When I'm reading through answers on this site I often see users make references like -

Baba Batra 75A


Chagiga 12A

I don't understand what these mean.

What are the documents that Judaism considers to be authoritative? Additionally, what are the documents that are not considered canonical but are well respected?

  • 2
    Those are Talmudic tractates. See this question. – b a Aug 19 '12 at 17:44
  • @ba Thanks. I'll still like to know a list of documents. (Example - New testament, Old testament are scriptures and writings of early church fathers are well respected within Christianity) I assume something similar must be there in Judaism. – Monika Michael Aug 19 '12 at 17:46
  • @ba That other question you pointed seems to be a good reference for all the documents and as such this could be a duplicate. But that question is about documents of Jewish law. Are there any others? e.g. non-law theological ones. – Monika Michael Aug 19 '12 at 18:01
  • Theological laws are included in most of those books of laws. (For example, Rambam has most of the first volume of his work devoted to laws of beliefs (English)) – b a Aug 19 '12 at 18:09
  • 1
    We also have a glossary. Maybe we need a list of common references, too. – Seth J Aug 20 '12 at 6:17

This is not meant to be a conclusive answer of all books written, but it so happens that a large majority of them are centered around the structure of 4 very important works, either as commentaries or summaries. Recognizing references to these four works can help you locate and gain some understanding of what a quoted work is.

  • Tanach

Tanach contains the 24 books of the Bible, which are divided into three groups: Torah, Prophets and Writings. Each book is generally referenced by chapter and verse number, eg. Haggai 2:4. You can access all of the Tanach in Hebrew with an English translation here http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0.htm.

Commentaries to Tanach are often discussing the stories and morals contained within and are usually less focused on the precise legal outcomes. A commentary would often be cited by the verse it comments on, eg. Rashi to Ezekiel 23:6.

  • Mishna/Talmud

The Mishna is the oldest and most basic text in the oral law. There are 63 books within it, which can be cited by chapter and paragraph, eg Peah 4:2. Two important and old commentaries upon it are the two Talmuds (Babylonian and Jerusalem). The Talmuds only exist on certain books in the Mishna, and are generally cited by page number in the standard printings, eg Shabbat 155b (note that 'pages' here includes both sides of the physical page, hence the 'a' or 'b').

The Mishna and Talmud are free flowing discussion about legal and moral concepts. A commentary to it would also likely be discussing those things and would be cited by the page it is commenting on. The Talmuds are considered highly authoritative and in many cases are the starting ground for any discussion. The Babylonian Talmud can be found in English at http://halakhah.com/

  • Rambam

Rambam (AKA Maimonides, 1135-1204) compiled the first (or at least, earliest to be so accepted) pure legal codex which removed all the legal back-and-forth and laid down straight law, covering all aspects of Jewish law. His magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, contains 14 general-topical divisions, each containing a number of books on specific topics, which are cited by chapter and paragraph, eg Rambam [Hilchot] Shecheinim 3:2. By doing so, the Rambam revolutionized study in a way leading to a whole wealth of commentaries on his work discussing his conclusions.

Rambam and his commentaries are usually cited as important background for legal discussions, but usually not conclusively. For the entire Mishneh Torah in English, see http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682956/jewish/Mishneh-Torah.htm

  • Tur/Shulchan Aruch

Another legal codex, written a few centuries later and compiling more sources in doing so, was the Tur. The Tur developed its own commentaries including one by Rabbi Joseph Caro who eventually resummarized his conclusions following the sectioning of the Tur into the Shulchan Aruch. Nearly all final legal rulings develop around the Caro's rulings as well as the commentaries surrounding his work, first and foremost among them, those of Rabbi Moses Isserles.

The Tur is divided into 4 sections: Orach Chaim, Yoreh Deah, Even Haezer and Choshen Mishpat, each dealing with a different section of law, eg. family law, monetary law, laws of the holidays. I note that unlike the Rambam's, these codes don't cover laws that do not have any practical applications nowadays, such as most of laws surrounding the Temple.

The Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries are cited by section, chapter and paragraph, eg. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 57:1 or directly to a commentary eg. Bach OC 357:2. Much of the Shulchan Aruch can be found in English through Wikisource at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Shulchan_Aruch

Just to reiterate, this is not a conclusive list of rabbinic literature! There are many other important works that are not tied to the above list, and it would be impossible to list them all. This is just to help with some of the more common source references.

  • 3
    Rif?? Rosh? Mishnah Berurah? I know you said this is not exhaustive of all rabbinic literature, but (so) what is the focus/goal/purpose of this answer? It just leaves out so much. I'm not sure this can really be answered in less than book form. – Seth J Aug 20 '12 at 6:10
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    +1, very nice answer. @SethJ, Rif, Rosh, and MB are all commentaries/restatements of texts mentioned in this answer. The fact is that these four works -- specifically, Rambam and Tur v'SA -- are not holier or inherently more important than many others, but they are cited much more, have many more commentaries, and are cited more uniformly (by chapter and section, which is kinda whatthe question asks about) than many others. – msh210 Aug 20 '12 at 6:16
  • MB is cited quite a bit around here, as are the late Lubavitcher Rebbe's Sichos. And Igros Moshe. And... – Seth J Aug 20 '12 at 6:20
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    @SethJ Mishna Berura is cited according to the Tur. Rif and Rosh are cited somewhat by Talmud, enough at least that a reader would realize it's a Talmud commentary style work. Responsa I agree is a weak point as there is no set system. – Double AA Aug 20 '12 at 7:11

In Judaism there are a large array of books and texts which are considered authoritative. However not all authoritative books have equal authority, and some are well respected but are not 'binding' (i.e. are not authoritative).

It starts with the Chumash, or 5 books of Moshe. Then, there are 19 other books which make up Nach. The 24 books together, make up Tanach, and is also known as "The written Torah."

Next up the food chain, is the "Oral Torah". The Oral Torah is broken up into the Mishna, which has 63 books. The Oral Torah also includes two Talmuds, one is known as the Talmud Bavli and the other the Talmud Yerushalmi. We have lost many books in these Talmuds and so not all sections of the Mishna are covered in each of the Talmuds.

The Talmud itself is made up of 4 types of texts. Mishna, Bereita, Tosefta, Gemora.

Bereita are texts written at the same time as the Mishna, but not included into the Mishna itself. Tosefta are extra writings, that go along with the mishna, but were compiled separately.

We also have "Midrash" which are texts focused on wordplays, puns, associations, and linguistic connections and stories focused on the Tanach.

The Talmud is made up of two types of texts. Some are "Halachic" and are authoritative. Others are "Agadic" are inspirational, but not "binding" or "authoritative". Midrash is also divided into these two categories.

After the Talmud, we have the writings of the "Geonim" or "Great ones". Some of these writings are known as "Minor tractates" within the Talmud. This is also where we get our modern Prayer books from, and many the beginning of very clear yes/no answers to Halacha. (Jewish Law)

After the Geonim, are the writings of the Rishonim (First ones). Rishonim either wrote commentaries on the Talmud and tanach which allows us to expand upon what was written, connecting various parts of the Talmuds together and creating a more clear picture. They also began to organize the texts into categories instead of free form learning. Some Rishonim such as the Rambam, also wrote codified rules for all of Halacha.

The further in history you go, the more types of books you find, and the less and less authoritative the books become. However, some have become extremely authoritative in different circles. For example there is the Shulchan Aruch and/or Mishna Bruah which some argue is the final authority. Others state that only the Talmud and the rulings from the Sanhedrin can be the final authority, with more modern books giving great insight but are not 100% authoritative.

On the less rules and authority and more on the soul and inspiration, there are also the books of the Heichalot literature, Sepher Yetzirah, Baahir, and Zohar. These books heavily influenced Jewish prayer and ritual but their level of authority has waxed and waned depending on the community and era.

As was mentioned before there are many other books which have also entered the well established or respected writings. Anything written after the Geonic period may or may not be authoritative. I highly recommend clicking around in Wikipedia to get a clear understanding of just how vast the works are.

Even in Wikipedia there were many books which I found missing such as Path of the Righteous, Path of the Just, Duties of the Heart and other modern books which are taught in just about every highschool or Yeshiva today.

The process by which books become authoritative past the Geonic period is very democratic and organic. As a book becomes popular and widely quoted, it gains authority.

  • We have lost many books in these Talmuds I thought they weren't even written. 4 types of texts. Mishna, Bereita, Tosefta, Gemora. Isn't Tosefta a kind of baraysa? And aren't midreshei halachah also? and many the beginning of very clear yes/no answers to Halacha It seems more the like end of yes/no answers, considering all the disputes in rishonim. there is the Shulchan Aruch and/or Mishna Bruah which some argue is the final authority Who? (cont.) – b a Aug 19 '12 at 21:41
  • Anything written after the Geonic period may or may not be authoritative Can you give an example of something from the rishonim that's not authoritative? – b a Aug 19 '12 at 21:41
  • @Ba 1.Bereitot we only know about from the Talmud. Toseftot are a separate book which can be studied. Not all Toseftot are in the Talmud. Same with Midrashei Halacha. Seperate books which exist on their own and can be studied. 2. The disputes of rishonim exist because they opinions are stated in yes/no ways which causes other rishonim to say "not in my town" and the like. 3. What do you mean who? My neighbor but not my rav? 4. Much of the Mishna Torah and Guide to the perplexed is NOT authoritative. Shulchan aruch and others rule differently. – avi Aug 19 '12 at 21:47
  • 1. Then why will a gemara introduce a Tosefta or midrash halachah with "tanya"? 2. Most rishonim (those not aiming for books that are easy for the masses to read) give reasons for what they say, especially when disagreeing with previous rishonim. 3. I have never heard of anyone who says that the Mishnah Brurah is the final authority. The suggestion of the Shulchan Aruch being the final authority is more reasonable (and is, in fact, the position held by R' Ovadiah Yosef). 4. Shulchan Aruch and others also rule differently from geonim when rishonim argue with them. – b a Aug 19 '12 at 21:51
  • @ba 1. Because they were all written during the Tanaic period. You can go buy a tosefta book if you like. You can't buy a beriata book. 2. Never said otherwise. But the rishonim started the process of books that are easy for the masses to read. That's why they are 'rishonim'. 3. Then you ever met my neighbor. 4. The geonim were a true authority, supported socially, politically and with courts and police. The name comes from the institution which they were a part of. Part of their authority also came from the fact that they were descendants of King David. – avi Aug 19 '12 at 22:11

the simplest list of sources can be presented like this:

written law -- the tanach (similar to the "old testament" but there are some differences in book order, classification etc)

oral law -- as b a put in the comments, the oral law (mishna and gemara) are sourced from sinai and are authoritative in the same way that the written law is, and the understanding of each is based on the other.

there are many other works which complement these two (in time) and which expound upon them. codes of law and writings of the rabbis are substantial -- a single list of them would be difficult because, at times, different communities conferred different authority on one text or another. The shulchan aruch, for example, is an exhaustive legal tome with glosses by R. Moses Isserlis providing variant laws specifically for ashkenazic communities.

a site like this might be a starting point


There are many, many authoritative sourcs for Jewish law and tradition. I will group them by their major categories. This is not an exhaustive list, rather, a crash course in some of the major sources of Torah.

The written Torah The 24 books of Tanach, listed here. On Mi Yodeya, they are quoted by both their English and Hebrew names. For example, Shemot, Iyov, Isiah.

The Torah commentators Often disagree with each other, but widely respected. Thse include Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Malbim

The Mishna/Talmud Divided into 63 tractates, listed here. Tractates of Mishna and Talmud (Gemarah)on the same topic share the same name. As a general rule, almost all references to a tractate are to the Talmud.

The Talmudic Commentators From the past thousand years, Jewish scholars have written explanations of the Talmud. These are widely respected but often disagree with each other. Some of the most famous include: Rashi, Ramban, Rosh, Rashba, Rabeinu Yona, Maharam MiRotenberg, Tosafos.

The Codes of Law Over the past 500 years, the discussions of the Talmud and their commentaries have been collected into the primary code of law, the Shulchan Aruch. Together with the glosses of the Rema, this forms the major modern authoritative source for Jewish law. Other codes include Aruch HaShulchan, Shulchan Aruch HaRav, and Mishna Berura. These codes also have their own commentaries, such as the Shach, Taz, Gra, and Bach. In the past few decades, specialized codes have also been written, such as Nishmat Avraham on medical law and Shemirat Shabbat Khilchata on Shabbat.

Responsa Another type of widely respected sources are the question and answer books. These include Chasam Sofer, Igros Moshe, Noda BYehuda

[ There are dozens of other possible examples, I only listed a few to keep this post readable. ]

  • There are inaccuracies, at least implied. For example, Bach is not a commentary on any of the codes that you list, though you say it is. For another, not all commentaries on Tanach are widely respected; some are widely rejected. Oh, and can you support your claim that commentaries on the Talmud began in the last 1000 years? – msh210 Mar 8 '18 at 19:34

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