Torah Life in Babylon

As the community grew, Babylonian Jewry developed unique Torah and political institutions. Twice yearly, during the months of Adar and Elul, many Jews took advantage of a break in the agricultural cycle to attend great Torah convocations led by leading scholars, known as Yarchei Kallah. A specific topic was chosen in advance, giving everyone the opportunity to prepare questions and pose new cases. Due to the vastness of the crowd, it was impossible to hear the speakers, so scholars were strategically positioned throughout the area, offering a simultaneous translation of what was being taught. In describing the splendor of the gathering, the Talmud relates that when the assembled people stood up, the dust that was shaken off their garments blocked out the sun. Similarly, the gentiles of the city in which the Yarchei Kallah was held were criticized for not being sufficiently inspired to convert.

Unlike Roman rule in Eretz Israel,the Babylonian government allowed the Jews total autonomy over internal affairs. The political leader of the Jews in Babylon, known as the Resh Galusa, or Head of the Exile, was invariably a direct descendant of King David (paternally, at least, in contrast to the Nasi of Eretz Israel, who descended from King David maternally.) The Resh Galusa possessed both judicial and police power; in addition, some Rashei Galusa were great scholars and righteous individuals. Mar Ukba, for example, performed great acts of charity, and Rabbi Huna, his father and a contemporary of Rabbi, was one of more than 60 important sages carrying the name Huna. The best-known Resh Galusa was the famous Bustenai, who lived in the Seventh Century. Other Rashei Galusa, however, were evil, terrorizing the people. In one case, the Resh Galusa's people poisoned a scholar whose halachic opinion they disliked, even though it concerned only a minor matter. All told, the position of Resh Galusa lasted hundreds of years, until the 10th Century, finally falling out of practice when Babylon lost its status as the center of world Jewry.

The Third Century

The generation of sages following the death of Rabbi was a bridge between the Tannaim and Amoraim. Several of Rabbi's prominent disciples, most notably Rav, were considered as both Tannaim and Amoraim. Although he himself was not mentioned in any Mishnah, Rav had the right – which he rarely exercised — to dispute a Mishnah as a Tanna. Two other students of Rabbi, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Oshiya, compiled an authoritative compendium of all beraisos. Indeed, the Talmud states that any beraisa not taught by these two sages is not reliable.

Rav, originally known as Abba Aricha, was Rabbi's outstanding disciple. Given the name Rav, similar to that of his teacher Rabbi, it illustrated that his greatness was unembellished by titles. Rav also had a reputation for not having spoken an unnecessary word during his entire life, and not walking even a short distance without wearing tefillin. When he traveled to Babylon, Rav did not settle in the main Jewish city of Nahardea, but moved instead to the town of Sura, then a spiritual wasteland. With tireless effort, Rav revived Jewish life in Sura, and it became the seat of a great yeshiva, one of two major Torah centers in Babylonia, rivaling only Nahardea.

Rav also composed several well known prayers, such as Vatodienu,in Shmone Esreh when a holiday occurs on Saturday night; major portions of the Rosh HaShanah Mussaf Amidah; and Yehi Rotzon, the introductory prayer recited when the upcoming month is announcedon the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh.

Shmuel, a famous contemporary of Rav, was the head of the Nahardea yeshiva. An accomplished astronomer, he is quoted as saying, "The pathways of the sky are as familiar to me as the streets of Nahardea." As such, Shmuel's astronomical calculations continue to play a significant role in the Jewish calendar. Distinguished study partners, Rav and Shmuel dispute hundreds of cases in the Talmud, with halacha decided on each's area of expertise. The Talmud rules according to Rav in ritual prohibitions and such practices as kashrus, the Sabbath, and prayers, while Shmuel's opinion is followed in matters of monetary law.

Relations with the Gentiles in Babylonia

Generally, life for the Jews in Babylonia was peaceful, as Roman or Christian anti-Semitism was not a factor there. When there were troubles, they were usually short-lived and local. In the middle of the Third Century, fire-worshippers known as Zoroastrians gained power in Babylonia, and outlawed lighting fires at certain times. The Talmud rules that in such a situation one may light Chanukah candles on his table rather than exposing them to public view. It also permitted moving a candle out of sight on the Sabbath, an act normally prohibited by muktzah regulations. One major event did not have Jewish origins: when the city of Nahardea was destroyed in a war, its famous yeshiva relocated in Pumbeditha.