Tale of Two Talmuds

Two versions of the Talmud--the Bavli and Yerushalmi--have much in common but also reflect differences in language, length, and cultural context.

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When people speak of "the Talmud," they are usually referring to the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), composed in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq). However, there is also another version of the Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), compiled in what is now northern Israel. The Yerushalmi, also called the Palestinian Talmud or the Talmud Eretz Yisrael (Talmud of the Land of Israel), is shorter than the Bavli, and has traditionally been considered the less authoritative of the two Talmuds.

Like the Talmud Bavli, the Talmud Yerushalmi consists of two layers--the Mishnah and the Gemara. For the most part, the Mishnah of the two Talmuds is identical, though there are some variations in the text and in the order of material. The Gemara of the Yerushalmi, though, differs significantly in both content and style from that of the Bavli. First, the Yerushalmi Gemara is primarily written in Palestinian Aramaic, which is quite different from the Babylonian dialect. The Yerushalmi contains more long narrative portions than the Bavli does and, unlike the Bavli, tends to repeat large chunks of material. The presence of these repeated passages has led many to conclude that the editing of the Yerushalmi was never completed. Others, however, have argued that these repetitions represent a deliberate stylistic choice, perhaps aimed at reminding readers of connections between one section and another.

Comparing the Two Texts

While the Bavli favors multi-part, complex arguments, Yerushalmi discussions rarely include lengthy debate. For instance, both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi discuss the following Mishnah:

"For all seven days [of Sukkot], one should turn one's Sukkah into one's permanent home, and one's house into one's temporary home. . ."(Sukkah 2: 9).

The Bavli Gemara embarks on a long discussion of the validity of this statement in the Mishnah:

". . .The rabbis taught, 'You shall dwell [in booths on the holiday of Sukkot]' (Leviticus 23:42) means 'you shall live in booths.' From this, they said 'for all seven days, one should make the Sukkah [temporary booth or hut] one's permanent home, and one's house temporary home. How should one do this? One should bring one's nice dishes and couches into the Sukkah, and should eat, drink and sleep in the Sukkah.' Is this really so? Didn't Rava say that one should study Torah and Mishnah in the Sukkah, but should study Talmud outside of the Sukkah? (This statement appears to contradict the Mishnah's assertion that during Sukkot, one should do everything inside the Sukkah.) This is not a contradiction. [The Mishnah] refers to reviewing what one has already studied, while [Rava's statement] refers to learning new material [on which one might not be able to concentrate while in the Sukkah]" (Talmud Bavli Sukkah 28b-29a).

As proof of this resolution, the Bavli goes on to relate a story of two rabbis who leave their Sukkah in order to study new material. Finally, the Gemara suggests an alternate resolution of the apparent conflict--namely, that one learning Talmud is required to stay in a large Sukkah, but may leave a small Sukkah.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.