Why the Talmud is the Only Rabbinic Work from Babylonia

The Babylonian Talmud as an oral library for rabbinic collections.


The Talmud

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” orally [3] 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 assemblages [10]

For example,

  • 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

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.

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.



Prof. Shai Secunda is Jacob Neusner Professor of Judaism at Bard College. He is a founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog, fellow at Project TABS, and editor of TheGemara.com. He is the author of The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context and Like a Hedge of Lilies: Menstruation and Difference in the Talmud and its Sasanian Context