A Talmud in Exile: The Continuing Conversation

by Alyssa Gray in

Every student of the Bavli (Baylonian Talmud) is aware of the enormous amount of Eretz Israel (Yerushalmi/Palestinian Talmud) material it contains—tannaitic sources, obviously, but also amoraic. The Bavli student who also keeps one eye on the Yerushalmi, studying a tractate in both Talmuds, is aware of something else: the two Talmuds’ treatments of the same mishnah may often exhibit striking similarities in structure and content. I had been aware of and fascinated by this phenomenon for many years prior to beginning my graduate work. While in graduate school, I was somewhat mystified and certainly dissatisfied by some contemporary scholars’ stubborn insistence that while this phenomenon certainly merits study, one possible conclusion simply could not and would not be entertained: that a Bavli tractate may have been aware of its Yerushalmi counterpart. The Bavli’s ignorance of the Yerushalmi—which is the old wissentschaftliche consensus on the relationship between the Talmuds—was taken as a given, treated not as a testable theory, but as fact.

Did a Bavli tractate ‘know’ and ‘rely’ on its Yerushalmi counterpart?

The formulated question that motivated my research—did a Bavli tractate “know” and “rely” on its Yerushalmi counterpart—emerged from the questions and concerns of scholarship on the synoptic “problem” in rabbinic literature (as Shaye Cohen put it) in which I was immersed and to which I was responding at the time (the mid- to late 1990’s). The principal writers were Shamma Friedman, Yaakov Sussman, Noah Aminoah (to a lesser extent), Jacob Neusner, and Martin Jaffee. I stress “at the time”; as I will explain shortly, I think that there are other, equally compelling questions to ask about the synoptic relationship between the Talmuds. Getting back to the 1990’s (actually 1989), Jaffee in particular impressed me with his resolve to follow the evidence of the Horayot tractates to where he thought that evidence led: the conclusion that Bavli Horayot may have had access to a version of Yerushalmi Horayot. My plan was to work with a larger pair of tractates and devise a method by which to answer the question; I too resolved to follow the evidence to where I thought it led. The method and results are laid out in my 2001 dissertation and 2005 book  A Talmud in Exile: The Influence of Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah on the Formation of Bavli Avodah Zarah. Based on a systematic and methodical investigation of the Avodah Zarah tractates, I concluded that Bavli Avodah Zarah likely had access to an edited Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah.


Another important goal I had in A Talmud in Exile was to make the case that the Bavli has characteristic patterns it employs in reworking edited units of Palestinian amoraic material. Shamma Friedman had been demonstrating that the Bavli has characteristic ways of reworking Toseftan baraitot. I demonstrated the same for Palestinian sugyot, especially parallel sugyot in the Avodah Zarah tractates. I invited the reader at the end of the introduction (39) to recognize that “b. Avodah Zarah appropriated and reworked sizable portions of y. Avodah Zarah,” and observed that this “gives us insight into the activities of the Bavli redactors.” My hope was (and is) that the reader will come away from A Talmud in Exile persuaded that the study of inter-Talmudic parallels, specifically, how a Bavli tractate appropriates and reworks Palestinian sugyot (especially those from a companion tractate), is an indispensable part of the study of a Bavli tractate.

I hope that the reader sees another very important point as well: Bavli tractates may be filled with edited Palestinian sugyot that may be found in parallel places in the Yerushalmi counterpart. These structural similarities are significant. Even if the reader feels that this evidence fails to compel a conclusion that Bavli tractate “X” knew and relied on Yerushalmi tractate “X,” the evidence is more than one would expect from the often-expressed vague notion that Palestinian materials somehow “circulated” or were “transmitted” between the two rabbinic centers. And—although this is not the place in which to argue all these points—the evidence at times goes beyond what can be explained by the hypothesis of “talmud kadum” (“early talmud”). Edited Palestinian material—material that may constitute building-blocks of a Yerushalmi tractate—tends as well to be an important building-block of the Bavli parallel. Documenting these structural similarities, and noting the characteristic ways the Bavli reworks the materials it appropriates, should be on the agenda of the academic Talmudist.

I have not studied A Talmud in Exile’s reception history with the same systematic approach I brought to the Avodah Zarah tractates, but I have noted two principal avenues of response to it. These responses have emerged in print, in conferences, and in private correspondence. One early (and continuing) response that I already anticipated in the introduction to the book is skepticism about A Talmud in Exile’s specific conclusion as to the relationship between the Avodah Zarah tractates. This skepticism emerges from two quarters: Israeli scholars (and some others) who accept Friedman’s and Sussman’s explanation of the inter-Talmudic similarities as being due to talmud kadum (early Talmud), and American scholars who, influenced largely by orality studies, argue that “orality” can account for the parallels and that the sort of close textual study in A Talmud in Exile is too textual.

Another type of response I have noted is silence as to A Talmud in Exile’s specific conclusion about the relationship between the Avodah Zarah tractates, coupled with citation of the book in support of the proposition that the Bavli has characteristic approaches to reworking Yerushalmi parallels; in their own works, these scholars provide additional evidence in support of the book’s specific findings about these characteristic approaches. I am gratified that scholars writing on various topics regularly recognize the importance to their research of studying inter-Talmudic parallels and noting how the Bavli reworks Palestinian materials. This second type of response is quite prevalent in scholarship published in English (to the best of my knowledge).

As I noted earlier, this certainly isn’t the right venue in which to engage in detailed argumentation about talmud kadum and orality. I acknowledge (and did in A Talmud in Exile) that talmud kadum may explain some inter-Talmudic parallels, although I do not believe it can explain the macro-level structural similarities between the Avodah Zarah tractates. It has been very recently suggested in print that I dismissed talmud kadum too quickly, and while I remain convinced that talmud kadum is not an adequate explanation of the structural similarities in the Avodah Zarah tractates, I accept the point that in general, this hypothesis deserves continuing and close attention.

At present, I am making my way through the Yoma tractates and as I do so, I am asking some different questions. I am less interested at the moment in the historical and redactional question of whether or not Bavli Yoma “knew” Yerushalmi Yoma, and more engaged by the question of what it means that Bavli Yoma utilizes edited units—at times sizable—of Yerushalmi Yoma. What does this say about how the Bavli redactors saw their own project? Why does Bavli Yoma place a particularly large amount of Yerushalmi Yoma material at the beginning of the tractate? (Bavli Avodah Zarah also did something similar, by the way). Does the Bavli perhaps use edited Yerushalmi material to signal a connection to the past even as it clearly breaks new ground? Does the Bavli wish thereby to give a nod to the Palestinian past in order (by implication) to justify its innovative break with that past? I also think that the study of the synoptic relationship between the Talmuds would benefit from greater attention to scholarship on intertextuality, theories of authorship, reception history, and literary and textuality studies generally. I think that much can be learned by thinking more broadly about why and how the Bavli is created through the creative and selective appropriation of the earlier Talmud.

Dr. Alyssa Gray is the Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics; Associate Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature at HUC-JIR/New York. 

@AlyssaMGray1 | http://huc.edu/directory/alyssa-m-gray



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