The Talmud is a vast compendium of Jewish law and lore – the product of several hundred years of scholarship. There were actually two Talmuds: Jerusalem and Babylonian. They are quite different works. The Babylonian Talmud is uniquely vast, comprehensive, and marvelously constructed. It is one of the greatest products of religious literature of all time; a central pillar in both the teachings and practice of Judaism.

It is impossible to provide a fitting description of the Talmud. It needs to be experienced to be understood. And like that metaphorical elephant, it can be approached from so many angles.

Some will be struck by the vastness of the work. It consists of 2,711 folios, or 5,422 pages, mostly written in dense, cryptic text. Others will be astonished by its comprehensiveness. There is hardly a topic of Jewish law or life that is not covered somewhere in the Talmud. It serves as an encyclopedia of the oral teaching of the early sages.

The impact that the Talmud has on Jewish life cannot be overstated. It is the final word on Jewish rite and practice. The spiritual fulfillment Jews derive from poring over its pages is immense, as if one is almost present in the study halls of antiquity. Judaism as we know it today would be unimaginable without the Talmud.

And yet, how many people know who created the Talmud? Everyone knows that Moses gave us the Torah, David composed the Psalms, and Rabbi Judah the Prince edited the Mishnah. The Medieval greats, such as Rashi and Rambam (Maimonides) are names on the tip of every knowledgeable tongue. These are the most celebrated figures in sacred Jewish literature. But what about the Talmud?

Scholar and Leader

The one who compiled the Babylonian Talmud was the great teacher and leader Rav Ashi (352–427 CE). Journals containing many of the teachings of the Talmud were copied, shared, and studied in the generations prior to Rav Ashi, but he compiled all those teachings into a single authoritative text.

The process of editing the Talmud continued for several generations after Rav Ashi, but he created the main body. Whatever was done subsequently was merely an elaboration or clarification of his titanic accomplishment.

What was the secret of his success? It certainly helped that Rav Ashi was wealthy and that he lived a long life, but perhaps his most notable quality was his ability to unite the greatest minds and inspire their dedication to a monumental task that spanned several decades.

Babylonian Scholarship and Fragmentation

Here is the backstory. The first major Talmudic seminary in Babylon was founded by Rav. His real name was Abba bar Eivo (or “Abba the Tall,” on account of his physical height), but his scholarship and spiritual stature were so great that he was known simply as Rav, meaning rabbi or teacher. The seminary was situated in Sura in southern Iraq. Under Rav, the academy rose to great prominence, becoming a magnet for all the most promising scholars of the time.

Upon Rav’s passing, the leadership of the Sura academy was passed to Rav Huna, an outstanding scholar whose teachings feature heavily in the Talmud. But the center of gravity then switched to Rav’s illustrious colleague, Shmuel, who had his own academy in the city of Neherda’a, in Western Iraq. Rav and Shmuel were the preeminent rabbinic figures of their generation, and upon the passing of Rav it was natural that the mantel would transfer to Shmuel.

Tragically, two years after the passing of Shmuel, the city of Neherda’a was destroyed by a band of brigands, never to be restored. Under those circumstances, it could be expected that Sura would have once again become the unparalleled center of Torah in Babylon. Yet that is not what happened.

It seems that a process of fragmentation had begun to occur, whereby great scholars established academies of their own, rather than congregating in one centralized location. Underlying this trend was a degree of divisiveness.

One significant event highlights the problem.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a) relates an occasion when Rav Huna was having a discussion about the laws of lost property with his most distinguished student, Rav Chisda.

They could not come to an agreement, and Rav Chisda ended up leaving the academy.

This was a huge blow to the stature of Sura.


For two centuries, no single seminary reached the heights of Sura under Rav. Until Rav Ashi. His academy was in Mata Mechasiya, a suburb of Sura. In his day, the Sura academy again became the unquestionable center of Torah scholarship – and that is how the Talmud became possible.

Rav Ashi had made a point—over several decades—of befriending the scholars in all the academies dotted around Babylon. When he became the head of the academy in Sura, he brought them together into a great committee for the preservation of Jewish learning. Each academy had its own teachings and traditions, at times at odds with each other. Rav Ashi’s greatness was in being able to blend all those diverse streams into a breathtaking mosaic.

Twice a year the sleepy suburb of Mata Mechasiya would transform for an entire month as tens of thousands of scholars descended on the place to study and share. So impressive was this phenomenon, that Rav Ashi wondered how the gentile inhabitants of the area did not convert to Judaism, bearing witness as they did to such an awe-inspiring sight.1

This unity brought back glory to Sura, and that enabled the creation of the Babylonian Talmud.

In Praise of Peace

Rav Ashi said many teachings in praise of peace2 and against quarrels.3 He also preached the value of learning in throngs. Not surprisingly, the Talmud declares that “Since the days of Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah) until Ravi Ashi, there was never a comparable time when all the Torah sages were convened in one place.”4

Rav Ashi combined the vast knowledge of the array of scholars before him, giving the Babylonian Talmud its distinctive textual fabric. He wove the teachings of more than 500 scholars into an intricate tapestry, creating an exquisite monument of Torah learning that glows brightly some 1,500 years later.

In a very real sense, the Talmud is Rav Ashi – and Rav Ashi is the Talmud. His spirit animates the entire project. The Talmud was not just his life’s work – it was his life. It embodies his unique values of cooperation and unity.

In our time too, working in collaboration is our most assured path to greatness. The Jewish People today comprise numerous different communities, each with their own traditions. But when we come together in our joint love of Torah, we can achieve glorious heights.

Take it from one of our greatest stars, Rav Ashi.