Sea of Talmud II

How amoraic study sessions became the Gemaras.

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Reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The Talmuds (Gemaras) [both Babylonian and Palestinian] are complicated texts, originally con­structed orally as part of the study sessions of the amoraim. These study sessions were organized around the formal curric­ulum provided by the mishnaic tractates. Different tractates were selected for detailed study in Palestine and Babylonia, and there were different emphases even within the various Palesti­nian and Babylonian schools.

While the complex process whereby the oral records (or better, fragments) of these discus­sions and debates have come down to us precludes making definitive judgments about the discussion, it is certain that the mishnaic tractates served as their basis. Only occasionally do the amoraim base their discussions on a baraita (tannaitic tradition outside the Mishnah) or on a mishnaic passage which has been quoted incidentally. For the most part, the Mishnah endows the Talmuds with their organizational framework.

The Mishnahwas studied orally in amoraic times. A memo­rizer (known in amoraic times as a tanna, a teacher of the Mishnah and baraitot) recited aloud the text to be studied. Discussion and analysis of the text to be studied then ensued, followed, by comparison and contrast with other tannaitic traditions, including theMishnah and baraita material.

This in turn led to variousdigressions, and to the comments and glosses of various amo­raim to the tannaitic texts under discussion. Some digressions were rather extensive, and sometimes they included an aggadic [that is, a narrative, interpretive] analysis of related (or even unrelated) biblical material. The freewheeling character of many of the recorded discussions, which often range beyond the specific topic at hand, is one of the important indicators that they actually took place and were not invented by the compilers.

Typically, an amoraic discussion of a mishnah began by citing a contradiction from another mishnah or a baraita and then proceeded to resolve it. Indeed, in origin, the main activity of "Talmud" was the resolution of contradictions in tannaitic ma­terials. It is in this sense that tannaitic sources (and one difficult passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls) can speak of "Talmud" even before the redaction of the Mishnah and its acceptance as the curriculum for the study of the rabbinic tradition. The resolution of a contradiction between the Mishnah and a baraita often serves as the jumping‑off point for more extensive discussion of the details of the law on the specific topic.

Inquiry into the scriptural source (or proof‑text) for a partic­ular rule is another important aspect of amoraic analysis. The Mishnah, virtually devoid of biblical proof‑texts, had separated the law from its biblical origins. The amoraim and the later redactors of the halakhic [that is, legal] midrashim (the so‑called tannaitic midrashim) sought to reintegrate law and Scripture, so as to demonstrate that the written and oral laws constituted one unified revelation of God.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.