Brief Outline of Ancient Jewish Theological Literature
It is a mistake to suppose that the Rabbinical views were totally independent of Scripture, even though they were so extravagant. Every one of the Rabbinical institutions were somehow based upon the text of the Old Testament.
To explain this in a brief manner, Jewish traditionalism is distinguished into the “Halachah” and the “Haggadah.”
The “Halachah” indicates the settled legal determinations which constituted the oral law. There was nothing that could be altered in this, nor was any freedom left to the individual teacher, except that of explanation and illustration. Its object was to state in detail and apply all possible cases of the principles laid down in the law of Moses. They likened this to being surrounded with a hedge so that every transgression could be rendered impossible.
The “Halachah” enjoyed not only the same authority with the law of Moses, and in some respects it was even more highly esteemed. In any case, it was regarded as equal with the Pentateuch, which was the revelation of God to Moses. It was only the form or manner of revelation that was regarded as different – the one was written down, and the other was handed down by word of mouth.
According to tradition, Moses explained the early law successively to Aaron, his sons, to the seventy elders, and to the people, with care being taken that each class heard it four times. This was the law that God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The “Haggadah” was not nearly as easy to define in limits as the “Halachah” had been. The term is derived from the verb “higgid,” which means to discuss or tell about. It covered everything that did not possess the authority of strict legal determinations.
It was described as being legend, story, moral, exposition, discussion, or application. In short, this was basically whatever a teacher might choose to make it so that he could somehow connect it with Scripture or with another “Halachah.”
It was necessary to have some definite rules so that people would not take things to the point of extravagance or absurdity. Originally there were four canons that connected the “Haggadah” with Scripture. These four canons were named after letters in a certain word, which was the favorite manner of the Jews. They were designated by the word “Pardes” (Paradise).
Their purpose was:
1. To ascertain the plain meaning of a passage (“Peshat”)
2. To take the single letters of a word as an indication or hint of other words, or even of whole sentences (“Remes”)
3. Practical exposition of a passage (“Derush”)
4. To find out the mystical meaning of a verse or word (“Sod”)
These four canons were gradually enlarged into 32 rules, which gave free vent to every kind of fancifulness.
One of these rules – the “Gematria” (geometry, calculation) – allowed the interpreter to find out the numerical value of the letters in a word. The Hebrew letters, like the Roman letters, were also numerals, and one could substitute for a word one or more which had the same numerical value. This may be where the secret code/number systems came from that have been passed down through thousands of years.
Though one had a lot of leeway in doing the numbering system with the “Haggadah,” the canons for the deduction of a “Halachah” from the text of Scriptures were much more strict and logical.
Hillel made 7 such rules that were later enlarged to 13. They, too, started off being good but later turned into something that was almost as extravagant and erroneous as the “Haggadah.”
The Mishnah and the Gemara
These are writings to which Jesus often referred to in His teachings. To distinguish between the two, the Mishnah was the actual text, and the Gemara was basically the commentary on the writings of the Mishnah.
The word Mishnah comes from the verb “shanah”, and means repetition. This refers to the carrying out, or repetition of the traditional law.
The word Gemara means discussion, and it embodies the discussions, opinions, and sayings of the Rabbis upon the Mishnah.
Accordingly, the text of the Mishnah is always given in the pages of the Talmud, and the authorities introduced there range from about the year 180 B.C. to 430 A.D. This is what is written down in the Babylon Talmud.
This Mishnah would, of course, be the oldest work and dates in its present form as a written compilation from the close of the second century of our era. Its contents are chiefly “Halachah,” which means that what is written is the law that they must go by without being able to put their own adaptations into it.
Most of it must be looked upon as dating either before or from the time of Christ, and it was probably the most important book besides the Holy Scriptures that was used during that time.
The book of discussions called the Gemara forms the two Talmuds – the Jerusalem and the Babylon Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud is so called because it is the product of the Palestinian academies; the Babylon Talmud is derived from the Babylonian schools.
The Jerusalem Talmud and The Babylon Talmud
The Jerusalem Talmud’s completion dates from the middle of the fourth century, while the Babylonian dates from the middle of the sixty century. The Jerusalem Talmud is of much greater historical value than the Babylonian.
Neither of the two Talmuds has been found in a complete condition, but the Babylonian is more than four times the size of that of Jerusalem. It consists of six books which are subdivided into Tractates, and these again into chapters, and then single determinations or traditions.
When one gives the Mishnah as a reference, it is customary to mention not the Book, but the special Tractate, the chapter, and the Mishnah. The names of the Tractates give a sufficient idea of their contents, which cover every conceivable and even every inconceivable case, with full discussions about each of them. Altogether the Mishnah contains 63 Tractates, consisting of 525 chapters, and 4,187 verses.