Sunday 31 March 2019


Rav Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy.


Although it is generally assumed that huge and flourishing Talmudic academies, too numerous to mention, had always flourished throughout Jewish history - the nature and popularity of the early Talmudic academies, however, is a subject of great intrigue and much debate.

In this article, we will take a brief look at one such debate between David Goodblatt and Yeshayahu Gafni, as to when and where the Talmudic academies began to rise.

I have drawn extensively from the academic writings of Jeffrey Rubenstein who has researched and written much about this matter.[1]


To provide a brief backdrop to the discussion, we need to define three essential rabbinic periods within the Talmudic era:

The Mishnaic Period - from the beginning of the common era up to around 200 CE. (During which time the Mishna was compiled by Tannaim.)

The Amoraic Period - from 200 up to around 500 CE. (During which time the Gemara was compiled by Amoraim. Both Mishna and Gemara comprise the Talmud.)

The Savoraic Period – from 500 up to around 650 CE. (During which time the Talmud was edited by mainly anonymous Savoraim also known as Stammaim.)


Goodblatt and Gafni were simultaneously researching the same topic and used the Babylonian Talmud, amongst other sources, as a basis for their views. However, they arrived at some very different conclusions:


David Goodblatt - in his Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia - shows, astoundingly, that large-scale rabbinic academies did not exist during Talmudic (Amoraic) times. 

Instead, they only developed later in the post-Talmudic era. This goes very much against the common perception that enormous institutions with tens of thousands of students frequented such academies during the time of the Gemara.


Goodblatt shows how the Babylonian Talmud frequently refers to a bey rav or house of a rabbi, which implies a smaller and more intimate circle of instruction. This style of instruction was far from institutionalized because the bey rav had no identity of its own as an academy would have had. The somewhat informal bey rav did not overshadow or survive the teacher and when he died, the students went to another rabbi in a different bey rav.


In a similar vein, Goodblatt suggests that reference to a bey midrasha or beit midrash, usually refers not to a Babylonian rabbinic academy but rather to a normal school. Furthermore, this bey medrasha would have been either referring to Tannaic times or to the Palestinian Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael - but not to schools in Babylonia (Bavel).

Goodblatt arrives at some of these conclusions by simple mathematics: The term bey midrasha appears 7.5 times more frequently in regard to the Palestinian Amoraim than their Babylonian counterparts. 

And there is only one statement referring to a Palestinian sage in a bey rav - while there are 80 statements referring to a Babylonian sage in the bey rav.


The terms yeshiva or metivta (Aramaic for yeshiva) are used infrequently in the Babylonian Talmud. But even when they are used, they refer not to a yeshiva as we know it but rather to a ‘sitting’ of a court of law or a Sanhedrin.

According to Goodblatt, even in instances where it seems that the context of the term metivta was used as referring to an educational facility and not a court, he still maintains that the learning did not take place in an institution but in a smaller session within the bey rav.

Thus, when the Talmud[2] writes:

ואנן קא מתנינן בעוקצין תליסר מתיבתא

And we study the (tractate of) Uktzin in thirteen yeshivot,” it would refer to thirteen study sessions as opposed to thirteen different academies.

Goodblatt sums up his views and writes:

“[T]he organization of rabbinic instruction in Sasanian Babylonia was rather different from the way it has been described in medieval and modern accounts.

The large Talmudic academies (yeshivot or metivata) known from the Islamic era did not exist in amoraic times. Instead disciple circles and apprenticeships appear to have dominated academic activity.”[3]

Accordingly, Goldblatt's views suggest that there were no large or even formal yeshivot during the times of the Gemara!


On the other hand, Yeshayahu Gafni suggests that rabbinic academies did begin to emerge towards the end of the Amoraic or Gemara period. 

He conceded that the terms yeshiva and metivta refer to a court, but only in Tannaic and Palestinian sources. He argues, however, that in 35 instances where the Babylonian Talmud uses yeshiva and metivta they do refer to formal institutionalised rabbinic academies and not to courts!

Thus, according to Gafni, there were indeed rabbinic academies in (albeit late) Amoraic times in Babylonia - and they did not originate, as Goodblatt suggests, in post-Talmudic times.

Both Goodblatt and Gafni published rejoinders to each other’s arguments but the essential debate stood: 

Did the great Babylonian rabbinic academies start during late Amoriac times (Gafni) - or did they only emerge during the post-Talmudic period (Goodblatt)?

Interestingly, both appear to agree that formal rabbinic academies did not exist during the early or middle Amoraic period, which certainly goes against the popular perception of the Gemara period being dominated by huge academies.


In the years following the Goodblatt-Gafni debate of the 1970s, the scholarly consensus seems to indicate that significant sections of the Babylonian Talmud, especially those attributed anonymously, may have been the work of the Stammaim or Savoraim who edited the Talmud. This would have taken place during the one hundred and fifty years immediately following the Talmudic period.  [See here  for more on the editing of the Bavli.]

Goodblatt actually refers to this in his rejoinder, making the point that the Stammaim, may have taken their contemporary terminology and interpolated some of their terms into the Talmud they were editing.

It is, therefore possible that the Stammaim may have used the terms yeshiva and metivta, based on their observation of such relatively new academic institutions appearing during their times, and transposed them into the Talmud. This line of thinking would vindicate Goodblatt.

According to Jeffrey Rubenstein:

“If these theories are accepted, then we must reevaluate some of the evidence that figures in the debate between Gafni and Goodblatt. Many of the references to yeshiva / metivta, as well as the richest descriptions of the academy...should be attributed to the stammaim, [and][4] clearly they do not tell us anything about the amoraic period.”[5]

Continuing along this line of thinking, Rubenstein points out that in the 35 instances where Gafni claims yeshiva and metivta refer to actual rabbinic institutions of learning, these instances appear to be specifically from the sections identified as being reworked by the Stammaim.[6]

Interestingly, the addition of the Stammaim component into the debate appears to offer more support for Goodblatt, but also explains Gafni's position.


Rubenstein finally encourages us to look beyond the terminologies of bey rav, yeshiva and metivta, because the fact remains that there are a number of references in the Babylonian Talmud to rabbinic gatherings where it does seem that large academies existed during that period.

One such account[7] described R. Yochanan and his students and seven rows of rabbis seated in order of prominence. The gathering was so large that R. Yochanan had to sit on seven cushions so that he could be seen by all the students. From this description, it certainly does appear that this was no small study group in a bey rav.[8]

Rubenstein concludes that in light of references to gatherings such as these as well as contemporary scholarship – rabbinic academies rose in Babylonia (possibly towards the end of the Amoraic period, but certainly) during the Stammaic post-Talmudic period, between around 450 and 600 CE.

“This explains Goodblatt’s observations that the Bavli usually describes Babylonian amoraim assembled in small disciple circles. It [also][9] explains Gafni’s observation that the Bavli nevertheless does refer to yeshiva / metivta in some passages: these passages are of stammaitic provenance.”

According to Rubenstein, both Gafni and Goodblatt were therefore correct although he leans more towards Goodblatt because:

“Gafni was correct to claim that there are indeed references to academies in the Bavli. However, these references belong to the post-amoraic stratum, and therefore support Goodblatt’s, rather than Gafni’s, conclusion.”


This debate is interesting because besides the various arguments each participant brings to the table, it appears to fly in the face of the popular perception that there were always huge academies even going back, as tradition tells us, to the beginning of time with the yeshiva of Adam’s son, Shem (and Ever). And certainly, these academies are presumed to have continued to flourish during the golden age of Talmud study in Babylonia.


This popular perception  is even reflected in the Wikipedia entry on the matter:

“Rav, was one of the most important pupils of [Rabbi] Judah [haNasi, the compiler of the Mishna. Hence Rav was one of the first Amoraim].

Rav's return [from Eretz Yisrael] to his Babylonian home, the year of which has been accurately recorded (... 219 CE), marks an epoch; for from it dates the beginning of a new movement in Babylonian Judaism—namely, the initiation of the dominant rôle which the Babylonian Academies played for several centuries.”[10]

This supports the notion that great rabbinic academies existed in Babylonia from the very beginning of the Amoraic period.

And according to R. Berel Wein:

“[Rav] is the man who, more than anyone else, made Babylonian Jewry. He settled in the city of Sura, one of the main cities in Babylon, the same city where the prophet Ezekiel lived when he came with the exiles of the First Temple era. Ezekiel had founded an academy which was then close to 700 years old by the time Rav became head of it and turned it into the foremost house of Jewish scholarship not only in Babylon but anywhere in the world. Indeed, it remained the “Harvard” of Jewish academies until around 1000 CE.”

Rav had an associate and rival, Shmuel, who simultaneously established an academy in Nehardea which later relocated to Pumbedita. The argumentative tension between Rav and Shmuel laid the foundation for that argumentative style of debate which was to become the hallmark of Talmudic discourse. 

Either way, according to all these views, there were always flourishing academies in Babylonia during Amoraic times.


However, a fascinating view is put forward by Dr Henry Abramson[11] who says that the number of scholars studying in the rabbinic academies around the 8th C (which according to all scholars was when the academies were certainly in full operation) is estimated to be between as few as 1 200 and 2 400 and he believed those numbers to be 'considerably exaggerated'. [See here for more on the origins of the yeshiva system.]

Dr Abramson explains that the rabbinic academies were elitist institutions that did not have an open admissions policy. Even the benches were often arranged in such a manner that the greater scholars sat closer to the lecturer, and the less scholarly sat towards the back.

Thus, continues Dr Abramson, the vast majority of the masses could never have a yeshiva education, and were quite illiterate, barely being able to read the prayer book, and with a very limited knowledge of halacha. So much so, that a sense of disenfranchisement took hold of the masses by the scholarly vacuum that was created, and the climate was right for other influences to take hold.

The vacuum was eventually filled by the anti-Rabbinic Karaism movement which by some accounts may have affected up to half of the Jewish population of that time. [For more on Karaites see here].


In a complex study such as this, it is best to avoid the temptation to take sides and to pronounce a winner or a loser.

What emerges, though, is that when one peels away the different layers, some very interesting views begin to surface.

Taking all the various perspectives into consideration, the question becomes even more urgent and burning - what, indeed, was the nature and popularity of the classical academies during the golden age of Talmud study?

[2] Taanit 24b.
[3] Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia, p. 7
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] The Rise of the Babylonian Rabbinic Academy.
[6] Rubenstein proceeds in great scholarly detail to give actual textual examples supporting his thesis.
[7] Bava Kama 117a.
[8] Rubenstein explains: “Although these narratives are set in Palestine, they are late-Babylonian creations or reworkings of Palestinian sources, hence they point to the situation in Babylonia, not Palestine.”
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Talmudic Academies of Babylonia.
[11] Anan ben David and Karaism (Lecture).

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