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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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.