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Carl Schleicher, ‘Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud,’ 19th centuryWikimedia Commons
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Abbaye and Rava

How two Babylonian sages started the great collective conversation that became the Talmud

Ari Bergmann
January 04, 2022
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Carl Schleicher, 'Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud,' 19th centuryWikimedia Commons

I still remember the first time I noticed the massive volumes of the Babylonian Talmud that covered the bookshelves of my childhood synagogue. I was overwhelmed. The Talmud stretches to 63 tractates, for a total of about 2,000 folio pages. To a child, it seemed impenetrable, its length and format incomparable to any other work I knew. Despite the Talmud’s daunting size, once I started attending classes in Gemara (as religious Jews often call the Talmud), I was hooked. I discovered that it is not simply enormous; it is a fascinating and unique work. Perhaps most remarkable is the sheer excitement I felt. Although the Talmud’s discussions took place more than a thousand years ago, they somehow felt like a live debate—almost as if an imaginary academy of rabbis were pulling me into an ongoing, spirited argument.

I had to wonder: How did this incredibly original work get its start? What person (or persons) helped shape its formation?

The answers to these questions may surprise you, as they surprised me. But even more startling is the fact that no complete and authoritative account of the Talmud’s early history is widely available to the layperson. Although it is central to both Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life—many Jews study it daily, and many more observe its laws—the Talmud still lacks a complete and accessible description of its early development. Scholarly work, like that of David Weiss Halivni, is an excellent resource for academics, but it remains rather opaque to someone without a background in source criticism or other approaches to academic Talmud.

What is the reason for this state of affairs? Mostly that it is very difficult to describe the Talmud’s formation unambiguously. The Babylonian Talmud itself never explicitly discusses either its process of formation or the key participants in that process. Moreover, for the majority of its existence, the Jewish community has had little interest in writing the history of the Talmud, as noted by the eminent historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. That trend first began to change in Europe in the late 19th century, when Jewish scholars of various backgrounds and denominations decided that the time had come to tackle the problem of the Talmud’s history. The motivations behind this flowering of interest were diverse, and deeply embroiled in the politics of Judaism at the time. Here, I would like to focus on the theories of one of the most remarkable participants in that historicizing trend: Yitzchak Isaac Halevy (1847-1914). For despite having no university education, this little-known Lithuanian scholar wrote the first definitive history of the Talmud from the Orthodox perspective.

Halevy’s pioneering work, Dorot ha-Rishonim (The First Generations), combines his outstanding Talmudic erudition with academic, critical scholarship to describe the formation of the Talmud from its early pre-history through a detailed developmental process that Halevy deduces through his empirical study of the Gemara and its traditional commentaries by medieval Talmudists (Rishonim). Unfortunately, for over a century, Dorot ha-Rishonim has been largely dismissed as an apologetic work—another salvo in the fight between Orthodox Judaism and the reforming spirit of the Jewish Enlightenment and Wissenschaft des Judentums. A closer look, however, reveals the serious value of Halevy’s work. Using modern digital technologies, as well as recent scholarly work that explores Babylonia and Palestine during late antiquity, we can see that Halevy actually uncovered crucial historical insights, which remain important for any contemporary history of the Talmud.

Halevy’s greatest scholarly contribution was the unique role he uncovered for the early fourth-century Amoraic sages, Abbaye and Rava. Indeed, even a novice student of the Talmud will recognize the names Abbaye and Rava. The student in Bialik’s famous poem "ha-Matmid” intones: “Oi, Oi, amar Rava, amar Abbaye; Thus, Rava said, and thus Abbaye taught …” In the Talmudic imagination, these two Babylonian rabbis of the fourth century (Abbaye died ca. 339, Rava ca. 351) have long captured the essence of religious learning throughout the ages. Ostensibly, this is because of their frequent invocation within the Talmudic text. As the renowned Talmudic scholar Rabbi Meir Zvi Bergman once quipped, no four consecutive folios of the Babylonian Talmud can pass without the name of one or the other cropping up.

That claim may be a slight exaggeration, as Bergman himself admitted. Nevertheless, the picture is clear: These rabbis are ubiquitous in the Talmud. However, the reason for their frequent contributions was not fully understood for a long time. Why was this pair of rabbis so active in contributing to the Talmud, far more than anyone before or after them? The issue becomes even more puzzling when we realize that, despite their regular appearance as interlocutors in the text, the real Abbaye and Rava rarely met or debated face-to-face. Abbaye was the head of the academy in Pumbedita, located on the bank of the Euphrates River, while Rava had his learning circle in Mahoza, a town on the Tigris.

Indeed, in many ways, the two could not have been more different. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Abbaye was orphaned at an early age, so his uncle, Rabbah bar Nachmani, along with a foster mother, raised him. Rava, by contrast, grew up ensconced in a family of rabbis renowned for their wisdom and wealth. As the Babylonian Talmud reports in Mo’ed Katan 28a, Rava requested “the wisdom of Rav Huna and the wealth of Rav Hisda” and received both. Abbaye, on the other hand, was at times excruciatingly poor, so that he wryly invoked the proverb: “a poor [man] is hungry but doesn’t know it.”

How, then, did these two, strikingly different but equally great men, come to connect with one another, with unparalleled frequency? The Gemara often alludes to students bringing their opinions back and forth between them. And, indeed, messengers appear to have regularly traveled between Abbaye in Pumbedita and Rava in Mahoza, according to the Talmud in Makkot 6a. But the full extent of their interaction, and the significance of these frequent missives, remained unclear, until Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevy came along.

Halevy theorized that Talmudic learning was decentralized during the first two generations of Amoraim (the Talmudic rabbis of Babylonia from ca. 220 CE). This meant that each small school followed its own particular traditions, based on the teachings of a single rabbi and his disciples. Scholars have called these schools “disciple circles,” meaning that the students debated and preserved the traditions of one particular Amora. Halevy also claimed that the earliest amoraic debates dealt only with a single Amora’s particular traditions. We should note, however, that early Amoraim did occasionally try to resolve various issues and reconcile traditions, in forums almost like (as we might say today) very early academic conferences.

Abbaye and Rava’s revolutionary idea, however, was to advance one step beyond these impromptu fora. According to Halevy, they decided to collect teachings and traditions from across all the amoraic disciple circles, in the service of creating a common corpus of teachings and texts. This meant that the disciple circles (and, soon, the early Talmudic academies) began to study, discuss, and debate a shared set of traditions, texts, and problems. This ingathering of teachings also included traditions from many Palestinian sages who were in Babylonia at the time.

In short, according to Halevy’s theory, during the first half of the fourth century CE, Abbaye and Rava revolutionized Talmud study by gathering the traditions of individual rabbis and transforming them into a collective body of knowledge. It was, in other words, largely due to the efforts of these two sages that students of the Talmud began to study a single curriculum and a unified body of traditions, rather than the particular teachings of specific rabbinic sages. That collective body of knowledge, discussed and debated for hundreds of years, is what ultimately was preserved as our written Talmud. With their innovation, the great collective conversation that became the Talmud began.

Halevy was a traditional, Orthodox Jewish scholar (talmid chakham) and a former student at the prestigious Yeshivah of Volozhin. He also, however, had a keen interest in the history of the Talmud’s formation, as well as a concern for the future of Jewish Orthodoxy in the face of modernity. At that time, Orthodox scholars, particularly in Germany, were debating how they could adapt some of the scholarly methods of Wissenschaft des Judentums to support the cause of tradition in the face of many Jews’ serious religious doubts. The result was a religious academic movement called Hokhmat Israel, sometimes called “Orthodox Wissenschaft.” Not surprisingly, Halevy became one of its greatest promoters. He personified Hokhmat Israel’s ideal: the fusion of a traditional talmid chakham with a historian and critical scholar. With his keen sense of history, Halevy decided that the best way to meet his own historical moment was by investigating the history of the Talmud’s past, which would vindicate the Orthodox tradition once and for all.

To this end, Halevy developed his massive Dorot ha-Rishonim, which detailed the reasons for investing Abbaye and Rava with profound historical significance. For Halevy, it seemed that there must also have been an institutional framework that supported Abbaye and Rava’s enormous project of gathering disciple-circle traditions and creating a common Talmudic corpus. Therefore, and somewhat problematically, Halevy argued that the medieval Talmudic academies (or yeshivot) of the Geonim were already present in the cities of Pumbedita and Sura (near Mahoza) starting from the third century CE. In Halevy’s institutional history, it was the growing importance of the yeshivot, around the beginning of the fourth century, that sparked Abbaye and Rava’s curricular project. Consequently, Halevy dated Abbaye and Rava’s innovative work to the time of the third and fourth generations of Amoraim (ca. 309-352), when the center of power in Jewish Babylonia shifted from the academy (or yeshiva) in Sura to the one in Pumbedita, where Abbaye eventually came to be appointed headmaster (rosh yeshiva). This temporary consolidation of Jewish academic life around a single yeshiva provided the support necessary for Abbaye and Rava to create a common curriculum that would appeal to students of various disciple circles.

Contrary to Halevy’s institutional history, we should note that the new curriculum that was studied in the nascent Babylonian academies seems to have developed slightly before the academies themselves. This is likely no coincidence: Abbaye and Rava’s coordination of the various amoraic traditions may have been part of what allowed for the academies’ eventual institutionalization. These early yeshivot later developed into the full-fledged academies that dominated the Jewish world at the time of the Geonim, during the eighth to 11th centuries.

While Halevy’s institutional history of the Babylonian academy is speculative and flawed, his account of Abbaye and Rava’s activities, and the interrelation of these activities with the development of the geonic yeshivot, is highly suggestive. The coordinated efforts of gathering and consolidation, led by Abbaye in Pumbedita and Rava in Mahoza, formed, in Halevy’s account, the key element of the Talmud, or what we might call a “proto-Talmud,” dating from the mid-fourth century. Halevy argued that this early skeleton of preserved amoraic rulings (meimrot) and debates eventually developed into the Talmud. This occurred when the traditions that Abbaye and Rava had gathered were later compared, contrasted, and debated as part of a conversation across multiple disciple circles. The consolidation of many particular traditions into a more generalized body of knowledge effectively created a single, standardized curriculum of rabbinic traditions, which was preserved and transmitted to future generations.

Thus, per Halevy, Abbaye and Rava’s work represented a crucial first step toward the Talmud as we know it, by creating the format of a fixed proto-Talmud, which compiles and cross-references all the early amoraic traditions. Indeed, it is obvious today that the Talmud’s sui generis quality is, in fact, its virtual forum of collective conversation and debate. Amazingly, the Talmud stages debates among rabbis who were not even alive at the same time and who, even if they were, may never have met. This deliberate, literary stylization reflects the genius of the Talmud: The fact that its traditions are maintained in a shared curriculum, which places contrasting opinions in conversation with each other across generations and geographic boundaries.

Halevy also dated the first steps in a new Talmudic learning style to this time. He claimed that, after Abbaye and Rava, the focus of rabbinic learning shifted from the intimate, master-disciple relationship to the shared setting of what would become the early academies. In other words, the amoraic traditions were henceforth preserved and passed down to future students only as the collective wisdom of the Jewish tradition, with the locus of authority consequently shifting from the individual masters to the totality of Jewish tradition. Why did this happen? We can see the reason for the change in Halevy’s identification of a massive pedagogical and epistemological shift in the conception of Jewish tradition in the work of Abbaye and Rava, which he felt constituted the most important stage in the Babylonian Talmud’s formation. We can describe this shift as the recognition that knowledge and traditions do not belong to any particular individual, or the “heirs” of his school. Rather, they must be produced and legitimated through collective discourse and collaborative efforts.

Knowledge and traditions do not belong to any particular individual, or the ‘heirs’ of his school. Rather, they must be produced and legitimated through collective discourse and collaborative efforts.

Halevy provided only indirect and circumstantial evidence for his theory. But, with our current digital technologies, particularly a searchable digitized Talmud, we can observe an abrupt shift in Talmudic language that seems to vindicate Halevy’s ideas about how, and by whom, traditions were transmitted, before and after Abbaye and Rava. As has been discussed, prior to the mid-fourth century (the era of Abbaye and Rava), disciples preserved the teachings and traditions of their masters and passed them on to future generations. This type of transmission is reflected in the Talmud’s frequent use of what I call “direct double attributions,” in which the key word is amar (said). An example of this is amar Rav Yehudah amar Rav, or “Rav Yehudah said [that] Rav said,” where Rav Yehudah is the disciple and Rav the master. We can generalize the direct double attribution as: “Rabbi X [disciple] said [that] Rabbi Y [his master] said.” Linguistically, the effect of this common locution is that of a ghostly echo, as if the master and student’s voices are interchangeable, or intermingled. It represents the metaphorical fusion of master and student, a relationship also reflected in the Talmudic norm prohibiting a student from expressing a view contrary to his master’s, unless he simultaneously reports his master’s as well.

This type of double attribution appears more than 1,500 times in the Talmud according to the various search engines I used for this project, such as DBS. By contrast, there are around 760 instances of what I call “indirect double attribution,” the other type of attribution prevalent in the first two generations of Amoraim. This attribution adds an additional term—usually mishmei, or “in the name of”—between the student’s name and the master’s, so that a generalized indirect double attribution would be “Rabbi X [student] said in the name of [mishmei d’] Rabbi Y [his master].” The effect of the additional term is to disrupt the linguistic equation of master and student. The classical commentators explain that these attributions reflect instances when disciples are not deemed precise transmitters of their masters’ teachings and so are not being cited as authoritative transmitters of the given teaching.

How could this imprecision come about? Several hypotheses suggest themselves. Perhaps the students were not present when the master gave a particular ruling, as the medieval commentator Rashi suggested, or else they were not confident that they accurately recalled it. Alternatively, Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson and another of the classical commentators, suggests that the indirect attribution is used whenever the speaker is not chiefly a student of the master. A careful analysis of the Talmudic text, however, reveals a striking phenomenon: Although direct double attribution is by far the most frequent form for statements attributed to the first two generations of Amoraim (at least twice as common as the indirect form), it completely disappears after Abbaye and Rava’s time. Although the Talmud records over 200 indirect double attributions of later sages, it has not even one direct double attribution of any of those sages. (The few exceptions are clearly printing errors, as comparison with manuscripts in these cases shows.) In those later times, even central students of a well-known master, such as Rav Papa (ca. 300-375), conveyed their teachings using only indirect attributions.

Halevy’s argument about Abbaye and Rava’s pedagogical revolution explains this otherwise mysterious phenomenon. Beginning in Abbaye and Rava’s time (and intersecting the fourth-century Amoraim), rabbinic teachings were conserved and conveyed to later generations as part of a unified collection of traditions. Later, this was reflected in one of the institutional practices of the yeshivot: If an individual tradition needed to be preserved for transmission, it was conveyed by the student exclusively to the Tannaim, the official reciters of the beit midrash, to be memorized, which completely eliminated the responsibility (and, thus, the status) of the student as a preserver of his master’s traditions. In other words, particular disciples no longer were key transmitters of traditions because the traditions of all the Amoraim were maintained as part of a collective corpus. (Confusingly, the official reciters of the early academy were given the same title as the rabbis of the Mishna, although the former are, of course, of a much later date.)

Further support for this change in the manner of transmission after Abbaye and Rava is found in the era’s significantly new approach to Halachic determination. Most early rabbinic authorities ruled according to the principle of ein halakhah ketalmid bimqom harav, or “the law does not follow the view of a disciple instead of the master.” In other words, the law always follows the master. However, the Geonim later qualified this ruling by saying that, from Abbaye and Rava onward, the law follows the opinion of the later sages, even when masters and disciples disagree, under a principle called hilkheta kebatra’ei, or “the law follows the later ones.” It seems clear that this change is a practical reflection of the changes in the disciple-master relationship that naturally followed Abbaye and Rava’s revolution. Once there was a unified collection of traditions, students were no longer considered to be uniquely the disciples of an individual Amora. Instead, they were students of the rabbinic body as a whole, or, more accurately, of the entire amoraic tradition. Since this tradition grew and developed constantly, later generations were considered more authoritative than earlier ones.

In recent decades, academic scholars have studied the Talmud in the context of Sasanian (Persian/Iranian) Mesopotamia, where the Babylonian Talmud was formed. These studies give additional support for Halevy’s theory that Abbaye and Rava’s primary achievement was the creation of a unified corpus from the numerous traditions of the Babylonian and Palestinian Amoraim, which were then examined and debated in order to analyze any apparent contradictions among them. Scholars who have studied Sasanian Babylonia in the third and fourth centuries have noted the growth of cultural connections between Palestine and Babylonia, which reached a peak in the fourth century. The influx of Palestinian culture, and the increasing cultural openness of the general milieu, may have helped prompt Abbaye and Rava to collect traditions from the different disciple circles, including those in Palestine, and combine them into a single body of learning.

Furthermore, the gathering of rabbinic traditions in Sasanian Babylonia is paralleled by a similar activity on the part of local Zoroastrian priests. Upon founding their empire in Babylonia in the second quarter of the third century, the Sasanian Persians embarked on a project of centralization and religious renaissance. The first Sasanian king, Ardashir I (ruled ca. 227-242 CE), gathered the Zoroastrian priests and tasked them with collecting and reviving their religious traditions and laws in order to revitalize Persian culture and religion. Shapur II, who ruled from 309 to 379, seems to have initiated a major Zoroastrian textual collation. As described in the Dēnkard (Acts of Religion), a compendium of Zoroastrian religion, legends, customs, and literature, a great council met during Shapur II’s time, at which kišwarīgān (probably Zoroastrian theologians) analyzed and debated the available Zoroastrian material. It is very likely that such a major council of Zoroastrian scholars meeting for the purpose of canon-formation would have been noticed by nearby rabbis.

It is intriguing to ponder why Abbaye and Rava were so suited for the unique task of gathering traditions across the various disciple circles and in spite of geographical and cultural boundaries. Perhaps the contrasting backgrounds and personalities of these great sages enabled them to appreciate the value of diversity and debate. In any event, their innovation was so successful that it became the paradigm of Talmudic leaning in Babylonia for centuries, until the Talmud came to a close and was eventually committed to writing, toward the end of the eighth century. The impact of Abbaye and Rava’s learning paradigm was such that, from their time in the mid-fourth century until the sealing of the Talmudic text, there were almost no books written by individual rabbis. This paucity of distinct works of literature is not the result of an impoverished Jewish intellectual life during the geonic period; on the contrary, it shows that the rabbis felt their teachings were part of a global conversation, in which all contributions could be incorporated orally into a collective discourse. That transgenerational conversation is precisely the genius of the Talmud, the intellectual efflorescence behind its rich structure of analysis and debate.

This article has been adapted from the author’s book, The Formation of the Talmud: Scholarship and Politics in Yitzchak Isaac Halevy’s Dorot Harishonim (De Gruyter, 2021). The electronic version of the book is available at Open Access.

Ari Bergmann is Talmud professor at Yeshiva University and founder and Chief Investment Officer at Penso Advisors LLC.