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Is Talmud Law in Order or Disorder?

In More Critical Words of Talmud Study, our rabbinical scholars discussed the early Sages who were involved in organizing the Mishnah. We learned that Hillel was an early organizer, followed by Akiba (Aqiba), who was in turn followed by Judah the Prince.

Gemara Organized

The Very Reverend the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, the late Dr. J.H. Hertz, writes of the organization of the Gemara. He mentions the work of Ashi and Rabina.

Ashi, who died in 427 and was for fifty-two years head of the Sura Academy, combined a vast memory with extraordinary mental orderliness, that enabled him to systematise the bewildering mass of Talmudic material and prepare it for codification. Such codification was finally effected by Rabina, who died in the year 499. He is the author of the concluding paragraph of the Amidah: ‘Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to such as curse me let my soul be dumb, yea, let my soul be unto all as the dust.’ Many tractates seem to have been edited by various Amoraim before the time of Ashi and Rabina. As in the case of the Mishnah, it is a moot point whether Ashi and Rabina wrote down the Babylonian Gemara, or only arranged it orally. The latter is the view of Rashi, and, [page xxiii] in modern times, of Luzzatto; both of them place the writing of the Gemara two centuries later. Other scholars, however, deem it a matter of absolute impossibility that so vast a literature, and one, too, full of such intricate controversies, should for some two centuries have been orally arranged, fixed and transmitted with perfect accuracy.

— Rabbi Dr. Hertz (1)

Evaluating the Results

What were the results of all this organization, the Mishnah earlier, and then the Gemara? The experts disagree. Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner discusses this issue in his "Foreword" to Rev. Dr. Abraham Cohen's Everyman's Talmud. Rabbi Dr. Neusner cites Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

One of the principal difficulties in studying the Talmud is that it is not written in a systematic fashion; it does not move from simple to weighty material, from the definition of terms to their use. In almost every passage of the Talmud, discussion is based on ideas that have been discussed elsewhere, and on terms that are not necessarily defined on the page where they appear.

— Rabbi Steinsaltz (2)

Rabbi Dr. Neusner quotes Rabbi Steinsaltz again:

Viewed superficially, the Talmud seems to lack inner order — The arrangement of the Talmud is not systematic, nor does it follow familiar didactic principles. It does not proceed from the simple to the complex, or from the general to the particular … It has no formal external order, but is bound by a strong inner connection between its many diverse subjects. The structure of the Talmud is associative. The material of the Talmud was memorized and transmitted orally for centuries, its ideas are joined to each other by inner links, and the order often reflects the needs of memorization. Talmudic discourse shifts from one subject to a related subject, or to a second that brings the first to mind in an associative way.

— Rabbi Steinsaltz (3)

Then Rabbi Dr. Neusner cites Robert Goldenberg:

Evidence suggests that various centers of rabbinic study developed their own such collections [of Mishnah-commentary], though in the end only one overall collection was redacted … for Babylonia. For several generations, the collections remained fluid. Materials were added, revised, or shifted. Free association led to the production of extended discourses or sets of sayings that at times had little to do with the Mishnaic passage serving as point of departure.

— Robert Goldenberg (4)

Rabbi Dr. Neusner disagrees with those views:

The Talmud is not a mere compilation of this and that, the result of centuries of the accumulation, in a haphazard way, of the detritus of various schools or opinions. In fact, when we outline the Talmud beginning to end, as I have done in my four volume work, The Talmud of Babylonia: A Complete Outline,' the results do not indicate a haphazard, episodic, sedimentary process of agglutination and conglomeration. They point, quite on the contrary, to a well-considered and orderly composition, planned from beginning to end and following an outline that is definitive throughout. That outline has told the framers of the passage what comes first-the simplest matters of language, then the more complex matters of analysis of content, then secondary development of analogous principles and cases. Steinsaltz is wrong: the Talmudic compilers always move from simple criticism of language to weighty analysis of parallels. There is a fixed order, and it governs everywhere. The authorship always claims to discuss the Mishnah-paragraph that it cites, and it discusses that Mishnah paragraph.

— Jacob Neusner (5)

Important Lessons

This material demonstrates these important lessons:

  1. The rabbis are not entirely uniform in their ideas of the Talmud,
  2. An honest difference of opinion concerning fundamental aspects of the Talmud is not necessarily heresy or anti-Semitism, and
  3. A student who disagrees with a famous rabbi is not necessarily wrong: possibly other highly qualified rabbis agree with the student, or will agree in the future.

On a side note, these quotes show that at the very least, if the Talmud is orderly, the order is not obvious. A student not fully attuned to the order that Rabbi Neusner perceives might easily be puzzled. Our own preliminary studies have shown that a ruling on the legal status of women might be found in any of three Seders, scattered among any of a dozen tractates. (There are 6 Seders and 63 tractates in the Talmud.)

This is not intended as a criticism of the Talmud or the Talmud Sages. It is merely an argument for the necessity of a comprehensive subject index, such as Soncino provided in the 1961 Edition. (6)

Thank you for your consideration of the above,
Carol A. Valentine,  Ear at come-and-hear dot com
July 14, 2003 ( This article is on line at )

NEXT:   The Roadmap 7: The Talmud Lives for Jews 


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Full specifics for each of the printed sources are provided in the Bibliography. Outside URLs were valid at the time this article was written. However, be mindful that URLs do change.

  1. Babylonian Talmud, "Foreword," Seder Nezikin, Vol. I, pages xxii-xxiii available at
  2. The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition: A Reference Guide, (New York: Random House, 1989), page vii, quoted in "Foreword," Everyman's Talmud, page xxii
  3. The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition: A Reference Guide, (New York: Random House, 1989), page 7, quoted in "Foreword," Everyman's Talmud, page xxii
  4. "Talmud," in Robert M. Seltzer, ed., Judaism: A People and Its History. Religion, History, and Culture: Selections from The Encyclopaedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, editor in chief (New York: Macmillan, 1989), page 102, as quoted in "Foreword," Everyman's Talmud, page xxii
  5. "Foreword," Everyman's Talmud, page xxiii
  6. For an attestation to the usefulness of the Soncino Babylonian Talmud, General Index, see the Very Rev. the Chief Rabbi Dr. Israel Brodie's Foreword available here at
  7. Talmud translator Rev. Dr. Israel W. Slotki quotes G. F. Moore, Judaism, in Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth 111a, page 716, footnote 2:
    "The 'sufferings' or 'travail' are more fully described in Sanh. 97b, Sonc. ed. p. 654. These are the 'throes of mother Zion which is in labor to bring forth the Messiah — without metaphor, the Jewish people'." Available here as, note 52

© Copyright Carol A. Valentine, 2003. See copyright statement at

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Title: Is Talmud Law in Order or Disorder?
Version: July 28, 2003
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