Rabbinic Literature

From New World Encyclopedia

Rabbinic literature, in the broadest sense, can mean the entire spectrum of Judaism's rabbinic writings throughout history. However, the term is often used as an exact translation of the Hebrew phrase Sifrut Hazal (ספרות חז"ל; "Literature [of our] Sages, [of] blessed memory"), where the latter usually refers specifically to literature from the Talmudic era. The latter, more specific sense, is how the term is normally used in medieval and modern rabbinic writing (where Hazal normally refers only to the sages of the Talmudic era), and in contemporary academic writing (where "rabbinic literature" refers to Talmud, Midrash, and related writings, but hardly ever to later texts, such as those from the medieval and modern periods). The term meforshim, or parshanim, is also used in modern-day yeshivas (Talmudical academies), denoting the "rabbinical commentaries" of the "commentators."

This article discusses rabbinic literature in both senses. It begins with the classic rabbinic literature of the Talmudic era (Sifrut Hazal), and then adds a broad survey of rabbinic writing from later periods.

Mishnaic literature

The Mishnah and the Tosefta (compiled from materials pre-dating the year 200 C.E.) are the earliest extant works of rabbinic literature, expounding and developing Judaism's Oral Law, as well as ethical teachings. Following these came the two Talmuds:

The Midrash

Midrash (pl. Midrashim) is a Hebrew word referring to a method of reading details into, or out of, a Biblical text. The term midrash also can refer to a compilation of Midrashic teachings, in the form of legal, exegetical, homiletical, or narrative writing, often configured as a commentary on the Bible or Mishnah. There are a large number of "classical" Midrashic works spanning a period from Mishnaic to Geonic times, often showing evidence of having been worked and reworked from earlier materials, and frequently coming to us in multiple variants. A compact list of these works based on Holtz (1984) is given below. The timeline is approximate because many of these works were composed over a long span of time, borrowing and collating material from earlier versions; their histories are therefore somewhat uncertain and the subject of scholarly debate. In the table, "n.e." designates that the work in question is not extant except in secondary references.

Extra-canonical rabbinical literature ("n.e." designates "not extant")
Estimated date Exegetical Homiletical Narrative

Tannaitic period
(till 200 C.E.)

Mekilta le-Sefer Devarim (n.e.)

Alphabet of Akiba ben Joseph (?)

Seder Olam Rabbah

400–650 C.E.

Genesis Rabbah
Lamentations Rabbah

Leviticus Rabbah
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
Midrash Tanhuma

Seder Olam Zutta

650–900 C.E.

Midrash Proverbs
Ecclesiastes Rabbah

Deuteronomy Rabbah
Pesikta Rabbati
Avot of Rabbi Natan

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
Tanna Devei Eliyahu

900–1000 C.E.

Midrash Psalms
Exodus Rabbah
Ruth Zuta
Lamentations Zuta


Midrash Aggadah of Moses ha-Darshan
Midrash Tadshe

Sefer ha-Yashar


Yalkut Shimoni
Midrash ha-Gadol
Ein Yaakov
Numbers Rabbah

Later works by category

Major codes of Jewish law

Main article: Halakha
  • Mishneh Torah
  • Arba'ah Turim
  • Shulchan Aruch
  • Beit Yosef
  • Hayyei Adam
  • The Responsa literature

Jewish thought and ethics

Jewish philosophy

    • Philo
    • Isaac Israeli
    • Emunot v'Dayyot
    • Guide to the Perplexed
    • Bachya ibn Pakuda
    • Sefer Ikkarim
    • Wars of the Lord
    • Or Adonai
  • Kabbalah
    • Etz ha-Hayim
    • Sefer ha-Bahir
    • Zohar
    • Pardes Rimonim
  • Haggadah
  • The works of Hasidic Judaism
    • Likutei Amarim
  • Jewish ethics and the Mussar Movement
    • Mesillat Yesharim
    • Shaarei Teshuva
    • Orchot Tzaddikim
    • Sefer Chasidim


  • The Siddur and Jewish liturgy
  • Piyyutim (Classical Jewish poetry)

Later works by historical period

Works of the Geonim

The Geonim are the rabbis of Sura and Pumbeditha, in Babylon (650 - 1250 C.E.) :

  • She'iltoth of Acha'i [Gaon]
  • Halachoth Gedoloth
  • Emunoth ve-Deoth (Saadia Gaon)
  • The Siddur by Amram Gaon
  • Responsa

Works of the Rishonim (the "early" rabbinical commentators)

The Rishonim are the rabbis of the early medieval period (1000 - 1550 C.E.)

  • The commentaries on the Torah, such as those by Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra and Nahmanides.
  • Commentaries on the Talmud, principally by Rashi, his grandson Samuel ben Meir and Nissim of Gerona.
  • Talmudic novellae (chiddushim) by Tosafists, Nahmanides, Nissim of Geronda, Solomon ben Aderet (RaShBA), Yomtov ben Ashbili (Ritva)
  • Works of halakha (Asher ben Yechiel, Mordechai ben Hillel)
  • Codices by Maimonides and Jacob ben Asher, and finally Shulkhan Arukh
  • Responsa, e.g. by Solomon ben Aderet (RaShBA)
  • Kabbalistic works (such as the Zohar)
  • Philosophical works (Maimonides, Gersonides, Nahmanides)
  • Ethical works (Bahya ibn Paquda, Jonah of Gerona)

Works of the Acharonim (the "later" rabbinical commentators)

The Acharonim are the rabbis from 1550 C.E. to the present day.

  • Important Torah commentaries include Keli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz), Ohr ha-Chayim by Chayim ben-Attar, the commentary of Samson Raphael Hirsch, and the commentary of Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin.
  • Important works of Talmudic novellae include: Pnei Yehoshua, Hafla'ah, Sha'agath Aryei
  • Responsa, e.g. by Moses Sofer, Moshe Feinstein
  • Works of halakha and codices e.g. Mishnah Berurah by Yisrael Meir Kagan and the Aruch ha-Shulchan by Yechiel Michel Epstein
  • Ethical and philosophical works: Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Yisrael Meir Kagan and the Mussar Movement
  • Hasidic works (Kedushath Levi, Sefath Emmeth, Shem mi-Shemuel)
  • Philosophical/metaphysical works (the works of the Maharal of Prague, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Nefesh ha-Chayim by Chaim of Volozhin)
  • Mystical works
  • Historical works, e.g. Shem ha-Gedolim by Chaim Joseph David Azulai.


Meforshim is a Hebrew word meaning "(classical rabbinical) commentators" (or roughly meaning "exegetes"), and is used as a substitute for the correct word perushim, which means "commentaries." In Judaism, this term refers to commentaries by the commentators on the Torah (five books of Moses), Tanakh, the Mishnah, the Talmud, responsa, even the siddur (Jewish prayerbook), and more.

Classic Torah and Talmud commentaries

Classic Torah and/or Talmud commentaries have been written by the following individuals:

  • Geonim
  • Rishonim
    • Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki), twelfth century France
    • Abraham ibn Ezra
    • Nahmanides (Moshe ben Nahman)
    • Samuel ben Meir, the Rashbam, twelfth century France
    • Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (known as Ralbag or Gersonides)
    • David ben Joseph Kimhi, the Radak, thirteenth century France
    • Joseph ben Isaac, the Bekhor Shor, twelfth century France
    • Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi, the RaN, fourteenth century Spain
    • Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508)
    • Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, sixteenth century Italy
  • Acharonim
    • The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, eighteenth century Lithuania
    • The Malbim, Meir Lob ben Jehiel Michael

Classical Talmudic commentaries were written by Rashi. After Rashi the Tosafot were written, which was an omnibus commentary on the Talmud by the disciples and descendants of Rashi; this commentary was based on discussions done in the rabbinic academies of Germany and France.

Modern Torah commentaries

Modern Torah commentaries that have received wide acclaim in the Jewish community include:

  • Orthodox:
    • Haemek Davar by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin
    • The Chofetz Chaim
    • Torah Temimah of Baruch ha-Levi Epstein
    • Kerem HaTzvi, by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber
    • Sefat Emet (Lips of Truth), Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, nineteenth century Europe
    • The "Pentateuch and Haftaras" by Joseph H. Hertz
    • The Torah commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
    • Nechama Leibowitz, a noted woman scholar
    • Ha-Ketav veha-Kabbalah by Rabbi Yaakov Zwi Meckelenburg
    • The Soncino Books of the Bible
  • Conservative Judaism:
    • The five volume JPS Commentary on the Torah by Nahum M. Sarna, Baruch A. Levine, Jacob Milgrom and Jeffrey H. Tigay
    • Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary by David L. Lieber, Harold Kushner and Chaim Potok

Modern Siddur commentaries

Modern Siddur commentaries have been written by:

  • Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan HaCohen, The Chofetz Chaim's Siddur
  • Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Siddur, Feldheim
  • Abraham Isaac Kook, Olat Reyia
  • The Authorized Daily Prayer Book with commentary by Joseph H. Hertz
  • Elie Munk, The World of Prayer, Elie Munk
  • Nosson Scherman, The Artscroll Siddur, Mesorah Publications
  • Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
  • My Peoples Prayer Book, Jewish Lights Publishing, written by a team of non-Orthodox rabbis and Talmud scholars.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Holtz, Barry W. 1984. Back to the sources reading the classic Jewish texts. New York: Summit Books. ISBN 0671454676
  • Neusner, Jacob. 1994. Introduction to rabbinic literature. The Anchor Bible reference library. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0385470932
  • Strack, Hermann L. 1974. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. New York: Atheneum. ISBN 0689701896
  • Safrai, Shemuel. 1987. The Literature of the Sages. First part Oral Tora, Halakha, Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, External Tractates. Compendia rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, 3, Part 1. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum. ISBN 0800606051

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.


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