What Is Rabbinic Literature?

Rabbinic literature, in its broadest sense, can mean the entire spectrum of rabbinic writings throughout Jewish history. However, the term often refers specifically to literature from the Talmudic era, as opposed to medieval and modern rabbinic writing, and thus corresponds with the Hebrew term Sifrut Hazal (ספרות חז”ל‎ “Literature [of our] sages,” where Hazalnormally refers only to the sages of the Talmudic era). This more specific sense of “Rabbinic literature”—referring to the Talmudim, Midrash (Hebrew: מדרש‎), and related writings, but hardly ever to later texts—is how the term is generally intended when used in contemporary academic writing. On the other hand, the terms meforshim and parshanim (commentaries/commentators) almost always refer to later, post-Talmudic writers of rabbinic glosses on Biblical and Talmudic texts.

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.

Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman

Mishnaic literature

The Mishnah and the Tosefta (compiled from materials pre-dating the year 200 CE) 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 Jerusalem Talmud, c. 450 CE
  • The Babylonian Talmud, c. 600 CE
  • The minor tractates (part of the Babylonian Talmud)

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; a more thorough annotated list can be found under Midrash. The timeline below must be 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 CE)

Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael
Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon
Mekilta le-Sefer Devarim (n.e.)
Sifra
Sifre
Sifre Zutta

Alphabet of Akiba ben Joseph (?)

Seder Olam Rabbah

400–650 CE

Genesis Rabbah
Lamentations Rabbah

Leviticus Rabbah

 

650–900 CE

Midrash Proverbs
Midrash Tanhuma
Ecclesiastes Rabbah

Deuteronomy Rabbah
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
Pesikta Rabbati
Avot of Rabbi Natan

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
Seder Olam Zutta
Tanna Devei Eliyahu

900–1000 CE

Midrash Psalms
Exodus Rabbah
Ruth Zuta
Lamentations Zuta

   

1000–1200

Midrash Aggadah of Moses ha-Darshan
Midrash Tadshe

   

Later

Yalkut Shimoni
Midrash ha-Gadol
Ein Yaakov
Numbers Rabbah

  Sefer ha-Yashar

Later works by category

Aggada

  • Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva
  • Ein Yaakov
  • Legends of the Jews
  • Midrash HaGadol
  • Midrash Hashkem
  • Midrash Rabba
  • Midrash Shmuel
  • Midrash Tehillim
  • Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
  • Pesikta Rabbati
  • Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer
  • Seder Olam Rabbah
  • Seder Olam Zutta
  • Sefer HaAggadah
  • Sefer haYashar (midrash)
  • Smaller midrashim
  • Tanhuma
  • Tanna Devei Eliyahu
  • Tseno Ureno
  • Yalkut Shimoni

Hasidic thought

  • Kedushas Levi
  • Tanya

Hebrew poetry

  • Biblical poetry
  • Medieval Hebrew poetry

Jewish Liturgy

  • Piyyut
  • Siddur

Jewish philosophy

  • Bachya ibn Pakuda
  • Chovot HaLevavot
  • Emunot v’Dayyot
  • Guide for the Perplexed
  • Isaac Israeli ben Solomon
  • Kuzari
  • Or Adonai
  • Philo
  • Sefer ha-Ikkarim
  • Wars of the Lord

Kabbalah

  • Etz Chaim
  • Maggid Meisharim
  • Pardes Rimonim
  • Sefer haBahir
  • Sefer Raziel HaMalakh
  • Sefer Yetzirah
  • Tikunei haZohar
  • Tomer Devorah
  • Zohar

Jewish law

  • Arba’ah Turim
  • Aruch HaShulchan
  • Beit Yosef
  • Chayei Adam
  • Darkhei Moshe
  • Halachot Gedolot
  • Hilchot HaRif
  • Kessef Mishneh
  • Kitzur Shulchan Aruch
  • Minchat Chinuch
  • Mishnah Berurah
  • Mishneh Torah
  • Responsa literature
  • Sefer ha-Chinuch
  • Sefer Hamitzvot
  • Sefer Mitzvot Gadol
  • Shulchan Aruch
  • Shulchan Aruch HaRav

Musar literature

  • Mesillat Yesharim
  • Orchot Tzaddikim
  • Sefer Chasidim
  • Shaarei Teshuva

Later works by historical period

Works of the Geonim

The Geonim are the rabbis of Sura and Pumbeditha, in Babylon (650 – 1250) :

  • She’iltoth of Acha’i [Gaon]
  • Halachot Gedolot
  • Halachot Pesukot, by Rav Yehudai Gaon
  • 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)

  • 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.
  • Commentaries on the Mishnah, such as those composed by Maimonides, Obadiah of Bertinoro, and Nathan ben Abraham
  • Talmudic novellae (chiddushim) by Tosafists, Nahmanides, Nissim of Gerona, 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 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 YehoshuaHafla’ahSha’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 LeviSefath EmmethShem 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

Meforshim is a Hebrew word meaning “commentators” (or roughly meaning “exegetes”), Perushim means “commentaries”. In Judaism these words refer to commentaries on the Torah (five books of Moses), Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, the responsa literature, or 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
    • Saadia Gaon, 10th century Babylon
  • Rishonim
    • Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki), 12th century France
    • Abraham ibn Ezra
    • Nahmanides (Moshe ben Nahman)
    • Samuel ben Meir, the Rashbam, 12th century France
    • Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (known as Ralbag or Gersonides)
    • David ben Joseph Kimhi, the Radak, 13th century France
    • Joseph ben Isaac, also known as the Bekhor Shor, 12th century France
    • Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi, the RaN, 14th century Spain
    • Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437–1508)
    • Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 16th century Italy
  • Acharonim
    • The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 18th 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 which have received wide acclaim in the Jewish community include:

  • 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, 19th century Europe
  • The “Pentateuch and Haftaras” by Joseph H. Hertz
  • Uebersetzung und Erklärung des Pentateuchs (“Translation and Commentary of the Pentateuch”) by Samson Raphael Hirsch
  • Nechama Leibowitz, a noted woman scholar
  • HaTorah vehaMitzva (“The Torah and the Commandment”) by Meïr Leibush, the “Malbim”
  • Ha-Ketav veha-Kabbalah by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg
  • The Soncino Books of the Bible

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 Authorised Daily Prayer Book with commentary by Joseph H. Hertz
  • Elie Munk, The World of Prayer, Elie Munk
  • Nosson Scherman, The Artscroll Siddur, Mesorah Publications
  • Jonathan Sacks, in The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the British Commonwealth (the new version of “Singer’s Prayer Book”) as well as the Koren Sacks Siddur.
  • Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash, a siddur commentary built around the text of Siddur Sim Shalom, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
  • My Peoples Prayer Book, Jewish Lights Publishing, written by a team of non-Orthodox rabbis and Talmud scholars.

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