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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In contrast, the Yerushalmi offers very little discussion of the Mishnah:

"The Torah says, 'You shall dwell in booths.' 'Dwell' always means 'live,' as it says, 'you will inherit the land and dwell there' (Deuteronomy 17:14). This means that one should eat and sleep in the Sukkah and should bring one's dishes there" (Talmud Yerushalmi Sukkah 2:10).

After this brief definition of terms and law, the Yerushalmi moves on to a new discussion.

Parallels Between the Two Talmuds

As might be expected, the Bavli quotes mostly Babylonian rabbis, while the Yerushalmi more often quotes Palestinian rabbis. There is, however, much cross-over between the two Talmuds. Both Talmuds record instances of rabbis traveling from the land of Israel to Babylonia and vice versa. Many times, the rabbis of one Talmud will compare their own practice to that of the other religious center. Early midrashim and other texts composed in Palestine appear more frequently in the Yerushalmi, but are also present in the Bavli.

Both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi follow the Mishnah's division into orders, tractates, and chapters. Neither contains Gemara on all 73 tractates of the Mishnah. The Bavli includes Gemara on thirty-six and a half non-consecutive tractates. The Yerushalmi has Gemara on the first 39 tractates of the Mishnah. Some scholars believe that the differences in the Gemara reflect the different priorities and curricula of Babylonia and of the Land of Israel. Others think that parts of each Gemara have been lost.

Within the Yerushalmi, quoted sections of the Mishnah are labeled as "halakhot" (laws). Citations of the Yerushalmi text usually refer to the text by tractate, chapter, and halakhah. Thus, "Sukkah 2:10" (quoted above) means "Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 2, halakhah 10." Some editions of the Yerushalmi are printed in folio pages, each side of which has two columns. Thus, Yerushalmi citations also often include a reference to the page and column number (a, b, c, or d). In contrast, the Bavli is printed on folio pages, and is referred to by page number and side (a or b). These differences result from variations in early printings, and not from choices within the rabbinic communities of Babylonia and the land of Israel.

In most editions of the Yerushalmi, the Talmud text is surrounded by the commentary of the 18th-century rabbi, Moses ben Simeon Margoliot, known as the P'nai Moshe. The P'nai Moshe clarifies and comments on the text of the Yerushalmi, in much the same way that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century) explains and discusses the text of the Bavli.

Medieval sources credit Rabbi Yohanan, a third-century sage, with editing the Yerushalmi. However, the fact that the Yerushalmi quotes many fourth and fifth-century rabbis makes this suggestion impossible. From the identities of the rabbis quoted in the Yerushalmi, and from the historical events mentioned in the text, most contemporary scholars conclude that this Talmud was edited between the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century CE. The codification of the Bavli took place about a hundred years later.

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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.