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.

The Process

The actual term "editors" is found neither in the Yerushalmi nor in the Bavli. Indeed, both Talmuds are completely silent on how they were put together. A few scholars have even suggested that, as with the Yerushalmi, there was no editorial process at all in the Bavli: that the material simply grew as additions were made from time to time.

While the unfinished state of the Yerushalmi might just lend support to the view that this Talmud simply grew (though some editorial work is evident here as well) such an opinion is untenable for the Bavli. There is a uniform framework in the Bavli into which the words of the Amoraim are inserted and this framework is obviously the work of anonymous editors.

Our major source of information for the editing of the Talmud is the famous letter of Sherira Gaon (906-1006 CE Sherira Gaon was head of the Babylonian Academy; his famous letter--iggeret--was written to the Jewish Community in Kairouan, North Africa, and is in essence a response to the challenge of the Karaites--a Jewish group with a different view of legal interpretation of the Bible--that Rabbinic Judaism was not authoritative. In this letter, Sherira Gaon recounts the history and development of the Mishnah and the Talmud).

But this was compiled centuries after the "close" of the Talmud so that, while containing reliable traditions, the work does not solve all the problems and, at times, reads later conditions into the Talmudic sources. A close examination of the Bavli succeeds in detecting four stages in the construction of this massive edifice. First there are the bare opinions of the Amoraim, usually quoted in Hebrew. Secondly, these opinions were used by the anonymous editors in their creation of the framework to form the Talmud. Thirdly, a number of additions can be detected, introduced after the framework was complete, and according to Sherira and all subsequent scholars, these are attributed to the Saboraim (a word of uncertain derivation but obviously connected to the Talmudic term sevara, "theory", and hence the Saboraim were probably so called because they made some things clearer). Fourthly, scholars have detected a very few additions from the period of the early Geonim (academy heads).

Problems

Yet problems remain. For instance, there is no clear indication whether the Talmud was originally produced in written form or whether it was at first transmitted by word of mouth and was originally not a literary work at all. The French school in the Middle Ages, the leading exponent of which was Rashi, held that the Mishnah was originally a purely oral composition as was the Talmud, the whole being committed to writing as late as the eighth century. Maimonides and the Spanish school generally held that the Mishnah was a written work and that the Talmud, too, was originally produced as a literary composition.

The fact that there are numerous literary devices used in the framework, that it is beyond comprehension that such a gigantic, complex work could have been transmitted intact by word of mouth, and the fact that it was eventually written down on any showing, all lend the most powerful support to the view that the Bavli, at least, if not the Mishnah and the Yerushalmi, was originally a literary composition, though much of the argu­ment would apply to the Mishnah and the Yerushalmi as well.

This is not to deny that earlier strata are to be found in the Bavli in the form of units complete in themselves. Such strata can be detected in the work, but the whole seems to have been refashioned to provide a complete literary unit. The debate on this and similar matters still goes on among modern talmudic scholars.

Another problem is why it was decided to put all the material together at the particular time when this was done. What was the reason for "the close of the Talmud" as this was referred to in the Middle Ages, suggesting that at a certain date in the history of Jewish learning, a halt was called to a continuing process which now had to be finalized?

Sherira Gaon--and he is followed by all subsequent scholars--gives as the reason the persecutions to which Jews were subjected, which could have resulted in them forgetting the Talmud, or rather the actual debates and so forth, unless these were compiled and recast in a complete, accessible form.

The Yerushalmi in all current editions consists of the Mishnah and the Gemara of the Yerushalmi, and the Bavli of the Mishnah and the Gemara of the Bavli. But properly speaking, the Talmud Yerushalmi consists of the Gemara alone and the Talmud Bavli of the Gemara alone. (The Mishnah, of course, is a work of its own, compiled long before the Gemara.)

Nevertheless, the whole is now referred to as the Talmud. Since the Mishnah is now part of the complete Talmud, and there are six orders of the Mishnah, the Talmud is often referred to as Shas (an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of Shishah Sedarim, "Six Orders"). Thus a scholar with profound knowledge of the Talmud is spoken of as a "baki ["expert"] in Shas".

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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.