In a broad sense, Talmud (“study”) is the name for the vast collection of texts that covers the full gamut of Jewish law and tradition, compiled and edited between the third and fifth centuries.

There are two parts of the Talmud: the Mishnah, a collection of terse teachings written in Hebrew, redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince; and a second part that includes elaborations on the Mishnah, citing many teachings, traditions and explanations of the rabbis (read the full history of the Talmud here). This commentary, known as “Talmud,” is labeled “Gemara” in classic editions of the Talmud, but this does not seem to have always been the case.

Furthermore, in many instances, the word talmud itself was removed from the text of the Talmud and replaced with gemara.1 Apparently, this was to avoid Christian censors, who hated the Talmud, which they perceived as a threat to their traditions.2

Why was the word gemara used, and what does it mean?

Meaning of the Word Gemara

The Talmud tells us that the word gemara refers to oral traditions3 and study4. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105), explains that it connotes the teachings provided by later sages to elucidate and clarify the words of earlier sages.5 Elsewhere, he explains that it refers to the principles and underlying reasoning of the Mishnah and halachah, and how to resolve seeming contradictions in the Mishnah.6

The Talmud

There seems to be only one clear instance in the Babylonian Talmud (and none in the Jerusalem Talmud) where the term gemara is used to refer to the body of the Talmud in general as it is used today.

At the conclusion of an incident in which a group of rabbis were discussing the laws of an eruv placed under a tree, the Talmud states:

Rav Nachman said to them: “Correct, and so said Shmuel.”

[The rabbis] said to him, “Did you analyze the Mishnah so thoroughly?!”

The Talmud explains: Why were they so amazed [that he studied thoroughly]? They too subjected the Mishnah to rigorous scrutiny. Rather, this is what they said to him: “Did you establish it in the gemara?”7

[To which] Rav Nachman replied, “Yes, [I did].”

Although the term gemara seems to be used here in the conventional sense, it needs to be stressed that the Talmud had not yet been written at the time of this exchange. Rather, as Rabbi Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006) explains in his famous epistle, during the generations of the Talmudic sages, when a teaching had become unclear due to the diminishing capacity of the students, they would establish the exact wording in carefully kept official oral records, which was called the gemara and later recorded as the Talmud. Thus, the gemara was the official interpretation of the Mishnah accepted and sanctioned by the Talmudic academies of the time. However, the teachings and learning was all done orally. It was only later that it was all written down, as was done with the Mishnah years earlier.8

This further supports the understanding that gemara originally referred to oral traditions and the act of repeating and learning them, not a written body of text.

Deeper and Homiletic Meanings

Some explain that the word gemara is related to the Hebrew word gemar, which means “finished” or “conclusion,” since it is the conclusion of the writing of the Oral Torah.9

Fiery Coal

On a deeper level, some explain that the term gemara is rooted in the phrase gumra de’asha, a “fiery coal.”10 For when one learns Torah purely in order to serve G‑d, he ignites within himself a fiery passion.11

Protective Angels

Rabbi Chaim Lowe (brother of the famed Maharal of Prague) explains that Talmud study is a form of spiritual protection. This is alluded to by the word gemara, which is an acronym for the four hosts of angels, each one headed by the archangels, who sing G‑d’s praise and surround the person to save him from harm:12

Gabriel גבריאל
Michael מיכאל
Raphael רפאל
Uriel אוריאל

May the merit of our Torah learning protect us all!