To Understand and to Comprehend: The Study of Talmud From Joshua to the Present

BY: Ariel Krakowski.

No mitsvah is as essential to Judaism as the study of Torah.[i] There are different parts to Torah study, as the Gemara states: “A person should split up his learning: one third Bible, one third Mishnah, one third Talmud.”[ii] Nowadays, most Orthodox students focus on the Talmud, spending many hours each day involved in its study. Yet, many do not know the nature of the mitsvah in which they are involved. This paper will focus on understanding this “third part” of Torah, Talmud. In order to reach a deeper understanding of its nature, it will explore the development of Talmud study and Oral Law over the course of history.

The Nature of the Oral Torah and Talmud Study

To understand Talmud study, one must understand how Jews learned in the centuries before the Mishnah was written down. The only written texts they used were the twenty-four books of Tanakh, for there was a prohibition against writing down the Oral Torah contained within the Mishnah and Talmud. As the Gemara states:

“R. Yehudah b. Nahmani, the public orator of R. Shim’on b. Lakish, discoursed as follows: It is written (Shemot 34:27), ‘Write thou these words,’ and it is written, ‘For according to the mouth of these words.’ What are we to make of this? It means: The words which are written down you are not at liberty to say by heart, and the words transmitted orally you are not at liberty to recite from writing. A Tanna of the school of R. Yishmael taught: [It is written] ‘These:’ these you may write, but you may not write ‘halakhot.’”[iii]

The Gemara states a clear prohibition against writing down the Oral Law, which was followed until the days of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi. However, how was Oral Law learned before it was written down? Furthermore, why was it not permitted to write the Oral Law? It would have helped the spread of information if the halakhot were written down and not just memorized!

An important aspect of the study of Talmud is that it provides the opportunity for the advanced student to think, innovate and apply his conclusions to practice.  One can study any text, but the highest level is to study God’s Word itself rather than an intermediary commentary. The Masorah (Tradition) of Torah she-be-Al Peh, before it was committed to writing, passed on the principles of learning and some halakhot, but scholars would then derive the sources for halakhot from the Pentateuch itself as well as apply known halakhic principles to new cases. The oral nature allowed for different people to learn in their own styles, since there was no text confining them. This is how R. Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006) describes how Torah was taught before the Mishnah was written down: “Despite the unanimity among the sages in the underlying principles and teachings, each sage taught his students with whichever order and whichever method he preferred. […] Some taught general rules; others added details; and others expanded and offered many, many examples and analogies.”[iv] The actual learning did not consist of reading a frozen text, but of creating a lively discussion of the Torah itself, ensuring a constant connection with the divine Word. Not every detail of every law could always be remembered, but this methodology allowed people to constantly rediscover the laws in the Written Torah.[v] The study of Torah was not about the spread of information, but about having a personal connection to Sinai.[vi]

The History of the Study of Talmud

This oral manner was the ideal way to study Talmud, and this is how Jews learned since the Torah was given. In the words of Rambam: “Just as Yehoshua and Pinehas studied in matters of analysis and law, so did Ravina and R. Ashi  [the last of the Amoraim].”[vii] Yet, the oral nature of Halakhah could not continue unchanged. Due to persecutions and hardships, the Oral Law came in danger of being forgotten and was, therefore, partially written down. Yet, even after Torah she-be-Al Peh was codified, the nature of learning did not radically change. People tried to maintain as much of the oral nature of Torah study as they could. The Mishnah was mostly recited from memory, as were the Beraitot.[viii] In this way, it was comparable to the oral traditions of earlier days. Although there was now a set text of the Mishnah, learning was still similar to how it had been earlier.  Jewish scholars still attempted to find the sources for the halakhot of the Mishnah as well as derive new halakhot directly from the Torah.

Similarly, after the Talmud was written down, people still learned primarily in an oral manner.[ix] The Geonim during this period did not learn from a written text of the Talmud, but recited it orally. They were not as bound to the specific wording of the text, but recited the general discussions of the Talmud. Some may never have even used a written Gemara text. It seems as if their focus was less on analyzing and comparing the Gemarot themselves and more on partaking in the Talmudic process.

Eventually, the Jews left Babylon and the era of the Geonim ended. The oral nature of Talmud could no longer be maintained in the far-flung lands in which the Jews found themselves. Different schools of learning in Ashkenazic and Sefaradic lands developed their own approaches. We will focus on how Rambam (from Sefarad) and the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot (from Ashkenaz) viewed Talmud study in their times. Their views on this subject can be seen both in their discussions of the mitsvah of talmud Torah and in the way they themselves learned.

Talmud According to Rambam

Even though hundreds of years had passed since the writing of the Talmud and hundreds more since the compilation of the Mishnah, Rambam still described the fundamental mitsvah of Talmud as if there had been no such change to the original nature of the Oral Law:

“A person is obligated to divide his study time in three: one third should be devoted to the Written Law, one third to the Oral Law, and one third to understanding and conceptualizing the ultimate derivation of a concept from its roots, inferring one concept from another and comparing concepts, understanding [the Torah] based on the principles of biblical exegesis, until one appreciates the essence of those principles and how the prohibitions and the other decisions which one received according to the oral tradition can be derived using them. The latter topic is called ‘Talmud.’”[x]

Rambam’s description of Talmud study seems similar to the study of Oral Law before the Talmud was written down. He explains the mitsvah of Talmud as being focused on the primary source, the Torah, and on understanding and analyzing it based on the oral traditions. Rambam does not say that the mitsvah of Talmud consists of merely analyzing earlier generations’ statements. Furthermore, Rambam attacks the focus on intermediary sources: “Such is the mentality of even the elect of our times that they do not test the veracity of an opinion upon the merit of its own content but upon its agreement with the words of some preceding authority, without troubling to examine that preceding source itself.”[xi],[xii]

While it is clear that Rambam does not consider the writings of the Geonim to be binding, his views on the authority of the Talmud are more nuanced. The Talmud itself is not exactly an intermediary source; in a way, it is more like the traditions that earlier generations had passed down orally.[xiii] Yet, this does not mean that the Talmud’s conclusions are the final word on every matter. Since Rambam views the fundamental mitsvah of learning Talmud as being focused on understanding the divine Word above any intermediary source, he sometimes even breaks with the apparent conclusion of the Talmud. He views Talmud study for us as partaking in the same process the scholars in the Talmud did, granting us much authority in the halakhic process. For instance, Rambam uses midrashim and the Talmud Yerushalmi extensively, sometimes ruling in accordance with a passage in the Yerushalmi over an apparently conflicting passage in the Bavli.[xiv],[xv] At times, he even seems to focus more on the primary source in a passage than the explanation of the Talmud Bavli itself (though normally without contradicting the Bavli),[xvi],[xvii] or follows a different explanation of the Mishnah than that of the Gemara.[xviii] These bold rulings are all in accordance with his view of Talmud.

According to Rambam, it seems that the main purpose of talmud Torah is to understand the halakhot themselves and know how to apply them. Even the Talmud Bavli is a means toward understanding the fundamental components of Torah she-bi-Ketav and Torah she-be-Al Peh, not an end unto itself. And since the halakhot themselves are fundamentally oral in nature, people should not be bound to specific texts to be able to learn them. Thus, Rambam wrote two important works, the Perush ha-Mishnayyot and the Mishneh Torah, which provided alternatives to the Talmud as a means of acquiring halakhic knowledge.[xix]

Talmud According to the French Rabbis

Other Rishonim understood the nature of Talmud differently. Rashi explains the nature of Talmud that the Tannaim studied as follows:

“‘Talmud’[xx] – this is sevara (reasoning), that the later Tannaim would be medayyek (analyze) the difficult words of the early ones to explain them and give reasons, just as the Amoraim after the Tannaim explained the words of the Tannaim before them and established the Gemara; that diyyuk (analysis) in the days of the Tannaim was called ‘Talmud.’”[xxi]

Perhaps, according to such a definition, one can say that the fundamental mitsvah of Talmud is to analyze and compare the words of the previous period of scholars. This fits well with the view of R. Isaac ha-Levi Rabinowitz, in his Dorot ha-Rishonim,[xxii] that the derashot (hermeneutical conclusions) that the sages seem to derive directly from the Torah are in fact derived from the analyses of scholars in the previous period.[xxiii]

The Ba’alei ha-Tosafot continued in the direction of Rashi and also understood Talmud as an explanation of the previous generation’s words. They developed new ways to study Talmud, comparing various Talmudic passages to each other and trying to resolve contradictions and explain differences. They analyzed the Talmud in a way similar to how the scholars in the Talmud analyzed the Mishnah.

This approach to Talmud was novel. The Geonim did not compare different passages of the Talmud as extensively as the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot did, since they partook in its own analyses. The Ba’alei ha-Tosafot moved the focus of analysis one step further away from the original biblical source, from working within the Talmudic process to analyzing the Talmud from the outside. This shift may have caused them to lessen the importance of studying the primary biblical sources. This is evident in Rabbeinu Tam’s understanding of Kiddushin 30a (mentioned in Tosafot), which states that a third of one’s learning time should be dedicated to Bible, a third to Mishnah, and a third to Talmud: “With our Talmud (Babylonian), we exempt ourselves from what our Sages said, ‘A person should split up his learning: one third Bible, one third Mishnah, and one third Talmud.’”[xxiv] According to Tosafot, the study of Talmud can possibly replace all of talmud Torah. This is clearly very different from Rambam’s focus on interpreting the Written Torah itself.

A Deeper Examination

It is possible that the difference between Rambam and the French rabbis in their views on learning Talmud relates to their different conceptions of yeridat ha-dorot (decline of the generations).

The approach of Tosafot is compatible with acceptance of a literal understanding of yeridat ha-dorot – that each generation, or era, is at a lower level than the previous generation. According to this understanding, it is clear why Talmud would consist of analysis of the previous generations’ statements. It would be presumptuous for later generations to independently interpret the words of significantly earlier sources. Each generation can only try to understand the previous generation’s explanations of the more primary sources. This would possibly explain why the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot view the Talmud as the absolute final word on a matter, for they lived too long after the Talmudic statements were made in order to retain the right to question them.

However, Rambam may have had a different conception of historical decline. In the quotation cited above from his Introduction to Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Rambam seems to imply that part of the reason for yeridat ha-dorot is precisely that people blindly accept a preceding authority.[xxv] According to Rambam, there were other factors that may have caused the decline, such as persecutions, dispersions of Jewry, and collapses of central rabbinic authority.[xxvi] Later generations may have forgotten some of the Torah that the earlier generations knew. However, Rambam does not appear to believe in a historical rule of steady decline. While these reasons explain why we must ultimately accept the authority of the Talmud, and also explain why Amoraim accepted the authority of the Tannaim, they are not as fundamental as the Tosafists’ understanding of yeridat ha-dorot. Rambam’s understanding of yeridat ha-dorot allows for more independent analysis by later generations, justifying the instances cited above in which he breaks with the understanding of the Talmud. It also may explain why Rambam views the fundamental mitsvah of learning Talmud as being focused on the primary sources rather than on intermediary commentaries.

Ellu va-Ellu

It is possible that Rambam and the French rabbis also understood the concept of mahaloket (argument) differently, or more specifically, the Talmudic dictum of “Ellu va-ellu divrei E-lohim Hayyim” (“These and these are the words of the Living God”). The Talmud describes the disputes between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai:

“R. Abba the son of Shemuel said: The House of Shammai and the House of Hillel argued for three years; these said the Halakhah is like us, and these said the Halakhah is like us. [Eventually,] a voice [from Heaven] declared, ‘These and these are the words of the Living God, but the Halakhah is like the House of Hillel.’”[xxvii]

Ritva wonders how both sides of an argument can be true:

“The French rabbis asked, ‘How is it possible that both sides are the words of the Living God, when one forbids and the other permits?’ And they answered, ‘When Moses went up on high to receive the Torah, they [the angels] showed him on every matter 49 views to forbid and 49 views to permit, and he asked God about this, and He said that it will be handed over to the sages of Israel in each generation, and the ruling would be like them.’ And this is correct according to derash (homiletics), but [kabbalistically] there is a reason in the matter.”[xxviii]

Ritva, citing the French rabbis, understands “ellu va-ellu” literally: God showed Moses many possibilities within every matter and there is no single, original Truth. Every view can be considered the exact truth of God at Sinai!

This understanding of ellu va-ellu can be seen in the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot’s approach to Talmud study and in their own analyses of the Talmud.[xxix] As mentioned above, Tosafot understood the mitsvah to be focused on intermediate sources. But what if the intermediate source explained the primary source incorrectly? One will focus so much on the intermediate source that he may not even try to understand the true explanation of the primary source! Yet if one understands “ellu va-ellu” broadly, this is not a problem, for both sides of a dispute are true, and surely an intermediate source that is undisputed is true! One need not worry that an intermediate explanation is mistaken. This also allows Tosafot to characterize both sides of a dispute as containing truth, each one built up by the added layers from previous generations. This also fits with Tosafot’s style of citing many views on a matter without emphasizing final conclusions.

Rambam never mentions ellu va-ellu, and he considers mahaloket as something that should be resolved, for the primary focus of one’s learning should be to reach halakhic conclusions, not analyze mahaloket. If one analyzes intermediary sources, he may correctly understand them but still be incorrect. Therefore, one must return to the original sources in order to discover the one Truth. Rambam specifically omits all rejected opinions from his Perush ha-Mishnayyot and Mishneh Torah, and only renders final conclusions.[xxx]

Contemporary Learning

The custom nowadays in most yeshivot is for students to spend most of their learning time analyzing the words of Rishonim and Aharonim. They often ignore the study of more primary sources, from Tanakh to Mishnah to even broad knowledge of the text of the Talmud itself. This custom clearly does not fit with the opinion of Rambam, who criticizes such reliance on secondary sources and emphasizes reaching final halakhic conclusions. He also stresses the obligation to learn Tanakh and Mishnah and does not exempt from it those who study the Talmud.[xxxi] Perhaps modern practice can be justified on the basis of the views of the French rabbis, who explain the nature of Talmud as analysis of an earlier generation’s words and exempt students from focusing on Tanakh and Mishnah.

Yet, even Tosafot would probably not approve of modern-day learning. Although the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot may have emphasized the study of Tanakh less, they surely believed in studying it in depth,[xxxii] for they clearly knew the primary sources that they studied very well! Furthermore, many students only cover a few folios a year, studying tiny details within halakhic works by Aharonim, such as Birkat Shemuel or Ketsot ha-Hoshen, while remaining ignorant of vast areas of the Torah and Talmud.[xxxiii] This style of learning, which overlooks more primary sources, seems to be a newer phenomenon of the last century and has little precedent in any earlier source. Perhaps there should be a greater focus on learning and analyzing the primary sources of the Torah. The starting point for one’s analysis need not be the text of an Aharon. The Tanakh and the works of Hazal are also worthy of one’s focus.

Whatever path people ultimately choose in their learning, a reflection on these issues should still be helpful. As long as their learning continues in the traditions of the past, perhaps each derekh can be considered “divrei E-lohim Hayyim.[xxxiv]

Ariel Krakowski is a junior at YC majoring in Computer Science and is a Webmaster and Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser. He also has a blog at and  a website at

[i] In the words of Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:3: “None of the other mitsvot can be equated to the study of Torah. Rather, the study of Torah can be equated to all the mitsvot, because study leads to deed. Therefore, study takes precedence over deed in all cases.”

[ii] Kiddushin 30a.

[iii] Gittin 60b.

[iv] Translation from R. Nosson Dovid Rabinowich, The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon (Jerusalem: Rabbi Jacob Joseph Press – Ahavath Torah Institute; Moznaim, 1988), p. 15.

[v] As it states in Temurah 16a, there was always the possibility of rediscovering forgotten halakhot: “1,700 kallin va-homarin, gezeirot shavot, and dikdukei soferim (types of hermeneutical derivations) were forgotten during the mourning period for Moshe. R. Abbahu said: Even so, Otniel b. Kenaz returned them with his sharp analysis.”

[vi] See Kiddushin 30a, which explains an important biblical verse about talmud Torah that states the importance of this connection to Sinai: “R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: Anyone who teaches his grandson Torah, the Torah considers him as if he received it from Mt. Sinai, as it says, ‘And you shall teach them to your sons and your grandsons’ (Devarim 4:9), and next to this, ‘The day that you stood before God at Horeb [Sinai]’ (Devarim 4:10).”

[vii] Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishnah. Although some Rishonim may say there were some developments over time, I think all would agree to the basic idea that Jews were always involved in the same basic study of Torah she-be-Al Peh.

[viii] See, for example, Yaakov Elman, “Orality and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud,” Oral Tradition 14,1 (1999): 52-99.

[ix] See Robert Brody, “The Talmud in the Geonic Period,” in Sharon Liberman Mintz and Gabriel M. Goldstein (eds.), Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 2005), pp. 29-35, at p. 31. He quotes from R. Aaron Sarjado Gaon (head of the academy at Pumbedita from 942-960), who says that most of the Academy “does not know what a book is.” Brody argues that the Geonic style of learning was different than that of the Academy because of its oral nature.

[x] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11.

[xi] From Rambam’s Introduction to Sefer ha-Mitṣvot; translation from Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on the “Decline of the Generations” and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 39.

[xii] Something may be lost when intermediary layers of commentary replace the primary sources as the new focus of learning. As an analogy one may paraphrase the words of the Rambam elsewhere (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:1):   People began saying, “Since the commentators are servants of the Torah, they deserve to be studied and analyzed […] and this is the honor of the Torah.” So they began building sevarot and offering inferences […] saying this is the way of the Torah. And after the years passed, people arose and said, “Study this commentator or all the commentators in this way and that way.” Eventually, the Holy, Awesome Torah was forgotten from all people.

[xiii] See the discussion of yeridat ha-dorot below where Rambam’s view of the Talmud’s authority is explained.

[xiv] For more on this, see Herbert Alan Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and his Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 119 and n. 130. He mentions how there are many examples of cases in which Rambam seems to rule like the Yerushalmi, but the Bavli can be interpreted to accord with it. If this is the case, then it would fit with the idea that Rambam freely interprets a primary source when it does not directly contradict the Talmud Bavli.

[xv] A possible example in which Rambam follows the Yerushalmi over the Bavli (at least according to some commentators, such as Remakh) is found in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 5:5, where Rambam discusses the requirement that a city sacrifice all the lives of its inhabitants rather than give over one Jew to be killed. Rambam takes his ruling from a passage in the Yerushalmi, even though some explain that the Bavli seems to contradict it.

[xvi] For example, see Kiddushin 6b (concerning one who betroths with a loan) and 58b (concerning the sprinkling of water from a sin-offering), where Rambam’s explanation seems to be focused on the primary source and is simpler even though it does not accord as well with the Gemara. I believe that he may have felt it was preferable to give the best explanation of the more primary source because that reading could be true independent of the Talmud’s explanation. Therefore, even if his reading does not fit with that of the Gemara, it may still fit with the primary source. In both examples, other Rishonim give a simpler explanation of the Gemara, but their readings do not as easily fit with the more primary sources. For another possible example, see Yad Malakhi, Kelalei ha-Rambam #38.

See also the case cited in the previous note from Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah where Rambam seems to focus on the primary sources instead of following the rules of pesak. Rambam rules like Reish Lakish over R. Yohanan – despite the fact that there is a rule in pesak to follow R. Yohanan when the two of them argue – that a city cannot hand over a specified person who is not liable to the death penalty. The Kesef Mishneh explains that Rambam follows Reish Lakish because the implications of the Tannaitic and biblical sources are in his favor. See, however, Yad Peshutah, ibid., who argues that Rambam had a different text.

[xvii] This idea of trying to fit with a more primary source or understanding may be seen elsewhere also. For example, the Talmud Bavli often rules in a certain way based on its understanding of the Pentateuch and rules of derash.  If an objection is raised from the Mishnah, the Talmud dismisses it with an answer that either seems forced (dohak) or that requires a textual addition or emendation (hassurei mehassera). The Talmud may recognize that the answer is weak, but is basing itself off a primary understanding of the Torah and at the same time trying to avoid outright contradiction with the Mishnah.

[xviii] See many examples of this in Elhanan Samet, Yad la-Rambam: Diyyunim be-Piskei ha-Rambam be-Yad ha-Hazakah (Ma’aleh Adumim; Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot, 2005/6). See also Joshua Broyde’s article in this edition of Kol Hamevaser for more on this issue.

[xix] As Rambam states in his Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, he felt his work could be read after Tanakh, without any work in between, meaning that he believed that studying the Mishneh Torah is an alternative to studying Mishnah.

[xx] The standard text says “Gemara,” but the more correct version is “Talmud.”

[xxi] Rashi in his commentary to Sukkah 28a.

[xxii] R. Isaac ha-Levi Rabinowitz, Dorot ha-Rishonim, part I, vol. 5.

[xxiii] This is not to say that the Rishonim themselves held as extreme a view as the Dorot ha-Rishonim, but it suggests a possible alternative outlook to that of Rambam.

[xxiv] This is found in Tosafot’s commentary to Sanhedrin 24a, s.v. belulah be-Mikra u-be-Mishnah; Tosafot explain similarly at Kiddushin 30a, s.v. lo tserikhah le-yomei.

[xxv] Menachem Kellner, ibid., explains that quotation in a similar manner. His book is devoted to arguing that Rambam did not accept the idea of the decline of the generations, but only that the authority of previous generations was accepted. While he may take his claim too far, it is sensible to argue that Rambam had a different view on the matter than Tosafot did. The claim in this section that Rambam viewed yeridat ha-dorot differently is partially based on Kellner’s claim.

[xxvi] See, for example, Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah: “After the court of R. Ashi, who wrote the Talmud in the time of his son and completed it, the people of Israel scattered throughout all the nations most exceedingly and reached the most remote parts and distant isles, armed struggle became prevalent in the world, and the public ways became clogged with armies.  The study of the Torah declined, and the people of Israel ceased to gather in places of study in their thousands and tens of thousands as before.”

[xxvii] Eruvin 13b.

[xxviii] Ritva, commentary to Eruvin 13b, s.v. ellu va-ellu divrei E-lohim Hayyim.

[xxix] Much of the following discussion of “ellu va-ellu” is based on Moshe Halbertal, “Three Medieval Theories of Jewish Law: Geonim (restorative); Rambam (accumulative); Ramban and Tosefot (constitutive),” in Noam Zion, Elu v’Elu: Two Schools of Halakha Face Off On Issues of Human Autonomy, Majority Rule and Divine Voice of Authority (Jerusalem: Shalom Hartman Institute, 2008), pp. 49-53, available at:

After this section was written, Eliyahu Krakowski showed me Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Torah Study and Truth in Medieval Ashkenazic Rabbinic Literature and Thought,” in Howard Kreisel (ed.), Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought (Beer Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2006), pp. 101-119, which provides more examples that demonstrate the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot’s stronger interpretation of “ellu va-ellu.” It is available online at:

[xxx] This is despite the fact that matters were somewhat different for Rishonim who comment directly on the Talmud.

[xxxi] In Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:1, Rambam merely exempts one who has “grown in wisdom” and who only needs to review the material periodically so he does not forget it from the first two parts of talmud Torah, Tanakh and Mishnah.

[xxxii] For example, the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot wrote multiple perushim on the Torah, such as the perush of Rashbam.

[xxxiii] In some yeshivot, it is now common for talmidim to study only a few folios a year, even during their “beki’ut seder (set time for survey-style learning of Talmud)!

[xxxiv] At least according to Tosafot. Rambam would probably consider many derakhim to be examples of yeridat ha-dorot.