We often find writers, including rabbis, citing the Talmud, or specific books of the Talmud, as the source of a supporting quotation or idea.

It’s always better to cite a specific book of the Talmud and the page on which the quotation appears, than to cite something general and vague like “the Talmud.”

Structurally, what is the Talmud? It’s the Mishnah — the interpretation (and implementation) of Torah that was originally taught and transmitted orally — and the Gemara — the debate and discussion about the Mishnah by later generations of rabbis. It also contains even later comments in the Tosaphot, but I’ll omit that for now.

In a wider sense, it can also include the “Midrash” — rabbinic interpretations and homilies of Biblical texts.

The Mishnah, and its related Gemara, is divided into six major sections (mentioned, by the way, in the Pesach/Passover song “Echad Mi Yo’dei’a?”).

For more on the Talmud, see:

As the Talmud grew and became more and more complex, there were various attempts to produce a systematic reference to Jewish law. Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah” was one such attempt. Like all subsequent attempts or “codes,” Maimonides presents the laws themselves in a systematic order, without the accompanying debates and digressions found in the Talmud itself.

The “Arba’ah Turim” of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (1270-1340) is another such attempt to anthologize Jewish law in an easily referenced format.

The most widely accepted such anthology is the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo (16th c.). Rabbi Karo’s work, leaning towards Sephardic practice, was moderated for Ashkenazic use by the subsequent comments of Rabbi Mosheh Isserles.

We can see from this that codifying Jewish law — i.e. putting it in a format that is easily referenced and accepted by Jewish authorities — was a far more difficult task than we might assume. It wasn’t accomplished until the 16th century — only 500 years ago. Not long in the overall breadth of Jewish history.

Even the Shulchan Aruch — which consists of four volumes, following the model of the “Arba’ah Turim” — was found to be somewhat cumbersome for the lay person. Later, the “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch” (“Abridged Shulchan Aruch;” 19th century. Actually, there are several such compilations and a number of translations of them) was completed by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, specifically to facilitate implementation.

Conservative Judaism found itself in need of a similar manual that defined Conservative practice. In 1979, Rabbi Isaac Klein published “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice,” which serves as a kind of “Shulchan Aruch” for the Conservative movement. The Conservative chumash, “Etz Hayim,” also makes reference to specific Jewish practices.

I don’t know of a corresponding text in Reform Judaism, but Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut’s “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” includes a “Gleanings” section after each parshah. These “Gleanings” are a kind of mini-anthology of rabbinic thinking, although not limited to the Talmud per se.

I might include “The Jewish Catalogue” in this regard. Published in 1973 by Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld and Richard Siegel, it was a kind of “Shulchan Aruch” modeled on “The Whole Earth Catalogue.” There were two subsequent volumes, as well. It’s described as a “do-it-yourself” guide to Jewish practice. Although I was uninterested when first exposed to it, I later found it useful as a reference for programs and activities (if not actual philosophy or musar).

In a similar vein, the “Pele Yoetz” of Rabbi Eliezer Papo, first published in 1824, anthologized both teaching and practical application. Although it made reference to Jewish law, it was meant as a practical guide to life (what we might call today a “self-help” book) for the layman. Rabbi Papo wrote “Pele Yoetz” in Hebrew, in order to make it accessible to the widest range of Jewish readers. An abridged English translation by Rabbi Marc Angel was published in 1991.

All of these are more than academic reference materials. Underneath, they’re intended as devotional manuals which, at the same time, serve scholarly purposes. The link between devotion and scholarship is a hallmark of traditional Jewish thinking.

In 1932, Rabbi Abraham Cohen published “Everyman’s Talmud.” The emphasis was on knowledge of concepts and principals far more than on practical Jewish law/halachah. In doing so, it opened the world of rabbinic thought for the lay reader, who probably did not have a background of study in a yeshivah. Although it’s a more academic compilation of Talmudic theological and ethical teaching arranged by topic, it can serve as an ethical/devotional reference, too.

This was followed in 1938 by “A Rabbinic Anthology,” edited by Rabbis C.G. Montefiore and Herbert Lowe. This was intended as an expansion of Rabbi Cohen’s original volume. Like “Everyman’s Talmud,” it contained rabbinic comments from the Talmud on theological and ethical themes, arranged by topic. 

In 1934, Rabbi Louis I. Newman, a Reform rabbi and scholar, compiled his “Hasidic Anthology” — a collection of quotations from or about Hasidic leaders, with the source of each quotation cited. Like Rabbi Cohen’s book, the short quotations were arranged by topic. The topics were listed alphabetically.

This list of “rabbinic anthologies” is not exhaustive. Other compilations are available. Some, like Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,” published in 1969, focus on a specific subject or topic. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s “Guard Your Tongue,” originally published in 1975, is a kind of abbreviated (kitzur) version of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan’s “Chofetz Chayim” — a compilation of the laws specifically concerning “loshon ha-ra” (derogatory or “bad” speaking).

One need not read these anthologies from cover-to-cover. Rather, they can be consulted as needed for answers to questions of Jewish belief and practice, not to mention daily life.

I believe that they belong in every Jewish home.