The Babylonian Talmud as an Oral Library for Rabbinic Collections
Rabbinic Compilations in Late Antiquity:
Palestine vs. Babylonia
In late antiquity, rabbinic Jewry was divided into two centers: Galilee and Babylonia. It is surprising that only one rabbinic work, the Babylonian Talmud, was produced in late antique Babylonia, while numerous compilations, including the Mishnah and the Tosefta, several Midrashei Halakha as well as Midrashei Aggadah, were compiled in Roman Palestine. How might we explain this disparity?
One part of it is easy to explain: the absence of Babylonian tannaitic compilations – say, a Babylonian Tosefta or Babylonian Halakhic Midrash, derives from the fact that Babylonian Jewry did not emerge as a center of rabbinic learning until the third century CE, namely after the end of the tannaitic period circa 200 C.E. But that does not explain why Babylonian amoraim did not produce a single midrashic work akin to the classical Palestinian amoraic midrashim, such as Bereishit and Vayikra Rabbah.
Babylonian Rabbis Were Well Versed in Midrash
The absence of Babylonian midrashic works is especially surprising given the Babylonian rabbis’ interest in and devotion to midrash – there even was an expectation that they were to be generally proficient in midrash. For example, the great fourth century sage, Abaye, is castigated: “מאי טעמא לא שכיחת באגדתא” – why are you unfamiliar with the aggada?”1 To heighten the problem: hundreds of aggadic statements attributed to Babylonian rabbis, and according to one estimate, something like a third of the material in the Bavli is aggadic, while only an approximate sixth of the Yerushalmi is aggadic.2
This means that we need to sharpen our question: It is not so much “why did Babylonian rabbis not produce midrashic compilations” rather, “why did they not organize this material into complete, freestanding midrashic collections, as was the practice in the Land of Israel?”
The Orality of “Oral Torah” in Babylonia
Attention to the media of rabbinic text production and transmission may help us answer this problem. Although we normally think of writing as the ideal form for organizing, transmitting, and preserving knowledge, Talmud scholarship has conclusively determined that the Mishnah was “published” orally3 and subsequently transmitted in oral form for many centuries.4
No Talmudic Reference to Mishna as a Book!
Babylonian rabbis asserted that the “Oral Torah” – which was basically equivalent to the rabbinic study of Torah – must remain oral, and they explicitly forbade its writing.5 In keeping with this, there is not a single talmudic reference to amoraim opening up a physical volume of Mishnah for consultation; if a question arose regarding the proper text, a tanna – a professional rabbinic reciter – was consulted. Similarly, the Bavli itself seems to have remained in oral form well into the Geonic period. More broadly, they seem to assert that no rabbinic compilation should be committed to writing.6
Written Compilations from the Land of Israel
Not all the classical rabbinic works comprising the so-called “Oral Torah,” however, were actually oral. For example, the Sifra, a Palestinian Halakhic Midrash on Leviticus, and perhaps other halakhic midrashim, circulated in writing, likely even from the moment of publication.7 In addition, the Talmud contains scattered references to “ספרי דאגדתא – books of aggada” (e.g. b. Bava Batra 52a), which among other things were consulted by the third-century Galilean sages, R. Yoḥanan and Reish Laqish.
Thus, Babylonian rabbis were in a bind: They prohibited writing down Oral Torah, yet could not deny the existence of written midrashic compilations. This explains why the Bavli justifies the circulation of unspecified midrashic books, apparently produced in Palestine, by claiming that although technically, it is forbidden to write down “Oral Torah,” the writing down of these books was permitted out of a necessity to preserve the Torah. This is illustrated in the following passage:
בבלי גיטין דף ס ע”א
…ר’ יוחנן ור”ש בן לקיש מעייני בספרא דאגדתא בשבתא והא לא ניתן ליכתב! אלא כיון דלא אפשר – אעת לעשות לה’ הפרו תורתך.
b. Gittin 60a
… R. Yoḥanan and Reish Laqish would look into a book of aggada on the Sabbath. [How could this be?!] Is it not [the case that, as Oral Torah, they] are not given to be written? Rather, since it is not possible, [we apply the verse] “there is a time to do for the Lord – nullify your Torah!” (Ps 119:126)
Notably, Babylonian rabbis did not justify writing down of a halakhic code like the Mishnah. Instead, they prohibited writing it down, presumably because they felt it could be preserved successful orally.
Why Aggada was Written Down and not Halakha
Perhaps the nature of certain aggadic collections as commentaries on the “Written Torah” allowed them to be written—they may be seen as extensions of the Bible, which was preserved in writing. Alternatively, the commentary style of the midrashim may have been more difficult to commit to memory than the apodictic halakhic teachings of the Mishnah; this may have facilitated the allowance to write them down so that their contents would not be lost.
To sum up, in their own study and development of Midrash, Babylonian amoraim were reluctant to produce new midrashic compilations that would have to be written down. On the other hand, the Babylonian amoraim studied Mishnah with the aim of creating a comprehensive commentary, i.e., the Talmud, since it would take the oral form of the Mishnah itself.
Thus, there are no classical Babylonian midrashim on biblical books; the only rabbinic work to have been produced in amoraic Babylonia was the Babylonian Talmud, which remained oral through the Geonic period.
Preserving Babylonian Midrashim
in the Framework of the Bavli
The choice not to produce midrashic collections created a problem: How can the midrashim created in Babylonia be preserved? The solution was to incorporate these biblical exegeses within the framework of the (still oral) Babylonian Talmud. This was not easy to accomplish, since the Bavli was organized as a commentary on the Mishnah and not on a biblical book. One way to preserve midrashic teachings was by linking them with halakhic statements attributed to the same rabbinic transmitters.8
This explains, in part, why the Bavli has a tendency to move off topic in seemingly jumpy and confusing streams of consciousness.
Incorporating Sub-Tractates and Midrashic Collections
On occasion, the Bavli’s redactors “paused” talmudic discussions relating to the mishnah at hand in order to quote extensive collections of material. In the mid-20th century, a leading Talmudist, Avraham Weiss,9 demonstrated how a number of aggadic sugyot were more than just midrashic tangents, and were actually collections incorporated into the Talmud, which we might think of as “mini-midrashim” – in the case of collections of biblical interpretation, or “sub-tractates” of non-biblical assemblages10
- Gittin 68b-70b contains a lengthy collection of remedies which has signs of being initially produced as a self-standing unit, prior to its incorporation into a discussion of someone who was seized by delirium issuing a divorce, as per m. Gittin 7:1.
- A well-known example of a mini-midrash is b. Shabbat 86-89, which contains a substantial collection relating to the revelation at Sinai, spurred by a related verse cited in m. Shabbat 9:3 from Exodus 19.
These “sub-tractates” and “mini-midrashim” were not simply unplanned tangents that were allowed to proliferate, nor ad hoc incorporations of stray midrashic comments, but sizable, preexisting collections consciously inserted by the talmudic redactors to save oral material that might otherwise have been lost.
The Bavli as an Oral Library
Talmud as a Library
The metaphor of the Bavli as a library helps explain this phenomenon. While modern libraries use the taxonomy of library science to organize their books on physical shelves, the Bavli utilizes the pre-existing structure of the orders and tractates of the Mishnah as a kind of oral “shelving” system to arrange its material.
In other words, we need to think of the Bavli not only, or even primarily, as a commentary on Mishnah, but as an oral library system built on the structure of the Mishnah for preserving and transmitting various text-collections to future generations.
Conclusion: Knowing Where to Look for Babylonian Midrash Collections
As it turns out then, our initial question of why the geographical distribution of classical rabbinic literature is lopsided was misguided. As a matter of fact, Babylonian rabbis did compile and preserve midrashim, just as in the Land of Israel. However, instead of doing so in the form of midrashim following the order of the biblical verses, the Babylonian midrashim are organized according to the Mishnah’s structure, and preserved in large and small chunks.11
All of this is easier said than done. Finding the appropriate place for midrashic collections, and building the necessary scaffolding for this material required great ingenuity on the part of the Bavli’s redactors. Ultimately, it was this artistry that transformed the Bavli from being a mere commentary on the Mishnah into the vast, shimmering “Sea of Talmud” which we know today.
- b. Sanhedrin 100a. ↩
- See Marc Hirshman, “Aggadic Midrash,” in The Literature of the Sages 2 (ed. Shmuel Safrai et al; Assen, Netherlands, 2006), p. 130. Some of this includes material not linked to the biblical exegesis, such as sage stories. Still, the figure is remarkable. ↩
- Oralists (people who study orality) have stressed that modern skepticism about the memory capabilities of the ancients reflects our almost total reliance on writing for the preservation of texts, where even memorizing a few lines of poetry is difficult. However, since antiquity poets and priests like Homeric poets and Zoroastrian ritualists developed sophisticated tools for memorization that enabled them to produce and commit to memory vast amounts of oral material. Among other evidence, the formulaic language of the Mishnah suggests a text that was produced for oral performance and transmission. See for example Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Shanks Alexander, however, subscribes to a mixed environment of writing and oral creation, which has yet to become widely accepted in the field. ↩
- Saul Lieberman made the classic statement on the Mishnah’s oral publication in his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literature Transmission Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the Century B.C.E. IV Century C.E. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1962), pp. 83-99. ↩
- See especially b. Gittin 60a. In unpublished research, Dr. Yair Furstenberg has shown that the strict prohibition to write down “Oral Torah” is essentially a Babylonian innovation, one which Palestinian amoraim did not agree with. Together, we are preparing an article for publication that shows how this development can best be understood by taking into account the Bavli’s Sasanian religious context. ↩
- TABS’ is planning a future article on the topic of oral study and Babylonian rabbinic culture. For a recent, definitive statement about the Mishnah’s orality throughout the talmudic period and related matters, see Yaakov Sussman, ‘Oral Torah in Its Literal Sense’, in Mehqerei Talmud III: Talmudic Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Professor Ephraim E. Urbach (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 2005), pp. 209–384. For the Bavli and orality, see Yaakov Elman’s magisterial “Orality and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud” Oral Tradition 14 (1999): 52-99. ↩
- Shlomo Naeh, “The Structure and Division of Torat Kohanim (A): Scrolls,” Tarbiẓ 66 (1997): 483-515 (Hebrew). ↩
- To take one example, b. Berakhot 15b cites a ruling of R. Tavi in the name of R. Yoshiah regarding how one should recite the Shema – the topic of the Bavli’s local discussion of m. Berakhot 2:2. This is immediately followed by an unconnected midrashic reading of Proverbs 30:15 which is attributed to R. Tavi in the name of R. Yoshiah – the very same pair of rabbis. Subsequently, the Bavli returns to discussing the paragraphs of Shema. It is true that the Yerushalmi does on occasion employ this redactional method. However, the linking of “off-topic” statements attributed to the same tradents is nowhere near as extensive as in the Bavli. ↩
- Weiss (b. 1895) escaped the Holocaust when he escaped Nazi-occupied Poland to take up an academic post at Yeshiva University in 1940. After a productive career in New York, he moved to Israel in the 1960’s and taught at Bar Ilan. He died in 1970. ↩
- See especially Abraham Weiss, Studies in the Literature of the Amoraim (Hebrew; New York: Horev and Yeshiva University, 1962). ↩
- There is one complete Babylonian midrash to have survived – the Babylonian Esther midrash – whose significance I will explore in a future TABS essay; this midrash is the exception that proves the rule. It also gives us a fascinating view into the way in which the Babylonian Esther midrash was put together. It is also possible that complete midrashim were in fact compiled in Babylonia, but were lost or cut into smaller pieces when they had to be “shelved” according to the structure of the Mishnah, which did not invite commentaries following the order of a biblical book. ↩