Brachot: A tractate dealing with the laws of blessings and prayer. The first few chapters deal with the daily recital of the Shema. The middle chapters deal with the laws of prayer. This is followed by blessings on food, which then leads in to kiddush and havdalah. The ninth chapter discusses miscellaneous blessings. It includes an interesting digression on dreams and portents.
Shabbat: One of the longest and most varied tractates. It covers all the myriad laws and requirements of the Sabbath day. The tractate also contains the only Talmudic discussion of Chanukah in its second chapter. There are many philosophical sections and stories throughout. One of them is quite possibly the earliest polemic against replacement theology.
Eruvin: Mesechet Eruvin follows and expands upon Mesechet Shabbat. A large portion of Eruvin deals with the laws of carrying from one domain to another on Shabbat. The beginning specifically discusses how it is permissible to carry between the different private domains owned by different individuals. Most of Eruvin talks about intermingling of Shabbat limits. If you enjoy numbers, you might like this Mesechet.
Pesachim: covers all aspects of the laws of Passover, both those pertaining to Temple sacrifice and modern times. The first four chapters deal with the laws of chametz and matzah, the unleavened bread. The next four deal with the Pascal lamb in Temple times. And the last chapter is a complete overview of the seder.
Shekalim: Really allows one insight into the history of the time period during the Second Temple. It deals with many things money related, from business deals, to tithes and taxes, from money dealing with offerings and sacrifices to the temple to drawing money from the treasury, and how exactly that money was spent. It discusses many interactions and special instructions for things that occurred within the Temple, from questions like, “What really occurred in the “Chamber of Silence,” and what happens if the meat from the Kodesh Hakedoshim, the Holy of Holies (CLICK HERE), becomes defiled?
Yoma: Lit. “The Day” is a tractate dedicated to the singular holy day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The first seven chapters deal with the High Priest’s service in the Holy of Holies. Along the way, it also discusses why the temple was destroyed and what we can do about it. The last chapter is a fascinating look at the theology of repentance.
Sukkah: deals with the laws of Sukkot, or the Holiday of Booths. The first two chapters discuss the laws of the sukkah, including the famous discussion of whether it can be built on a camel, and whether a dead elephant can be used as a wall. The next two chapters deal with the laws of the four species of plants waved on the holiday. The last chapter discusses the law of water drawing ceremony in the Temple Times. The last chapter also discusses man’s evil inclination and the end of times.
Beitzah: This Tractate primarily deals with the laws of Yom Tovim, or festivals where one is prohibited from many things, but one may do specific types of cooking. It discusses the differences between keeping one day of Yom Tov in Israel, and two outside of Israel, and how this affects specific laws. It discusses pounding spices, sending presents, the purification of vessels, roasting salted fish, and how to make a lamp during a festival. There is also a debate regarding the difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov in regards to throwing food (Halachic food fight!), what Rav Abba said when he went to Israel, and the five things which have to have been taught about burning coals.
Rosh Hashana: In addition to the discussion of the holiday of the same name, Rosh Hashana is the main tractate dealing with the Jewish Calendar. It describes the four different dates when the year could be said to start. The tractate also deals with how the High Court declared a new month and the astronomical calculations associated with this. After dealing at length with the calculations laid out by the High Court, the tractate returns to Rosh Hashana, discussing the ram’s horn blown then and the special prayer service of this holiday.
Taanit: Taanit is mainly concerned with the service of prayers and fasts for rain. Many of the famous stories about Rabbis and their prayers are contained in this tractate, including the famous story of Choni, a man who fell asleep and woke up seventy years later, and his circle. The last chapter is about the public fasts over the Temple, the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Ab. It concludes with a discussion of Yom Kippur and the 15th of Ab when, in Temple times, the unmarried women would dance in the vineyards in search of husbands.
Megillah: This Tractate is dedicated to the Holiday of Purim. The first part of the tractate deals with the days when the Scroll of Esther is read, and the origin of the separate Purim for walled cities such as Jerusalem. Megillah contains many parables and Rabbinic expansions of the Purim story. It also contains a list of the seven prophetesses mentioned in the Bible. The last section deals with the Torah readings for all the holidays both in Israel and outside.
Moed Katan: Deals with the laws of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot. Unlike the first and last days of these holidays when all work but cooking is forbidden, on Chol Hamoed most work is permitted. The tractate discusses the parameters of this permission. The tractate also contains the laws of mourning, and this section is one of the few sections of Talmud studied during the first week of the mourning period.
Chagiga: The first half of Chagiga discusses the burnt and peace offerings brought by those making pilgrimage to the temple during the festivals of Passover, Shvuot, and Sukkot. The tractate then switches to a discussion of the secrets of the Bible, the stories of the Creation of the World and the vision of G-d’s Chariot shown to Ezekiel the prophet. The last half of the book discusses the complicated laws of purity and impurity, as they pertain to those preparing to visit the Temple.
Yevamot: Beginning with the Biblical law relating to the duty of a man to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow, the Tractate deals generally with prohibited marriages, the ceremony of halizah, and the right of a minor to have her marriage annulled.
Ketuvot: The laws of marriage and marriage settlements. Treats of the settlement made upon the bride, the fine paid for seduction, the mutual obligations of husband and wife, and the rights of a widow and stepchild.
Nedarim: Describes the various forms a vow may take, the kinds of vows which are invalid, how they may be renounced, and the power of annulling them when made by a wife or daughter.
Nazir: Discusses what constitutes a Nazirite’s vow, and how it may be renounced; enumerates what is forbidden to a Nazirite and deals finally with the case where the vow is taken by women and slaves.
Sotah: (Suspected Adulteress). The main theme is the ordeal imposed upon a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity, and its ritual. Other subjects dealt with are religious formulae which may be made in any language or only in Hebrew, the seven types of Pharisees, the reforms instituted by John Hyrcanus, and the Civil War between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus.
Gittin: (Bills of divorce). The various circumstances attending the delivery of the bill of divorce to the woman when the marriage is to be dissolved.
Kiddushin: This Tractate deals primarily with the laws of marriage. There are many interesting stories that are found in this Tractate: a man fighting a seven-headed serpent with the power of prayer, the three ways one is required to acquisition a woman in marriage, the intricacies of divorce, slavery, property law, the laws women are not obligated in, analysis of Ecclesiastes/Kohellet, the laws for bachelors, and the professions that one should attempt to educate their child in.
Bava Kamma: On damage caused to property; injuries perpetrated on the person with or without criminality; and cases of compensation for theft, robbery and violence.
Bava Metzi’a: Laws relating to found property, bailments, sale and exchange; defrauding; interest; hiring of laborers and cattle; renting and leasing; joint-ownership in dwellings and fields.
Bava Batra: Deals with laws concerning the division of property held in partnership; restrictions in respect of private and public property; established rights of ownership; acquisition of property; hereditary succession, and drafting of documents.
Sanhedrin: This tractate is concerned with Courts of Justice and their composition; trials, arbitration, judicial procedure in monetary and capital cases; prescriptions for death sentences; and Dogmas of the Jewish Religion.
Makkot: Treats of the punishment of perjurers; the Cities of Refuge; the offences punishable by lashes and the regulations for the administration of stripes.
Shevuot: Deals with the various forms of oaths made privately and also those administered (i) to witnesses, (ii) to litigants, (iii) to wardens.
Avodah Zarah: Deals with festivals, rites and cults of idolaters, and prescribes regulations concerning association and social intercourse with heathens.
Horayot: Deals with erroneous rulings in matters of ritual law by religious authorities.
Eduyot (sometimes coupled with Horayot): A collection of miscellaneous traditions of earlier authorities cited in the Academy on the day when Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was elected as its head.
Zevachim: Contains the laws of sacrifices as well as a description of Temple life. The fifth chapter of Zevachim, duscussing the locations and different forms of service is the only chapter in the entire mishna to contain no arguments. The Talmud, though, contains plenty!
Menachot: Deals with the laws of flour offerings, matzahs, and show breads used in Temple service. Although worth less money than bulls, the flour offerings were highly valued by the sages. Oddly, the tractate also contains the laws of making the phylacteries worn on the hand and head during prayer.
Chullin: Chullin means non-sacred food, and this tractate is devoted to the laws of Kashrut. The first section deals with the laws of slaughter. It progresses to discussing the sciatic nerve, where the angel wounded Jacob. It also contains the laws of milk and meat, as well as lesser known kashrut laws like slaughtering a mother and child on the same day, which fats are kosher, and how come meat looks red if Jews get all the blood out.
Bechorot: Contains all the laws of firstborn. Firstborn children are redeemed with money given to the priests. Firstborn sheep, goats, and cows are brought to the temple and used as sacrifices. The firstborn of donkeys must be either redeemed with a sheep or killed, and this is one of the few torah laws pertaining to the sanctity of non-kosher animals.
Erachin: An erech is a vow to dedicate one’s self-worth to the Temple. But how can the worth of a person be measured? The tractate also contains the laws of gossip and slander, famously stating that the Jewish fate in the Sinai desert was sealed only with slander. And if the Spies sinned so badly by talking about mere unfeeling rocks and dirt, how much more careful must we be when speaking about fellow humans!
Temurah: Deals with the laws of exchanging the animal one vowed to sacrifice for another. Obviously, one cannot sacrifice an inferior animal instead of a more valuable, but one also cannot sacrifice a valuable animal in the place of a less valuable one. For words have sanctity, and once one dedicates property to G-d, the act cannot be undone. The laws are somewhat cryptic, famously starting with the words “Anyone can substitute, but substitutions are not allowed”.
Keritut: This tractate deals with the most severe penalty in Judaism, the Excision of a soul from Heaven and the Jewish people. There are thirty six sins that lead to this punishment, and they are enumerated here. Even the unintentional violation is a serious matter, and it must be atoned with a sacrifice. But for the intentional violation, there is only repentance.
Meila: A short tractate dealing with the laws of misuse of Temple property, purposeful or accidental. Many rabbis believe that these laws still apply today if one were to injure the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Tamid is an only-mishnah section dealing with the daily procedure and order of sacrifices. It also contains, as a bonus,Middot which deals with the dimensions and layout of the Second Temple. The Order of Kodshim concludes with the laws of bird offerings, which are always brought in pairs. Intricate algebraic proofs are written about what happens when one bird flies away or two pairs intermix.
Niddah: Niddah is the only Babylonian Talmud on the Order of Taharot, the laws of ritual purity. This section deals with the laws of family purity, childbirth, and mikveh.