Sunday 28 October 2018





This is the third article on the influences of general and popular Babylonian culture on the Babylonian Talmud.

We will explore the assertion that the Talmud Bavli (compiled in Babylonia between 180-500 C.E.) contains many references to the supernatural world of angels, demons and astrology - something which is largely absent from its sister work, the Talmud Yerushalmi (compiled in Eretz Yisrael 180-420 C.E.).

While our focus will be specifically on astrology, it must be pointed out that this is not an attempt at either supporting or rejecting its truth or efficacy, but simply to show how it was embraced by the Bavli and ignored by the Yerushalmi.

I have drawn from a scholarly article by Professor Richard Kalmin - who contributed to a journal dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University, who was one of the pioneers in the field of Babylonian influences on the Bavli. [1]


As we saw in the previous article, towards the end of the Talmudic period, from about 400 C.E., Greco-Roman influences began to make inroads into Babylonia, from the Holy Land (then known as Syria Palaestina 135-390 C.E.) This influence was particularly felt in the area of Machoza, which was a centre for the very crucial and lengthy process of editing the Bavli.

The editing lasted for at least one and a half centuries – “until the advent of Islam drastically altered the cultural landscape[2]  - and possibly closer to five centuries according to Rav Sherira Gaon (see here).

We also saw in the previous article, how the anonymous Savoraim (500-650 C.E.) and Stammaim or Editors of the Bavli, may have been very influenced by a particular agonistic Greco-Roman style of debate which framed the way they preserved and presented the Bavli to the future generations.
Could they have done the same thing with astrology?


Professor Kalmin writes:

“To be specific, the BT [Babylonian Talmud] creates room for astrology within Judaism rather than belittling it or erecting a firm barrier around it to keep it out, as is generally the case in post-tannaitic Palestinian compilations [such as the Talmud Yerushalmi].”


The Babylonian Talmud discusses (see Appendix for full text) how the day of one’s birth as well as planetary influences, determine the outcome of one character.[3]

For example, R. Yehoshua ben Levi wrote on his pinkas, or tablet, that if one was born on a Wednesday, he will be ‘wise’ because the ‘luminaries of heaven’ were created on that day:

 טעמא משום דאיתלו ביה מאורות האי מאן דבארבעה בשבא יהי גבר חכים ונהיר מאי        

If one is born on a Monday, he will be short-tempered because the waters were divided (and became so to speak, contentious):

האי מאן דבתרי בשבא יהי גבר רגזן מאי טעמא משום דאיפליגו ביה מיא

The text continues with many other similar examples.


While some may find these examples rather disturbing or perhaps interesting and entertaining, a completely different picture begins to emerge when one analysis the subtle nuances of the text.  
Here is a case in point:

Our text says that if one is born on a Friday, being Erev Shabbat, he will always be busy.
Rav Nachman qualifies that by stating that ‘busy’ means ‘busy fulfilling mitzvot’.

האי מאן דבמעלי שבתא יהי גבר חזרן אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק חזרן במצות

Professor Kalmin begins to unpack a hidden layer of highly charged and agenda driven insertions, hidden within the text. This is easily missed if one is not aware of the ideological conflict regarding astrology which was taking place between the Babylonian and Palestinian Sages.

The sentence begins with a benign statement that if one is born on a Friday, one is destined to be a busy individual (implying that Friday is always a rush to get ready for Shabbat).

Then a qualifying statement is added where Rav Nachman is quick to point out that if we thought ‘busy’ means simply being active and in rush, one would be mistaken because ‘busy’ specifically means ‘busy doing mitzvot.’

Thus Rav Nachman, the Babylonian Sage “attempted to rabbinize” the preoccupation with the stars and to bring popular astrology more in line with Jewish values. Hence through his specific reference to mitzvoth, he is ‘normalizing’ astrology for Jewish consumption.

It is interesting to note that Rav Nachman (d. 356 C.E.) was living in cosmopolitan Machoza (Baghdad), a city which was subject to a confluence of influences and he was known to have integrated many of those ideologies into his pronouncements (see here). On the other hand, his polar opposite, Rav Yehuda was in rural Pumpadita (Fallujah) and was more of an isolationist. It is no coincidence that Rav Nachman is keen to integrate aspects of Babylonian astrology with Judaism – while Rav Yehuda claims that astrology has no influence on a Jew:

ואף רב סבר אין מזל לישראל דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב מניין שאין מזל לישראל שנאמר

Another example is R. Yehoshua ben Levi maintaining that if one is born on Shabbat, he will die on Shabbat because he caused others to desecrate the Shabbat because of him.

But this statement is neutralised by Rabbah bar Shilla who again squares off with normative rabbinic tradition that Shabbat is a sacred day (and one may desecrate the Shabbat if one’s life is at risk and therefore one cannot be considered responsible for causing others to transgress the law):

האי מאן דבשבתא יהי בשבתא ימות על דאחילו עלוהי יומא רבא דשבתא אמר רבא בר רב שילא וקדישא רבא יתקרי


Upon further study, it appears that popular Babylonian astrology was quite fatalistic and deterministic. That did not mesh well with Jewish philosophy because it excluded the notion of freedom of choice.

As a result, the Talmud Bavli develops the idea that astrology or mazal is not absolutely deterministic: Thus, Mazal may determine whether one becomes a leader, for example, but the choice remains with the individual as to whether he becomes a good or a bad leader.

The text states that if one is born on a Sunday, the first day of the week, one will be an ‘extreme’ individual because on the first day of creation, the light was separated from the darkness. It is noted that both Rav Ashi (the sage) and Dimi bar Kakuzta (the head of thieves) were born on a Sunday – emphasizing that freedom of choice still plays a role within Jewish astrology and it is not completely fatalistic:

כתיב אפינקסיה דרבי יהושע בן לוי האי מאן דבחד בשבא יהי גבר ולא חדא ביהמאי [ולא חדא ביה] אילימא ולא חד לטיבו והאמר רב אשי אנא בחד בשבא הואי אלא לאו חדא לבישו והאמר רב אשי אנא ודימי בר קקוזתא הוויין בחד בשבא אנא מלך והוא הוה ריש גנבי אלא אי כולי לטיבו אי כולי לבישו מאי טעמא דאיברו ביה אור וחושך

In fact, the idea of “negative determinism” is limited so that one’s day of birth no longer guaranteed that the individual would have negative character traits – and instead, “positive determinism” is emphasized.

Again, the Bavli draws popular astrology closer towards rabbinic norms.

R. Yehoshua ben Levi, ironically, was a Palestinian Sage, and the use of the term pinkas (the ‘tablet’ mentioned above) is significant as, according to Kalmin, it was known to refer specifically to an astrological chart.[4]

But instead of distancing itself from astrology - as is the case in most of the Yerushalmi - the Bavli builds upon it to suggest that these notions were part and parcel of normative and mainstream Judaism.

Thus, the reasons for the various character traits were not linked directly and solely to the planets, but the Bavli made the effort to show that it was G-d who had “hard wired this connection into the cosmos at creation.”


In fairness, it would be incorrect to portray the Babylonian Sages as unanimously ascribing to an, albeit Judaized, version of astrology.  The efficacy of astrology for Jews is, in fact, subject to a debate in the Bavli itself.

R. Chanina[5] says “Mazal makes wise, mazal makes rich and Israel has [i.e. is subject to] mazal.”
On the other hand R. Yochanan distances Jews from astrological influences:

איתמר רבי חנינא אומר מזל מחכים מזל מעשיר ויש מזל לישראל רבי יוחנן אמר אין מזל לישראל


Evidently, the linking of the day of the week on which one is born to the corresponding day of creation (certainly the first day) is an editorial addition “by the anonymous editors” and is not found in the earlier manuscripts. This is indicated by the parenthesis in the text:

Professor Kalmin explains:

“...the presence of manuscript variants is a sign of late composition, particularly when accompanied by other indications of lateness.”

This would coincide with the time Greco-Roman influences were beginning to percolate down to Babylonia.


Professor Kalmin points out that the Babylonian rabbis mentioned in this section are either late third or early fourth century which again reinforce the notion that these influences from Greco-Roman Palestine began to infiltrate down to Babylonia towards the end of the Talmudic period.

According to this approach, the editors or Stammaim who later followed and build on this influence were therefore readily able to portray a normalized acceptance of the role of astrology within Judaism. And once again, this was largely absent from the Yerushalmi because: a) it countered and opposed the popular notions of cultural astrology taking place in Palestine at that time, and b) it did not undergo an extended subsequent process of editing (if at all).

Kalmin continues:

The ensuing discussion argues that this [astrological[6]] expression and/or idea reached Babylonia from the west [Eretz Yisrael[7]], further supporting my claims that the mid-fourth century was a turning point in the history of Jewish Babylonia...”

Although astrological expression originated in Greco-Roman Palestine, it must be remembered that it was actively suppressed by the Yerushalmi as being on non-Jewish origin.


Our section under study also expresses a view that the mere fact that one is born of the Jewish faith is not sufficient to preclude one from the power of the stars. Rather, to qualify for protection, one needs the added benefit of observance of mitzvot.

כי מטאי לגביה שואי נפשאי כמאן דשקילי מיניה כי היכי דלא ליכסיף אמר ליה מצוה עבדת נפק שמואל ודרש וצדקה תציל ממות ולא ממיתה משונה אלא ממיתה עצמה

 “According to this understanding, the anonymous Babylonian editors took the statement ‘Israel has no mazal’, which sounds like a general rule that admits no exceptions, and made it the introduction to the story, thereby changing the statement’s meaning. The message of the story and the statement combined is not that that the stars have no power over Jews, but only that the stars have no power over a Jew who does righteous deeds.”

Thus we see that “later Babylonian amoraim and anonymous editors inherited traditions that took the efficacy of astrology for granted and acknowledged astrology’s power over Jews as well as non-Jews, and adopted a variety of strategies to blunt their force [such as that the performance of mitzvot alleviates its effectiveness[8]].


Interestingly, it wasn’t only the Jews who were generally trying to distance themselves from preoccupation with astrology at this time, but also some Christians. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403 C.E.) speaks of Aquila (possibly Onkelos 35-120 C.E.) who he says was originally a Christian but was expelled from the Church because he refused to renounce astrology. 

He then converted to Judaism and produced a Greek translation of the Torah which rivalled the Septuagint (and his translation was considered by Christians to be superior to that of the Septuagint).


The impression should not be created that there was no dabbling into astrology in Jewish Palestine. On the contrary, astrological texts have been discovered in Palestinian Aramaic which show that astrology was also alive and well in Eretz Yisrael - but they were intentionally not incorporated within the Talmud Yerushalmi.

This shows that the raw and unedited text of the Yerushalmi was inherently disinclined to perpetuate the notion that astrology was compatible with Jewish values.

There is also reason to believe that post-tannaitic Palestinian compilations [including Talmud Yerushalmi[9]] suppressed rabbinic traditions that were (1) favourable to astrology and (2) that depicted rabbis acting as astrologers, or at least reporting astrological predictions.”

Furthermore, R. Yehoshua ben Levi who initiated this whole discussion, as well as R. Chanina (who held that Jews were subject to mazal), were ironically  Palestinian Sages – yet this story is only recorded in the Talmud Bavli and does not occur in the Talmud Yerushalmi!

This sends a strong message that the Yerushalmi was actively disenchanted with the views of their own countryman on this matter and it was only in Babylonia that such views found open expression.


What is fascinating about this research is that it changes an aggadic or non-legal section of Talmud into a fundamentally compelling piece hashkafic or ideological literature, with tremendous implications.

Often it is exactly sections such as these that are selected by teachers to pique the interest of their students and to make Talmud study more entertaining. A student may know the day on which he was born and compare what he knows about himself with the personality he is ‘destined’ to assume.

This will either evoke a favourable response or leave the student shaking his head in disbelief.

However, an understanding of the underlying ‘Astrology Wars’ between the Bavli and Yerushalmi changes everything. 

Observation of agenda driven comments, including knowledge of the relevance of dates and their corresponding milieus - turns a relatively entertaining piece of Talmud into an ideological game changer.

This hits at the essence of the concept of Judaized astrology, which many take for granted as being an original and unassailable Torah value.


[1] A Late Antique Babylonian Rabbinic Treatise on Astrology, by Richard Kalmin.  [Shoshanat Yaakov.]
[2] According to contemporary research by scholars including Richard Kalmin.
[3] Shabbat 156a.
[4] I did notice, however, that the same word, pinkas, is used in a non-astrological context earlier on in the text with regard to other sages as well. It is possible that because R. Yehoshua ben Levi was from Palestine, the term pinkas took on an added innuendo in this context.
[5] R. Chanina and R. Yehoshua ben Levi - two key participants in this discussion - were ironically Palestinian Sages. Later we shall see that their views are (intentionally?) not recorded in the Yerushalmi and were only given expression in the Bavli.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Parenthesis mine.                                                                                                      
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] Parenthesis mine.




(Sefaria Shabbat 156a and b)

כתיב אפינקסיה דרבי יהושע בן לוי האי מאן דבחד בשבא יהי גבר ולא חדא ביה
After citing relevant halakhot written in the notebooks of various Sages, the Gemara relates that it was written in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s notebook: One who was born on the first day of the week, Sunday, will be a person and there will not be one in him.

מאי [ולא חדא ביה] אילימא ולא חד לטיבו והאמר רב אשי אנא בחד בשבא הואי אלא לאו חדא לבישו והאמר רב אשי אנא ודימי בר קקוזתא הוויין בחד בשבא אנא מלך והוא הוה ריש גנבי אלא אי כולי לטיבו אי כולי לבישו מאי טעמא דאיברו ביה אור וחושך

The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the phrase: There will not be one in him? If you say that there is not one quality for the best, that cannot be, as Rav Ashi said: I was born on the first day of the week, and one cannot say that there was nothing good about him. Rather, it must mean that there is not one quality for the worst. Didn’t Rav Ashi say: I and Dimi bar Kakuzta were both born on the first day of the week. I became a king, the head of a yeshiva, and he became the head of a gang of thieves, clearly a negative quality. Rather, one born on a Sunday is either completely for the best or completely for the worst. What is the reason for this? It is because both light and darkness were created on the first day of Creation.

האי מאן דבתרי בשבא יהי גבר רגזן מאי טעמא משום דאיפליגו ביה מיא האי מאן דבתלתא בשבא יהי גבר עתיר וזנאי יהא מאי טעמא משום דאיברו ביה עשבים האי מאן דבארבעה בשבא יהי גבר חכים ונהיר מאי טעמא משום דאיתלו ביה מאורות

One who was born on the second day of the week, Monday, will be a short-tempered person. What is the reason for this? It is because on that day, the second day of Creation, the upper and lower waters were divided. Therefore, it is a day of contentiousness.
One who was born on the third day of the week will be a rich man and a promiscuous person. What is the reason for this? It is because on that day, the third day, vegetation was created. It grows abundantly but is also mixed together without boundaries between the grass and the plants.
One who was born on the fourth day of the week will be a wise and enlightened person. What is the reason for this? It is because the heavenly lights were hung in the heavens on that day, and wisdom is likened to light.

האי מאן דבחמשה בשבא יהי גבר גומל חסדים מאי טעמא משום דאיברו ביה דגים ועופות האי מאן דבמעלי שבתא יהי גבר חזרן אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק חזרן במצות האי מאן דבשבתא יהי בשבתא ימות על דאחילו עלוהי יומא רבא דשבתא אמר רבא בר רב שילא וקדישא רבא יתקרי

One who was born on the fifth day of the week will be a person who performs acts of kindness. What is the reason for this? It is because on that day the fish and fowl were created, and they do not receive their sustenance by performing work for people. They are sustained by the kindness of God alone.
One who was born on the sixth day of the week will be a seeker. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said that this means that he will be one who seeks out mitzvot, as most of the activity on Friday involves preparation for Shabbat.
One who was born on Shabbat will die on Shabbat, because they desecrated the great day of Shabbat on his behalf. Rava bar Rav Sheila said: And he will be called a person of great sanctity because he was born on the sacred day of Shabbat.

אמר להו רבי חנינא פוקו אמרו ליה לבר ליואי לא מזל יום גורם אלא מזל שעה גורם האי מאן דבחמה יהי גבר זיותן יהי אכיל מדיליה ושתי מדיליה ורזוהי גליין אם גניב לא מצלח האי מאן דבכוכב נוגה יהי גבר עתיר וזנאי יהי מאי טעמא משום דאיתיליד ביה נורא האי מאן דבכוכב יהי גבר נהיר וחכים משום דספרא דחמה הוא האי מאן דבלבנה יהי גבר סביל מרעין בנאי וסתיר סתיר ובנאי אכיל דלא דיליה ושתי דלא דיליה ורזוהי כסיין אם גנב מצלח האי מאן דבשבתאי יהי גבר מחשבתיה בטלין ואית דאמרי כל דמחשבין עליה בטלין האי מאן דבצדק יהי גבר צדקן אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק וצדקן במצות האי מאן דבמאדים יהי גבר אשיד דמא אמר רב אשי אי אומנא אי גנבא אי טבחא אי מוהלא אמר רבה אנא במאדים הואי אמר אביי מר נמי עניש וקטיל

Rabbi Ḥanina said to his students who heard all this: Go and tell the son of Leiva’i, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: It is not the constellation of the day of the week that determines a person’s nature; rather, it is the constellation of the hour that determines his nature.
One who was born under the influence of the sun will be a radiant person; he will eat from his own resources and drink from his own resources, and his secrets will be exposed. If he steals he will not succeed, because he will be like the sun that shines and is revealed to all.
One who was born under the influence of Venus will be a rich and promiscuous person. What is the reason for this? Because fire was born during the hour of Venus, he will be subject the fire of the evil inclination, which burns perpetually.
One who was born under the influence of Mercury will be an enlightened and expert man, because Mercury is the sun’s scribe, as it is closest to the sun.
One who was born under the influence of the moon will be a man who suffers pains, who builds and destroys, and destroys and builds. He will be a man who eats not from his own resources and drinks not from his own resources, and whose secrets are hidden. If he steals he will succeed, as he is like the moon that constantly changes form, whose light is not its own, and who is at times exposed and at times hidden.
One who was born under the influence of Saturn will be a man whose thoughts are for naught. And some say that everything that others think about him and plan to do to him is for naught.
One who was born under the influence of Jupiter [tzedek] will be a just person [tzadkan]. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: And just in this context means just in the performance of mitzvot.
One who was born under the influence of Mars will be one who spills blood. Rav Ashi said: He will be either a blood letter, or a thief, or a slaughterer of animals, or a circumciser. Rabba said: I was born under the influence of Mars and I do not perform any of those activities. Abaye said: My Master also punishes and kills as a judge.

איתמר רבי חנינא אומר מזל מחכים מזל מעשיר ויש מזל לישראל רבי יוחנן אמר אין מזל לישראל ואזדא רבי יוחנן לטעמיה דאמר רבי יוחנן מניין שאין מזל לישראל שנאמר כה אמר ה׳ אל דרך הגוים אל תלמדו ומאותות השמים אל תחתו כי יחתו הגוים מהמה הם יחתו ולא ישראל

It was stated that Rabbi Ḥanina says: A constellation makes one wise and a constellation makes one wealthy, and there is a constellation for the Jewish people that influences them. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: There is no constellation for the Jewish people that influences them. The Jewish people are not subject to the influence of astrology. And Rabbi Yoḥanan follows his own reasoning, as Rabbi Yoḥanan said: From where is it derived that there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated: “Thus said the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them” (Jeremiah 10:2). The nations will be dismayed by them, but not the Jewish people.

ואף רב סבר אין מזל לישראל דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב מניין שאין מזל לישראל שנאמר ויוצא אותו החוצה אמר אברהם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם בן ביתי יורש אותי אמר לו לאו כי אם אשר יצא ממעיך

And Rav also holds that there is no constellation for the Jewish people, as Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: From where is it derived that there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated with regard to Abraham: “And He brought him outside, and said: Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them; and He said unto him: So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). The Sages derived from this that Abraham said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, “Behold, You have given me no offspring, and one born in my house is to be my heir”(Genesis 15:3). The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: No. “And, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying: This man shall not be your heir; rather, one that will come forth from your own innards shall be your heir”(Genesis 15:4).

אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם נסתכלתי באיצטגנינות שלי ואיני ראוי להוליד בן אמר ליה צא מאיצטגנינות שלך שאין מזל לישראל מאי דעתיך

Abraham said before Him: Master of the Universe, I looked at my astrological map, and according to the configuration of my constellations I am not fit to have a son. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Emerge from your astrology, as the verse states: “And He brought him outside,” as there is no constellation for Israel. What is your thinking?


דקאי צדק במערב מהדרנא ומוקמינא ליה במזרח והיינו דכתיב מי העיר ממזרח צדק יקראהו לרגלו

Is it because Jupiter is situated in the west that you cannot have children? I will restore it and establish it in the east. And that is the meaning of that which is written with regard to Abraham: “Who has raised up one from the east, he will call justice [tzedek] to his steps [leraglo]. He gives nations before him, and makes him rule over kings; his sword makes them as the dust, his bow as the driven stubble” (Isaiah 41:2). God established Jupiter [tzedek] in the east on behalf of [leraglo] Abraham.

ומדשמואל נמי אין מזל לישראל דשמואל ואבלט הוו יתבי והוו קאזלי הנך אינשי לאגמא אמר ליה אבלט לשמואל האי גברא אזיל ולא אתי טריק ליה חיויא ומיית אמר ליה שמואל אי בר ישראל הוא אזיל ואתי אדיתבי אזיל ואתי

And from that which transpired to Shmuel, one can also conclude that there is no constellation for the Jewish people. The Gemara relates that Shmuel and the gentile sage Ablet were sitting, and they saw these people were going to the lake. Ablet said to Shmuel: This person will go and he will not return, because a snake will bite him and he will die. Shmuel said to him: If he is a Jew, he will go and come back. As they were sitting for a while, the person they discussed went away and then returned.

קם אבלט שדיה לטוניה אשכח ביה חיויא דפסיק ושדי בתרתי גובי אמר ליה שמואל מאי עבדת אמר ליה כל יומא הוה מרמינן ריפתא בהדי הדדי ואכלינן האידנא הוה איכא חד מינן דלא הוה ליה ריפתא הוה קא מיכסף אמינא להו אנא קאימנא וארמינא כי מטאי לגביה שואי נפשאי כמאן דשקילי מיניה כי היכי דלא ליכסיף אמר ליה מצוה עבדת נפק שמואל ודרש וצדקה תציל ממות ולא ממיתה משונה אלא ממיתה עצמה

Ablet stood up, threw down the person’s burden, and inside he found a snake cut and cast in two pieces. Shmuel said to him: What did you do to merit being saved from death? The person said to him: Every day we all take bread together and eat from the bread. Today, there was one of us who did not have bread, and when it came time to gather the bread, he was embarrassed because he did not have any to give. I said to the others: I will go and take the bread. When I came to the person who did not have bread, I rendered myself as one who was taking from him so that he would not be embarrassed. Shmuel said to him: You performed a mitzva. Shmuel went out and taught based on this incident that even though it is written: “And charity will save from death” (Proverbs 10:2), it does not only mean that it will save a person from an unusual death but even from death itself.

Sunday 21 October 2018




Professor Rabbi Yaakov Elman, as we saw in the previous article, had some fascinating observations concerning the influences of popular Babylonian culture on the Babylonian Talmud.

Accordingly, many of these cultural influences were reflected more in the Talmud Bavli than in the Talmud Yerushalmi which was written in Eretz Yisrael.

Continuing along the same theme, in this article, we shall explore the ‘agonistic’ nature of the Babylonian Talmud (180-500 C.E.) - something which is noticeably absent from the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud (180-420 C.E.).

I have drawn largely from a scholarly article[1] by Rabbi Dr Richard Hidary, who had studied under R. Elman and is currently a professor at Yeshiva University.

R. Hidary speaks of an ‘agonistic’ Babylonian Talmud.

This he took from his teacher, R. Elman, who had written:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the bavli is its nature as a continual and unending dialogue, from beginning to end – its agonistic nature.”[2]

The term ‘agonistic’ should not be confused with ‘antagonistic’.

The definition of ANTAGONISTIC is showing or feeling active opposition or hostility towards someone or something.”

On the other hand, AGONISTIC is “being aggressive to an individual, usually of the same group or species.”

This being the case, how and why is the Talmud Bavli ‘aggressive to itself’?


Although the Babylonian Talmud is said to have assumed a written form around the year 500 C.E., essentially it was an oral tradition which had been passed down through the generations.

An oral tradition is positive insofar as it keeps teachings and traditions alive, but it carries risks that not too many are aware of:

R. Hidary cites Walter Ong who explains that it is the nature of all oral cultures to be “extraordinarily agonistic in their verbal performances...

When all verbal communication must be by direct word of mouth, involved in the give-and-take dynamics of sound, interpersonal relations are kept high – both attractions and, even more, antagonisms.”[3]

Walter Ong continues to explain that once a culture has moved to a state of literacy, with writings and a literature, it begins to take on the style of its own writing – even in its oral communications. 

This means that “they organize, to varying degrees, even their oral expression in thought patterns and verbal patterns that they would not know of unless they could write.”[4]

The Jewish people, however, would have fallen into some type of intermediate category because we already had a written tradition with the Tanach. It was only the discussion of our legal codes that remained in oral form.


Why were the Jews of the Land of Israel not affected by the consequences of an equal oral tradition which they shared with their Babylonian colleagues?

The answer must lie in cultural differences between the Jews of Babylonia and those more mannerly and less hostile Jews of Eretz Yisrael.

Anyone who has ever studied the Babylonian Talmud would be very aware of the extremely argumentative nature if the text. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it brings out a great deal of clarity in the matter at hand – but the exchanges are not always complimentary and the text can be quite harsh and even hostile from time to time.

Some would argue that this is just the style and nature of Talmudic debate and nothing more should be read into it. However, this agonism is largely absent from the Talmud Yerushalmi which was formulated at a corresponding time across the border in Eretz Yisrael.

In fact, the Talmud Bavli itself records that, as opposed to the Sages of the land of Israel who are gracious to each other in their exchanges, the Babylonian Sages “damage each other in legal debate.”[5]

The Bavli then goes on to describe its own hostile style of debate in even harsher terms:

Three hate each other, and they are: Dogs, fowl and [Zoroastrian or Babylonian] priests. And some add prostitutes. And some add the [Jewish] Sages of Babylonia.”[6]


R. Hidary argues that the Jews of Babylonia must have been more influenced by a sharper form of debate which was inherent to Persian Hellenistic culture and specifically the agonistic nature of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

We find that Aristotle had trained his students to skilfully argue the pros and cons of both sides of a debate.

Similarly, we find in the Babylonian Talmud that a person is only qualified to sit on the highest court, namely the Sanhedrin, if he can argue that a reptile is a pure creature – based on wording from the Torah itself![7]

R. Hidary posits that the Greco-Roman influence may have infiltrated into Babylonia through, among other conduits, the relocation of the Eastern Church to places like Machoza (near modern-day Baghdad) which was an important centre for the redacting or editing of the Talmud Bavli.[8]

There happen to be many similarities between the Eastern Christian schools and the Babylonian yeshivot. Surprisingly, they shared similar terminologies such as rav, siyuma and metivta as well as many other cultural and scholastic constructs, including style of debate and “dialectic and reconciliation of disparate sources.”

Although these influences took place towards the latter part of, and even after, the Talmudic period, they nevertheless had a significant sphere of influence because that was when the Babylonian Talmud was undergoing its crucial editing period.

And editors are more powerful than writers.

R. Hidary goes on, in great detail in his paper, to show examples of how sections of the Babylonian Talmud follow the same structures as Greco-Roman rhetoric which include “arrangement, arguing both sides of an issue, and the creation of suspense.”

He concludes:

...the strikingly agonistic nature of the BT [Babylonian Talmud] derives not only from its oral setting, but also from the agonistic roots of Greco-Roman rhetoric as transmitted through the scholastic and rhetorical culture of the Syriac Christians...

The practice of arguing both sides of a dispute and creation of suspense are also well established rhetorical techniques. The rabbis had a good sense for the art of public speaking... remains clear that the BT’s agonism and rhetorical style owes much of its character and form to Greco- Roman rhetorical oratory.”


According to Jeffrey Rubenstein, the Savoraim (500-650 C.E.) also known as the Stammaim [9], who edited the Talmud during the one and a half centuries after the Talmudic period, depicted a “competitive environment characterized more by struggle than by mutual collaboration.”[10]

Thus the apparent agonism in the argumentative style of the Babylonian Talmud is largely a result of the editing process which began towards the end of the Talmudic period (500 C.E.).

During that editing period, which in fact continued for quite some considerable time, the anonymous Stammaim served as redactors of the Talmud. 

According to Rav Sherira Gaon, the final form of the written Talmud may only have taken place very much later, towards the end of the Gaonic Period around 1000 C.E.! [see Everyone Knows When The Talmud was Written Down]

R. Elman writes that the editorial work of the Stammaimconstitutes just over half of the total text of the Babylonian Talmud and which frames the discussion of the rest.
This framework, post dating the statements of identified figures [in the Talmud[11]], introduces questions, often provides solutions, and, in general, controls the interpretation of the earlier sources.”[12]
The term ‘redaction’ is commonly used in many accounts which deal with the editing of the Talmud – but it actually means far more than a cursory checking of the text.

Definition of REDACTION: “Redaction is a form of editing in which multiple source texts are combined (redacted) and altered slightly to make a single document.”

According to the research of R. Elman, it seems as if the Stammaim have even overstepped the dictionary definition of redaction, as their stylistic alterations were more than slight.

This notion may be borne out by comparing the actual terms Amoraim (Talmudic Sages) and Stammaim (Editors): Amoraim means 'those who say' (i.e. primary Talmudic sources), whereas Stammaim means 'closed, vague or unattributed sources' (i.e. anonymous, unnamed secondary sources). 

These redactors, as we have seen, may have been influenced the agonistic Roman-Greco style, layout, presentation and framing of legal arguments – which had begun to permeate Babylonian Jewish centres of learning (particularly Machoza where much of the redaction took place).

This is why the methodology of the Babylonian Talmud is more agonistic, competitive and apparently hostile than the Jerusalem Talmud. 

The Yerushalmi was not edited anywhere near the extent that the Bavli was. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to say that it was disbanded, as a result of Roman persecution, rather than redacted.

The Yerushalmi, therefore, lacked the lengthy editorial incubation period which retroactively defined the Bavli.

Hence the Sages of the Yerushalmi present as being more polite and less vitriolic and agonistic than their Babylonian counterparts.


Following on this article, I posed the following question to Rabbi Dr Hidary:

"If the Bavli is known to be more agonistic than its counterpart the Yerushalmi – and one of the reasons for this is Greco-Roman influences as you show – then why do we not find the same agonism in the Yerushalmi which would have been even more exposed to those selfsame influences?"

This was his response: 

"In response to your insightful question, there has been a scholarly assumption of little Hellenism in Babylonia. This makes sense considering that Palestine was under Roman rule and Babylonia was under the Persians. 

However, more recent work discussed by Boyarin shows that this assumption is not correct. 

Historians of rhetoric find use of rhetorical handbooks and training among the Syria Christians in Babylonia. Babylonia was after all under Hellenistic rule for centuries before the Persians reconquered it. 

Also, Christians and Jews are transferring information from Roman areas across the border on a regular basis.

The main reason the Bavli has MORE agonistic dialogue and debate than the Yerushalmi is because it has at least 200 more years of development in Stammaitic study circles who particularly focused on dialectics as the essential ingredient of their intellectual culture. 

So I think that it derived in both Talmuds from Greco-Roman rhetoric but is then developed internally as well – and the latter happens more and for a longer period in the Bavli."

[1] Richard Hidary, “The Agonistic Bavli – Greco-Roman Rhetoric in Sasanian Persia”.                                          
[2] Yaakov Elman, “Orality and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud”, Oral Tradition 14:1 (1999): 84.
[3] Walter Ong, “Orality and Literacy - The Technologizing of the World,” 44-45.
[4] Ibid. Orality and Literacy, 56.
[5] Sanhedrin 24a.
[6] Pesachim 113b.
[7] Sanhedrin 17a.
[8] Pinchas Hayman, “From Tiberias to Mahoza: Redactional and Editorial Processes in Amoraic Babylonia.”
[9] A term coined by David Weiss Halivni.
[10] Jeffrey Rubenstein, “The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud.” 64.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Yaakov Elman, “The Babylonian Talmud in its Historical Context.”