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Background About The Talmud

Updated: Jan 6

Challenging received tradition.

BY SARAH WOLF

The rabbis of the Talmud place themselves into two broad generational categories. The Tannaim, who lived approximately from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. until 250 C.E., produced the Mishnah. Then there are the Amoraim, who lived from 250 until approximately the 6th century CE. These are the named rabbis in the Talmud who discuss and comment on the Mishnah. As a general rule, statements by these earlier rabbis, the Tannaim, take precedence over statements by the later rabbis. That means, of course, that the post-250 rabbis think the Mishnah is authoritative, but it also means that a non-Mishnah statement from the Mishnaic time period, often referred to as a beraita (from the Aramaic meaning “outside,” because it comes from outside the Mishnah), is also authoritative to them — even if it explicitly disagrees with the Mishnah’s position. It also means that one Tanna can have a valid dispute with another, whereas (usually) an Amora cannot argue with a Tanna's opinion.

However, this general rule of Tannaitic precedence is just that: a rule that applies generally, but not 100% of the time. Every once in a while, an Amora will dispute, revise or even request deleted from the record a statement by a Tanna. In today’s daf, the rabbis debate whether to stick with the general principle of upholding all tannaitic statements, or whether a particular tannaitic statement ought to be deleted.


Sarah Wolf is an assistant professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

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