Question: "What is the Gemara?"

Answer: The Gemara is a body of literature within the Talmud. The Talmud is an expansive work that contains rabbinical teachings from roughly AD 200—600, broadly divided into two parts: the Mishnah and the Gemara. After the Mishnah was completed around AD 200, its content was subjected to intense study and debate by scholars for centuries. The discussions and teachings of these later scholars were recorded to form the Gemara, which functions as a sort of commentary on the Mishnah. The content of the Gemara goes beyond simply a commentary, however: it also contains commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, parables and explanatory narratives, practical guidance for life, and discussions on Jewish theology. All these different categories are woven into a rich commentary on Jewish faith and practice.

Historically, the Talmud took shape in two different documents, one in Palestine and one in Babylonia. The Palestinian Talmud was likely put together in the first half of the 5th century and is shorter than the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud, compiled and edited in the 6th or 7th century, is more extensive and achieved greater popularity than the Palestinian Talmud. Both were originally written in a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew, but each compilation contains a different version of the Gemara, with different emphases and sources of rabbinical teaching.

The Gemara is incredibly valuable for Jewish studies, as it shows how medieval Jews interpreted rabbinic tradition in light of the Torah. Some of the traditions contained in the Gemara may extend in some form back to the time of Jesus and may therefore be valuable in understanding the Judaism of Jesus’ time. Caution must be exercised, however, when attempting to draw parallels between the Judaism of the Gemara and the Judaism of first-century Israel. Several centuries separate these two traditions, and they are unlikely to reflect one another precisely.

The Gemara remains a vital part of modern Jewish life, and it is a bountiful resource for those seeking to understand the development of Jewish faith and practice after the destruction of Jerusalem. While we can learn much from studying the Gemara, Christians would not consider it inspired Scripture but a reflection of medieval Jewish wisdom.