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February 15, 2022 11:40 am

Why Are There Two Talmuds? The Answer: The Diaspora

avatar by Jacob Sivak


A page of Talmud. Photo: Chajm Guski/Wikimedia

Recently, a new translation of the Jerusalem Talmud was made available on Sefaria, the free access web interactive platform for Jewish texts that was established a little over 10 years ago. The Babylonian Talmud, including Modern Hebrew and English translations by Rabbi Adin Steinsalz, was placed on Sefaria in 2017.

The Babylonian Talmud, which is substantially larger than the Jerusalem Talmud, has been the Talmud of choice. The worldwide sequential one-page-a-day Daf Yomi study of the Talmud, initiated in 1923, which takes place over a seven-and-a-half year cycle (the last cycle involved 350,000 participants), uses the Babylonian Talmud.

The Jerusalem Talmud often gets overlooked, in part because it was not as well edited as the Babylonian Talmud, but also because it focuses on issues related to life in what was then called “Palestine,” the place where it was written. While the commentaries in the Babylonian Talmud are extensive and far reaching, the Jerusalem Talmud is a terser document.

The Talmud, a compendium of Jewish law (Mishnah) and commentaries (Gemara), was written early in the Common Era. The Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi) was compiled roughly between the 3rd and 4th centuries, after two Jewish revolts (67 and 137 CE) against the Romans. While written in the Holy Land, it was not written in Jerusalem, but further north, primarily in Tiberius, Sepphoris (Tzipori), and Caesarea, the centers of Jewish life after the destruction of Jerusalem.

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The Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) was written in Babylon (modern day Iraq) in various Jewish academies — the most prominent of which were Sura and Pumbedita. It was mainly written during the 4th and 5th centuries, but editing continued into the 10th century.

Because of their size (the larger one, the Babylonian Talmud, is made up of 2,711 double sided folios containing 63 tractates, or treatises), and the fact that both editions are written in ancient Aramaic, Talmud scholars have, until recent times, been a somewhat select group.

Emanuel Deutsch published the first English description of the Talmud, its history, and what it contains, in the Quarterly Review in 1867. The first English translation of a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud was published in 1891. Print editions of the Talmud in modern Hebrew and in English have been available for a while, but placing them on the Sefaria platform has made them available to a much wider audience.

So, why two Talmuds?

I think the existence of the two Talmuds reflects the major historical transition that took place when the center of Jewish life shifted from Israel to the Diaspora.

The shift was gradual, taking place over five to six hundred years. The Jewish population in Israel did not just disappear after the 67 CE and 137 CE revolts. True, the population center moved from Jerusalem to the Galilee; but Jews continued to constitute a majority of the population of the Holy Land until at least the 6th century. An autonomous Jewish Patriarchate was allowed to exist until 425 CE, and dozens of new synagogues were built throughout the land during this time. The Beit Alpha synagogue, noted for its elaborate mosaic floor, was built in the 6th century, while the extensive ruins at Tzipori (Sepphoris) are in keeping with a large and active Jewish community.

Today we appear to be going through a transition in the opposite direction. A significant number of the Jewish population now lives in Israel, and the higher Israeli birth rate (for secular and religious Jews), as well as continued aliyah, means that this difference will increase. At the same time, Israel has become a vibrant center in all aspects of Jewish life, including Judaic studies. The Diaspora won’t disappear, but its influence in Jewish affairs will likely diminish.

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo.

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