The Talmud (3rd-7th century CE)


Aramaic Tile

Aramaic Tile

The Palestinian Talmud, The Yerushalmi

Although it is popularly known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi), a more accurate name for this text is either “Palestinian Talmud” or “Talmud of the Land of Israel.” Indeed, for most of the amoraic age, under both Rome and Byzantium, Jews were prohibited from living in the holy city, and the centers of Jewish population had shifted northwards, in the aftermath of the two revolts, to the Galilee and Golan regions. The Palestinian Talmud emerged primarily from the activity of the sages of Tiberias and Sepphoris, with some input, perhaps entire tractates, from sages of the “south” (Lydda, modern Lod) and the coastal plain, most notably Caesarea.

In these centers, the output of which included the exegetical Midrashim as well as the Palestinian Talmud, the activity of studying and transmitting the traditions of the tannaim occupied rabbis and their students from about 200 C.E. until the early fifth century. From that point on, because of anti-Semitism and economic difficulties, as well as abolition ofthe patriarchate, Jewish scholarship in Palestine played a secondary role.

In form, the Palestinian Talmud is arranged, essentially, as a commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah text which serves as its basis diverges in some ways from that used in the Babylonian Talmud. Exactly why this is the case is difficult to determine, and several theories have been advanced. More than likely the divergences resulted from the process of oral transmission and do not constitute evidence for separate recensions of the Mishnah, as has been suggested by some.

By far the greater part of the Palestinian Talmud emerged in the north, but the redaction of several tractates seems to have occurred in Caesarea, where the material was hurriedly and incompletely redacted. All told the Palestinian Talmud includes only thirty-nine of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah–the orders of Zera’im, Mo’ed, Nashim, and Neziqin, plus the first part of tractate Niddah of the order Tahorot. In view of the difficult circumstances under which it was compiled, it is unlikely that it ever included any other Mishnah tractates. The supposed Palestinian text of the order Qodashim, published only in 1905, has proven inauthentic.

The distribution of material in the Palestinian Talmud is often said to accord well with its provenance. Thus, since the agricultural laws were still observed in Palestine, it has extensive Gemara for tractates pertaining to agriculture, whereas such material is not found in the Babylonian Talmud. That the no longer relevant purity laws of most of Tahorot should be absent in both Talmuds is understandable. Tractate Niddah is an exception, since it deals with menstrual impurity and married life, an area of Jewish law which remained operative even after the destruction of the Second Temple. Yet it is difficult to explain the presence of the sacrificial law of the order Qodashim in the Babylonian Talmud and its absence in the Palestinian.

For the most part, the Palestinian Talmud was produced at the academy at Tiberias, which was under the patronage of the patriarchs. While the earlier patriarchs had been scholars, their successors were primarily political leaders and administrative officials. As the role of the patriarchs in the academies and the study of the oral Torah lessened, the heads of the Tiberias academy, beginning with Rabbi Yohanan, became extremely powerful and important in the development of the Palestinian tradition. The Palestinian Talmud bears Rabbi Yohanan’s mark, and that of his student and colleague Resh Lakish, on virtually every page.

Other prominent Palestinian amoraim included Hanina bar Hama at Sepphoris, Oshaya Rabbah at Caesarea, and Joshua ben Levi at Lydda (ca. 220-260 C.E.). An important contemporary of Yohanan and Resh Lakish (both of whom flourished ca. 250-290 C.E.) was Eleazar ben Pedat of Tiberias. Ammi bar Nathan and Assi at Tiberias, Abbahu at Caesarea (or, according to some, at Qatsrin in the Golan) followed them (ca. 290-320 C.E.). Rabbi Yonah and Rabbi Yose then led the Tiberias academy (ca. 320-350 C.E.).

The Palestinian amoraic chain of tradition came to an end not long afterwards, after the careers of Mana and Yose bar Abin (ca. 350-375 C.E.). Scholars in Caesarea, in the middle of the fourth century, brought to completion the initial tractates of Neziqin, Bava Qamma, Bava Mesia, and Bava Batra. Since these tractates have a different literary and linguistic form from that of the rest of the Palestinian Talmud, and feature a somewhat different group of scholars, most modern scholars have maintained that they were redacted separately. The rest of the Palestinian Talmud was somewhat hastily redacted out of developing sugyot in the fifth century, completed soon after the dismantling of the patriarchate. This final redaction took place at Tiberias. Because the Palestinian Talmud was completed during the period in which the named amoraim flourished, it lacks the last layer of anonymous material (setam) that occurs in the Babylonian Talmud. This is one of the main reasons for the difficulties encountered in studying the Palestinian Talmud.

The character of the Palestinian Talmud has often been misunderstood. At first glance it seems to be simply a collection of baraitot, amoraic dicta, and aggadot, arranged with no internal logic. However, the Palestinian Talmud does indeed develop logical arguments in its discussions and is organized to indicate this logic. It lacks the connecting terminology that was added to the Babylonian Talmud during the last stages in its history because no comparable stage took place in Palestine.

The Babylonian Talmud

The Babylonian Talmud was produced by circles of Babylonian amoraim who were led in each generation by masters whose schools constituted the center of amoraic activity. Although there was some tannaitic activity there, Babylonia did not become a center of talmudic study until the time of Rav and Samuel in the first half of the third century.

The most important centers of amoraic activity were Nehardea, Sura, Pumbedita, Mahoza, Naresh, and Mata Mehasya. The amora Samuel functioned at Nehardea, and his colleague Rav is said to have founded the center at Sura. After Samuel’s death in 259 C.E., Nehardea was destroyed by Palmyrene marauders. After Rav’s death, the dominant figure at Sura was Rav Huna (d. 297). (The title “rav,” the Babylonian Jewish equivalent of rabbi, indicated that the holder had been empowered to render legal decisions.) Rav Huna was associated with several younger scholars, Rav Judah, Rav Hisda, Rav Sheshet, and Rav Nahman bar Jacob (d. 320). Rav Judah was said to have founded a circle of scholars at Pumbedita. Rabba bar Nahmani (d. 320) and Rav Joseph (d. 323) were both active in Pumbedita. Abaye carried on his school there (from 323 to 338). Rava served there from 338 to 352, and afterwards relocated to Mahoza. Historians see the Mahoza school as a continuation of that of Pumbedita. In any case, the importance of the Mahoza circle was greatly diminished by Rava’s death in 352. Papa founded a circle at Naresh
which he headed until 371, and Rav Nahman bar Isaac then took over at Pumbedita. The next generation of scholars included Rav Ashi, the preeminent figure of the age, in Mata Mehasya, near Sura. At the same time Amemar was active in Nehardea, and Rav Zevid, Rav Dimi, and Mar Zutra were the leading sages at Pumbedita. Amoraic activity continued thereafter for only one final generation, with Meremar, Rav Idi bar Abin, and Mar bar Rav Ashi in Sura. These scholars, as already mentioned, most probably did not head formal academies, but rather schools or circles of disciples organized along informal lines. From a variety of talmudic sources it is clear that the leading amoraim and their disciples also played a role in the public life of Babylonian Jewry, as homilists, judges, and teachers, seeking to spread the Judaism of the rabbinic tradition to the Babylonian Jewish masses, a goal in which they ultimately succeeded.

The Babylonian Talmud, like its Palestinian counterpart, is not complete for the entire Mishnah. For the order Zera’im there is only Berakhot. Virtually all of the orders Mo’ed, Nashim, Neziqin, and Qodashim are covered. Of Tahorot, only tractate Niddah is found. A variety of explanations is possible. Most likely, this distribution reflects the curriculum of study in Babylonia, in which agricultural laws did not apply and most of the purification rituals were no longer practiced. Sacrifice was studied to some degree, since study of its laws served as a substitute for its performance. Another view holds that all aspects of Jewish law were studied but the redactor of the Babylonian Talmud chose to include only those which were still applicable. Finally, it may be that more material existed but that some was lost to the vicissitudes of oral transmission and then of written preservation.

Various attempts have been made to sketch and compare the basic characteristics of the two Talmuds. Many of the comparisons have turned out to be exaggerated and overdrawn. At the same time, it is true that the Babylonian Talmud, because of the longer period of amoraic activity in Babylonia, abounds in detailed logical debates, whereas material of this kind is less often found in the Palestinian Talmud. The claim that the Babylonian Talmud makes less use of tannaitic tradition cannot be substantiated. Since it contains much amoraic material of Palestinian provenance (and vice versa), attempts to look for Babylonian (or Palestinian) social and economic conditions in the amoraic traditions cannot be based on the collections in their complete form. Such studies must be grounded rather on the provenance and dating of individual statements and traditions.

One definite difference between the Talmuds, however, is the use of different dialects of Aramaic. Since ancient times the Aramaic language had been divided into western and eastern dialects. The Jews of Palestine used the Galilean form of the western one, close in many ways to the Imperial Aramaic of biblical times, while those of Babylonia used the eastern, which was similar to Syriac and Mandaic. Not surprisingly, the two Talmuds reflect this pattern. Further, while they have many linguistic features in common, they often employ different technical terminology.

Medieval opinion held that the Babylonian Talmud had been redacted by Ravina I (d. ca. 420) and Rav Ashi (d. 427), who were among the last of the amoraim. While it is reasonable to credit their generation with having collected and edited the tannaitic and amoraic materials that had come down to them, often in the form of sugyot, the final redaction must have postdated these sages. In all probability the redactional process extended well into the sixth century. The final redactors, who left their mark in the anonymous (setam) layer of the Babylonian Talmud, wove together the traditions they had received with the anonymous discussions, the shaqla’ we-tarya’ (“give and take”), and added the many formulary expressions that designate the various types of material which make up the Babylonian Gemara.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

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