The Editing of the Talmud

How the sages' debates across many generations became the monumental works known as the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds

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Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

Around the year 400 CEthe teachings, debates and discussions that took place among the Palestinian Amoraim (rabbis of the period of the Gemara) were drawn on to form the Palestinian Talmud, the Yerushalmi.

There has been much discussion on the question of who the editors of the Yerushalmi were. There is evidence, stylistic and historical, that some sections of the Yerushalmi were edited earlier, and in a different center, from others. The style of the Yerushalmi is, in any event, terse, even "choppy," so that some scholars have suggested that the work never received any final redaction at all and is an incomplete, unfinished work.

A similar process is to be observed in the Babylonian Talmud, the Bavli, compiled some time around the year 500 CE(the date is very approximate). The style of the Bavli is, however, much more elaborate than that of the Yerushalmi. Apart from five tractates, the style of the Bavli is uniform, suggesting that the same editors were responsible for the whole work, with the exception of these tractates. Yet even these five tractates differ only slightly from the rest in style and vocabulary, so the impression is gained of a coordinated editorial activity, though one carried out in at least two different Babylonian centers.

editing the talmudAlthough Palestinian Amoraim are frequently mentioned in the Bavli and Babylonian Amoraim (rabbis of the period of the Gemara) in the Yerushalmi (naturally so, since some of the sages of each country visited the other from time to time, carrying the teachings with them), the weight of scholarly opinion is that the editors of the Bavli did not have before them the actual text of the Yerushalmi, nor did the Palestinian editors have anything like a proto-Bavli. If the editors of either had had access to an actual text of the other, it is inconceivable that they would not have mentioned this. Here the argument from silence is very convincing.

Halakhah and Aggadah

The material in the Talmud is of two kinds: halakhah and aggadah. The aggadah embraces everything not included in the halakhah, the latter dealing with the laws, the rules and regulations of Jewish religious life in all its manifestations. Ithas been estimated that the halakhic material comprises about two-thirds of the Bavli. This does not mean that there are two clearly delineated sections, one of halakhah, another of aggadah.

The editors, usually by association or similarity of theme, often introduce a piece of aggadah into a halakhic debate and vice versa. For instance, the Bavli in tractateBerakhotopens with a halakhic discussion on the times when the evening Shema may be recited. One of the times mentioned is "the end of the first watch". This leads to an aggadic statement that just as there are watches on earth there are watches in heaven at which times God deplores the fact of Israel's exile, and further aggadic material is introduced by association until the original halakhic theme is taken up again.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.