Sunday 2 August 2020



Years ago when I was a yeshiva student, I was always upset when our teachers told us to skip over the Aggada sections on a page of Talmud. Aggada refers to the stories and narratives that are often interspersed amongst the more legal Talmudic texts.

I could never understand why they discouraged us from reading Aggada and no one could ever really explain what the issue was. 

This article, which I have based on the research of Professor Jeffrey L. Rubenstein[1], may just shed some light on the matter, although I’m not sure my teachers would have known about this.

Rubenstein suggests that the post-Talmudic Stammaim may have contributed to much of the Aggadic literature in the Talmud. They could do so because they were, in fact, the editors of the Talmud.


The Talmudic Period was from around 200 to 450 CE. For the next century and a half, we had the Savoraic Period which was followed by the Gaonic Period from 589 to 1038.
Not much is known about the intermediate period of the Savoraim other than that they were editors of the Talmud.

Professor David Weiss Halivni specializes in that intermediate period of the Savoraim and refers to the rabbis of that period as Stammaim which more accurately describes their role as editors of the Talmud.[2] The Stammaim were mostly anonymous. He contends that the Stammaim actually wrote the Talmud (Gemara) in the final form as we know it today. 

The Stammaim would have based their deliberations on the ‘original’ Talmud compiled by the last rabbis of the Talmudic Period, Rav Ashi (d.427) and Ravina ( d. 420), which would have been a much smaller compilation than the one we are accustomed to today. It would have more resembled the style of the earlier Mishna and Tosefta, and - significantly - also without elaborate discussion and dialectics.


Rubenstein, following this thread from Halivni, has researched the notion that the Stammaim may also have been responsible for contributing to much of the Aggadic literature of the Talmud.

He writes:

“That the Stammaim took a deep interest in aggada is beyond doubt...

The fact that they included so much aggada in the Bavli [Babylonian Talmud] - a great deal more proportionately than the redactors of the Yerushalmi [Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud]- indicates that their concerns went beyond halakha [Jewish law][3].”

Then Rubenstein asks the question around which this article pivots:

“Were they [i.e., the Stammaim][4] collectors, transmitters and commentators, or also creators[5]?

Did they substantively rework antecedent Amoraic aggadic sources and even formulate new aggadot?

Or did they transmit Amoraic traditions in substantially the same form as they received them, adding analysis and comments, but not modifying the core Amoraic tradition to any significant degree?

Rubenstein believes the Stammaim not only contributed to, but may have created some of the Aggadic content of the Babylonian Talmud!

“Indeed, since aggada has less authority than halakha, we should expect the Stammaim to have been more active in the production of aggada. They might well have felt more free to modify aggadic traditions, to rework and change Amoraic aggadic sources, given the lesser stakes involved.”

Thus, as anonymous editors, the Stammaim may have taken more latitude to include their creative contributions in the form of Aggada since they did not need to be as scrupulous in that regard as they were when it came to recording actual legal texts.


In this context, it is relevant and interesting to note that the Talmud itself states:

“Ravina and Rav Ashi are the end of hora’a [Talmudic development and instruction]”[6]

Rav Ashi and Ravina were the last of the Talmudic Sages who instructed during the Talmudic (Gemara/Amoraic)[7] period. Because hora’a or legal development had ended, the Stammaim would have felt relatively free to engage in non-legal Aggada.


But it wasn’t just in the sphere of Aggada that they were creative. The Stammaic[8] editors seem to have done more than merely introduce, innovate and rework Aggada, but were also instrumental in two other aspects of their presentation; enhancing the dialectical style of analysis and debate as well as a focus on Aramaic over Hebrew.


Rubenstein writes that after the period of hora’a or instruction/development had ended with Rav Ashi and Ravina, the Stammaim:

 “...continued to subject Amoraic halakhic traditions to dialectical analysis.

Thus the Stammaim, as editors, not only added to the Aggada but also introduced a more pronounced style of analytical or dialectical debate which has become the hallmark of Talmud study. As mentioned, the original Talmudic texts and traditions which the Stammaim worked on would have resembled a terser form closer to the Mishnaic style.

This is fascinating because the well-known dialectical or argumentative style that we have come to equate Talmud study with, may have been more of a contribution by the later Stammaic or Savoraic editors than the actual Amoraic participants themselves!


Furthermore, on this view, even the dominance of the Aramaic language used throughout the Gemara, may similarly have been largely the work of Stammaic editors reworking Talmudic texts that resembled the earlier Hebrew of Mishnaic and Tosefta texts! While certainly, Aramaic would have been the vernacular of Babylonian Jewry, it seems that the medium of study was still Hebrew – until the period of the Stammaim.

Rubenstein writes that from the Stammaic period we begin to see shifts:

“...from the Hebrew of Amoraic [i.e., original Talmudic] dicta to the Aramaic of the Stammaitic commentary; 

from the terse style of Amoraic dicta to the verbose, expansive style of the Stammaitic analysis; 

and from apodictic [i.e., beyond dispute][9] Amoraic pronouncements to the dialogical give-and-take of the Stammaim.”

Accordingly, the Stammaic contribution to the Talmud was extensive.


Our focus, however, is on the strata of Aggadic literature within the Talmud.
A common feature of Aggada is that it is often presented anonymously. If the Stammaim had drawn from earlier sources one would imagine they would have quoted the authors.[10]

A probable reason for the anonymity of the Stammaim was that once the Talmudic period of hora’a or instruction/development had officially been concluded with Rav Ashi and Ravina, it would have been audacious for the next generations of Stammaim to use their names.

This notion of anonymity is borne out by their very title ‘Stammaim’. Comparing the 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 and secondary sources) projected back onto the Talmud. 


Rubenstein[11] points out several telltale signs which may indicate Stammaic activity. 

These include:

The language used - Aramaic instead of Hebrew.
Grammatical forms of later Gaonic Aramaic as opposed to those of earlier Babylonian Aramaic.
Clumsy syntax.
Excessive length.
A phrase used overwhelmingly bt earlier Amoraim present in a statement of later Amoraim.
A ‘wandering’ thought process
A clustering of variant readings.               

Rubenstein also analyses the same events portrayed in other contemporaneous rabbinic texts such as the Talmud Yerushalmi and compares them with how they are presented in the Babylonian Talmud.
He writes that he compared:

“ ... source-critical evidence, namely parallel texts from Palestinian compilations, to confirm that traditions were changed in the course of time. The question then becomes, Who introduced the changes, Amoraim or Stammaim?, and these criteria point to the Stammaim.”


A simple example of telltale signs of Stammaic activity can be seen in the change of language in the following Aggadic story[12] of R. Shimon bar Yochai emerging from the cave after thirteen years:

When R. Shimon bar Yochai sees his father-in-law[13] Pinchas ben Yair, the latter expresses concern that he looks weathered from his time in the cave. Pinchas ben Yair says: “Woe is me that I have seen you like this.” And R. Shimon bar Yochai retorts: “Happy are you for seeing me like this, for had you not seen me like this you would not have found me so [learned].”

At that point, the narrative shifts from Hebrew to Aramaic and an explanatory comment is added:

“For originally when R. Shimon bar Yohai raised an objection (qushia), R. Pinhas b. Yair solved it with twelve solutions (paroqei). Subsequently when R. Pinhas b. Yair objected, R. Shimon bar Yohai solved it with twenty-four solutions.”

Although the initial narrative is in Aramaic, the exchange takes place in Hebrew and then dramatically shifts back to Aramaic and also changes from the first to the third person.
The parallel versions recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi and other Palestinian midrashim do not contain the commentary about the twenty-four solutions. This makes it very likely that the Aramaic commentary is a Stammaic insertion.

This is an example of a Hebrew Amoraic dicta being enhanced by Aramaic Stammaic explanations and comments. However, according to the research, this is just a mild example of a commentary to, and amplification of, a text because in some instances there is evidence of total reworking of a text and also the production of new texts.

After a number of other more technical examples, Rubenstein concludes that:

“[t]he contributions [of the Stammaim][14] are quite diverse, ranging from brief editorial notes, glosses and additions to the end of an earlier narrative and interpolations from other Amoraic sources to wholesale reworkings of Amoraic narratives and the production of new aggadot.”


R. Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University comes to the same conclusion:

 “This [Stammaic] framework, post dating the statements of identified figures [in the Talmud[15], introduces questions, often provides solutions, and, in general, controls the interpretation of the earlier sources.”[16]

But he goes much further by quantifying just how much editing the Stammaim actually did.
Elman writes that the editorial work of the Stammaim:

 “...constitutes just over half [17]of the total text of the Babylonian Talmud and...frames the discussion of the rest.”


As mentioned in the article in the link provided above, I looked up the definition of ‘Redaction’:

Redaction is a form of editing in which multiple source texts are combined (redacted) and altered slightly[18] to make a single document.”
According to the research of Rubenstein and Elman, it seems that the Stammaim have even overstepped the dictionary definition of editors and redactors, as their stylistic alterations were, to say the least, more than ‘slight’.


The arguments of Professors Rubenstein, Halivni and Elman are fascinating and compelling. They also seem to fit into the historical notion that the Babylonian Talmud was redacted in its final form much closer to the end of the period of the Gaonim (1038) than to the end of the period of the Amoraim (450).

However, not everyone agrees with this.

Professor David Kraemer, for example, strongly supports the more mainstream view that the Babylonian Talmud was not radically reworked by its editors, the Stammaim. He argues that the Talmud intentionally leaves the conclusions of its argumentation unresolved – to teach that truth is multi-layered and the result of a conversation with many voices.

He shows that dialectics and argumentative interpretation was always used by the Talmudic rabbis (although he does agree that it became even more common and widespread towards the later generation of Amoraim). And because there was an evolution of the process of dialectical argumentation, the dialectic style could not have been an invention of the Stammaic editors (although he does agree that the final editors made some radical determinations).[19]

Contrast David Kraemer’s view with the view of David Weiss Halivni:

“The luxurious and flowing texture of the Talmud is the achievement of the Stammaim; prior to them there were only short dialogues and comments strung along the Mishna and Braithoth. The Stammaim created the sugya, a semi-independent, sustained, multi-tiered ‘give and take’. They redacted the Gemara from incomplete and truncate [i.e., short][20] traditions.”

For the inquisitive student of Talmud - who is interested in the simple matter of ascertaining when the work second in importance to the Torah was essentially written and by whom - there is still much to be clarified.


The "Talmud of Persecution" vs "The Talmud of Exile". 

When a Yeshiva is not a Yeshiva - A Scholarly Debate.

[1]Jeffery L. Rubenstein, Criteria of Stammaitic Intervention in Aggada. See also: Jeffery L. Rubenstein, "Introduction" in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, ed., Creation and Composition: The Contribution of the Bavli Redactors (Stammaim) to the Aggada.
[2] David Weiss Halivni has revised his previous view and now dates the Stammaic Period from 450 to 650 CE and the Savoraic Period from 650 to 750 CE.
[3] Parentheses mine.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Emphasis mine.
[6] Bava Metzia 86a.
[7] The terms Talmud, Gemara and Amora(ic) are used interchangeably.
[8] Sometimes referred to as Stammaitic.
[9] Parentheses mine.
[10] Although a Talmudic ma’aseh or uvdah may also sometimes be anonymous.
[11] Basing himself on the work of Professor Shamma Freidman.
[12] Shabbat 33b.
[13] Sefaria translates ‘chatnei’ as son-in-law, however historically, Pinchas ben Yair was the father-in-law of R. Shimon bar Yochai.
[14] Parenthesis mine.
[15] Parentheses mine.
[16] See: Yaakov Elman, “The Babylonian Talmud in its Historical Context.”
[17] Emphasis mine.
[18] Emphasis mine.
[19] See David Kraemer, The Mind of the Talmud: An Intellectual History of the Bavli (1990).
[20] Parenthesis mine.


  1. SO how does Kraemer differntiate between Stammaim and Amoraim?

  2. This question also bothered me because it leaves more uncertainty as to the actual role of the Savoraim/Stammaim and seems to render the 'editors' somewhat redundant unless they are to regarded simply as technocrats who just collated texts (which is unlikely as no other rabbinic period was this passive).