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The Talmud is a collection of elaborations on the themes raised in the Hebrew Bible created by noted Rabbis of the second temple era. It is an immense body of literature in both Hebrew and Aramaic, and is divided into two sections: the Mishnah, and Gemara, which comments on the Mishna. According to tradition, the Mishnah was taught to Moses on Sinai (along with the rest of the Torah). Moses then told it to Joshua, who passed it on down the line in an oral tradition. (See the first Mishnah in Tractate Avot, also called Pirkei Avot) For this reason, it is often referred to as the 'Oral Torah.' In was finally written down in the second century C.E. (Christian Era) because the Romans were killing the scholars who had memorized it. another major reason was that with the dispersion of Jews into exile, the old methods of ensuring accurate transmission were no longer working due to there being too many isolated communities. By having it written down, it was meant to ensure a consistency of practice amongst Jews and to reduce "Machlokes b'Yisrael" ("Arguments and fracturing within the people of Bnei Yisrael")
The Mishnah is written in Hebrew as it was given on Sinai and Hebrew is considered the "Lashon Kodesh" (Holy language). The Gemara is written in Aramaic (the prevailing language of the Jewish community in the early first millennium CE) as it needed to be read and disseminated amongst the general community, much as legal enactments and case law are used today.
There are, technically speaking, two Talmuds -- the earlier Jerusalem or Yerushalmi Talmud (apparently incomplete due to Roman interference in Jewish religious structure in 425 CE) and the later Babylonian or Bavli Talmud (the one more studied due to the larger Jewish community in Babylonia). When there are conflicts between the two, the Talmud Bavli is considered authoritative. This is for two reasons: 1) The Talmud Yerushalmi, as mentioned, is incomplete and very badly edited 2) When we have two books from the same generations of Rabbis we give precedence to the later one as they have the benefit of having seen the earlier one and incorporating it into their text. Indeed, we see this often in Talmud Bavli where an opinion from Talmud Yerushalmi is brought and discussed as part of the decision making process.
The Talmud has many commentaries and supracommentaries. Due to this, the ability to find the correct decision and render an opinion was becoming possible for fewer and fewer people as the ability to master the necessary volume of material grew. Thus various summaries of the contents started being made, with the Shulchan Aruch becoming the most accepted one, though others are used for nackground and the information in them(Mishnah Torah and Arba'ah HaTurim are tow of these). Orthodox Jews consider the Mishnah on the same level as the Torah, but the Gemorrah is not as, unlike the Mishnah and Torah, it was not directly transmitted from God to Moses. More liberal Jewish groups do not always agree. The Ethiopian Jews, or 'falashas', never had the Oral Law to begin with, but accepted it when they come to Israel and now completely follow it. The only group that rejects it completely are the Karaite Jews.
The Talmud is a work of great complexity and sophistication, and has much to say on a great number of subjects. As such, it is central to Jewish religious education even in liberal Jewish groups and its study is considered one of the highest duties of the educated orthodox Jew. Unfortunately, much of its writing (particularly that written to defend Judaism against Christian theology and the Jewish people against a hostile world) is cherry-picked by antisemites as a defense for their hatred and paranoia. Such people probably know the Talmud no better than they know the Qur'an.
The Talmud is the earliest known example of hypertext - that is, text that directly refers to another text.
- See the Wikipedia article on Talmud.
- A partial 1918 translation of the Babylonian Talmud by Michael Rodkinson