OK, so - the Torah is the same as the Pentateuch/first five books of the Christian Old Testament; the Tanakh is roughly the same as the OT, but there are some differences in ordering, inclusion, etc. In the First and Second Temple periods, these were supplemented by the "Oral Torah", traditions about the interpretation and meaning of the Tanakh passed down, well, orally; following the various crises of the first few centuries CE, the Oral Torah was written down as a collection of books called the Talmud. All right so far? (If not, please correct me.)

My question is, is there a general term for later commentary, or commentary on the Talmud itself? And, if there is, is it divided into subcategories and how? Is it by degree (so, for instance the Mishneh Torah and a modern rabbi's commentary on the Torah are in the same class, and the same rabbi's book on the Mishneh Torah is in a different one)? Or by date, so the latter two would be grouped together? Or is the question meaningless in that sense because nobody writes "on the Mishneh Torah" but rather by trying to synthesize as much past scholarship as possible?

Pardon me if this question is really basic or completely off-base.

  • 7
    The Oral Torah did not originate during the Temple periods.
    – Double AA
    Dec 5, 2014 at 16:42
  • 1
    Zyzzyva, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for bringing your question here! There may be a flaw or two in some of your premises, including the one mentioned by @DoubleAA (See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_Torah), but fundamentally, your question about the ways in which we refer to post-Talmudic scholarship is perfectly valid and worth documenting clearly. I hope you'll look around and find other content here that's useful to you, perhaps starting with other stuff in our history tag.
    – Isaac Moses
    Dec 5, 2014 at 16:54
  • Related question (which requires stronger answers, IMO): judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/32041/…
    – Isaac Moses
    Dec 5, 2014 at 16:55
  • 1
    Sorta related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/18589/759
    – Double AA
    Dec 5, 2014 at 16:58
  • @DoubleAA thanks for the correction. The question you answered helps clarify a lot too. So Mishneh Torah isn't commentary but more like a codification? And the Mishna/Talmud constitute the Oral Torah? Again, thanks. Just you guys explaining where my question is confused is helping a lot.
    – Zyzzyva
    Dec 5, 2014 at 17:19

1 Answer 1


The First Temple period is still covered by Tanakh. Tanakh finishes off just as they've gotten the Second Temple going.

Yes, there are broad categories. Timewise, we refer to the following periods, very roughly:

Tannaim -- those who wrote the first stage of the Talmud (e.g. the Mishna). This starts in the early second Temple period (though we don't have a lot of writing on it), a few hundred years BCE, and ends around the year 200, when Rabbi Judah the Prince edited the Mishna. That's the core framework of Oral Law. Most questions of how to legally interpret Biblical verses are settled by this point. E.g. by the end of the Tannaim, we know that "an eye for an eye" is just a figurative expression for monetary payment. No one after this point in history will challenge that. (Though they may argue that the verse was also indicating that morally, an eye for an eye is what's deserved, but no one would practically say that's what should be done.)

Amoraim -- the next stage of the Talmud, generally commenting on/interpreting the Mishna. (And deciding which opinion in the Mishna to follow.) That wraps up around the year 500.

Gaonim -- roughly 500 to 1000. (Technically there are the "Savoraim" in the middle there someplace, making some final edits on the Talmud, but that's really nitty-gritty.) They tend to write responsa, in which their answers cite the Talmud. Occasionally we'll see a few Talmud commentaries, but not that much.

Rishonim -- from around the year 1000 until 1500. Three things happen right around 1500: the printing press becomes popular, so we're seeing things printed, rather than handwritten; the Jews are expelled from Spain, which causes sociological shifts; and Rabbi Yosef Karo writes the Shulchan Aruch, the most-popular code of Jewish Law.

Achronim From 1500 until -- well, the disruptions of the 20th Century generally have caused us to demarcate a new era.

Functionally, you'll see the Rishonim writing primary commentaries on the Talmud. E.g. the Talmud says you should rinse meat before salting it to remove the blood; if you look in Rabbi A's Talmud commentary from the 1100s, he'll tell you the reason is "to get the grime off." If you look in Rabbi B's Talmud commentary from the 1200s, he'll tell you the reason is "to soften the meat so soaking will work better."

At the time, most either wrote commentaries tied to the text of the Talmud, or responsa (answers to questions, where the answers will cite the Talmud.)

As a young man Maimonides wrote his own commentary to a few books of the Talmud, but we don't have much of that. What he originated was a free-standing "code of law" (with a different organization structure than the Talmud), where you have to go back and figure out "what piece of the Talmud is he based off here?", and "how did he interpret that piece of Talmud?"

In the 1500s, we saw the Shulchan Aruch saying that generally speaking, we won't propose new legal interpretations on the Talmud beyond what's already been put there; the question is now which of those interpretations over the past 500 years should we follow, and how to interpret those interpretations, as well as new questions that arise. In this example, we find in the Shulchan Aruch: "you should soak the meat for half an hour, to accommodate the medieval opinion that the reason is softening; however, if you were really in a bind, you could follow the opinion that the reason is to remove the surface blood, and therefore a good rinse will suffice."

Since then, we'll still see responsa, commentaries on the Talmud, and commentaries on the newer legal codes, but they are expected to reference the prior periods' works.

  • 3
    You may want to clarify that the Tannaim and Amoraim wrote many works aside from the Talmud.
    – Ypnypn
    Dec 5, 2014 at 17:29
  • And that's the primary classification? So Maimonides' work, no matter what kind of writing it was , would be counted as "works by Rishonim", and a modern rabbi's work would be either "Achronim" or "whatever follows Achronim", regardless of genre?
    – Zyzzyva
    Dec 5, 2014 at 18:29
  • 4
    @Zyzzyva as far as their authority, yes. You could also categorize works by types. I've seen cataloging such as: "Talmud commentaries, Rishonim"; "Talmud commentaries, Achronim"; "Respona, Rishonim"; "Responsa, contemporary", and so on. ("Maimonides' code and its commentaries" usually gets its own category.)
    – Shalom
    Dec 5, 2014 at 18:41
  • Then there's the question of whether Rishonim and Gaonim are one era and whether Rishonim and Achronim are one era. Although there doesn't seem to be such a "strong" era definition. Really early Acharonim will argue on late Rishonim, and late Acharonim will rarely argue on early Acharonim (will Rabbi Akiva Eiger outright argue on a Rama/Maharshal without backup?) Dec 5, 2014 at 20:49
  • @Zyzzyva I would Maimonides's work is usually classified as "Halacha" - Jewish law. Optionally, "Halacha by a Rishon".
    – Scimonster
    Dec 6, 2014 at 17:01

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