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.