Sunday 9 August 2020


Depiction of rows of students in the Academy at Sura.

Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman (1943-2018) of Yeshiva University was one of the pioneer researchers on Babylonian influences on the Babylonian Talmud. He showed that many concepts such as astrology, angelology and demonology found in the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) - which are often assumed to be uniquely Jewish - are not found in the parallel Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). Based on this and many other factors, he concluded that there were many concepts which were popular in Zoroastrian Babylonia which were adapted and adopted by the Bavli - and this accounts for their absence in the Yerushalmi and other Palestinian sources.

 “[T]he Palestinian authors of the Talmud [Yerushalmi][1]excluded, almost entirely, the popular fancies about angels and demons, while in Babylonia angelology and demonology, under popular pressure influenced by Zoroastrianism, gained scholastic recognition.”[2]

In this article, based extensively on the research of Professor Jeffrey L. Rubenstein[3], we will investigate another difference between the Bavli and Yerushalmi – their descriptions of the Beit Midrash or House of Study as well as their cultures of learning.


Rubenstein analyses aspects of Aggada (the narrative sections of the Talmud) which are particularly found in the Bavli and not in the Yerushalmi or other parallel Palestinian texts, as these differences would be good indicators of general Babylonian bias. Narratives are always a window into the ethos of a society.

Rubenstein writes:

“[W]here we have both a Palestinian and Babylonian version [of a narrative][4], we are on relatively firm ground in identifying the motifs and themes that appear exclusively in the Bavli version as Babylonian.”

Although there were definite cross-cultural exchanges between the sages of Babylonia and those of the Holy Land, particularly during the first four Amoraic (Talmudic) generations, nevertheless, each culture maintained its unique characteristics and worldview.

We are going to explore how the Bavli accentuated certain concepts and ideas far more than the Yerushalmi, and we will analyse why these texts are depicted so differently.


The Bavli emphasises the institution of the Academy, Study-House or Beit Midrash. What follows are some examples of parallel Babylonian and Palestinian texts in this regard:


Both the Bavli and Yerushalmi describe the admirable way in which R. Tarfon honoured his mother.

According to the Yerushalmi:

“Once, the sages came to visit him (R. Tarfon, at his home)...and she (R. Tarfon’s mother) told them of his (exemplary) deed(s).” [5]

However, according to the Bavli:

“He (R. Tarfon) went and praised himself (for honouring his mother) in the study house.”[6]

In the Bavli version, it is R. Tarfon and not his mother who describes the honourable behaviour - and the affair takes place not when the sages come to visit R. Tarfon’s home but, instead, in the Beit Midrash.

The Bavli chooses to portray the setting for the event not at R. Tarfon’s home as per the Yerushalmi, but rather in the Study-House.


Both the Bavli and the (Palestinian) Tosefta describe R. Chanina ben Dosa being bit by a scorpion (or snake) while praying.

According to the Tosefta:

“R. Chanina was standing and praying [the Shemona Esrei] when an Arod[7] [scorpion/snake] bit him. He did not stop praying. [Later] his students went and found [the Arod] dead on top of [the opening to] his hole. They said, ‘Woe to the man who was bitten by an Arod, woe to an Arod who has bitten Ben Dosa.’”[8]

However, according to the Bavli:

“He placed his heel over the mouth of the hole and the Arod came out and bit him, and died. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa placed the Arod over his shoulder and brought it to the study-house.” [9]

Again, the Bavli version frames the event as being connected to the Study-House while the Yerushalmi allows it to have occurred in the open.


Both the Bavli and Yerushalmi tell the story of Choni haMe’agel who was walking along the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man why he was planting a tree which could only be benefitted from after seventy-years. The man responded that he was leaving it for his descendants. 

The story continues with Choni falling asleep for seventy years and when he awoke he indeed saw the son of the man who had originally planted the tree, gathering its fruits.

According to the Yerushalmi:

 “When he (Choni ha Me’agel) entered the Temple courtyard (Azara) it would fill with light.”[10]

However, according to the Bavli, Choni then went to the Study-House and it shone with light (or was enlightened) although the sages did not believe it was actually him after all these years. He died soon thereafter.[11]

Once more, the Bavli introduces the notion of the Study-House into the narrative while the Yerushalmi allows the events to unfold wherever they occurred.


These sources portray a Babylonian predilection towards the Study-House which is depicted as an organised and large Academy. According to the research of Jeffrey Rubenstein, David Weiss Halivni, Shamma Friedman and many other scholars, the post-Talmudic editors of the Babylonian Talmud, known as Savoraim (or Stammaim) may have reframed and projected their larger and more public Academies with which they were familiar with, onto the previous Amoraic (Talmudic) era - where (according to the research) the Amoraim generally taught in closed scholarly circles; and they taught in Hebrew (not Aramaic); and their literature and records (as collated by Rav Ashi and Ravina, the first redactors of the Babylonian Talmud) were in a terse style without dialectical analysis (shakla vetarya) and similar to the terse style of the earlier Mishna, Beraita and Tosefta. (See previous post.)

On this view, it was essentially around the period of the later Stammaim that the larger Academies and Study-Houses were put in place. And these Stammaim - while editing the Talmud - projected the primary role of the Beit Midrash with which they were accustomed, onto the previous era.

This accounts for why the Bavli, under Stammaic editorship, describes the Amoraic Beit Midrash or Study-House as a hierarchical institution with many students, sometimes sitting in rows and rank, with the more scholarly towards the front. 

However, historically we know that this was a development from the post-Amoraic era of Stammaim (and was even more well-established later by the Gaonim (589-1038).


The story of the deposition of Rabban Gamliel from his leadership position of Nasi or Prince, for being disrespectful of R. Yehoshua, tells of four-hundred (or seven-hundred) extra benches being added to the Study-House after he had left. They also removed the guard from the door who had previously kept unworthy students out.[12]

Rubenstein points out that:

“Such descriptions resemble the rabbinical academy as portrayed in Geonic sources.”


Based on these observations, we have the assertion that the later editors or Stammaim reframed the smaller more elitist, scholarly and closed study groups of the Amoraim of the Talmudic period (200-450) to resemble the larger, more open and public academies with which the Stammaim were familiar.

Such descriptions in the Bavli of huge academies are predominantly absent from the Yerushalmi.

Rubenstein writes that although there is one(!) source in the Yerushalmi that describes a large academy (its version of the story of the deposition of Rabban Gamliel[13]), besides that source:

“ is only in the Bavli where we find descriptions of rabbinic institutions that resemble the highly developed academies of the Geonic era...

The Stammaim seem to have functioned in rabbinic academies similar to those described in Geonic sources.”


In many places in the Bavli, we find that its characteristic style of argumentation and dialectics are lauded as part of good scholarship. A good sheilah (question) deserves a good teshuva (answer) and this is officially recognized as a sign of scholastic ability worthy of a Talmudic sage.


When Rav Kahana arrives in Israel from Babylonia, he demonstrates his academic prowess to the students of Reish Lakish:

“He told them this objection and that objection, this solution and that solution. They went and told Reish Lakish. Reish Lakish went and said to R. Yochanan: ‘A lion has come up from Babylonia. Let the master look deeply into the lesson for tomorrow.”[14]

The Bavli records that Rav Kahana was pushed backwards in the rows when he fails to object or engage in dialectics, and brought forward when he does. Dialectics was the very life force of the Babylonian sages.


In fact, the absence of dialectical argumentation can even bring death. The Babylonian Talmud records that R. Yochanan died because he did not have a study partner who could object to and argue with him as Reish Lakish did.

R. Yochanan bemoans his new study partner, R. Eleazar ben Pedat, for not engaging sufficiently in dialects:

“Are you (R. Eleazar) like the Son of Lakish? When I made a statement, the Son of Lakish would object with twenty-four objections and I would solve them with twenty-four solutions...He could not be consoled (or: he went out of his mind). The sages prayed for mercy for him and he died.”[15]


In contrast to the Bavli, Rubenstein writes that:

In the Yerushalmi I have found no comparable stories or traditions that emphasize ‘objections and solutions’...” 

Thus the obsession with study dialectics is a Babylonian anomaly and not part of the study culture of Eretz Yisrael. It forms the backbone of the Bavli but is notably absent from the Yerushalmi.

Although both Bavli and Yerushalmi do reference the Study-House (Bei Midrasha) and the Meeting- House (Beit Vaad) - as mentioned, there certainly was a cultural exchange between Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael - it seems that the Bavli emphasised the Beit Midrash over the Beit Vaad. The Stammaimic editors of the Bavli institutionalised the Study-House into a formal Academy, while the Yerushalmi left it as either Synagogue (Beit Knesset) or general Meeting-House.[16]


In the famous story of Akhnai’s Oven where the river is said to have flowed uphill, the Bavli records the walls of the Study-House inclined as if to fall – while the Yerushalmi refers to the columns of the Meeting-House trembling.


The Bavli often depicts the wife as a source of distraction from Torah study. There are many cases of husbands leaving their wives for extended periods of time in order to further their Torah study.[17]

However, as Rubenstein points out:

“[T]he tension is less pronounced in the Palestinian parallels...

It appears that the Bavli stories reflect a more academic and scholastic rabbinic culture than that reflected in Palestinian sources.

Bavli stories portray rabbis functioning in a highly structured and competitive institutional environment.”


This extremely powerful emphasis on study, besides sometimes straining the personal relationships within the marital unit, is also reflected in a narrative concerning Moshe Rabbeinu. Even he is said, as it were,  to have battled to compete within the dialectical Babylonian study culture!

There is a well-known story in the Bavli of Moshe Rabbeinu journeying forward in time to sit in the academy of Rabbi Akiva (of the even earlier Mishnaic period). Moshe sat in the eight row together with the inferior students and he could not understand the discussions taking place in the rows closer to the front.[18]


Based on the research referenced earlier, the notion of overflowing academies may have been another projection and reframing of Amoriac (Talmudic) literature by the post-Talmudic editors or Stammaim (Savoraim). [See links provided below.]

Not only did the Stammaim reflect the existence of their larger academies onto the previous Amoraim, but they also introduced the argumentative style of the sugya which was similarly a projection of their own style of Babylonian dialectics.

Additionally, the research shows that the Stammaim introduced Aramaic as the mother tongue of the Talmud, whereas the original statements as collated by Rav Ashi and Ravina at the close of the Talmudic period would have been short teachings, in Hebrew, and along the lines of the earlier Mishna, Beraitot and Tossefta literature.

These post-Talmudic Stammaic innovations largely distinguish the Bavli from the Yerushalmi which was not subjected to such editorial activity.


[1] Parenthesis mine.
[2] Louis Ginzberg, Jewish Law and Lore (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955), p. 22.
[3] Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, On the Culture of the Bavli.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] y. Kiddushin 1.7, 61b.
[6] B. Kiddushin 31 b.
[7] Or ‘Arvad’.
[8] Tosefta, Berachot 3.20.
[9] Berachot 33a. Translation: “With regard to the praise for one who prays and need not fear even a snake, the Sages taught: There was an incident in one place where an arvad was harming the people. They came and told Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa and asked for his help. He told them: Show me the hole of the arvad. They showed him its hole. He placed his heel over the mouth of the hole and the arvad came out and bit him, and died. Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa placed the arvad over his shoulder and brought it to the study hall. He said to those assembled there: See, my sons, it is not the arvad that kills a person, rather transgression kills a person. The arvad has no power over one who is free of transgression.”
[10] y. Ta’anit 3.10, 66d.
[11] b. Ta’anit 23a.
[12] b. Berachot 27b-28a.
[13] Which Rubenstein believes may anyway be a corruption of the Bavli source.
[14] b. Bava Kama 117a.
[15] b. Bava Metzia 84a.
[16] Jacob Nachum Epstein, Introduction to the Text of the Mishna (Jeruslem: Magnes Press, 2nd edn, 1964 [Hebrew]), pp. 488-89.
[17] b. Ketuvot 62b.
[18] b. Menachot 29b.

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