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The Two Talmuds

The Two Talmuds



Why are there two Talmuds? And why is the "Babylonian Talmud" considered more authoritative than the "Jerusalem Talmud"?


You are correct that the Babylonian Talmud is much more widely studied than the Jerusalem Talmud. Furthermore, if there is a disagreement between the two talmuds, the halachah (Torah law) follows the Babylonian Talmud.

The simplest explanation for this: The redaction of the Jerusalem Talmud was forcibly interrupted in the mid-fourth century when the Romans suppressed Jewish scholarship in Israel and most of the Talmudic scholars fled to Babylon. The redactors of the Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, were able to thoroughly review the Talmud and present us—about 150 years later—with a finished product, which became accepted as the final word in Jewish law and tradition.

Another virtue of the Babylonian Talmud is that while the Jerusalem Talmud consists mostly of halachic rulings, the Babylonian Talmud is a mix (a play on the word Babel, meaning “mixed”) of scripture, halachah and discussion. We get a full diet, as per the prescription of the sages, “A person should divide his learning between scripture, halachah and erudition.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 24a; Tosefot, ibid.)

But on the very same page of the Talmud referenced above, we find Rabbi Yirmiya telling us that when the prophet Yirmiya (a.k.a. Jeremiah) said, “He causes me to dwell in darkness,” he was referring to the Babylonian Talmud. Rashi explains: The Jerusalem Talmud gets straight to the point and provides a clear ruling, while the Babylonian is full of questions and doubts, often without any resolution.

So if the Babylonian Talmud is darkness, written in the darkness of exile, while the Jerusalem Talmud was written in the light of the Holy Land, closer to the time of the Temple, why do we choose darkness over light?

The Rebbe discussed this question many times and explained it this way: When a person searches in the light, he finds what he is looking for immediately. When the lights are dim, however, he is forced to search further, examining everything his hand touches, turning it again and again, struggling to understand, categorize and put the pieces together. In the long run, who understands deeper? Not the one who saw the truth at first glance, but the one who struggled to find it. As it turns out, the exile provided something that could not be achieved at home.

The Rebbe developed this theme further in many of his talks. It turns out, he noted, that the distinction between the two talmuds is not just in content, but in approach: The Jerusalem approach focuses on content--what, while the Babylonian is all about process--how. In the long run, the Babylonian approach became the standard Jewish approach to knowledge: Torah learning is much more about the experience of getting there than it is about what you find once you’re there. That’s one explanation why, even once we have the answer we were looking for, we preserve the entire discussion and study it again and again. Not only the destination, but the path itself is also Torah.

Eliezer Posner is a former member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
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Anonymous Cape Town August 23, 2013

Path and Destination Without the path there is no destination. Without the destination what is the purpose of the path? When climbing a mountain the toughest route often takes you to the most awesome view. The climbing causes much suffering. The sleeping at the top most enjoyable. Reply

tariq iqbal lucknow, india August 1, 2011

excellent Earlier i was confused about the two but this is excellent reasoning to make the concept clear.Thank you Rabbi. Reply

Bill Robinson HCMC, Vietnam September 23, 2008

Perhaps Perhaps the answer is more simple, although the explanation I had in mind already raises more questions even as I am typing. But this is the heart of Talmudic study, is it not? The proposal of an idea which in its consideration and explanation creates more and more questions.

It seems to me to be the task given to our People--the enlightening of the darkness. G-d seems to have chosen us to lead the world into the light of wisdom and justice, and one simply needs to look at what Jews all over the world have accomplished, invented, created, and shared and this evidence becomes obvious.

Perhaps the Jerusalem Text exists to provide a reliable reference source should one who is searching the Babylonian Treatise for wisdom and enlightenment in the most fundamental sense need to be redirected along the correct path. Reply

Zalman Leib NY September 23, 2008

Dissemination The influence of heads of the Yeshivos in Babylon in the period of the Geonim (from the sixth to the eleventh century,) contributed further to the dissemination of the Babylonian Talmud, until it became recognized as the Halachic authority. Reply

Jacques Abourbih Sudbury, CANADA September 3, 2008

Bavli vs Yerushalmi As a sepahrdi I was taught more from Yerushalmi than Bavli. In the end perhaps halachah is according to Bavli, but both are the word of G-d given at Sinai. We should not encourage distinctions, but invite to learn Torah equally. Reply

Anonymous August 25, 2008

Thanks. I had thought that I knew the answer to this question but this beautifully articulated and fully explained answer really opened my eyes. Thanks Reply

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