Sunday 4 November 2018


A section of the Talmud Yerushalmi as found in the Cairo Geniza.



The last three articles have dealt with the extended process of editing the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) which was drawn out for over 150 years (encompassing the period of the Savoraim 500-650 C.E), and possibly some centuries longer (taking us well into the period of the Gaonim 650-1038, see here).
By and large, the Editors or Stammaim were anonymous and yet they sometimes appeared to be more powerful than the actual contributors or Amoraim themselves (see here).
However, two well identified Gaonim stand out as being central and crucial to positioning the Talmud Bavli (compiled in Babylonia 180-500) as the ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ Talmud, as opposed to the Talmud Yerushalmi (compiled in Syria Palaestina 180-420, see here).
R. Yehudai Gaon and his student[1], R. Pirkoi ben Bavoi, were the assertive champions - if not aggressive marketers - of the Bavli and without them, it is possible that both the Bavli and Yerushalmi may have remained on a relatively equal footing.
As a result of the Babylonian Talmud becoming the preeminent Talmud, it follows that most of our Halachot are derived from the Bavli specifically. Yehudai Gaon and Pirkoi ben Bavoi were therefore extremely powerful figures as they were the catalysts for the ascension of the Bavli.
R. Yehudai Gaon, who lived in the mid-700s, started out in Pumbedita (Fallujah) but during his advanced years he was sent to Sura as “there is no one there as distinguished as he is for wisdom”.[2] This was an exceptional move because Sura had a tradition not to appoint anyone to a leadership position if they were not born in that city.
During his tenure in Sura, his brother Dudai, served as head of the sister academy in Pumpedita, establishing the family as powerful and influential Babylonian rabbinic leaders.
R. Yehudai Gaon was one of the first Gaonim to begin to write Responsa literature (Responses or answers to Halachic questions which emanated from all around the Jewish world).
131 of his responses are still extant. They are characterised by extreme brevity which is taken to indicate his unquestionable decisiveness and authority on matters of Halacha.
As an interesting aside, it was Yehudai Gaon who instituted the blessing which a father recites when his son turns thirteen, which resolves the father from responsibility for his son’s actions. He first said it at his own son’s Bar Mitzvah.[3]
Yehudai Gaon authored one of the first textbooks on Halacha, entitled Halachot Pesukot. The original work was lost and all that remained was a summary of its salient features called Hilchot Re’u.[4] It is the earliest surviving example of Halachic material translated from Aramaic to Hebrew.

Then, in 1911 a version of the original Halachot Pesukot was discovered in a Yemenite manuscript, when it went on sale, and was finally published in 1951.

The original Aramaic version of Halachot Pesukot often contains the actual wording of the Babylonian Talmud itself. The work also preserves many of the traditions from the period of the Savoraim (the editors of the Talmud Bavli).

Halachot Pesukot (also called Halachot Rav Yehudai) is also an early example of Halacha presented in an indexed form as opposed to being scattered almost haphazardly throughout the Talmud.

Some suggest this early attempt at codification of Halacha was the result of new influences from the Islamic world which was also undergoing a period of codification.[5]

Tellingly, Halachot Pesukot does not include laws which pertained to the Land of Israel (tithes, shemitta etc.) nor the laws of Korbanot, as they were obviously no longer followed in Babylonia.

It has been said that Yehudai Gaon omitted these laws because he was only concerned about preserving and perpetuating practical Halacha. However, one can also read into to it his view that the Halachic practices of his contemporaneous colleagues in Palestine, were deemed to be inferior (a sentiment as he himself had already clearly intimated) and he wanted to distance himself entirely from the Halachic practices of Eretz Yisrael.

By presenting a popular, authoritative and concise summation of Halachic rulings according to Babylonian custom, the impression was created (overtly or covertly depending on one’s position) that there was only one correct interpretation of Halacha, namely, that of Babylonia.

Dr Ezra Chwat of The Jewish Virtual Library, however, has a more mystical explanation for the need to create such a concise digest of Halacha:

Essentially, the Talmud discourse is structured not in topical order, but in an associative order, which rambles from one item to the next. The Geonim considered the ancient sages of Israel who composed this esoteric structure to be of so high a spiritual and mystical level that their work could no longer be understood by most scholars of later years.
So, while at the central yeshivot the Talmud retained its original structure, to the rest of the Diaspora it was transmitted in condensed or encyclopaedic form. The original 50 volumes were reduced to a codex that dealt only with the laws pertinent to day-to-day life. Thus the commandments and laws that related to the Temple, for example, were not included.
... This revolutionary step could only have been taken by a Gaon with the stature of absolute rabbinic authority. Such was the position of R. Yehudai ben Nahman (Yehudai Gaon)...”[6]

Either way, this early book on Halacha spread very quickly and widely throughout the Diaspora, and soon the authority of Yehudai Gaon became the yardstick by which practical Halacha got evaluated. Many copies of the book were circulated and soon even abridged versions of the book began to appear making the work even more popular and accessible.[7]

Thus Yehudai Gaon thus began to enjoy a universal authority which was most unusual for that time.[8]


Another primary legal work attributed to Yehudai Gaon was the Halachot Gedolot, although there is some controversy as to its authorship.[9]
The amazing thing about Yehudai Gaon was that he achieved all this, according to some Rishonim, while being blind. Some, however, believe this may have been a polite way of explaining why some of his Halachot differed from the accepted practice at the time (and even from those of Sura, over which he resided).
Yehudai Gaon was one of the first Gaonim to make contact with the Jews of North Africa. It is alleged that he did this not just to foster cordial relations with them but, apparently, with the expressed ideological policy that all Jews, including non-Babylonian Jews, were to be subject to the authority of the Talmud Bavli. And this even included the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, who had their own Talmud Yerushalmi.
There is no doubt that Yehudai Gaon was a most exceptional scholar. As mentioned, he authored one of the first books on Halacha, which significantly only dealt with Jewish law as practised in the Diaspora since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.).
This, of course, raised the ire of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael who would have been happier with a more Israel-centric system of laws than one developed primarily in the exile.
Besides this, the Jews of Israel who had always relied on the Yerushalmi, opposed the fact that they were forced to play second fiddle to the Bavli because they knew that their traditions were more ancient and went back much further than the Second Temple.
But Yehudai Gaon countered that at that time the Jews of Israel had been weakened by first Roman and then Byzantine persecution. He called the practices of the Jews of the Holy Land “customs of persecution” and demanded that they set aside their practices and follow the Babylonian rites. He also accused the Jews of Palestine of writing ‘Sifrei Torah on untanned hides.’
Not everyone agrees with the notion that Yehudai Gaon was altogether successful in minimizing the Torah of Eretz Yisrael at that time.
Yehudai Gaon’ s student, Pirkoi ben Bavoi recorded that his teacher “wrote to Erez Israel regarding...all the mitzvoth which are not observed properly according to the halakhah but according to practice in times of persecution and they did not accept his intervention and they replied to him: ‘a custom suspends a halakhah.’[10]
Yehoshua Horowitz writes:
Some scholars assert that these opinions of Yehudai were very much a matter of conjecture and exaggeration. According to Pirkoi ben Baboi...the scholars of Erez Israel opposed him and continued to rely upon their ancient customs and traditions.” 
According to this view, the Jews of the Holy Land were not so readily prepared to succumb to the religious and political pressures from across the border.
Whether the Jews of Israel raised their strenuous objections or not, the fact remains that the Talmud of Babylonia eventually did indeed later become the perceived de facto and sole Halachic authority.
Horowitz continues:
Thanks to his [Yehudai Gaon’s[11]] activity, however, the influence of the Babylonian academies spread and the Babylonian Talmud became the sole authority for halachic ruling.”
Here is another reason as to why the Babylonian rabbis felt they were more authoritative than their counterparts in the Holy land:
Taking up Yehudai’s mantle, Pirkoi begged the Jews of ninth-century Kairouan [Tunisia[12]] to recognize that applied Jewish law could not simply be derived from the consultation of written texts.
 In keeping with the Talmud’s own instruction, he wrote, a legal teaching was prescriptively authoritative only if a living master asserted that it was one to be implemented in practice. Babylonian Jews, who were instructed by the Geonim, used this method of vetting, claimed Pirkoi, but the Jews of Kairouan did not. 
The latter, he lamented, had been influenced by the practice of Palestinian Jews, a population that wrongly derived applied law from nothing but inscribed rabbinic texts[13]
It seems as if the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were more academically inclined to determine Halacha based on their reading and understanding of their texts. The Babylonian Jews believed that the truth of a line of transmission was more powerful than the truth of a text. (See here for a modern example of such a phenomenon.) In other words, the student had to have heard a ruling from his teacher who, in turn, heard it from his teacher.
This did not occur in Eretz Yisrael, where the rabbis relied more on the truth of text rather than the truth of its transmission.
Another motivation behind empowering the Bavli over the Yerushalmi may have had some political innuendo as well:
The aim of the Babylonian geonim was to impose the Babylonian Talmud and the doctrines of their academies also in Ereẓ Israel and in this way to lessen the attachment of the Diaspora to Ereẓ Israel...

The geonim also attempted to influence the policy of the government toward the Jews via Baghdad Jewry, who had representatives in the court of the caliphs.”[14]

Moshe Gill cites the view that the supremacy of the Bavli over the Yerushalmi was “mainly an expression of Babylonia’s struggle against Palestine after the Abbasid triumph[15], which strengthened the idea of Babylonia’s centrality in the Jewish world.”[16]

Perhaps another reason for the rise in influence of the Babylonian Talmud at that time was the fact that Karaism (see here) was beginning to spread amongst the Jewish population. The Karaites were Jews who did not believe in the Oral Tradition and opted for a more literal interpretation of the Torah instead. The sphere of influence the Karaites commanded was later to become extremely significant with estimates that half of the Jewish population were to fall under its persuasion.
Moshe Gill concurs with this view, and explains that the Karaitesused the Palestinian customs as a means of attacking the Babylonian yeshivot”.[17]
So, apparently, the Karaites were trying to side somewhat with the Jews of Eretz Yisrael against the Jews of Babylonia. This may explain why the Babylonian rabbis were trying to impose their authority over both.
Yehudai Gaon was aware of this new movement and may have felt the need to place an emphasis on the importance of the Oral Tradition, and for him, it would only have been the Oral Tradition of the Talmud Bavli.[18]
(For more on the battle between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi see here.)    

One difficulty with this thesis that requires further investigation, is that Rambam does seem to imply that the Bavli did indeed experience an organic growth and was widely accepted by the majority of the Jewish people - and to the best of my knowledge, does not allude to any manipulation of due process.
However, if this assessment is historically correct, or even moderately accurate, it shows that there was no natural or organic rise in popularity of the Talmud Bavli, unprompted by outside ideological and political influences, as is often depicted.

Instead, its rise to pre-eminence may have been - at least partially - the result of a carefully marketed, orchestrated and aggressive campaign to denigrate the ‘Talmud of Persecution’ in preference for the ‘Talmud of Exile’.

If this is correct, then we can place a date to the ascension of the Bavli at around the mid-700s, which is about two and a half centuries after the official close of the Talmudic Period.

[1] Some accounts say a student of a student.
[2] From a letter of Rav Sherira Gaon, edited by B.M. Lewin 1921.

[3] Bar Mitzvah, a History, by Michael Hilton, p. 7.

[4] The title, Re’u is taken from Shemot 16:29; ‘Re’u ki HaShem natan lachem haShabbat...’ Ironically, this was written in the Holy Land and is in the style of the Talmud Yerushalmi. And even more ironically, the original Aramaic Halachot Pesukot contains a few scattered quotations from the Talmud Yerushalmi.

[5] Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages, by Moshe Gil, p. 304.

[6] Jewish Virtual Library; The Academies of Babylon.
[7] Some of these abridged versions were entitled Halachot Ketzuvot (meaning established and fixed laws), Halachot Ketuot, Halachot Kettanot (cut or abridged laws).
[8] Encyclopaedia Judaica, Halachot Pesukot.

Here is an interesting section from Rambam's Introduction to his Mishneh Torah, where he references such Gaonic writings:

[9] According to R. Moshe miKotzi, a thirteenth-century French Tosafist, who wrote the Semag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol), it was Yedhudai Gaon who authored Halachot Gedolot, a key source for the Semag.
However, according to R. David Ganz (1541-1613), a student of the Maharal and a Jewish chronicler, the Semag may have been referring to another Gaon, who went by a similar name, Yehudai ben Ahunai.
Either way, Halachot Pesukot was a pivotal influence for the more elaborate (in terms of including source material and dealing with more theoretical matters like Korbanot etc.) work of Halachot Gedolot.
Halachot Gedolot was the first Jewish book to contain a preface. However, the preface does not say much about the nature of the work but instead praises Torah and its students, and divides the 613 commandments into 365 negative and 248 positive components.
[10] Ginzberg, Ginzei Schechter, 2 (1929), 559.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Parenthesis mine.               
[13] See
[14] Jewish Virtual Library.
[15] Emphasis mine.                                  
[16] He goes on to suggest that he disagrees with that view and that the main factor was rather the struggle against the ‘Anan dynasty’ of Karaites headed by Anan ben David.

[17] Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages, by Moshe Gil, p. 304-308.

[18] Some reject this hypothesis as Yehudai Gaon would only have become aware of Anan ben David, the founder of Karaism, when he was in his more advanced years. Of course, the idea that history is a process and not an event, so it is feasible that Yehudai Gaon was well aware of Karaite-like stirrings from within the community.


  1. In the year 4681, a dispute erupted between Aharon Ben Meir, Nasi of the Sanhedrin in Eretz Yisrael, who insisted that Molad Nissan of year 1 should be on Wednesday at 9 hours exactly, and Rav Saadya Gaon, of Bavel, who insisted that Molad Tishrei after that, was on Friday, at 14 hours exactly. Of course, Saadia Gaon won the dispute...

  2. I do not know where Michael Hilton got his research from, but it's an explicit Medrash Beraishis Rabba 63:10.
    אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר צָרִיךְ אָדָם לְהִטָּפֵל בִּבְנוֹ עַד י"ג שָׁנָה, מִיכָּן וָאֵילָךְ צָרִיךְ שֶׁיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ שֶׁפְּטָרַנִּי מֵעָנְשׁוֹ שֶׁל זֶה.

  3. Perhaps it wasn't codified leHalacha until Yehudai Gaon. Bereishit Rabbah was only written between 300-500 CE which could allow for that.

  4. There are plenty of halachos that come from midrashim. Top of my head is Challah and Ner Shabbas specifically for women.

  5. Could be it's not the source but an inspiration for halacha.

  6. It is possible but the principle still stands that we do not base halacha on Midrash or for that matter Kabbalah. (Although the rule is not always followed by all.)

  7. So it's better to flops halacha from rabanan savrai than tana quoted in agadata??

  8. Halacha kebatrai - Halacha follows the most recent posekim.