The Hebrew word signifying doctrine. The Jews say that Moses received on Mount Sinai not only the written law which is contained in the Pentateuch but an oral law, which was first communicated by him to Aaron, then by them to the seventy elders, and finally by these to the people, and thus transmitted by memory, from generation to generation This oral law was never committed to writing until about the beginning of the third century, when Rabbi Jehuda the Holy, finding that there was a possibility of its being lost, from the decrease of students of the law, collected all the traditionary laws into one book, which is called the Mishap, a word signifying repetition, because it is, as it were, a repetition of the written law. The Mishna was at once received with great veneration and many wise men among the Jews devoted themselves to its study.
Toward the end of the fourth century, these opinions were collected into a book of commentaries, called the Gernara, by the school at Tiberias. This work has been falsely attributed to Rabbi Jochanan; but he died in 279, a hundred years before its composition. The Mishna and its Commentary, the Gemara, are, in their collected form, called the Talmlud. The Jews in Chaldea, not being satisfied with the interpretations in this work composed others, which were collected together by Rabbi Ashe into another Gemara. The former work has since been known as the Jerusalem Talmud, and that of Rabbi Ashe as the Babylonian Talmud, from the places in which they were respectively compiled. In both works the Mishna or law is the same; it is only the Gemara or Commentary that is different.
The Jewish scholars place so high a value on the Talmud as to compare the Bible to water, the Mishna to wine, and the Gemara to spiced wine; or the first to salt, the second to pepper, and the third to spices. For a long time after its composition it seemed to absorb all the powers of the Jewish intellect, and the labors of Hebrew writers were confined to treatises and speculations on Talmudical opinions.
The Mishna is divided into six divisions called Sederim, whose subjects are:
- The productions of the earth;
- The rights and duties of women;
- Damages and injuries;
Each of these Sederim is again divided into Massicoth, or treatises, of which there are altogether sixty-three.
The Gemara, which differs in the Jerusalem and Babylonian redactions, consists of commentaries on these Massicoth, or treatises.
Of the Talmud, Lightfoot has said that the matters it contains "do everywhere abound with trifles in that manner, as though they had no mind to be read; with obscurities and difficulties, as though they had no mind to be understood; so that the reader has need of patience all along to enable him to bear both trifling in sense and roughness in expression." Stehelin concurs in a similar opinion; but Steinschneider, as learned a Hebraist as either, has expressed a more favorable judgment.
Although the Talmud does indeed contain many passages whose peculiarities found little favor with Doctor Mackey, he deemed it, nevertheless, extremely serviceable as an elaborate compendium of Jewish customs, and it has therefore been much used in the cretinism of the Old and New Testaments. It furnishes also many curious illustrations of the Masonic system; and several of the traditions and legends, especially of the higher Degrees, are either found in or corroborated by the Talmud. The treatise entitled Middoth, for instance, gives us the best description extant of the Temple of Solomon.