What Is the Babylonian Talmud?

Based on the teachings of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and other earlier rabbinic works, the rabbis of Babylonia, known as Amoraim, accumulated generations of scholarship, interpretations, and discussion. Arranged as a flowing commentary on much of the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud presents this wisdom in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic. The Babylonian Talmud is typically printed on 2,711 double pages, often with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, composed in medieval France-Germany.

Study the Babylonian Talmud With English Translation

Best-Known Babylonian Rabbis: Abaye and Rava

The best known of all Amoraim lived in the middle of the Fourth Century. Because Abaye’s father died before he was born, and his mother died giving birth to him, Abaye was raised by Rabbah, the leading Torah sage of the time. Interestingly, the Talmud considers Abaye fortunate for not having parents, because the mitzvah of honoring parents is extremely difficult to fulfill properly. As for Rava, his power of concentration was legendary: the Talmud relates that while studying he sat on his fingers, causing them to bleed profusely, but he did not realize it. Their disputes are found throughout the entire Talmud, to such an extent that the Talmud is often called "the discussions of Abaye and Rava." Halacha follows Rava in all but six cases, one of which is a fairly common occurrence: the case when one finds an object without identifying marks, which the owner has not yet realized is missing but who will surely despair of recovering it when he does notice that it is missing. Abaye, whose opinion is followed, says that the finder may not keep it, while Rava allows him to. One of their disciples was Rav Papa, who had 10 sons who became Torah scholars. It is customary when completing the study of a Talmudic tractate to mention all 10 of Rav Papa's sons to invoke their memory.

The Arrangement of the Babylonian Talmud

By the middle of the Fourth Century, Christian persecution in Eretz Israel caused the remainder of the sages to immigrate to Babylonia. For the first time since the Babylonian Exile nearly 800 years previously, all Torah scholarship was concentrated in one area. Led by Abaye and Rava, this august assembly debated new cases, analyzing decisions and explanations of earlier Amoraim, checking them for inconsistencies, and provided explanatory comments on the Mishnah. These discussions were fixed in a formalized lexicon, and form the bulk of the Babylonian Talmud. At first, however, this material was not written down, and each topic was not assigned its place in a text. This task was left for the codifiers of the Talmud, Rav Ashi and Ravina II.

Sealing the Babylonian Talmud

Once again, G‑d granted the Jewish people a period of tranquility before times became bad, in order to facilitate a monumental task – in this case sealing the Babylonian Talmud. As in the days of Rabbi Judah HaNasi, Rav Ashi, the leader of the Jewish people, had the three qualities necessary for this endeavor: supreme political power granted him by the Babylonian authorities, universal recognition as the greatest Torah scholar of the era, and unsurpassed wealth. As such, he spent close to 60 years in conjunction with other sages editing the voluminous material known as the Gemara, making a first draft and then a final copy.At that time, not only were the halachic conclusions written down, but also the argumentation of previous generations of Amoraim up to his own time. Unlike the Mishnah, the Gemara was written in great detail, to facilitate understanding from the text itself.

In many ways, the Gemara clarifies the Mishnah, establishing which halachic opinions are binding, providing derivations for the laws, and teaching moral lessons in the form of homilies and stories. After Rav Ashi passed away in 426 CE, Ravina II, who died in 500 CE, continued the final editing and halachic writing. At that point, the Jewish people accepted that the Babylonian Talmud, composed of the Mishnah and the Gemara, was the final halachic authority. No one could decide any matter contradictory to the Talmud, and all future decisions had to be based on it. To this day, the sine qua non of an observant Jew is his adherence to the Talmud, and one who denies any teaching of the Talmud is considered a heretic.

The Rabanan Savoroi

In the middle of the Fifth Century widespread religious persecution broke out in Babylonia, instigated by Persian fanatics. Fortunately, the major work of redacting the Babylonian Talmud had been finished. At that time there remained some relatively minor editing — resolving issues that Rav Ashi and Ravina II had left open, and adding such explanatory notes as the first page of Tractate Kiddushin and the two-dot quotes preceding portions of the Mishnah under discussion. The sages responsible for this work, coming after the Amoraim, were known as Rabanan Savoroi, (the explainers), and the Talmud assumed its final form during their time. Simultaneously, 500-589 CE, the Jewish people underwent severe tribulations in Babylonia – and it was only due to the efforts of the Rabanan Savoroi that Torah was successfully transmitted during such turbulent times. Some of the Rabanan Savoroi include Rabbi Sama, Rabbi Rechumi, Rabbi Aina, and Rabbi Simona. During their time, the so-called minor tractates of the Talmud were completed, including Maseches Soferim and Maseches Semachos. In all, the Rabanan Savoroi’s total additions to the Babylonian Talmud comprise less than 2% of the text.

It had been a long journey, from oral arrangement by Abaye and Rava, to major writing by Rav Ashi, final halachos by Ravina II, resolution of unresolved issues by the early Rabanan Savoroi, and finally clarifications and introductory remarks by the later Rabanan Savoroi. The Babylonian Talmud was complete.

Transmission of the Babylonian Talmud

Known simply as the Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud covers almost all of the orders of Moed, Nashim, Nezikin and Kodashim. Zeraim and Taharos are represented by only one tractate each, Berachos and Niddah respectively. A monumental work of scholarship, the Babylonian Talmud has become the heart and soul of the Jewish people. Even the word scholarship is defined as one’s knowledge of the Talmud. Its study has given Jews many things, not the least of which is succor and strength to withstand all vicissitudes of life.

An all-encompassing work, the Talmud discusses not only law and ethics but also such practical matters such as investment strategy and unhealthful practices. Its eclectic topics range from the equitable distribution of profits in a partnership to the state of the world in the Messianic Era. Humorous anecdotes are related, such as the story of the man who boxed his friend's ear and was fined half a zuz (a type of coin). However, since the boxer had only a one-zuz coin, and his friend had no change, he boxed his friend's ear again and told him to keep the change. Heartbreaking stories are also told, such as the terrible suffering of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Perhaps because of its greatness, throughout the generations the Talmud has been the target of anti-Semites, who knew that to destroy the Talmud is to destroy the Jewish people. It was publicly burned in the Middle Ages and again by the Nazis. For example, in 1940, the Reich Security Main Office sent the following directive to German authorities in Poland:

“The continued emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the West spells a continued spiritual regeneration of world Jewry, as it is mainly the Eastern Jews who supply a large proportion of the rabbis, Talmud teachers, etc., owing to their orthodox-religious beliefs, and they are urgently needed by Jewish organizations active in the United States."

Transmitted with remarkable accuracy over the generations, the Talmud has survived the inevitable mistakes that creep in due to hand copying such vast material. To this day, Jews spend countless hours engrossed in its study, with many scholars devoting their lives to immersion in the sea of Talmud. A popular system of study, known as Daf Yomi, was instituted in 1923. Participants study one page each day, completing the Talmud's 2,711 pages in seven and a half years. A massive worldwide celebration is held at the end of the cycle, when many thousands of Jews gather in such immense arenas as New York’s Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum, with others following on satellite hookups or staging their own celebrations.

Generations of Amoraim

There were seven generations of Amoraim in Babylonia and four in Eretz Israel.The Babylonian Amoraim ranged from 200-500 CE, including:

In Babylon:

Generation 1: Rav,Shmuel, Rabbi Hiyya, Rabbi Oshiya

Generation 2: Rav Huna, Rabbi Judah, Rabbah bar bar Hana

Generation 3: Rav Chisda, Rav Sheshes, Rav Zera

Generation 4: Rabbah, Rabbi Joseph

Generation 5: Abaye, Rava

Generation 6: Rav Papa, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak

Generation 7: Ravina I, Rav Ashi, Ravina II

In Eretz Israel(c.200-350 CE):

Generation 1: Rabbi Jochanan, Resh Lakish.

Generation 2: Ulla, Rabbi Abahu.

Generation 3: Rabbi Ami, Rabbi Asi.

Generation 4: Rav Zevid.