Rabbinic Literature

If you’re like me, you’ve confused sofa for the Tosefta or the Mishnah for the Messiah. But these two writings are part of an important body of Rabbinic literature that form the foundation of the religion of Judaism.

Therefore, I’ve created a little cheat sheet outline for common types of Rabbinic literature for easy reference.

I. Two Torahs. In Judaism, two Torahs exist. The written Torah is the Pentateuch given by God at Sinai, while the oral Torah is an oral transmission that is separate from the written Torah, which was also given by God at Sinai.

II. Mishnah: Oral Torah Written. At about 200 A.D., masters of the oral Torah, part of the long oral tradition stretching back to Moses, wrote the oral Torah down in what is the called the Mishnah.

A. Supplements to Mishnah: Tosefta. The Tosefta is one supplement to the Mishnah and is “a collection of supplements to the Mishnah’s laws.”[1]

B. Commentaries on Mishnah. Two commentaries on the Mishnah are the Talmud of the Land of Israel (~400 A.D.) and the Talmud of Babylonia (~600 A.D.).

III. Written Torah (Scripture/Old Testament). The interpretation of the written Torah[2] or its exegesis are not considered part of the written Torah.[3] Only the commentaries written by the sages of the age on the written Torah which in fact are part of the oral Torah are authoritative.

A. Oral Torah commentaries on written Torah. These include “Sifra to Leviticus; Sifré to Numbers; another Sifré, this one to Deuteronomy; Genesis Rabbah; Leviticus Rabbah; and the like.”[4] All of these were written between the first and sixth century A.D.

B. Synthesis between oral and written Torah. Since Judaism believes that the two Torahs are one message, Midrash compilations full of written Torah proof texts exist to provide a synthesis. They end up being commentaries to Scripture. “In later times they framed propositions by appeal to Scripture, closing the gap between conceptions held by sages and those put forth in Scripture.”[5]

There you go. If you have any questions or corrections to suggest, don’t hesitate to comment!

[1] Jacob Neusner, Introduction to Rabbinic Literature (New York: Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1994), xx.

[2] Sometimes the written Torah refers to the entire Old Testament (Ibid., xx, fn. 2).

[3] “Along with the Mishnah, Scripture of course provided the other foundation writing. But here too, a clear line always is drawn between Scripture and its interpretation, so that the claim that Scripture exegesis forms part of one whole Torah revealed to Moses finds no support, formal or otherwise, in the rabbinic writings. Taking the form of commentaries and amplifications of various kings, these invariably stand as distinct from Scripture as the Mishnah does” (Ibid., xxi).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


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