The ancient rabbis (late first-sixth centuries C.E.) developed the notion that the revelation at Mt. Sinai consisted of two complementary parts: the written Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah was believed to provide the interpretations and explanations that make God’s written revelation applicable to life in every age. In turn, this Oral Torah is traditionally divided between law (halakhah) and lore (aggadah). These are complementary, expressing the two genres of tradition that came to be redacted as rabbinic literature. H. N. Bialik, the “poet laureate” of modern Israel, has succinctly expressed the relationship between Jewish law and lore:

“Like ice and water, Halakhah and Aggadah are really two things in one, two facets of the same entity.”a

Rabbinic literature, and the related targums (Aramaic Biblical paraphrases) and liturgy (including piyyutim, or synagogue poetry), generally originated in the land of Israel and in Babylonia (modern Iraq). The process of literary redaction began in the early third century C.E. and continued well into the Middle Ages. Rabbinic texts and targums have their own compositional and redactional histories. The final redactor of each text often showed great originality. At the same time, these texts often contain traditions that reflect a date much earlier than the moment of final literary redaction.

The following are brief descriptions and rough dates of the literary sources cited in the accompanying article:


c. 200 C.E.

Abbreviation: M.

Redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince, the Mishnah conceptually organizes early rabbinic (tannaitic) traditions, the vast majority of which are of halakhic (legal) interest, into six orders and 63 tractates.


c. 300 C.E.

Abbreviation: T.

Literally translated “The Addition,” the Tosefta is a collection of early rabbinic (tannaitic) traditions. It is designed as a supplement and commentary on the Mishnah.

Palestinian Talmud (Talmud of the Land of Israel)

c. 400 C.E.

Abbreviation: P.T.

A commentary on 39 of the Mishnah’s 63 tractates, containing the traditions of later rabbinic (amoraic), mainly Palestinian, sages. The Palestinian Talmud developed logical arguments in its discussion, and it is organized to indicate this logic. This Talmud is sometimes called the Jerusalem Talmud, although not compiled in Jerusalem, because of the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish faith.

Babylonian Talmud

c. 550 C.E.

Abbreviation: B.T.

Ostensibly a commentary on 37 Mishnaic tractates, the Babylonian Talmud is a carefully crafted literary document that contains the traditions of the later rabbinic (amoraic) academies in Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud contains numerous traditions that originated in Palestine or reflect a shared reality.

Exodus Rabbah II

c. 700

A homiletical midrash (Biblical exegesis) on Exodus 12–40. Exodus Rabbah I to Exodus 1–10 was redacted between 900 and 1000 C.E.

The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan Recension A

c. 650–850 C.E.

The Fathers According to R. Nathan is a companion volume to the mishnaic tractate Avot. Like Mishnah Avot, it is devoted exclusively to lore (aggadah).

Midrash Psalms I (Psalms 1–118)

c. 700 C.E.

A homiletical midrash on Psalms 1–118. Midrash Psalms to Psalms 119–150 was appended during the 13th century.

Piyyutim of R. Elezar son of Qallir

c. 500–700 C.E.

Qallir was the most prolific of the Hebrew liturgical poets (paytanim) whose work survives. His poems were recited in ancient Palestinian synagogues, and some are recited in traditional synagogues to this day.