Tale of Two Talmuds

Two versions of the Talmud--the Bavli and Yerushalmi--have much in common but also reflect differences in language, length, and cultural context.

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When people speak of "the Talmud," they are usually referring to the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), composed in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq). However, there is also another version of the Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), compiled in what is now northern Israel. The Yerushalmi, also called the Palestinian Talmud or the Talmud Eretz Yisrael (Talmud of the Land of Israel), is shorter than the Bavli, and has traditionally been considered the less authoritative of the two Talmuds.

Like the Talmud Bavli, the Talmud Yerushalmi consists of two layers--the Mishnah and the Gemara. For the most part, the Mishnah of the two Talmuds is identical, though there are some variations in the text and in the order of material. The Gemara of the Yerushalmi, though, differs significantly in both content and style from that of the Bavli. First, the Yerushalmi Gemara is primarily written in Palestinian Aramaic, which is quite different from the Babylonian dialect. The Yerushalmi contains more long narrative portions than the Bavli does and, unlike the Bavli, tends to repeat large chunks of material. The presence of these repeated passages has led many to conclude that the editing of the Yerushalmi was never completed. Others, however, have argued that these repetitions represent a deliberate stylistic choice, perhaps aimed at reminding readers of connections between one section and another.

Comparing the Two Texts

While the Bavli favors multi-part, complex arguments, Yerushalmi discussions rarely include lengthy debate. For instance, both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi discuss the following Mishnah:

"For all seven days [of Sukkot], one should turn one's Sukkah into one's permanent home, and one's house into one's temporary home. . ."(Sukkah 2: 9).

The Bavli Gemara embarks on a long discussion of the validity of this statement in the Mishnah:

". . .The rabbis taught, 'You shall dwell [in booths on the holiday of Sukkot]' (Leviticus 23:42) means 'you shall live in booths.' From this, they said 'for all seven days, one should make the Sukkah [temporary booth or hut] one's permanent home, and one's house temporary home. How should one do this? One should bring one's nice dishes and couches into the Sukkah, and should eat, drink and sleep in the Sukkah.' Is this really so? Didn't Rava say that one should study Torah and Mishnah in the Sukkah, but should study Talmud outside of the Sukkah? (This statement appears to contradict the Mishnah's assertion that during Sukkot, one should do everything inside the Sukkah.) This is not a contradiction. [The Mishnah] refers to reviewing what one has already studied, while [Rava's statement] refers to learning new material [on which one might not be able to concentrate while in the Sukkah]" (Talmud Bavli Sukkah 28b-29a).

As proof of this resolution, the Bavli goes on to relate a story of two rabbis who leave their Sukkah in order to study new material. Finally, the Gemara suggests an alternate resolution of the apparent conflict--namely, that one learning Talmud is required to stay in a large Sukkah, but may leave a small Sukkah.

In contrast, the Yerushalmi offers very little discussion of the Mishnah:

"The Torah says, 'You shall dwell in booths.' 'Dwell' always means 'live,' as it says, 'you will inherit the land and dwell there' (Deuteronomy 17:14). This means that one should eat and sleep in the Sukkah and should bring one's dishes there" (Talmud Yerushalmi Sukkah 2:10).

After this brief definition of terms and law, the Yerushalmi moves on to a new discussion.

Parallels Between the Two Talmuds

As might be expected, the Bavli quotes mostly Babylonian rabbis, while the Yerushalmi more often quotes Palestinian rabbis. There is, however, much cross-over between the two Talmuds. Both Talmuds record instances of rabbis traveling from the land of Israel to Babylonia and vice versa. Many times, the rabbis of one Talmud will compare their own practice to that of the other religious center. Early midrashim and other texts composed in Palestine appear more frequently in the Yerushalmi, but are also present in the Bavli.

Both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi follow the Mishnah's division into orders, tractates, and chapters. Neither contains Gemara on all 73 tractates of the Mishnah. The Bavli includes Gemara on thirty-six and a half non-consecutive tractates. The Yerushalmi has Gemara on the first 39 tractates of the Mishnah. Some scholars believe that the differences in the Gemara reflect the different priorities and curricula of Babylonia and of the Land of Israel. Others think that parts of each Gemara have been lost.

Within the Yerushalmi, quoted sections of the Mishnah are labeled as "halakhot" (laws). Citations of the Yerushalmi text usually refer to the text by tractate, chapter, and halakhah. Thus, "Sukkah 2:10" (quoted above) means "Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 2, halakhah 10." Some editions of the Yerushalmi are printed in folio pages, each side of which has two columns. Thus, Yerushalmi citations also often include a reference to the page and column number (a, b, c, or d). In contrast, the Bavli is printed on folio pages, and is referred to by page number and side (a or b). These differences result from variations in early printings, and not from choices within the rabbinic communities of Babylonia and the land of Israel.

In most editions of the Yerushalmi, the Talmud text is surrounded by the commentary of the 18th-century rabbi, Moses ben Simeon Margoliot, known as the P'nai Moshe. The P'nai Moshe clarifies and comments on the text of the Yerushalmi, in much the same way that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century) explains and discusses the text of the Bavli.

Medieval sources credit Rabbi Yohanan, a third-century sage, with editing the Yerushalmi. However, the fact that the Yerushalmi quotes many fourth and fifth-century rabbis makes this suggestion impossible. From the identities of the rabbis quoted in the Yerushalmi, and from the historical events mentioned in the text, most contemporary scholars conclude that this Talmud was edited between the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century CE. The codification of the Bavli took place about a hundred years later.

Cultural Concerns

The discussions of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi reflect the differing concerns of the cultures from which the texts emerged. A comparison of the narrative elements of the two Talmuds suggests that the rabbis of the Yerushalmi had more interaction with non-rabbis--both Jews and non-Jews--than the rabbis of the Bavli did. The Yerushalmi, produced in a place under Hellenistic control, reflects Greek influences, both in its language and in its content.

Traditionally, the Bavli has been considered the more authoritative of the two Talmuds. This privileging of the Bavli reflects the fact that Babylonia was the dominant center of Jewish life from talmudic times through the beginning of the medieval period. The first codifiers of halakhah (Jewish law), based in Baghdad in the eighth through 10th centuries, used the Bavli as the basis of their legal writings. Reflecting the prevalent attitude toward the Yerushalmi, the Machzor Vitri, written in France in the 11th or 12th century, comments, "When the Talmud Yerushalmi disagrees with our Talmud, we disregard the Yerushalmi."

Today, there is renewed interest in studying the Talmud Yerushalmi. This interest reflects the current academic emphases on tracing the development of the Talmudic text, and on understanding the cultures that produced these texts. Many scholars attempt to learn about the history of the talmudic text by comparing parallel passages in the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Comparisons between the two Talmuds also yield new information about the relative attitudes and interests of Babylonian and Palestinian rabbis.

The traditional approach to learning Talmud, which emphasized the legal elements of the text, tended to dismiss the Yerushalmi as incomplete and non-authoritative. Today, interest in the literary, cultural and historical aspects of traditional texts has prompted a rediscovery of this Talmud, and a willingness to reconsider its place in the Jewish canon.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.