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.

Had the process stopped there, the structure of the Talmuds would have been much simpler, but the process described here continued over generations, even centuries. This led to the gradual development of what are called sugyot, talmudic discus­sions, or essays, as it were, on specific topics. As discussions were passed down, generation after generation, from one circle of scholars to another, they were augmented with comments and glosses.

This process continued in both Babylonia and Palestine into the fifth century. At this point, the development of the Palestinian Talmud was virtually arrested by the anti‑Semitic legislation and the difficult economic and social situation faced by the Jews of Palestine underthe sway of the Byzantine Empire.

In Babylonia, however, the developing Talmud underwent an additional process. It was at this time that the anonymous discussions, the s’tam, which weave together and interrelate all the earlier material, were intertwined in the text. In this way a more prolix and more easily understandable Talmud was achieved.

This, indeed, was one of the several factors leading to the greater popularity and authority of the Babylonian Talmud in subsequent centuries. The redactors who inserted these anonymous links and glosses also added some of the more extensive digressions, and provided the formulary introductions which allow us to identify Mishnah, baraita, and the statements of individual amoraim.

In essence, up through the early fifth century, the vast majority of the statements preserved in the Talmuds have attributions, i.e., the statement is cited in the name of a particular rabbi. Thereafter, the bulk of the material is anonymous, serving to fill in gaps and make the whole a unified, sensible creation. There is only a limited amount of anonymous material in the Palestinian Talmud because its amo­raim ceased to be active in the fifth century.

In Babylonia, however, where the activity of creating the Talmud was able to continue, the anonymous redactors did their work and then were followed by the savoraim, "interpreters", who added the final touches, including the occasional halakhic rulings ("the law is according to …") and certain philological explanations. Their work continued up to the seventh century.

While we know that some of the amoraim kept written notes, the formal activity of the amoraim, like that of their tannaitic predecessors, was conducted orally. There is little information about the writing down of the two Talmuds‑-so little, in fact, that it is impossible to speculate confidently about the process. The best we can say is only that written manuscripts of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds are first mentioned after the Islamic conquest (634 C.E.), and that the dissemination of manuscriptscontinued through the Middle Ages until the inven­tion of printing.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

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