The written תּוֹרָה / Torah (instructions / teachings) is "G-d's little instruction book" on how to live a G-dly life, grow spiritually and become holier. G-d gave seven instructions to all of mankind (these are called the Noahide mitzvot because they were given prior to G-d's contract with Abraham). At Sinai the Jewish nation agreed to an additional 606 מִצְווֹת / mitzvot. The Talmud tells us (Tractate Makkot 23b) that there are 613 commandments in the Torah; 248 Positive Commandments (do's) and 365 Negative Commandments (do not's) to be found within.
Keep in mind that no one has the right to change any of the mitzvot. "Do not add to the word that I am commanding you, and do not subtract from it. You must keep all the מִצְווֹת / mitzvot / commandments of G-d your L-rd, which I am instructing you." D'varim / Deuteronomy 4:2.
Note the wording, the Torah says "do not add to the word that I am commanding you."
The mistake of many missionaries is that they read the "do not add. . . and do not subtract" and think that this means everything ever -- yet the Torah itself says no such thing. The Torah clearly says "to the word that I am commanding you." The commandments (mitzvot) cannot be changed PERIOD.
This does not mean that we cannot add things outside of those commanded by G-d. Indeed there is a category called מצוות דרבנן / mitzvot d'rabbanan (rabbinical commandments). There are שבע מצוות דרבנן / seven mitzvot d'rabbanan. Along with Chanukah and the Shabbat candles you can the holiday of Purim, praying three times a day, reciting kaddish after the dead, making a blessing before eating, and washing of the hands (which the Christian bible gives as a requirement in it -- before it ever was one -- yet more proof that whoever wrote it did so long "after the fact").
Another aspect of rabbinical mitzvot are rabbinical "fences" meant to prevent people from accidentally violating one of the Torah mitzvot. For example the Torah tells us to keep dairy and red meat separpate, but the rabbis extended that "fence" to include poultry. How is this not "adding" to the original mitzvah? It doesn't change it (you still cannot eat dairy with red meat) -- it merely adds other kinds of meat so that people won't accidentally eat dairy and red meat because they are used to doing so with poultry.
the Torah commands us to follow rabbinic laws, so there’s nothing “only” about it!
"you must keep the Torah as they (the judges) interpret it for you, and follow the laws that they legislate for you. Do not stray to the right or left from the word that they declare to you." D'varim / Deuteronomy 17:11.
Ergo the judges have the authority to create new legislation (such as not eating poultry with dairy) and this is not changing the previous mitzvah (do not eat red meat with dairy) because they did not suddenly permit eating red meat with dairy -- they did not change the mitzvah). . . Make sense? They simply added a "fence" that would help people avoid accidentally eating red meat with milk. . .
The origin of the בית דין הגדול / Beit Din HaGadol (the Great Court) Sanhedrin can be found in the Council of the seventy elders founded by Moshe Rabbenu (Moses): "G-d said to Moses, 'Assemble seventy of Israel's elders - the ones you know to be the people's elders and leaders." (Bamidbar / Numbers 11:16).
Since the time of Moses we Jews have always had judges / courts of law / democratic governing bodies ever since. Even in the days of King Saul and King David this was true. Berachot 4a implies that the אב בית דין / Av Beit Din (Head of the Court) of the "supreme court / congress" (Sanhedrin) during David's reign was בניהו בן יהוידע / Binayahu ben Yehoyada. David was likely the Nasi Beit Din (Prince / President of the Court). Meod Katon 26a says that King Saul was president of the Sanhedrin in his reign, with his son, Yonatan, also a member.
Want more? Read about Jehoshaphat (Y'hoshafat): "in Jerusalem, Jehoshaphat set up judges of the Levites and the priests and of the chiefs of the fathers' [houses] of Israel, for the judgment of the L-rd and for quarrels, and they returned to Jerusalem." (Divrei Hayamim II / 2 Chronicles 19:8).
Jewish courts also determined who was a prophet (Jesus was not a prophet). Jewish courts decided whatt books went into the bible and which were left out (אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה / The Men of the Great Assembly).
Jewish courts do not use juries. The smallest Jewish court consists of three judges, and these courts still exist today. In ancient times appeals could be made to courts with 23 judges, all the way "up" to the great court which had 70 judges (this number is fixed in the Torah).
A three judge court could, for example, rule on theft cases. A capital punishment case (for example) required a court of 23 judges (a small Sanhedrin), but false prophets had to be adjudicated by the great Sanhedrin of 71 judges (the Great Sahnedrin). (Mishna, Sanhedrin 1:1-6).
It is important to realize that missionaries who reject Jewish judges claiming they rely "only" on the bible are actually rejecting the Jewish bible since the bible itself dictates listening to Jewish judges -- and it was Jewish judges who decided which books to include and exclude in the T'nach (e.g. Prophets and Writings).
What type of questions might come before a court? Adjudicating issues around the 613 mitzvot. "what if the person who stole something was starving and he stole food from a market to avoid death?" That is a particular case that might come before the court that would require them to adjudicate in that specific instance.
Jewish law has many safeguards in place to prevent courts from "running amok." This is one reason the death penalty was so rare (more than one in 70 years was rare). A capital (death) case required 23 judges. No Jewish court can have less than three members. Judges must be expert in the Torah. Majority rules -- but if the court is unanimous for guilt in the case of a death penalty case the person is not put to death. The rules for passing a sentence of death were nearly impossible to meet (the two eye witnesses, a majority of the judges passing the sentence, but at least two on the side of innocence, etc.) that very few were ever meted out. . .
No doubt there are some flaws -- not within the laws (those come from G-d) -- but in human implementation of the law. Still the safeguards are remarkable. The written Torah tells us:
To appoint judges and officers in every community of Israel (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 16:18)
Judge honestly between each man and his brother (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 1:16)
Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 20:13)
A single eyewitness may not testify against a person where the death penalty is involved. (Bambidar (Numbers) 35:30)
Do not pervert justice. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:6)
Do not join forces with a wicked person to be a corrupt witness. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:1)
Do not follow the majority to do evil. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:2)
Do not speak up in a trial to pervert justice. A case must be decided on the basis of the majority. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:2)
Keep away from anything false. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:7)
Do not accept bribery. Bribery blinds the clear-sighted and twists the words of the just. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:8)
You must investigate and probe, making careful inquiry. (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 13:15)
One witness must not testify against a person to inflict any punishment or penalty for a crime that he may have committed. A case must be established through the testimony of [at least] two or three witnesses. (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 19:15)
This is what you must do] if a corrupt witness acts to testify falsely against a person. Two men who have testimony to refute [the false witnesses] shall stand before G-d, before the priests and judges who are involved in that case. The judges shall carefully interrogate [the refuting witnesses], and if the [first] two witnesses are found to have testified falsely against their brother you must do the same to them as they plotted to do to their brother, thus removing evil from your midst. (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 19:15-19)
Do not give anyone special consideration when rendering judgment. Listen to the great and small alike, and do not be impressed by any man, since judgment belongs to G-d. If any case is too difficult, bring it to me, and I will hear it.' (D'varim (Deuteronomy ) 1:17)
Do not pervert justice (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 24:17)
The last few posts have discussed what the oral Torah is and how it came to be written down over hundreds and hundreds of years -- first as the מִשְׁנָה / Mishna (study by repeating -- from the word שנה, or “to review”) and then גמרא / Gemara (study). Together they are called the תַּלְמוּד / Talmud which means “instruction." It is important to understand that the commandments are given in the Torah -- nothing in the rest of the bible (Prophets / Writings) has the authority to change the mitzvot.
The Talmud is a combination of explaining "how to" fulfill the written mitzvot (for example -- the written Torah may say to put a sign upon your doorpost, but it does not explain what that sign should be, or where it should be placed. Those explanations are found in the Talmud). Debate around minor points are discussed at length in the Gemara (along with stories, humor, etc.).
G-d gave our courts the authority to make legal rulings based on the Torah. In that sense they cannot be wrong -- if they follow the rules and do so attempting to do the right thing then they ARE doing the right thing even if the ruling itself seems wrong (or is even reversed at some later point). Think of the United States of America as an example. There were times when women could not vote. There were times when blacks were slaves. At the time, ruling within the laws of the nation, the United States Supreme Court made rulings that were considered legal and binding and "right." Over time the laws changed -- women voted, blacks were free men and over time we would like to think we are being truer to the freedoms inherent in our country.
The Jews have always had halacha (Jewish law) which comes from G-d. That does not change and cannot be changed. It DOES have to be interpreted -- to specific legal cases and new occurrences (when would a Jewish astronaut observe "sundown" for Shabbat in outer space?).
One thing that is difficult for non-Jews to grasp is that we are co-creators with G-d. He put us on this planet to learn and grow and to make decisions. This makes the question of "right or wrong" decisions somewhat academic -- we are SUPPOSED to do this -- and that is why G-d commanded us to create courts and judges and to listen to them.
The key for understanding Jewish courts and judges is to realize that when our Sages, Rabbis, and the Sanhedrin teach something, it must be consistent with the contents of the Torah. If it is consistent, then it's a true teaching; if it is inconsistent, then it is a false teaching, and it is to be discarded.
Some non-Jews seem to think that what is in the bible is ancient and does not apply to today. Jews know that the Torah does apply to today and we live our lives by it. There are still Jewish judges and courts of law, as there have been in every generation since Moses himself. The Sanhedrin was the supreme council of Israel. As long as it stood, it was the supreme court and legislative body in all matters of Torah law. As such, the Sanhedrin was entrusted with keeping and interpreting the Oral Torah.
The Great Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court / Legislation) met in the Temple area, in the Chamber of Hewn Stones (לשכת הגזית / Lishkat HaGazit). It was only in this chamber that the Sanhedrin could perform all its functions, including the trial of capital offenses. In 28 CE (3788 on the Jewish calendar) the Chamber was destroyed, thus eliminating the Sanhedrin's ability to pass the death penalty (ergo the "trial" of Jesus as described in the Christian bible could never have happened).
The Sanhedrin itself moved to another room on the Temple Mount initially, and when Jerusalem was destroyed in 68 CE (3828) it moved to the city of Yavne. For the next century it moved from Yavneh to Usha, then to various other locations. The Sanhedrin remained in existence until the 4th century of the common era when it was eventually disbanded. Today there is no great court, but there are many three judge courts throughout the world. These courts ordain rabbis, perform conversions and oversee other aspects of daily Jewish law.
For nearly 200 years the sages worked together to write down Jewish law so that it would not be forgotten. This Herculean effort, the מִשְׁנָה / Mishna, was finalized around 190 CE. Another work of this same time period was the ברייתא / Baraita which recorded teachings "outside" of the six orders of the Mishna. The word ברייתא / Baraita means "outside." The תּוֹסֶפְתָּא / Tosefta was also collected -- this was "additional" or "supplementary" information.
Jews being Jews, no sooner was the מִשְׁנָה / Mishna complete then the debates began. I use the word "debate" -- but let me be clear there is not even ONE argument in the Talmud about core matters of Judaism. Each and every single dispute in the history of Jewish Law has been about a minor detail of the Law.
Let me repeat that, because some missionaries make a "big deal" about the fact that the Gemara is written as dialog with one Rav' saying one thing which another saying the opposite. . . this is the manner in which Jews learn. BUT there is not even one disagreement in the entire Talmud about anything that is a core issue (not about which mitzvot we should or should not follow for example).
The debate was never about what the law required (for example, the Mishna says we are commanded to kindle Chanukah candles as part of the celebration), but rather sometimes the minor details were in question (should we light the Chanukah candles starting with one, and adding a candle each night, or should we start with eight candles and remove a candle each night?).
The discussions and debates around the law (halacha) lasted for 200 years in Judah and 300 years in Babylon.
Another point of clarification -- although we speak of R' Y'hudah HaNasi as completing the Mishna (for example) we are just giving the name of the head of the effort. Neither the Mishna nor Gemara was a "one man" process. All of the learned Jews of the era who could be rounded up for the process were part of the process. The sages literally found every reliable Torah Scholar they could and that person became a part of the process. We have a list of the names of the תנאים / Tannaim (teachers) and אמוראים / Amoraim (sayers or spokesmen) who later compiled the Gemara. Some of the names can be found here. The work was done in public -- nothing was hidden. This was a Herculean effort -- all to ensure the accuracy and that not "one" opinion could sneak in by accident.
If you recall from the last post, the authors of the Mishna are called תנאים / Tannaim (teachers) . The men who compiled the Gemara are called אמוראים / Amoraim (sayers or spokesmen). There was a man named אבא אריכא / Abba (father) Arika who was the last of the Tannaim and the first of the Amoraim. He moved to Babylon and headed a Yeshiva (school) at Sura (Babylon). R' Arika was a follower of R' Y'hudah HaNasi (Judah the Prince), the Tannaim who finalized the Mishna.
Around 219 CE R' Arika moved from Judah (Israel) to Babylon.
Once the Mishna was complete sages in both Judah (Palestine) and Babylon began to use it for study, and then began the legal discussions, the stories, the debates and even histories. . . The great yeshivot (schools) in Palestine and Babylon studied the Mishna exhaustively and over the next hundreds of years the rabbis in Babylon and Palestine began to write down these discussions in a series of books that came to be called גמרא / Gemara (which means "to study").
The communities were separated by over 500 miles, and 1800 years ago travel by camel was about 25 to 30 miles per day. Without problems it was a minimum of 20 days travel -- thus the study was done in two separate communities -- one in Palestine and one in Iraq (Babylon). Out of these two communities emerged the תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי / Yerushalami (Jerusalem or Palestinian) Talmud and the Bavli (Babylonian) Talmud. The Bavli was published around 500 CE, while the Palestinian Talmud was published around 400 CE. When people speak of the תַּלְמוּד / "Talmud" they mean the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud.
The community in Palestine was under initially Roman, and later Christian control. A central Yeshiva met in Teveryah (Tiberias), but as Christianity grew in what remained of the Roman Empire it became more and more difficult for Jews to work on the Gemara. What do I mean by "more difficult"? Jews lost most of their civil rights. A Jew marrying a Christian was put to death. The Sanhedrin, was forbidden to meet These are just two examples of the severe repression against Jews. Just existing became difficult, making it almost impossible to complete the discussions around the Mishna. As a result the Palestinian Talmud remained fragmented with whole parts of it lost (or never completed).
Interestingly enough the Jerusalem / Palestinian Talmud covers all the tractates of Zeraim (seeds) while the Babylonian Talmud only has one tractate (Berachot - blessings). Since halacha (Jewish law) pertaining to farming is relative only in the holy land the topic may not have been considered that important in Babylonian exile. . .
The community in Babylon was growing and flourishing. 10,000 Jews initially were exiled in Babylon around 434 BCE (and 11 years later the rest of the Jews followed). A majority of the Jews there did not return to Israel with the prophet Ezra. Most remained in Babylon, and Jews lived there for 2400+ years, until they were exiled by the Iraqis in 1948 when the modern state of Israel was created.
After the destruction of the Temple in 68 CE in Jerusalem and the later rebellion resulting in the Romans exiling most of the Jews from the land in 135 CE many moved to Babylon to an already flourising Jewish community. The few Jews who remained after 135 CE were subject to Roman persecution and eventually Christian persecution. In 363 CE the Roman Empire shut down the Sanhedrin (Jewish courts / governmental system) and the main Jewish community was well established in Babylon.
The head of the Jewish community in Babylon was the ריש גלותא / Rosh Galut (Head of the Exile). The Rosh Galut was a direct descendant of King David. For over 40 generations (1500 years) he was considered to be Even the representative of the Jewish community in Babylon (sometimes just as a figure head). The Jews of Babylon were an oasis in the world of Jewish exile. Ergo they had the luxury of spending hundreds and hundreds of years discussing, debating and compiling the Babylonian Talmud.
Jews learn by discussion and dialog. Rarely is there a teacher who stands in the front of a room lecturing. In Jewish schools people sit around a table, read a line or a paragraph and discuss it -- possibly for hours on end. A Jew sitting down to read a page of the Gemara this is like entering a classroom -- the very discussions in the Talmud are akin to the discussions in a Jewish Yeshiva. To a non-Jew who reads a translation of the Gemara they are confused -- it seems like a bunch of people sitting around and arguing. What the non-Jew sees as confusion the Jew sees as a teaching method. There is even a name for this method -- On every page it seems that the rabbis are arguing. This kind of argument ― the purpose of which was to arrive at the kernel of truth ― is called פלפול, from "pepper." Spicy. It is an intense and detailed method of learning.
To a non-Jew (especially a Christian who thinks Jews are too "legalistic") it seems like hair splitting. To a Jew it is a method to determine how to apply every single mitzvah in the written Torah to the world we live in even today. We have to understand not only the details, but the logic. The Gemara is looking at every kernel to make sure we don't miss a single thing. The bottom line is -- are we doing what G-d wants us to do?
Another important point is that much of the discussion and dispute is focused on relatively minor points while the larger issues are generally not disputed. I discussed this earlier, using the example of lighting Chanukah candles. On the big issues there is no debate -- no one questioned whether or not we should keep kosher, or if maybe somehow a pig could be made kosher. Those things had no reason to be discussed because the written Torah makes it clear what is and is not kosher. The oral mitzvot tells us HOW to butcher a kosher animal. . . none of those things were in question. They were totally in agreement on the big issues.
So there you have it -- the Talmud is comprised of Mishna and Gemara. When we say "Talmud" we mean the Babylonian Talmud (the Jerusalem Talmud was never completed do to persecution).
Along with the discussions on the finer points of Jewish law, the Gemara includes אגדתא / Agadata -- stories meant to emphasize a moral point in the bible.
So the Talmud is not the evil thing some anti-semites claim. It is not hidden either. The Talmud is not "holier" than the written Torah -- they are companion works. You truly cannot understand the written Torah's mitzvot without the Talmud.
Since the Babylonian Talmud was completed some 1600 years or so ago Rabbinic commentary has continued. It continues to this very day -- because learning, debate and discussion is a very important part of the Jewish people.
The Mishna was an attempt to keep the bare bones of the oral mitzvot as Jews were being dispersed across the world. The wars against Rome began in 66 CE and ended with most of the Jews being exiled from the holy land in 135 CE when the final revot (the בר כוכבא / Bar Kocbha rebellion) was squashed. Archeologists have discovered coins used by the Jews during the rebellion. The coin shown to the left shows the Temple a rising star. The other side shows a lulav (lulav -- date palm tree frond used in Sukkot). The Hebrew says: "to the freedom of Jerusalem."
Roman historians tell us that over 500,000 Jews died in the rebellions. By the time the Romans renamed Judah "Palestine" (after the ancient Jewish enemy, the Philistines) Jews had migrated throughout the Roman Empire -- as far as Spain, India and Egypt. The Jewish community in Egypt had been thriving since the days of Yirmiyahu / Jeremiah. Many other Jews fled to Babylon -- which had been home to Jews since the Babylonian Exile in 434 BCE.
When Cyrus gave the edict that Jews could return to Judah, many remained in Babylon. It is estimated that only 42,000 Jews returned to Judah, with nearly a million remaining in Babylon. They formed Synagogues and a rich Jewish life. It was to this vibrant community that many Jews fled around 135 CE.
The Roman who defeated Jerusalem had promised Yohanan Ben Zakkai that if he became Emperor he would let the Jews establish the Sanhedrin and schools in the town of Yavneh. Vespasian became Emperor within a year of his promise, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the destruction of Jerusalem. The school ben Zakkai established at Yavneh became the center of Jewish learning for centuries and replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin. It was at Yavneh, nearly 100 years after Ben Zakkai, that the finalized Mishna appeared.
For the next hundred years the Tannaim in Yavneh compiled the oral Torah into the מִשְׁנָה / Mishna. The last generation of Tannaim was overseen by Y'hudah HaNasi circa 170-200 CE at which time the Mishna was finalized.
The goal in putting the oral mitzvot in writing was to create a brief and concise document that is cryptic by design. The מִשְׁנָה / Mishna was created to be a "cheat sheat" for a learned person -- the writing was kept to a minimum and meant only to serve as a aid to faltering memories who were taught to memorize the oral mitzvot. The Mishna is divided into six sections known as סדרים / Sedarim, which translated means "order."
The first section, סדר זרעים / Seder Zera'im deals with agricuture. זֶֽרַע /zera is usually translated as "seed" or "living offspring of the physical parent." Seed is not the best translation since the word denotes the living entity that results from a fertile parent (male, female, or plant). This order discusses the mitzvot pertaining to the plants of the land such as laws of prohibited mixtures, laws of the Sabbatical year, for example. There are eleven tractates within this Seder, the first of which is ברכות / Berachot (Blessings) which has to do with many of the Jewish prayers -- including those blessing food.
The second section, סֵדֶר מוֹעֵד / Seder Mo’ed (appointed times) contains twelve tractate -- each explaining a different holy day. The first holiday discussed is Shabbat (Sabbath). The tractates explain requirements (for example, does it require fasting, or avoiding certain actions such as lighting a fire, etc.)
The third section, סֵדֶר נָשִׁים / Seder Nashim, focuses on the mitzvot around family purity, marriage, there are seven tractates.
The fourth section, סדר נזיקין / Seder Nezikin deals with the court system including both civil and criminal laws. There are ten tractates including one on idolatry. Penalties and punishment are also discussed.
The fifth section, סֵדֶר קָדָשִׁים / Seder Kodashim discusses holy things including ritual practices of the Temple (qorbanot / sacrifices). There are eleven tractates
The sixth section deals, סדר טהרות / Seder Tohorot discusses ritual purifications and impurities.
Some things were not included in the Mishna, but they were important enough to keep. They were collected in the תּוֹסֶפְתָּא / Tosefta -- literally "additional" or "supplementary" information. It was completed shortly after the completion of the Mishna. In fact, the תנאים / Tannaim (teachers) mentioned in the Tosefta are the same as those mentioned in the Mishna -- along with scholars from the two following generations – almost all either direct descendents of the tannaim mentioned in the Mishna. Most editions of the Talmud include the Tosefta as well.
After the completion of the Mishna, and the deat of Y'hudah HaNasi, a new generation of scholars called the אמוראים / Amoraim (explainers) began to discuss, explain and interpret the teachings of the Mishna. These discussions went on for over 200 years in Judah (Palestine), and 300 years in Babylon -- and eventually those discussions became the commentary and debate around the statements in the Mishna. We will discuss this גמרא / Gemara (study) in the next post on the topic of the Talmud.
The written Torah tells us all about the oral. The written Torah will often tell us to do things, and the "how" to do it is not explained in the written Torah. It will say "do it as I told you." This alone shows that the "how" was oral.
Most Christians reject the idea of an oral Torah. Some do so based on the idea that Jesus quoted a lot from the Scriptures but never from the Talmud. Therefore, goes the thinking, Christians should reject the oral mitzvot.
This is very strange, because in the Christian bible Jesus is quoted as telling people to listen to the Pharisees, saying they sit in Moses' seat (even though there is a great deal of anti-semitism about Pharisees in the Christian bible, there are also complements from Jesus) -- and the Pharissees were the keepers of the oral mitzvot (Torah).
On top of that the oral law is actually mentioned in the Christian bible -- by Paul, not Jesus. Paul actually references the oral mitzvot in 2 Timothy 3:8 Paul names the two magicians mentioned in S'hmot / Exodus 7. Paul says: "Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses" 2 Timothy 3:8 The names of the magicians are not given in the written Torah, but the names are given in the oral Torah. Paul gives those names. To the missionaries who want to totally throw out the oral mitzvot -- do you also intend to throw out the words of Paul?
Paul also claims to be something of an expert on the oral mitzvot (though it is obvious he wasn't). Paul says he: "profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." Gal. 1:14 "traditions" = oral mitzvot.
Ergo Paul at least did not reject the oral Torah.
It is actually impossible to even read the written Torah without the oral Torah. . . There are no vowels in the Torah!! To even read Hebrew one must learn from the oral law.
Shabbat 31a tells the story of a non-Jew who came to the famous R' Shammai, saying to him "How many Torot (plural of Torah) have you?"
"Two,' he replied: 'the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.'
The non Jew said "I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah; make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only]."
R' Shammai scolded and rejected him in anger.
The gentile then went to R' Hillel who accepted the man as a student. On the first day, R' Hillel taught him the Hebrew Aleph-Bet (alphabet), beginning with Alef, beth, gimmel, dalet. . .
The next day the man returned and Hillel taught him the aleph-bet, but in reverse.
The man was confused and said 'But yesterday you taught me the opposite!"
R' Hillel explained that is the entire point -- no one can even learn the Hebrew aleph-bet without a teacher. Why rely on the teacher to correctly teach you how to read, and then not rely on the teacher with the respect of the oral law?
R' Hillel and Shammai were the last pair of זּוּגוֹת / Zugot. They lived at the time of Herod the Great -- and died shortly before the beginning of the common era (and the supposed life of Jesus). Who were the זּוּגוֹת / Zugot?
From the time of Moses there were Assemblies -- called the Elders of Israel starting in Sh'mot / Exodus chapter 3. The 70 elders (Sh'mot / Exodus 24:1,9; Bamidbar / Numbers 11:16,24) were already leading the people, even in Egypt. These men were from all the tribes and comprised both court judges and government -- later they would constitute the Great Sanhedrin. Sh'mot / Exodus 3 tells us that even Moses had to go before this governmental body and present his credentials to be accepted. "'Go, gather the Elders of Israel, and say to them, 'HaShem, the G-d of your fathers, appeared to me - the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Sh'mot / Exodus 3:16.
After the return from Babylonian Exile the prophets (including Ezra the Scribe) created a "Great Assembly" which comprised of 120 men rather than 71 (the 71st was initially Moses). When Shimon HaTzaddik, the last member of the Great Assembly died in 273 BCE, a period began known as the period of the Zugot, meaning "pairs." The last of the "pairs" were R' Shammai and R' Hillel from the story given above.
For almost 300 years, there were always two rabbis in charge of the Jewish courts and governmental bodies. The two were the נָשִׂיא / Nasi (the president or "prince") and the אב בית דין / Av Beit Din (the head of the Sanhedrin). These pairs are all listed in פרקי אבות / Pirei Avot / "Ethics of the Fathers." The Zugot were succeeded by the תנאים / Tannaim (teachers).
Among the first of the תנאים / Tannaim (teachers) was a name which may be familiar to Christians: the great גמליאל / Gamliel. R' Gamliel is mentioned in the Christian bible. He was the grandson of R' Hillel and became Nasi (prince) of the Sanhedrin. He died around 50 CE. R' Shimon ben Gamaliel succeeded him as Nasi (his son or son-in-law). The Romans beheaded him, and he was succeeded by his son who was known by the name of יהודה הנשיא / Y'hudah HaNasi (Judah, the Prince). Y'hudah HaNasi and his generation were the last of the תנאים / Tannaim (teachers), and it was he who finalized the Mishna (the first half of the Talmud).
Hopefully all of this detail is not boring -- I am going into detail so that you will see that none of this was "made up." These were real people (many are discussed in Roman histories as well as in Jewish history). R' Y'hudah HaNasi was an amazing man -- a learned man in Torah and in governing (he was very wealthy). He even befriended Roman leaders, including Marcus Aurelius (161-180 C.E.). This was important, because it was through his relationships that he was able to save Jewish teaching.
If you read your T'nach (bible) you know that the Jews were exiled to Babylon. While many returned to Judah (Israel) with Ezra (the prophet), many more remained in Babylon. They remained there until the 20th century when many were forced to flee as refugees -- most to Israel. By 2000 years ago there were nearly as many Jews living outside of Judah as in it. After the Temple was destroyed in 68 CE even more Jews fled, and by 135 CE the last real revolt against Rome failed and the Romans exiled most of the remaining Jews. For the next 2000 years most Jews lived spread around the world.
We went from a time of yeshivot (schools) like those of R' Hillel, Shammia and Gamliel who boasted tens of thousands of students to the very real possibility that our knowledge would be lost to diaspora (exile). Thus our leaders came to a decision -- they would have to write down the oral teachings for the very real possibility that if they did not do so they would be lost to history. This was a very difficult decision. The oral Torah was oral for a very good reason. The basic rules were firm and unchanging, but the application was meant to be adaptable to new situations (how about electricity as a new situation?).
Although R' Gamliel was a Tanna, the first Generation of the Tannaim was led by יוחנן בן זכאי / Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. Ben Zakkai (Jonathan, son of Zakkai) was a former student of R' Hillel and he was alive when the Temple was destroyed in 68 CE. He did a very brave (very foolish) thing to try to save Judaism. He faked his own death and had his "body" removed from Jerusalem in a coffin -- you see there were Jewish warriors who would not let anyone in or out of the city. . . His "body" was taken to the Roman leader's tent. This Roman was Vespasian and he was beseiging Jerusalem. R' ben Zakkai emerged from a coffin in front of Vespasian, telling the Roman that he had had a vision that Vespasian would soon be emperor. Vespasian laughed at him. Ben Zakkai asked a favor of the Roman, realizing that the Jews could not beat the Romans -- but Ben Zakkai hoped to save Judaism if he could not save the land. He asked Vespasian to let Ben Zakkai establish a yeshiva (school) in the town of Yavneh (near modern Rehovot). Vespasian promised that if he became emperor he would grant Ben Zakkai's request.
Vespasian became Emperor within a year, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. The school ben Zakkai established at Yavneh became the center of Jewish learning for centuries and replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin. It was at Yavneh, nearly 100 years after Ben Zakkai, that the finalized Mishna appeared.
For the next hundred years the Tannaim in Yavneh compiled the oral Torah into the מִשְׁנָה / Mishna. The last generation of Tannaim was overseen by Y'hudah HaNasi circa 170-200 CE at which time the Mishna was finalized.
The מִשְׁנָה / Mishna is a very cryptic work explaining all the principles in sixty-two tractates. The tractates, מסכת / Mesechtot, provide the background for every subject of Halacha (Jewish law) found in the Oral Torah.
The 62 sections are divided into six orders (Sedarim):
The Chabad offers a multi-video series on the Mishna called "Tour of the Mishna."