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Two pages of the Vilna Talmud, typeset and published by the Widow Romm and Brothers in 1886

The Talmud ("instruction" or "learning") is an important source of Jewish religious customs in the post-Roman diaspora; it is divided into 63 tractates, each devoted to a different subject, which is comprised of 37 volumes, or a total of more than 2,700 double-sided folios. The work is composed of two commentaries, containing the comprehensive opinions of thousands of Jewish rabbis. The first is called the Gemara ("to study" or "to learn"), containing written opinions that date back to c. 500 CE. There are two versions of the Gemara portion of the Talmud -- the Jerusalem version and the Babylonian version. When not qualified by "Jerusalem," the words Gemara Talmud generally refer to the Babylonian version. The second commentary of the Talmud is called the Mishna ("to study and review"). The Mishna, also known as the "Oral Torah," is a collection of oral rabbinical traditions first collected and written down by Judah the Prince, also known as Judah ha-Nasi (135 - 217 CE). It provides a snapshot of Jewish practices, laws, and ways of living at that time. The term "Talmud" may refer to either the Gemara alone, or the Mishna and Gemara together.

After the invention of printing in 15th century Europe, the publication of scriptural works became very popular, but under European laws of the time, Jews were not permitted to print Sacred Texts in Hebrew unless they had a Christian ecclesiastical or royal sponsor, so the first complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud was only printed when the publisher received the permission of the Catholic Pope Leo X in Venice, Italy, around 1520 - 1523 CE. This edition set a standard for elaborate and artistic typesetting, which came to characterize many Jewish books of the Renaissance, and persisted into modern times. The most commonly printed and widely-used edition of the Talmud is the elaborately laid out "Vilna Shas" ("Vilna Edition"), typeset and published in 1886 in Vilna, Lithuania, which at that time was under the domain of Imperial Russia.

The Talmud is not simply a collection of historical wisdom, legal arguments, parables, and spiritual beliefs meant to convey to the reader what values to hold and what to think. Rather, it is an entire curriculum of how one learns to learn and how one learns to think for oneself. It is intentionally constructed in such a way that the act of learning becomes its own spiritual practice designed to strengthen the reader's moral character, empathy, and ability to tolerate stress, contradiction, uncertainty, and paradox, and to develop svara ("personal moral intuition"). Together with Talmudic study, svara is considered by some sages to be a source of Jewish law that supersedes the Tanakh in its authority. Thus, the svara cultivated by reading the Talmud obligates the practitioner of Judaism to take personal responsibility for all moral decisions and to reject any aspect of Jewish tradition (including that of the Tanakh and the Talmud) that is perceived to cause harm, or which can no longer be justified under present conditions -- even if the practice in question was commanded in the laws of the Tanakh itself. Therefore, the Talmud helps to keep Judaism a dynamic religion that is responsive to ever-changing times and situations. In addition to its religious or scriptural value, this ancient sacred text has long found popular favour for use in bibliomancy, which is a form of divination or fortune telling conducted by means of a book.

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