The Mishnah defined the basic contours for later discussion of Jewish law. The name, which means "repeating," reflects that the book was designed for oral transmission and memorization, as a rabbi would repeat each tradition for his student. But the orality of the Mishnah is not just a matter of its form; the content is composed almost entirely of the statements of different rabbis, juxtaposed against and in conversation with the varying opinions of other rabbis. From the Mishnah onward, all of the literature of the Torah she'b'al peh is more than just "oral Torah"; in fact, a more descriptive translation of the term might be "conversational Torah," because it is the conversation and the interaction of different ideas that defines the essence of what eventually became known as the Talmud (study).
During the three or four centuries following the Mishnah's publication, the rabbinic sages whose work was eventually compiled in the documents which we call Talmud, analyzed each halakhah in the Mishnah. They compared the various statements of a rabbi to determine how his different positions could be seen as parts of a consistent legal theory. They harmonized the opinions in the Mishnah to other early opinions that were not included in the Mishnah. They tried to show the relationship between the various opinions in the Mishnah to their presumed derivations from Scripture.
Everywhere and throughout the Talmud, the rabbis worked with several basic assumptions. Given a controversy between two early sages, the goal was not to determine according to whom was the practical law; the goals was to make sense of each opinion. This underlying assumption that opinions are not simply fickle choices but the rational decisions of sages confronting differing ways of describing legal reality, is the hallmark of the Talmudic process. The rabbis expressed this concept succinctly: "both these and those are the words of the living God" or, as it may also be translated, "both these and those are the living words of God."
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