Commentaries on the Talmud

The Talmud is a difficult book, and many commentators have worked to explain and illuminate it.

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The author of this article includes in this summary those commentaries that appear on a page of Talmud.  There are many other commentaries on the discourse in the Talmud: Some of these--such as the Rif (mentioned below in the section on Rashi), Rambam's (Maimonides') commentary to the Mishnah, and the commentary of the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270), called "Milchamot Hashem"--appear at the back of a volume of Talmud. Others such as the Shitah Mekubetzet (see below under "additional commentaries") appear in separate book form.Excerpted with permission from A Practical Guide to Torah Learning (Jason Aronson, Inc.).  © 1995

The Babylonian Talmud, from its very first printing, has had a number of commentaries and notes included on each page. Although there are minor variations among editions published in different countries and at different times, the Romm Vilna edition has become the standard… That edition includes the following:

Rashi

On the inside margin of the page is the commentary of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, France (1040-1105). Rashi, the most famous of the commentators to the Talmud, explains and translates the talmudic dialogue while, for the most part, refraining from subjecting the text to analysis or comparison to parallel texts in other tractates.

the talmudThe commentary can be seen as a phraseological exposition designed to enable the student to understand the discussion. Rashi provides a wealth of historical and practical information that gives the student the means to understand the references to places and things with which most readers would be unfamiliar. In addition, he often translates obscure terminology into Old French…

Rashi edited his commentary extensively; the commentary that appears in our texts is, according to tradition, the third version. His commentary has become so popular that no edition of the Talmud can be considered complete without its inclusion. According to tradition, Rashi wrote a commentary to the entire Talmud, but did not manage to complete the editing process before he passed away.

The commentary that appears in his name to tractate Nedarim is not considered to be his. The commentary to tractate Makkot (from 19b) was completed by his student and son‑in‑law, R. Yehudah ben Natan (Rivan) and the commentary to tractate Bava Batra (from 29a) was written in his style by his grandson, R. Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam). The commentary of Rashi that is usually printed alongside the Rif (an 11th century work summarizing the halakhic material in the Talmud, by R. Yitzhak Alfassi) is not considered to be accurate and may be based on earlier versions. Some editions of the Talmud have the headwords of Rashi's commentary set in bold, square Hebrew script.

Tosafot

The word tosafot--additions--indicates that the commentary was meant as an addition to that of Rashi. Unlike the commentary of Rashi, the commentary of the Tosafot is more extensive, often serving as an extension to the talmudic dialogue itself. In many instances, we find the Tosafot quoting parallel texts so as to reconcile apparent contradictions.

In addition, the commentary of the Tosafot offers alternative explanations to those offered by Rashi and questions the basis for Rashi's textual emendations. When quoting Rashi, the Tosafot often refers to the commentary as peirush bekontres--it was explained in the pamphlet. It would appear that this is based on the fact that Rashi's commentary was copied into booklets that were studied alongside the handcopied editions of the Talmud.

The commentary of the Tosafot that appears in our editions was written primarily by a group of scholars in France and Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Many of these scholars were members of Rashi's family.  Among them we find:

Rivan, R. Yehudah ben Natan; and Ram, R. Meir ben Shmuel‑‑Rashi's sons‑in‑law

Rashbam, R. Shmuel ben Meir; and Rabbenu Tam, R. Yaakov ben Meir‑‑Rashi's grandsons

Ri, R. Yitzhak of Dampierre--Rashi's great-grandson

Other scholars whose comments are included in the commentary of Tosafot include Rabbenu Chaim, Rabbenu Peretz, R. Meir of Ruttenberg (Maharam), Rabbenu Shimon and R. Moshe of Coucy (author of the Semag--Sefer Mitzvot haGadol, a halakhic work). The period of activity of the Tosafot was approximately 200 years and included schools of study in northern and southern France, England, Germany, and Italy.

The Tosafot [text] printed alongside most of the tractates of the Talmud in the Vilna edition is referred to as Tosafot Tuch (Touques), after the French city where the commentary was edited.  Other editions of the Tosafot were prepared elsewhere and are sometimes included in the Talmud under the title Tosafot Yeshanim.

Rabbenu Hananel

In many of the tractates of the Talmud, the commentary of Rabbenu Hananel ben Hushiel (Kirouan, North Africa--11th century) is included on the outside margin. Unlike the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, the commentary of Rabbenu Hananel is a synopsis of the talmudic discussion and does not explain the text or compare it to other sources. The commentary of Rabbenu Hananel to the entire Talmud is not extant.  In some tractates the commentary of Rabbenu Nissim Gaon (North Africa--11th century) or variant tosafot are offered instead or as well.

Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah

Compiled by R. Yehoshua Boaz (Italy‑‑16th century), the Ein Mishpat provides source references to enable the student to find the relevant citations in halachic literature and is found on the outside margin of the page.  The author added a square (non-Rashi-script) Hebrew letter to indicate his notation…

Torah Or

Also compiled by R.Yehoshua Boaz, Torah Or is found in the margin between the text of the Talmud and the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, and provides the scriptural source for verses cited in the Talmud. The author added a superscript o as a symbol for his notation.

Masoret ha-Shas

These references are usually found in the inside margin, although when space requirements did not allow for this, they can be found under the author's Ein Mishpat. Masoret Ha-Shas provides the student with the appropriate reference for materials cited from other tractates, suggestions for alternative readings--usually preceded by the comment, "Tzarich Lomar" (it should be said)--as well as explanations of terms (primarily quoted from the [Shulchan] Aruch, a central halakhic work.)…

Masoret haShas was first compiled by R. Yehoshua Boaz and was reedited by R. Yishayahu Pick.  The additions of the latter are indicated by square brackets.  The authors noted their comments with an asterisk in the text.

HaGaot haBach

Compiled by R. Yoel Sirkes,  the haGaot haBach are the suggestions for textual emendations in the Talmud and Rashi, copied from the notes that the author added to his copy of the Talmud. The Bach noted his comments to the text by enclosing a letter in Rashi script within parentheses.

HaGaot haGra

Similar in content to haGaot haBach, haGaot haGra are the suggestions for emendation, that R. Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna wrote in the margins of his copy of the Talmud. The comments are noted within the text by use of a square Hebrew letter within square brackets.

Gilyon haShas

The terse and sometimes cryptic comments to the text of the Talmud, or to the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, of R. Akiva Eiger. The author sometimes offers a reference to a similar source within the Talmud that differs only slightly from that in the text. Usually, however, he cites another source that either contradicts or poses a difficulty to tile subject under discussion. Rarely, the author provides the answer to his question; more often the student will find the abbreviation vav-tzadi-ayin [for] v'tzarich iyun (it needs further study). R. Akiva Eiger's comments are noted by a circle with a line drawn through it.

Depending upon the publisher and the edition, the student may well find other commentaries on the page of the Talmud. These include:

Rabbenu Gershom

Written by R. Gershom (France--end of 10th to beginning of 11th century). The commentary is similar in style to that of Rabbenu Hananel. According to tradition, Rabbenu Gershom died in the year that Rashi was born. He can be seen as the spiritual founder of the French-German community.

Rashi, who was a student of his disciples, R. Yaakov ben Yakar and R. Yitzhak ben Yehudah, refers to him as Meor haGolah--light of the exile. He is best known to us by virtue of the takkanot--communal ordinances--attributed to him, e.g., the prohibition of bigamy, of divorcing a wife against her will, and of reading another person's mail.

Tosafot Yeshanim

Alternative versions of the commentaries of the Tosafot.

Tosafot Rid

Commentary written by R. Yeshaya di‑Trani (Italy‑ 13th century). R. Yeshaya's commentary was published in the margin of tractates Ketubot and Gittin. His commentary to other tractates was published separately. His halakhic decisions are often quoted in the Or Zarua (R.Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna) and in the Shibbolei haLeket (by R. Tzidkiyahu haRofe of Italy), which would seem to indicate that he was in close contact with both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic scholars of his day.

Tosafot Rosh

[In most editions, found in the back of the book, rather than on the page:] Commentary of R. Asher ben Yehiel (1250-1327).

Shitah M'kubetzet

R. Betzalel Ashkenazi, 1520-1591 (A compendium of commentaries collected by him, which usually appears in a separate volume). 

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Rabbi Dovid Landesman is the author of books on talmudic subjects, and translated numerous other works on various Jewish topics.