the close of the Talmud. Secondly, they were responsible for the spread of the Talmud throughout the world, and for the Talmud becoming the authoritative text of the Jews. Therefore, they set much of the medieval Jewish culture that was to follow.

So I had mentioned that the Jews of Kairouan sent a question to Sherira Gaon about the authorship and composition of the Mishnah and the Talmud, and he wrote them a long and important letter in response. This is sometimes called The Epistle of Sherira Gaon.

And his answer was a deceptively simple one. His response was that the Talmud was composed “dara batra dara,” “generation after generation.” Each generation added to the Talmud, even after Rav Ashi, but that this was an organic and emerging process. Rav Sherira Gaon mentioned a shadowy group who followed the amoraim called savoraim.

Now, we don’t know exactly what this name means. It might mean “reasoners.” It might mean “scholars of logic,” or it might mean “sophists.” These Rabbis, none of whose names we know, added passages to the Talmud after the Amoraim. They were focused on the exact meanings of words in the Mishnah, and they treated material in the Talmud in the same way that the earlier Rabbis had treated material in the Torah, as a kind of subject of Midrash.

They don’t call what they’re doing Midrash, but they sometimes impose meaning in the same way that Midrash sometimes imposes meaning on verses of the Torah, rather than deriving it organically. And this process is what allowed them to have a new kind of creativity in the continuing story of the Talmud.

Modern scholars have also posited that anonymous material, that is, material in the Talmud that has no names associated with it, is late. That it’s from this same time period between the Amoraim and the Gaonim. And they call this the stam hatalmud. Scholars here at JTS really developed that theory. David Weiss Halivni, Shamma Friedman, and Judith Hauptman are amongst the most prominent scholars who have propagated this theory. The phrase stam hatalmud already existed among medieval rabbis. But this theory is something that did not exist until the middle of the 20th century.


The question for us is: why did the Talmud end? If I said that there was no official ending of the Talmud, why did work on it not continue after a certain point? Now, we don’t really know. But the cultural shift that was prompted by the rise of Islam in the seventh century, and the caliphate, the empire of the Abbasids, is a strong possibility.

A new group of rabbis was responsible for the spread of rabbinic tradition throughout the Islamic world during this period, the Geonim. So who were the Geonim? They were a group of rabbis who flourished from about the seventh century to about the 11th. The term “Gaon” strictly refers to the heads of the academies. But it’s also used to refer to any rabbi of this period.

The Babylonian academies of the Gaonim were the chief centers of Jewish learning. The Gaonim, the heads of these academies, were recognized as the highest authorities of Jewish law in the period. They had a specific set of institutions that were actually authorized by the Abbasid Caliphate. In other words, they had governmental power and authority behind them.

There were two main academies that were both located in Baghdad, even though they took their names from small towns in Babylonia, because those are the places in which they had originated. Their heads, the heads of these academies, each held the title Gaon, and that’s why we refer to Sherira as Sherira Gaon, because he was the head of one of these academies.

Among the various responsibilities of the Gaonim, they appointed judges. The Gaonim held authority from the Caliphate over the appointment of all the Jewish judges and all the tax collection from the Jews in the various districts of the Abbasid Empire. What these two academies did is divide this territory between them so that there would be no overlapping territory. Some modern scholars attribute the acceptance of the Talmud to this civil authority that the Geonim held from the Abbasid Caliphate.

Rabbis throughout the Near East would gather at the academies in Baghdad for a month, twice each year. Once in advance of the High Holidays, and one in advance of Passover. These conventions were called yarhei kallah, month-long conferences. At the same time that rabbis came from all over the empire to gather in Baghdad at these times, the full-time members of the academy would sit in order to answer questions.

Jews who lived in places outside Babylonia sent their religious and legal questions concerning religion and law to the academies in Babylonia. The Gaon would sit with the full-time members of the academy at one or other of the regular pre-holiday conventions to discuss these questions. After the discussion, the Gaon would make a decision that the members of the academy would approve by signing.

The length of the responsa vary greatly. The answer could be one word, a simple yes or no. Or it could be the size of a very long treatise. Responsa is hugely important to understanding the medieval life of the Jews. Responsa is actually lived halakhic life. Unlike the Talmud, which often entertains a theoretical question, all of the questions in the responsa are actual questions from real people who actually lived. They are actual problems that they faced that they needed answers to.

Another new form that originated under the Geonim was the code of Jewish law. Codes of Jewish law cut to the chase. Unlike the Talmud, which can have wide-ranging discussions, the codes of Jewish law simply give a ruling and are arranged according to subject.

One of the earliest of these codes, not the first, but one of the earliest, is a work we call Halakhot Gedolot. It’s from the eighth century, and it had a huge influence. Its form is exactly what I’ve described before: collected rulings, omitting much of the discussion from the Talmud. It’s attributed to either the head of an academy, Yehudai Gaon, or a rabbi who never was the head of an academy but was a great scholar, Shimon Kayara. We don’t know exactly who wrote it.

The question for us now is what happened after the Geonim? We know that the Talmud spread and became authoritative, even beyond the world of Islam. How did that happen? How is it that the Talmud spread to Europe and to North Africa and other places? We’ll take up that question in the next section.


A pirate from Spain captured a ship which had set sail from Bari in southern Italy. On that ship, there were four rabbis who were on a mission to raise funds for the dowries of poor brides. The pirate sold these great rabbis as slaves, and subsequently, the Jewish communities of various places redeemed these rabbis.

Rabbi Shemariah ben Elhanan was redeemed in Alexandria, in Egypt. Rabbi Hushiel was sold in Africa, and he became a leader of the rabbis of Kairouan, in what is modern-day Tunisia. Rabbi Moses ben Hanokh, and his son Hanokh, were redeemed in Cordoba, in Spain. The name of the fourth captive, and the place where he settled is unknown, but perhaps it was somewhere in Europe. The story implies that they brought the Talmud with them in a memorized form.

This story, found in Sefer Hakabbalah, a 12th century work by Avraham ibn Daud, seems to be a romantic folktale. But it could actually be based on a real event. Regardless of the veracity of the story, it reflects the rise of new centers of Torah after the Gaonim. New centers in Egypt, Kairouan, Spain, which is Sefarad, and Europe, which was called Ashkenaz.

Among the most important of the new rabbis in these centers were Rashi and the writers of the Tosafot. Rashi wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and another on the Tanakh. It’s important to note the magnitude of this achievement. Not only did he write a comprehensive commentary on both of these great works, but both of these commentaries became the standard commentary for each of these works.

Rashi’s work is the standard commentary on the Talmud, and it’s used by both scholars and by beginners, and it appeals to both. His commentary on the Talmud covers nearly all of the Babylonian Talmud, and it continues to be included in every modern edition of the Talmud.

His commentary on the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is also the standard in traditional circles to this very day. His commentary is included in most Hebrew editions of the Humash, the five books of Moses, for synagogue use.

Another commentary on the Talmud which is hugely important is that of the Tosafot. These rabbis who lived in the few generations after Rashi had a revolutionary innovation. They saw the Talmud as a single book, whose contradictions had to be resolved from place to place. Sometimes this is called Talmud on Talmud. They used the same techniques that the Talmud uses to resolve contradictions between Amoraim, to resolve contradictions between different passages of Talmud in different places.

A scholar at JTS, Neil Danzig, has proposed that what would have happened if the Talmud hadn’t closed is that the work that the Tosafot did would have been done within the Talmud itself. And so in its own way, Tosafot is a continuation of the work that was done on the Talmud, just prior to its close.


So we’ve arrived at the end of our thousand-year period. And I’ve taken you through from the Mishnah to Rashi. But there are a number of things, obviously, that came after this period. Important things. And I want to just mention them very briefly, because they really are subjects for another entire podcast.

I want to talk a little bit about Maimonides, who wrote a very important code called the Mishneh Torah, which treats the entirety of the Talmud in its own way. The Ramban, Nahmanides, who is the founder of the Spanish school of talmudic interpretation. That Spanish school did not look at the Talmud as a single book. Instead, it looked at it as a series of discrete passages, each with their own interpretation.

I have also not talked about the totality of the medieval legal tradition, the growing set of codes and responsa that were hugely important throughout the Middle Ages, and into the modern period. Among the most important works of halacha is the Shulhan Arukh, which functions as a digest of the Talmud and its commentaries in the area of Jewish law.

I also want to give you a little bit of synthesis to take away from this podcast. I had talked earlier about the idea of the expanded Talmud. That the Talmud isn’t just a book, it’s everything surrounding that book. It starts with the Mishnah, and continues with the amoraim, and then continues with the anonymous portions of the Talmud and then continues even after that.

As Sherira Gaon said, dara batra dara, generation after generation, each generation adds new material, new commentary, new understandings to the Talmud, and that is the notion of the expanded Talmud. The Talmud also has a symbolic importance amongst the Jews. It provides us with a kind of authority. And so we often couch our arguments about ethics and practice and even the stories that we tell our children, as being reflective of this work we call the Talmud.

Finally, I want to talk about Jewish culture. The Rabbis created a culture of questioning, of playfulness around language. A whole range of cultural features that Jews continue to engage in to this very day. It is the Talmud that’s responsible, in a lot of ways, for the culture and character of Jews, even in the modern period.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. And I hope that you will use it as a launching pad to do some studying of the Talmud on your own.

Announcer: This was the final episode of  The Evolution of Torah: a history of rabbinic literature from JTS, with Professor Mordecai Schwartz. It was recorded here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Chris Hickey, and produced by Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at And you can send us an email at Please support JTS podcasts and other community learning programs by visiting to donate.