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.”


  1. It is not so simple to keep faith in the "Mesora," in the face of all this editing.
    And I am looking forward to your discussion of the "Redaction" of the Torah itself; a matter of things that are ידועים וברוריפ לבעלי העיון, to use a phrase of the Rambam, in the beginning of the third section of Moreh HaNevuchim.

  2. Thank you R. Moshe.
    See Kotzk Blog 82 for some discussion on Mesora, particularly the view of the Chazon Ish who holds that if Moshe Rabbenu's Torah were to be found (say in an archaeological dig) - and if were to differ from our's - we would have to correct Moshe's Torah to match ours, otherwise we would have to bury it again.

  3. A possible link between Greco-roman logic methodology and Gaonim could be Rav (Abba Arika) who founded the Sura academy and was friendly with the last Parthian king Artabanus.