The Talmud is the Corpus Juris of Jewish life. It is the system of jurisprudence of the Jewish people and has served as the guide, as the norm by which Jewish life was lived for close to two millenia. It was the legal system which governed the communities of the Jewish Diaspora from Cochin on the southern shores of India to the Latin-speaking cities of northern Europe. All Jewish communities were governed by the body of laws and ancillary teachings which are incorporated in the Talmud. Until the Enlightenment of the end of the 18th century, it was the law that governed all Jewish communities throughout the world. It is the repository of Jewish Law and Lore, of moral and ethical instruction, of legal decisions and legends. The Talmud consists of chronological layers, subject classifications, and spatial or geographical differentiations.
The Foundation – The Mishnah
The foundation on which the Talmud is based is the Mishnah. To begin a study of the Talmud in any of its aspects, one must start with the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the Code of Jewish Law which was edited in its final form at the end of the second century. The final editor was Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, who served as President of the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish nation, which was situated in the Land of Israel. The compilation of the Mishnah in its initial stages was actually begun during the period when Rabbi Akivah was the dominant figure in Jewish life and the one whose influence on Jewish Law was far-reaching and profound. Rabbi Akivah began his work of codification of the law sometime around the year 120.
It was a difficult time for the Jewish people, especially for those who lived in the Land of Israel. Jerusalem had been devastated and the Temple destroyed by the Roman armies just fifty years earlier. When, in the year 132, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome broke out, Rabbi Akivah was forced to interrupt his work. Some three years later, when the rebellion was crushed, Akivah and many of his associates; lawyers, judges, and legal scholars and well as spiritual guides and religious leaders of the Jewish people were tortured and martyred by the Romans.
The work that Rabbi Akivah had started was continued by his successors on the Sanhedrin, among whom the most influential was Rabbi Meir. In fact, the Jewish Talmud states that any law in the Mishnah which is not attributed to a specific individual by name was written by Rabbi Meir. And the Mishnah was completed and edited by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch who was at that time the President of the Sanhedrin. The Mishnah in its final form dates from around the year 200.
Once the Mishnah was completed, it was universally accepted as the authoritative Code of Law, the basis of the legal system for the entire Jewish nation in Israel as well as in all the lands of the diaspora.
– From the archived files of Dr. David Neiman