Sunday 5 November 2017


A rare edition of Talmud Yerushalmi Krakow 1609.


The story of the fierce clash between the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) and the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) is fascinating and must be told. The Talmudic school of Babylonia was vying with the Talmudic school of the Land of Israel for the greatest prize in Judaism – the work which was to become the gold standard for all future Halachik discourse.
This battle was so epic that, as we shall see, it sometimes appeared as if that the participants played outside of the rules.
Eventually, the Bavli won and most of our Halacha today is decided upon it. The common explanation for this is simply that the majority of Jews lived in Babylonia and Jewish Law favours the majority. 
Another explanation is that halacha kebatrai (the law follows the most recent interpretation) and the Bavli was completed (albeit only) 80 years after the Yerushalmi.
But is there more to the story than just ‘chronology and majority’?


The legal code of the Mishna (0-180 CE) coupled with its clarification and elaboration, known as the Gemara, together comprise the Talmud.

Given that the Mishna remains the standard text, and given that there were two different versions of the Gemara, the question is - which Gemara (or Talmud) are we referring to when we use the term ‘Talmud’?

Of the two Talmudim, the first is the Talmud Yerushalmi which very few know or even refer to. It was begun around 180 (following after the Mishnaic Period) and was worked on for approximately 240 years until it was redacted (or more accurately disbanded) in 420.[1]

The second is the more popular Talmud Bavli which most people are familiar with. It also began around the year 180 and was worked on for approximately 320 years (80 years longer than the Yerushalmi) until it was finally redacted around the year 500.


The Bavli was written, as the name implies, in Babylonia. Its centres were Sura (close to Baghdad), Pumpedita and Nehardea.  

The Yerushalmi was written in Israel (or more accurately, Syria Palaestina). Although it is called the Jerusalem Talmud, it was in fact written in Tiberius, Tzipori and Caesarea, as there were no Jews living in Jerusalem at that time.

Some posit that this geographical factor laid out the broad foundations for the divisions which were later to polarise into the two groups of Ashkenazim and Sefardim.


The language of the Yerushalmi is both Hebrew and Palestinian or Western Aramaic (as Israel is to the west of Babylonia).

The language of the Bavli is Babylonian or Eastern Aramaic.

The Bavli, for example, uses the word ‘chazi’(which means ‘to see’) while the Yerushalmi uses ‘chami’. Interestingly, to this day we include both versions in the Kol Chamira before Pesach.

The Bavli is about four times the size of the Yerushalmi containing 5, 894 folios (double) pages.


The Babylonian Jewish community was far more affluent than their Israeli counterparts who had to rely on donations and funding from Babylonia to survive the harsh poverty of Eretz Yisrael

Apparently, because of its wealth, there was no real need for established charity organizations in Babylonia. This was to become one of the primary reasons why the Yerushalmi eventually lost its authority as it did not have the financial means to perpetuate itself. When, in the early 400’s, the funding from Babylonia was finally cut off, its influence quickly diminished.

Furthermore, Babylonia had greater political stability than Israel which was beset with rebellions (such as the Bar Kochba revolt), Roman persecution and repression. Around this time, Emperor Hadrian had literally scorched more than half of the Land of Israel. The result was an emptying out of the Jewish population either by force (many were killed or taken off as slaves) or by emigration to neighbouring Babylonia. This bolstered, even more, the numbers of the Jews already living in Babylonia.

Although there was a successful and reciprocal programme of exchange students and teachers between Babylonia and Israel, R. Yirmiya, a great advocate of the Yerushalmi and the community in Eretz Yisrael, mentioned that he was concerned that more Jews were leaving Israel and fewer were returning.


Although Babylonia and Israel were great centres of Torah learning, sadly there was much hostility between them. This antagonism may have had its roots going back to around 500 BCE when the Persian King Cyrus conquered the earlier Babylonians who had destroyed the First Temple and permitted the Jews to return to their land under Ezra and build the Second Temple.

The problem was that the majority of the Jewish population chose not to return to their new Temple in Israel and instead chose to remain behind in Babylonia. This was something the returnee Jews of Israel were never able to accept or understand. (Since then, until very recently, the majority of Jews have always lived outside of Israel.) 

Centuries later, particularly after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and the Jews of Israel were being persecuted and had to rely on financial aid from Babylonia, this lingering animosity started to boil over.

The affluent Babylonian scholars were known to have adorned themselves rather lavishly. This prompted R. Ami (279- 280) who headed the Tiberius yeshiva in Israel, to retort: “Why do the sons of the Torah adorn themselves with such pleasant and luxurious garments in Babylonia? It must be that they are not true sons of the Torah!”  

He also said: “Anyone who eats of Babylonia’s soil is as if he eats the flesh of his ancestors.”[2] Or, according to another version: “as if he eats bugs and insects.”

This type of rhetoric elicited counter-responses from the Babylonians such as: “Anyone who lives in Babylonia is as if he lives in the Land of Israel.”

According to research done by Charney and Mayzlish[3], the Babylonian scholars: “created a theory that Abraham’s birthplace of Mesopotamia was the true Holy Land of the Jewish people.”

It is also recorded that even though Babylonian students studied in Israel, they did not interact much with their counterparts but chose to pray in their own ‘Babylonian’ synagogues.


According to Charney and Mayzlish the Babylonian Jews built huge synagogues which were meant to be “symbolic replacements for the Temple in the Holy Land.” This gave them a sense of independence from Israel. They even considered themselves to be the true descendants of the royal House of David – and regarded the Jews of Israel as an inferior class.

To this claim, Reish Lakish (200-275) who lived in Tzipori, responded: “If you tell me there is a history in Babylonia (alluding to their claim of royal lineage) I will go there and (look for such people) but even with all our sages and scholars we shall not be able to find them (because they do not exist).”


On one occasion, Reish Lakish couldn’t contain himself anymore when he said of the Babylonian Jews: “G-d, I hate all of you.”[4]

It’s interesting to see that the Bavli considers Reish Lakish to have been a violent robber or perhaps a gladiator before he turned to Torah.  (Some commentaries[5] say he started out as a committed Torah scholar but later turned away to a life of crime). 

– Either way, this alleged flirting with violence is not mentioned in the Yerushalmi which records him as always faithfully remaining within the realms of Torah scholarship.


The Bavli is well known for its many references to demons and angels. This is often ascribed to the fact that non-Jewish Babylonia, in general, had a fascination with demons and angels. Babylonia devised a hierarchy of angels thus developing a complicated form of angelology.

The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, has very little reference to either demons or angels.

Reish Lakish accused the Babylonian Jews of introducing the foreign concept of angelology to Judaism because: “they took the names of the angels from the (non-Jewish) Babylonians.”[6]


The Yerushalmi rabbis associated more with the outside world which included non-Jews and non-religious Jews – while their Babylonian counterparts were more insular. This may, in part, be due to the Hellenistic or Greek influences felt in Israel, which may have created a more open society.

According to Shai Secunda, much rabbinical, as well as other literature, was produced in Israel during the time of the Talmud Yerushalmi – whereas “a much-lamented truism is that the only artefact produced by Babylonian Jews was the Babylonian Talmud.”[7]


Many Babylonian Jews regarded the Jews who did live in Israel as inferior or imperfect Jews with whom one was not allowed to intermarry. R. Elazar (the Babylonian scholar who actually did settle in Israel, said: “Ezra brought with him to Israel all the disqualified Jews, thereby leaving Babylonia pure as fine flour.”

In fact, both sides accused the other of having ‘impure blood’. This terrible clash was thankfully put to an end due to the intervention of Ulla.


The Babylonian scholars were so intent on perpetuating their superiority that R. Yehuda said that anyone who goes to live in Israel would be transgressing a positive commandment of the Torah, as it says: “They will be brought to Babylonia and remain there until I (G-d) redeem them.”  (Yir. 27:22)

On the other hand, the Jews of Israel called Babylonia: “the rock bottom of the world[8] and discouraged people from travelling there.


Semicha or Rabbinical Ordination was only available in Israel, which was why many insisted on travelling and studying there. The Scholars in Eretz Yisrael often viewed the new arrivals from Babylonia with some suspicion because they realized that often the travellers had ulterior motives for coming to Israel.


The Sages of Israel also had difficulty in understanding why their counterparts in Babylonia did not always wish to be buried in the Holy Land. They referred to the foreign gravesites and the ground in which they were buried as part of the ‘impure county’.


Another blow to the Jewish community living in Israel came in 393 when Christianity was declared the official religion of the land. Theodosius prohibited marriage under Jewish law and more persecution followed. He also abolished the practice of Semicha (Rabbinical Ordination). It was no accident that the Yerushalmi’s development ceased just decades later in 420.


By the Bavli’s own admission, the scholars of Israel were always gracious to each other in their discussions on the law, as opposed to those of Babylonia who ‘injure’, or are ‘bitter’ to, each other in their discussions.[9]

On the same page in the Bavli it again admits that: “flattery and arrogance descended to Babylonia.”
And it continues by quoting R. Yirmiya, the great advocate of the Yerushalmi, who referred to the Torah teachings of the Babylonians, as ‘dark’. 

To them, he applied the verse from his namesake the Prophet Jeremiah in Eicha: בְּמַֽחֲשַׁכִּ֥ים הֽוֹשִׁיבַ֖נִי כְּמֵתֵ֥י עוֹלָֽם:He has made me dwell in darkness like those who are forever dead,[10] as referring to the Talmud Bavli.

There are those who interpret this statement of R. Yirmiya as simply meaning that the Bavli is harder to understand than the Yerushalmi. 

However, Rashi explains that the Babylonian scholars were disrespectful towards one another and that their studies were doubtful and not always intelligible.

And clearly, R. Yirmiya was not trying to be polite because he himself referred to the Babylonian scholars as ‘tipshaei Bavel’ (fools of Babylonia) on five different occasions.

In another tractate of the Bavli, R. Yirmiya again says: “Foolish Babylonians. Because you live in a dark land, you state laws that are dark.”[11]

And Rashi comments that when the Babylonian scholars do not understand something they invent an answer out of nothing.

It’s interesting to see that the Maharal of Prague wrote similarly, that oftentimes the Bavli take the view that any answer is plausible, even if it doesn’t make sense. The main thing is to present an answer.[12]


As a general rule, the Yerushalmi is a more pure form of law than the Bavli, in the sense that it limits the discretion of a judge to interpret the law according to his evaluation of the judicial principals. In the Bavli, however, the judge is given far more latitude to take into consideration extra-legal factors and extenuating circumstances.

According to Hanina ben Menachem: “Babylonian Amoraim would use their authority to penalize or to coerce whenever they deemed it appropriate...”[13] 

To put it slightly differently, the Babylonian judges governed more by the prudence of men than their Yerushalmi colleagues who limited the role of the judge to the simple application of the law.


Fascinatingly, the two Talmudim emphasize very different aspects of the Chanukah Story: The Bavli emphasizes the miraculous events such as the oil lasting eight days and is rather reconciliatory and anti-revolutionary. It is more passive and attempts to adjust to the conditions of the exile.

The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, focuses on the war, the rebellion and draws attention to the heroic activities of the militant Hasmoneans.

[Update 2018/09/12: I have not been able to accurately substantiate this last point about Chanukah from within the Yerushalmi itself - although there are numerous references to it in secondary research which considers this a given.]


Until the rise of Islam in the 600’s it is likely that both Talmudim were considered relatively equally authoritative.

In 747, the Abbasid Caliphate turned Baghdad into the centre of the world in terms of power, money and knowledge. The Talmudic academy of Sura was situated very near to this centre of world power in Baghdad, which gave it much prestige and authority. 

This association with the powerful Caliphate, according to some, may have been an important contributing factor as to why the Bavli rose in ascension over the Yerushalmi and became the dominant Talmud.

The Yerushalmi spoke more openly of rebellion, while the Bavli spoke of reconciliation; this led the authorities to favour the Bavli.

It is not hard to imagine that in a world where Christianity and Islam were imposed upon the citizens of its respective regions, that those same powers would also try to impose similar restrictions on the Judaism to be practised in their realms.

If the all-powerful authorities had the choice between a Code which encouraged its Jewish citizens to light candles and sing songs in honour of a miracle where a cup of oil burned for eight days –as opposed to one which spoke of rebellion, revolution, independence and fighting heroes – it is feasible that they would go for the former.

If this is true, then the bitter battle between the Bavli and Yerushalmi may have finally been won by the Babylonian Jews who, after cutting financial aid, may have additionally colluded with the greatest power on earth at that time to have their Code recognised as the dominant one.


The Bavli was aggressively marketed by some influential Geonim, particularly Rav Yehudai Gaon, author of Halachot Pesukot[14], who led the Sura Academy of the 700’s. His argument was that as a result of the persecution in Eretz Yisrael, the Yerushalmi was incomplete and inaccurately preserved. His campaign against the Yerushalmi was continued by his student Pirkoi ben Bavoi.

Through them, Babylonian customs were now imposed universally on all Jews including those of Eretz Yisrael.

Other Gaonim, like Rav Sherira Gaon for example, never even mentioned the existence of the Yerushalmi at all.


Although there was a campaign to discredit the Yerushalmi, things began to turn in its favour from around the 900’s.

From the time of Rav Saadiah Gaon (882-942) who quoted from the Yerushalmi, it began to be viewed in a more positive light.

During this same time, the Yerushalmi continued gaining acceptance in Kairouan (today known as Tunisia) when a book called Metivot presented a Yerushami parallel and alternative to the Bavli halakhic codes.

From Kairouan, the Yerushalmi found its way to Spain where R. Shmuel haNaggid saw it as well as R. Yitzchak ben Giat.

Rashi (1040-1105), however, never saw a text of the Yerushalmi, although he mentions it in some places.

Later on, Rambam (1135-1204) also referred to the Yerushalmi in his Commentary to the Mishna and his Mishneh Torah. He wrote a little-known work entitled Hilchot haYerushalmi, and sometimes even ruled according to the Yerushalmi over the Bavli.

Ramban (1194-1270) also frequently referenced the Yerushalmi.


Around the world and particularly in Israel (in part due to some religious Zionists messianic view of the State of Israel) more and more students of Talmud are turning to the Yerushalmi.

Already from the 1700’s the study of Yerushalmi began to experience a resurgence in Germany, with various commentaries beginning to appear.

The main commentary to the Bavli is by Rashi (1040- 1105) who lived in France 500 years after the Bavli’s redaction.
The commentary to the Yerushalmi, however, is by R.  Moshe ben Shimon Margoliot (1710-1780), known as the Pnei Moshe, who compiled this work in Brod, Poland only 200 years ago.

R. Goren, R. Adin Steinsaltz and others have and are advocating a return to the study of the Yerushalmi.  This is true, particularly of people like R. David Bar Hayim who believe it to be more in keeping with the “Torah of Eretz Yisrael” as opposed to the Bavli (but not to its exclusion) which is sometimes referred to as the “Torah of the Exile”.


Rav Kook (1865-1935) took a novel view of the traditional Talmud Bavli

This is how R. Bar Hayim (who was a key player in exposing some of the censored writings of Rav Kook) explains Rav Kook:

The study of Torah throughout the long Exile was always been seen as the only antidote to assimilation. The busier the Jew was, the less he could be affected by the outside world. The more he could discuss and debate the law, the better.

And ironically the less clarity there was, so much the better because more books were needed to explain the difficulties. The more books - the more learning. The more learning - the more yeshivas. 

(The more yeshivas, the more an economic system develops around the financing for expansion, bursaries, travel and salaries etc..)[15] 

The more complicated the exegesis, the more the body of literature grew and developed.

(The surrounding cultures were beginning to become proficient at the sciences and mathematics with copious volumes containing formulae and calculations which are still extant today. We did not have such corresponding works, although many Amoraim and Geonim were expert in these sciences. Instead, we created our own labyrinth of libraries in exegesis and explication.)[16]

R. Bar Hayim explains how in modern parlance, the Bavli -  which for so many is the staple diet of Torah learning today almost to the exclusion of all other forms of Torah study – becomes a type of ‘virtual reality’ which locks the student and his mind, just like a computer game does, and thus shuts him off from the world.

This sounds like a modern take on R. Yirmiya’s version of the “Dark Babylonian Talmud’.

This is one of the reasons why some in the modern religious Zionist camp are advocating a resurrection of the Yerushalmi, which they believe was treated unjustly by Jewish history and which, in their view, needs to be resurrected as an essential part of the Torah of Eretz Yisrael as opposed to the Torah of the Exile.


Amazingly, all this debate around the Yerushalmi was only possible due to one single surviving manuscript.

The entire Yerushalmi would have been lost forever, were it not for the Leiden Manuscript.
The Leiden Manuscript was produced in 1289 and was the only complete version of the Talmud Yerushalmi which survived history. Based on this manuscript, the Talmud Yerushalmi was finally printed and published in Venice in 1523. This ensured its survival to this day.

According to Charney and Mayzlish: ‘there is no other composition in all the classic scholarly literature that depends entirely on the existence of a single manuscript.’


What strike one very cogently are the parallels one is tempted to draw between the Jewish world almost two thousand years ago and today:

- Funding sourced from a large Exilic nation hosting a major proportion of the Jewish population.

- The wealthy nation dictating political policy to the recipients (cf; the contemporary ’who is a Jew?’ debate relating to the then ‘which Talmud shall we use?’ controversy.)

- The Exilic Jews disrespecting the status of their ‘inferior’ brethren in the Jewish state.

- A corresponding disdain for the citizens of the Exile who choose not to live in the Jewish state.

- The latitude given to the Babylonian judges in determining halacha, as opposed to the Yerushalmi’s simple application of the Law - which may have been the harbinger of the ‘Daas Torah’ notion.

- The ‘anti- Zionist’ seeds been sown by discouraging settlement in the Jewish state until the Redeemer comes.

- A ‘Religious Zionist’ worldview emphasising independence and a sense of rebelliousness against outside authority.

- An insular approach to outside world versus an engaging one.


True, the Bavli became the dominant Talmud because there was a critical mass of Jews living in Babylonia. Halacha normally does follow the majority and it also follows the most recent codification. And the Bavli is newer than the Yerushalmi by 80 years.

Additionally, as mentioned, most Jews did not return with Ezra to the Land of Israel when he built the Second Temple. The vast majority of Jews remained behind in Babylonia.

Furthermore, Babylonia was an autonomous Jewish centre for longer than any other land in Jewish history – Jews lived there in large numbers for 1,624 years (from the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, until the end of the period of the Geonim in 1038).

Nevertheless, as we have seen, it would be disingenuous to say that these were the sole factors at play in determining the absolute dominance of the Bavli at the total expense of the Yerushalmi.

As we have seen, the story is more complicated than mere ‘chronology and majority’, because despite the earlier conflicts, both Talmudim were relatively equally accepted for some time, until a number of mid-Gaonim of Babylonia in the 700’s aggressively imposed the Bavli upon the entire Jewish people, and the Yerushalmi was almost lost to history.

The question is, can one apply the usual presumption of ‘chronology and majority’ to something subjected to financial coercion, political pressure and possible outside influence?

Are we now after 1,600 years – perhaps, witnessing a resurgence or ‘revenge’ of sorts of the persecuted, and unfairly discriminated against Yerushalmi?


In an insightful article, The Yerushalmi as a Source of Halacha, by R. Michael Broydehe explains which of the Halachic decisors were prepared to rely on the Yerushalmi and which were not. Then he writes about Rambam's view:

"A good claim could be made that Rambam did not fall clearly into either of these camps and his exact methodology for resolving Talmudic disputes remains cloaked in mystery. However, it is clear that he was quite familiar with the Yerushalmi and sometimes accepted its rulings even when they stood in opposition to apparent rulings of the Bavli. My own intuition is that Rambam used logical tools to resolve disputes and was not even fully wedded to the notion of the complete superiority of the Bavli over the Yerushalmi in all cases.

....Rambam had an affinity to accept Talmudic views that are supported by logic over views supported by scriptural verses. As an initial proof to this proposition...(see) four examples from Tractate Sanhedrin: 8b, R. Yose omer; 10a, Rava amar malkot bimkom mitah; 30a-b, R. Natan ve-R. Yehoshua ben Korchah; and 16b, R. Shimon hayah doresh ta’ama de-kra."


Jerusalem Talmud, Jewish Virtual Library.

Battle of the Two Talmuds, Judaism’s Struggle with Power, Glory, & Guilt, by Leon H. Charney and Saul Mayzlish.

Judicial Deviation in Talmudic Law; Governed by Men, not by Rules, by Hanina Ben-Menachem.

The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, edited by Peter Schäfer, Catherine Hezser. 

A Guide to the Jerusalem Talmud, by Heshey Zelcer.

[1] According to Heshey Zelcer the dates are 220-375. See Hakira Journal, Book Review- Three commentaries on the Yerushalmi.
[2] Shabbat 113b.
[3] See: Battle of the Two Talmuds, by Leon H. Charney and Saul Mayzlish.
[4] I haven’t been able to identify the exact source for this statement. (Would appreciate if someone could help?)
[5] See Rabbenu Tam on Tosafot, Bava Metzia 84a.
[6] Yerushalmi Rosh haShana 65d.

[7] The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context, by Shai Secunda, p. 15.

[8] Yerushalmi Berachot 4a.

[9] Sanhedrin 24a.
[10] Eicha 3:6.
[11] Pesachim 34 b.
[12] The Lubavitcher Rebbe has a different take:

When a person searches in the light, he finds what he is looking for immediately. When the lights are dim, however, he is forced to search further, examining everything his hand touches, turning it again and again, struggling to understand, categorize and put the pieces together. In the long run, who understands deeper? Not the one who saw the truth at first glance, but the one who struggled to find it. As it turns out, the exile provided something that could not be achieved at home (in Israel). (See

[13] See Judicial Deviation in Talmudic Law; Governed by Men, not by Rules, by Hanina Ben-Menachem, p. 65.
[14] Much of the original work was lost and it was only when old manuscripts held by the Yemenite community for centuries were discovered in 1911.
[15] Parenthesis my extrapolation.
[16] Parenthesis my extrapolation.


  1. This is a brilliant read. It's been many years since I last enjoyed reading something so interesting clear and informative.

    It seems to me that that Babli Talmud suited Jewish life in the relatively decadent life times in Bavel.. where one could in relative comfort engage in endless debate over a point in the mishnah. And where outside influence was shunned over an insular world view in order to preserve Jewish life.

    However as with most things in life the simple way is often the best way. Enter the Yerushalmi Talmud.

    Today Jews have Israel to live in and recently Israel became the one place in the world where the majority of the world's Jews live. In a thriving community. American Jewry is the modern Bavel.. wealthy and increasingly reform in outlook. And now we see a real rift in relations between Israel and American Jewry as Israel becomes wealthier and stronger and able to stand on its own feet. An Israel that therefore can afford to not be insular and can look to engagement with the outside world.

    This must be a sure sign of the end of the exile the Roman exile... which is slowly coming to an end Baruch Hashem.

  2. Just letting your readers know that my shiurim on the entire Yerushalmi are available for download at BH, many people have gone "with me" through the entire Yerushalmi.

  3. The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, focuses on the war, the rebellion and draws attention to heroic figures such as Judah the Maccabee.

    do you have the exact reference to Judah the Maccabee in the yerushalmi.?

  4. To the best of my knowledge, Judah the Maccabee is NOT mentioned by name (certainly not in the Bavli) but the reference should be to to 'heroic figgures such as Judah the Maccabbee (but not necessarily to him personally)' I will ammend the text to make it clearer that it referred probably to his followeres and the more militant Hasmoneans. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for your response.

    Do you have the exact reference to the more militant Hasmoneans in the yerushalmi.?

  6. Thank you for opening a can of worms. No I dont. There seem to be 32 references to Chanukah in the Yerushalmi but after looking at them I cannot find find a reference to any superiour'militancy' - although they do not seem to mentiom the miracle of the oil. Im begining to think that the sources I used may have conflated the Yerushalmi with the Books of the Maccabees. If I dont find some support soon, I will have to ammend my text a second time and just be content to say that: "The Bavli emphasizes the miraculous events such as the oil lasting eight days and is rather reconciliatory and anti-revolutionary." Thank you.

  7. Six years later and I finally get a reply to my question in footnote 4. The reference I was looking for is in TB Yoma 9b. I thank Arthur Etrog very much for this source.