Sunday 4 August 2019



The 1342 Munich Manuscript is the earliest extant copy of the Babylonian Talmud.


Any child with a basic Jewish education would know that the Mishna remained an oral tradition until around the year 200 CE when it was finally redacted by R. Yehudah haNasi - and three centuries later, the Gemara was redacted by Rav Ashi and his student Ravina (d. 499) around the year 500 CE.
From 500 CE onwards, both Mishna and Gemara combined to form the Talmud which remained in the same written form till this day.

In this article, we will first explore some rabbinic sources which differ from the model presented above - and thereafter, examine the manuscript evidence from that same period.


R. ARYEH KAPLAN (1934-1983):

R. Aryeh Kaplan writes:

“There is a question as to when the Mishna was put in writing. 

Some authorities maintain that Rabbi Yehudah himself published it. 

According to others, however, it was preserved orally until several generations later.”[1]

Clearly, as R. Kaplan points out, there are sources which suggest that the Mishna was indeed written down in 200 CE but we are looking at those who propose it was written down sometime later. As to just how many ‘generations later’ the Talmud was actually committed to writing, remains an open question.

The Meiri, however, may shed some light on this matter:

MEIRI (1249-1310):

Although after the year 200 CE it was permitted to write down the Mishna, and after the year 500 CE, it was permitted to write down the Gemara - the combined Talmud continued to remain essentially an oral tradition for many centuries.

The Meiri writes about a group of sages known as Gaonin who lived between 650 and 1038, which was many centuries after the Talmudic period had concluded in the year 500: 

 “And they (the Geonim) knew the entire Talmud by heart, or close to it...And therefore they didn’t find it necessary to go on at length in their compositions [i.e. to write too much][2], for the explanation was all arranged in their mouths [i.e. in an oral tradition][3].”[4]

The Meiri is of the view that the writing of the Talmud takes place towards the end of the period of the Gaonim and just before the period of the Rishonim (around the year 1038). This places its practical transition from an oral to a written form, 500 years later than commonly believed!

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

In 987 Rav Sherira Gaon wrote a letter to the Jews of Kairouan, now Tunisia, of which two versions -the Tsorfati (French) and Sefardi (Spanish) - exist today. In the French version of the letter, which is considered to be the most accurate, he writes: 

“And that which you [Jews of Kairouan] wrote; ‘How was the Mishna written, and how [was the] Talmud [written]?’

- The Talmud and Mishna were not written, but they were arranged.

 And the sages were careful to recite them by heart, but not from written versions.” [5]

According to this, the Talmud may have been ‘arranged’ earlier on, but fundamentally it remained an oral tradition right up to the end of the period of the Geonim around 1038.


Professor Fishman[6] develops the idea that soon after the close of the Gaonic period in 1038, Rashi (1038-1105) began to consolidate and unify the ‘relatively recently’ written down Talmud by preparing an overall commentary on it which would bind it all together. 

And continuing along the same lines, Rashi’s grandsons and students known as the Tosafists, began reconciling apparent contradictions between the various written sections of the Talmud - something which would not have been required while it was in its previous oral form.

It seems to make sense that these first comprehensive commentaries only started appearing once the Talmud was finally committed to written form, otherwise, we should have seen similar commentaries surfacing from 500 years earlier.

-The above are just some of the sources which imply that the Talmud was only written down in full, sometime (give or take a century or so) towards the close of the Gaonic period around 1038).



Let us now turn our attention to manuscript evidence from this same period and see where that leads:
The earliest full manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud is known as the Munich Talmud, and it dates from as late as 1342.[7]

What exactly transpired textually during the many centuries between the year 500 - when the completed Talmud was said to have been committed to writing - and 1342 is a hotly debated issue.

Professor Malachi Beit-Arié is the head of the Hebrew Paleography Project which has examined and documented nearly all extant Hebrew manuscripts in about 250 libraries throughout the world.
He has spent sixty years studying Hebrew manuscripts. 

Based on his extensive research[8], we will briefly examine the development of rabbinic texts around this period and see what bearing this all has on the question of when the Talmud was written down.


The complexity of the medieval codex (handwritten manuscripts bound together in a book-form) as opposed to the more ancient scroll, should not be underestimated in terms of its technology. The codex was the speciality of the preindustrial era and is considered to be “one of the most complex products manufactured during the Middle Ages.

A codex comprises a number of quires (sheets of folded parchment) of bifolia (pages with writing on both sides) which is then sewn and bound together to form a book allowing easy and quick access to all the pages - unlike the scroll whose different sections are harder to access because it has to be laboriously rolled from one side to the other.

The codex is also more resilient and is easier to transport and to archive than the more ancient scroll.    
The codex and its revolutionary impact shaped the thought development within the Jewish world at that time.

Beit-Arié explains that:

“In the regions where Hebrew Books were produced during the Middle ages we witness an entire configuration of traditions, patterns, and practices which were preserved continuously for hundreds of years...”


The Christians adopted the codex in place of scrolls from around 300 CE.

The general, non-Christian or ‘pagan’ world started adopting the codex from around 500 CE. 

The Jews, however, transitioned to the codex much later, from the early Gaonic Period around 700 CE and even later.

This is borne out by a statement by Rashi (1038-1105):

“The books that were [in existence] in the days of the [earlier Talmudic] Sages were all in the form of our Torah scrolls.”[9]

This indicates that certainly during the Talmudic period (0-500 CE) and possibly even for about two centuries after that, we were still using scrolls and had not yet started using codices.


Beit-Arié describes an uncertain period of 800 years between about 100 BCE to 700 CE:

“An obscure and puzzling gap of some eight hundred years exists between the abundant finds of Hebrew books dating from the late antiquity (namely the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from the Hellenistic and early Roman period) and the earliest explicitly dated surviving Hebrew codices.

From that period in time there is hardly any extant evidence of the Hebrew book apart from a few dozen surviving fragments...”

This shows that for about 800 years - until 700 CE - there is virtually no trace of Hebrew writings.

[For more on early rabbinic texts, see The Italian Geniza.]


Beit-Arié (citing Roberts and Skeat) explains that while Jews would have maintained the scroll format for copying Sifrei Torah - because such copying was governed by strict laws - Christians, on the other hand, had no problem copying their scriptures in the newer codex form.

However, once the codex was adopted by the Christians in 300 CE, the Jews were then reluctant to emulate that format (even for non-scriptural writings) and the scroll format was therefore perpetuated for some centuries longer.

The first time clearly datable Hebrew codices begin to appear is from the beginning of the 900s (although, as mentioned, their origins can be traced back to the 700s)![10]


Having established a possible reason as to why there is no codex record, the question then is why is there no significant scroll record (which, as Rashi pointed out, was favoured by rabbinic literature over codices) either?

This question becomes compounded when we see that thousands of Latin and Greek manuscripts have indeed survived that same era.


The answer must lie in the fact that rabbinic and Talmudic literature during that time period was essentially transmitted orally. This is corroborated by the very designation of that rabbinic literature as the ‘Oral Tradition’.

However, now we encounter a fascinating difficulty:


Although Beit- Arié does not go into the details, the problem - as pointed out - is that according to popular perception, the Mishna was committed to writing around the year 200, and the Talmud was committed to writing around the year 500.

If that popular understanding was to be the case, then surely there should at least be some (albeit) scroll evidence of the Mishna and Talmud from the latter segment of that 800 year period, after the year 500!

And it would have been a vast literature, because besides the Mishna and Talmud, the writings of that period would have additionally included Tosefta, Talmud Yerushalmi, Midrashim and the mystical Heichalot compositions as well.

There also would have been sufficient time - 500 years at least - to create a ‘paper trail’ certainly from the end of the Mishna period in 200 CE when permission was granted to put texts down in writing. Additionally, there are still at least two centuries for the same to have occurred with regard to the Talmud which was completed in 500 CE!

So why is there hardly any evidence of any written literature during this time when the era of an exclusive Oral Tradition had apparently officially terminated?


On the other hand, from the beginning of the 900s (and possibly even slightly earlier) until the end of the 1400s (when printing was invented) the number of manuscripts and fragments suddenly rise to as high as 100,000.

And Beit-Arié is quick to point out that this larger number only represents “a small proportion of the manuscripts produced in that era.” Colette Sirat estimates that the actual number of manuscripts produced during that time (although not surviving) would have been as high as about one million.
What suddenly changed around the year 900 CE that the ‘paper trail’ begins to spike after such a long plateau?


To answer this question, we have to turn to the writings of the later Gaonim (650-1038).
Beit-Arié says:

“[U]ntil the beginning of the Gaonic period, Hebrew literary creations were for the most part transmitted orally, at least till they had reached their final editing and perhaps even later.[11]

The continued use of the scroll, which made searching very cumbersome, seems to have conformed to a reality in which putting a text in writing was either prohibited or strictly limited to a small number of copies, so as to monitor the text and preserve it.

The adoption of the codex by the Jews could take place only after the attitude towards text dissemination had changed, and after the shift from oral to visual transmission.”

According to this, the period and practice of oral transmission did not end with the Mishna in 200 CE nor with the Talmud in 500 CE. While some private scrolls (the codex was only adopted after 700) may have been produced after the proscription ended, essentially the Talmud continued to be transmitted orally right up until the latter part of the Gaonic period around 900 CE.

Amazingly - based on rabbinic sources as well as forensic palaeography - all this information flies in the face of how the transition from Oral to Written Tradition is generally taught. The popular perception appears to be out by centuries.


According to Talya Fishman:

"Testimonies such as the tenth century Epistle of Sherira Gaon, which insists that Mishna and
Talmud have been preserved and transmitted, not in written form, but by means of oral recitation, and the assertion by the Gaon Aaron Sarjado in the same century, that “most students in the academy do not know what a book is,” have led scholars to conclude that Talmud remained an orally-transmitted corpus of tradition throughout the Geonic period, that is, between the seventh and eleventh centuries."

Fascinatingly, Fishman also weaves in the possibility of secular trends also having an effect of the committing of previously oral texts to writing. These trends were taking place in the world at the same time:

"Many political, economic, demographic and theological developments have been cited as factors contributing to this shift [from oral to written traditions - parenthesis mine]: conditions of civil stability following centuries of barbarian conquest, culminating in the eschatologically-motivated Peace of God; the growth of cities, local economies and bureaucracies; increased contact between people of different regions and heightened awareness of the variety of legal norms; the Gregorian Reform and establishment of Cathedral Schools; and the Investiture controversy. Whatever its causes, however, I wish to stress that the textualization of medieval northern Europe was not a “Christian” development, but a theologically-neutral one, akin perhaps, to a shift in modes of technology."

(Rhineland Pietist Approaches to Prayer and the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture 
in Medieval Northern Europe, by Talya Fishman, p.11.)

[1] Handbook of Jewish Thought, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan p.188
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] See Becoming the People of the Talmud, by Talya Fishman p. 165.
[5] Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon.
[6] See Becoming the People of the Talmud, by Talya Fishman
[7] The Leiden Codex of 1289 (printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1523) is the oldest extant copy of the Talmud Yerushalmi.
[8] HEBREW CODICOLOGY Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts Using a Quantitative Approach, by Malachi Beit-Arié.
[9] Rashi to Megillah 19a.
[10] Beit-Arié, however, also points out that these early Hebrew codices do show a degree of craftsmanship which indicates an apparent established tradition.
[11] Emphasis mine. This places us around the year 900 CE.

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