The Talmud is the name given to the printed edition that includes both the Mishna and the Gemara.
If the Mishna is a very brief outline of the laws of the Oral Law, the Gemara is the explanation that fills in all the gaps. After the very brief, focused style of the Mishna, studying the Gemara presents a tremendous contrast. While it is concise (one or two words often translate to whole sentences in English), the Gemara will often branch off into long side discussions. By doing this the Gemara often appears to have forgetten the original question entirely… until at last, when the smoke has cleared, every loose end is tied up.
Line by line, word by word, the rabbis of the Gemara (known as Amoraim) examine the Mishna and explain its intentions. You won’t find Amoraim arguing with the rabbis of the Mishna. The goal of an Amorah was to explain, to clarify and often to resolve contradictions between one Mishna and another in order to come to the correct ruling – the Halacha.
But it wasn’t just Halacha that occupied the Amoraim, as the Gemara is much more than just a dry legal text book. The Gemara is a living portrait of a living nation. The student of Talmud is rewarded with a good peek into the private lives of unusually great people. We see their brilliant minds, their pain, their struggles, their relationships and even their jokes. We also see the common Jew of those centuries, his cares, problems and often remarkable dedication to a Torah life.
There’s purpose in every word of the Gemara every story and even every joke contains an invaluable lesson in how to live as a Jew. The Gemara depicts how every aspect of our lives (and not just the Halachic), must be in service of G-d. How much money should a man spend on the “frivolous” needs of his wife? How should he deal with bad-tempered kids? What kind of profit margin should he aim for in his business? It’s all there, there’s no area of the human condition that isn’t touched by the words of the Talmud.
The Talmud (and, by extension, the study of the Talmud) has been the all consuming focus of the Jewish people for the past 1500 years. The intense effort this study demands has honed the Jewish mind and shaped both the Jew and his community.
The Talmud both defines and creates Judaism… and many of our enemies know this. Over the centuries there has been no book more viciously searched for and destroyed by Christians than the Talmud. Many thousands of priceless, handwritten volumes of the Talmud (and other sacred Jewish books) were burned throughout the last thousand years of Jewish settlement in Europe. Many of the great libraries of Europe (including that of the Vatican itself) are filled with unique and valuable manuscripts of Talmudic commentary….
The fact that there are Jews alive today (and there are tens of thousands) who can still sing the song of the Talmud and the fact that there are still copies of the Talmud (and there are tens of thousands being printed every year) can be nothing else than the product of a great historical miracle.
And the fact that there is still a Jewish nation today and that G-d’s Torah is still practiced by so many Jews is the direct result of that miracle.