The Editing of the Talmud

How the sages' debates across many generations became the monumental works known as the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds

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The Process

The actual term "editors" is found neither in the Yerushalmi nor in the Bavli. Indeed, both Talmuds are completely silent on how they were put together. A few scholars have even suggested that, as with the Yerushalmi, there was no editorial process at all in the Bavli: that the material simply grew as additions were made from time to time.

While the unfinished state of the Yerushalmi might just lend support to the view that this Talmud simply grew (though some editorial work is evident here as well) such an opinion is untenable for the Bavli. There is a uniform framework in the Bavli into which the words of the Amoraim are inserted and this framework is obviously the work of anonymous editors.

Our major source of information for the editing of the Talmud is the famous letter of Sherira Gaon (906-1006 CE Sherira Gaon was head of the Babylonian Academy; his famous letter--iggeret--was written to the Jewish Community in Kairouan, North Africa, and is in essence a response to the challenge of the Karaites--a Jewish group with a different view of legal interpretation of the Bible--that Rabbinic Judaism was not authoritative. In this letter, Sherira Gaon recounts the history and development of the Mishnah and the Talmud).

But this was compiled centuries after the "close" of the Talmud so that, while containing reliable traditions, the work does not solve all the problems and, at times, reads later conditions into the Talmudic sources. A close examination of the Bavli succeeds in detecting four stages in the construction of this massive edifice. First there are the bare opinions of the Amoraim, usually quoted in Hebrew. Secondly, these opinions were used by the anonymous editors in their creation of the framework to form the Talmud. Thirdly, a number of additions can be detected, introduced after the framework was complete, and according to Sherira and all subsequent scholars, these are attributed to the Saboraim (a word of uncertain derivation but obviously connected to the Talmudic term sevara, "theory", and hence the Saboraim were probably so called because they made some things clearer). Fourthly, scholars have detected a very few additions from the period of the early Geonim (academy heads).

Problems

Yet problems remain. For instance, there is no clear indication whether the Talmud was originally produced in written form or whether it was at first transmitted by word of mouth and was originally not a literary work at all. The French school in the Middle Ages, the leading exponent of which was Rashi, held that the Mishnah was originally a purely oral composition as was the Talmud, the whole being committed to writing as late as the eighth century. Maimonides and the Spanish school generally held that the Mishnah was a written work and that the Talmud, too, was originally produced as a literary composition.

The fact that there are numerous literary devices used in the framework, that it is beyond comprehension that such a gigantic, complex work could have been transmitted intact by word of mouth, and the fact that it was eventually written down on any showing, all lend the most powerful support to the view that the Bavli, at least, if not the Mishnah and the Yerushalmi, was originally a literary composition, though much of the argu­ment would apply to the Mishnah and the Yerushalmi as well.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.