The version of the Talmud we’ve been exploring together in our Daf Yomi journey is the Babylonian Talmud – the product of the legal thinking and exploration of the rabbis who lived in Babylonia (today, Iraq) from the second through sixth centuries CE. Today, those very same rabbis ask a surprising question: Where in the world is Babylonia?
Now, the rabbis knew where they lived geographically. They aren’t asking us to point to a location on a map. Instead, they are asking about Babylonia’s geographic status for the purpose of rabbinic law.
We learned in the very first mishnah of this tractate that someone who brings a bill of divorce to Israel from overseas must affirm that it was written and signed in their presence. Those who live in Israel do not have to make this statement. It’s in this context that the Babylonian rabbis explore whether Babylonia — the center of their rabbinic Jewish life — has the legal status of the land of Israel.
Rav says that Babylonia is like Israel with regard to bills of divorce, and Shmuel says that it is like outside of Israel.
Why would Babylonia be like the land of Israel when it comes to statements about agents witnessing the writing of bills of divorce? According to the Talmud, the debate hinges on the fact that a divorce document requires qualified witnesses to witness it. In the land of Israel, an agent is not obligated to make this statement because a divorce document must also be signed by two witnesses. And the rabbis assume that Israel is chock-full of qualified witnesses who can ensure everything is kosher. Is Babylonia also a mecca of qualified witnesses?
Rav holds that since there are academies, (witnesses) are frequently found. And Shmuel holds (those in the) academies are preoccupied by their studies.
Here’s where things get funny (to me). Rav insists that Babylonia is like Israel because there are many qualified people available to serve as witnesses to a divorce document. Shmuel doesn’t dispute this, but he insists that they are too busy studying Torah to serve as witnesses to a divorce. This argument subtly throws shade at the land of Israel, where, according to Shmuel, qualified scholars have too much time on their hands and would be better served spending more of it studying Torah.
When Rav and Shmuel disagree in the Talmud, the halakhah almost always follows Rav. And here too, it turns out that Babylonia does have the status of the land of Israel for the purpose of bills of divorce. But interestingly enough, it didn’t always. As we learn on today’s daf:
Rabbi Abba says that Rav Huna says: We made ourselves in Babylonia like Eretz Yisrael with regard to bills of divorce, from when Rav came to Babylonia.
A quick detour into the life of Rav. He was born in Babylonia, but the Talmud tells us that he went and studied with his uncle Rabbi Chiyya in Israel [Sanhedrin 5a]. When he returned to Babylonia, he became a foundational figure in Babylonian rabbinic life. So much so that people just called him Rav — aka Rabbi. (Fun fact: His actual name was Abba Arikha).
Rav Huna here is saying that it is only when Rav returned to Babylonia, with the Torah learning and wisdom he gained from studying in the land of Israel, that Babylonia became like Israel in terms of qualified witnesses. And in contrast to Shmuel, Rav insists that these witnesses would have made the time to ensure that bills of divorce were written correctly.
So where in the world is Babylonia? It turns out the answer depends not only on geography and legal status, but on when you ask the question.
Read all of Gittin 6 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 22nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.