Talmud Yerushalmi – No Torah Equals That of Eretz Yisrael

Rabbi Yisrael Pinchas Tirnauer

How the Talmud Yerushalmi was composed, its history and various texts, and the present-day revolution in Yerushalmi study

The New Era

 When Rabi Yehudah Hanasi concluded his compilation of the Six Orders of the Mishnah, this marked the end of the Tannaitic period and the beginning of the Amoraic period. A new light began to shine upon the Oral Torah. Rabi Yehudah, known as Rabi, had succinctly summarized the Torah of the Tanna’im who preceded him, and now began the era of interpretation and explanation of the Mishnah.

Rabi’s students are considered the “in-between generation,” the last generation of the Tanna’im and the first generation of the Amora’im. After Rabi passed away, the Land of Israel’s batei medrash — the equivalent to today’s yeshivos which included Tzipori, Tiberias, and Lod — continued to function in their original format, except that now the Sages toiled over the explanation of the Mishnayos. The Six Orders were “mandatory courses” in the study halls, and every student had to know every Mishnah by heart.

Mutual Torah Enrichment

At the same time, yeshivos began to sprout and develop in Bavel, home to a very large Jewish community dating back to the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Gradually, the center of Torah in the world moved from Eretz Yisrael to the yeshivos of Bavel. Seven generations of Amora’im were active in Bavel, compared to only five in Eretz Yisrael. Reciprocal relations between the two centers did not stop for a moment throughout this period, as Amora’im traveled back and forth between them. As the Gemara states: “From here [Bavel] to there [the Holy Land], and from there to here.” As a result, the Torah study of each center was shared and discussed and analyzed in both. The teachings of the Sages of Bavel are widely found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, and those of the Sages of Eretz Yisrael are dispersed throughout the Talmud Bavli.

The first generation of Amora’im in Eretz Yisrael included Rabi’s sons Rabban Gamliel (the Third) and Rabban Shimon ben Rabi, as well as his top students Rav Chanina and Rav Yannai.

As mentioned, five generations of Amora’im were active in the Holy Land, including no fewer than 350 Sages whose names we know. Their Torah teachings are gathered in the Yerushalmi and are cited in the Bavli as well. During the 18 years in which the Emperor Julian and his successors reigned, the situation in the Land was relatively calm; Julian renounced his Christianity and was rather friendly towards the Jews. The Sages of the time took advantage of this quiet period to summarize and edit the previous 150 years of Torah scholarship, and they gathered the teachings into the Talmud Yerushalmi. It was redacted in the year 4138 (378 CE), though according to other opinions, it was in 270, 370, or 410-420, CE. Its basic structure had been established two generations earlier by Rav Yochanan Nafcha.

Most of the Sages mentioned in the Yerushalmi are from the Eretz Yisrael, just as most of those mentioned in the Bavli are from Bavel — but far from all of them; Rabbanim from Eretz Yisrael appear in the Bavli many more times than do their Babylonian counterparts in the Yerushalmi.

The Talmud Yerushalmi was actually compiled chiefly in the yeshivah in Tiberias, but it was called the Yerushalmi because the entire Land of Israel is essentially named for Yerushalayim. Some say that some of the masechtos (tractates) were compiled in other yeshivos, such as Kesarin.

The Jewish leadership in Eretz Yisrael during the Amoraic period was chiefly in the hands of the Nasi (Prince). After the redaction of the Jerusalem Talmud, troubles began to overtake the Jewish community in the Holy Land, and the Christian Roman rulers abolished the office of the Nasi.

Final Redaction of the Talmud

Precisely as the Torah center in the Land of Israel was declining, Babylonia saw the onset of a new era for Torah study: the beginning of the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud by the sixth generation of Amora’im there. After the death of Rav Papa in 4132 (372 CE), Rav Ashi succeeded him. He decided to move the great Sura Yeshiva to Mata Machsiya and headed it for nearly 60 years.

The structure of the Talmud Yerushalmi is similar to that of the Talmud Bavli: a mishnah is cited, and then braisos are brought to explain or differ with the mishnah, Amoraic Sages explain it, other problems and issues are discussed, stories are related, later Amora’im discuss the words of earlier Amora’im, and various laws that do not necessarily appear in Mishnah are laid down.

The primary difference between the two Talmuds is that the objective of the Yerushalmi is chiefly practical law, and therefore it tends not to engage in pilpul, nor does it bring many Aggadata (Midrashic teachings). Another reason for the paucity of Aggadata in the Jerusalem Talmud is that there were already other collections of such writings in Eretz Yisrael, such as Midrash Rabbah, Pesikta, and Mechilta. It sometimes happens that the Yerushalmi will ask a question and not answer it, even though a straightforward answer is available, simply because the Sages saw no need to do so (see Yefeh Einayim to Shabbos 70b). The Amoraic study of the Mishnah is called “Gemara” in the Bavli, but simply “halachah” in the Yerushalmi.

The Jerusalem Talmud is less concerned with presenting challenging questions, and instead simply cites the opinions of the various Sages. The Bavli relates to this and states (Sanhedrin 24a):

Rav Oshaya says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And I took for myself two sticks, one I called Pleasantness, and the other I called Aggressors” (Zechariah 11:7)? “Pleasantness” refers to Torah scholars in Eretz Yisrael, who are gracious to one another in discussions of halachah; “Aggressors” are the Torah scholars in Babylonia, who harm each other in discussions of halachah by speaking harshly to each other when they disagree.

It is also stated: “Then he said to me: These are the two anointed ones, that stand…” (Zechariah 4:14), and “And two olive trees by it…” (ibid., 4:3). “Anointed ones” — Rav Yitzcḥak says: These are the Torah scholars in Eretz Yisrael, who are pleasant to each other in halachah like olive oil [which is not bitter]. “And two olive trees by it” refers to Torah scholars in Babylonia, who are bitter like an olive to each other in discussions of halachah.

Rashi explains there that the Gemara is saying that the word for “Aggressors” (chovlim) stems from the same root as mechablim, referring to the strong and heated way in which the Bablyonian scholars argue with each other; those in Eretz Yisrael, however, are calm with each other as they study the issue together and correct each other, and thus enable the truth of the matter to be revealed.

The Bavli’s role is to show the right path to a world shrouded in darkness; it is the main source of instruction during the exile. The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, preserves the manner of study appropriate for periods of light; its role is to attest to the Torah of days of greatness, prophecy and redemption. The two Talmuds interact with each other, and together, they build the completeness of Torah revelation.

All agree that the Yerushalmi was completed before the Bavli. This fact had the practical ramification that in the event of a dispute between the two, the halachah is determined in accordance with the Bavli. This is because of the halachic principle that the law follows the later scholars, given that they knew of the earlier opinions. In addition, the Bavli has the advantage of having been edited repeatedly by the Amora’im, the Savora’im, and the Geonim of Bavel. The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, never had that advantage due to the decrees against the yeshivos that led to the dwindling of Torah study in the Holy Land.

How Many Masechtos?

Not every tractate of Mishnah appears in both Talmuds. The Yerushalmi, which covers more masechtos than the Bavli, includes all the tractates of the orders of Zera’im, Mo’ed, Nashim, and Nezikin (except for Avos and Eduyos), as well as Niddah from Seder Taharos. In modern times, with the renewal of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael, the laws having to do with the Land became more practical, and the halachic scholars relied on the Seder Zera’im in the Yerushalmi to determine the halachah as there is no Bavli on Zera’im.

In our current editions of the Yerushalmi, ever since the period of the Rishonim, the Seder of Kodshim does not appear. Most of the Rishonim and later scholars wrote that there was, at one time, a Talmud Yerushalmi on Kodshim, and possibly on Taharos as well, which were lost over the course of the generations.

When comparing tractates that are included in both Talmuds, we see that there is often a significant difference in their size. For instance, the tractates Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Basra together comprise some 420 pages in the Bavli and only 88 pages in the Yerushalmi .

Manuscripts

The only complete manuscript we have of the Jerusalem Talmud is known as Leiden Manuscript Oriental 4720; it is located in a university library in Leiden, Holland. The manuscript was written on parchment in 5049 (1289 CE) by Rabbeinu Yechiel ben Yekutiel HaRofeh from Rome. The first printed edition of the Yerushalmi is dated Venice, 5283 — exactly 500 years ago. The most common editions of recent years are based on the 20th century Pietrekov and Vilna editions. Using these, the daily Daf Yomi Yerushalmi takes four and a half years. More recent editions have changed the page layout, and the program now takes longer to complete.

As noted, the Torah centers in Eretz Yisrael during the Amoraic period did not last long, and the Talmud written there was not well preserved. Neither did the Geonim of Babylon study the Jerusalem Talmud. By the time of the Rishonim, it was clear that the texts of the Yersushalmi in their hands were not totally accurate, and many Torah scholars wrote that it could not be understood because of the many errors and omissions that had crept in over the centuries. Nowadays, with the flourishing of the Talmud Yerushalmi, new editions have been published that have sought to correct and clarify the unclear and inaccurate passages.

Another difficulty in studying the Talmud Yerushalmi is the unfamiliar language, quite different from what talmidei chachamim are accustomed to from the Bavli. The latter is written in Babylonian Aramaic, the eastern dialect, whereas the Yerushalmi is written in the western dialect of Galilean Aramaic. In addition, the sharp scholars of Eretz Yisrael tended to be extremely concise in their words, leaving later scholars to toil to understand them. This is what our Sages later called lishna kelila, succinct language (Nazir 41a).

Because of the political circumstances that led to the dwindling of the Jewish community in the Holy Land over the course of centuries, until its final destruction during the Crusades, the dissemination of the Jerusalem Talmud similarly decreased. The number of scholars studying it also dropped, and thus its influence in determining halachah declined proportionately. Studying it became more difficult, and its secondary role to the Babylonian Talmud was established. The cause and effect is actually not clear here, as the decline in the number of students studying the Yerushalmi led to less commentary on it, which in turn led to even fewer students, etc.

Yerushalayim:  Light of the World

The Torah tells us, “The gold of the Land was good” (Bereishis 2:12), on which the Midrash allegorically explains: “This teaches that there is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel, and no wisdom like the wisdom of the Land of Israel” (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 16:4).

The Holy Zohar (Zohar Chadash, Eichah 56a) cites Koheles (12:1-2): “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of evil come … before the sun, the light, the moon and the stars darken…” and teaches that these words refer, allegorically, to the period when the Nation of Israel dwelled in the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael. The sun in this verse refers to the Jerusalem Talmud that shines the light of Torah; when it is snuffed out, it is as if the world remains in darkness, as is written: “He has placed me in darkness like those who are forever dead” (Eichah 3:6). This refers to the Talmud Bavli in which people walk as if in darkness. The moon in the verse refers to the Braisos (Tannaitic teachings not included in the Mishnah), which illuminated the light of hidden wisdom. The stars in the verse are the scholars in the Holy Land, the Tanna’im and Amora’im in whose merit and for whom the entire world exists.

Let us sum up this passage of the Zohar: King Shlomo, author of Koheles, calls upon the People of Israel to serve Hashem in the days of its youth, when they lived in the Land of Israel, where and when Hashem dwells openly. And why? Because in the end, the sun will darken, and its light and the moon and stars — i.e., the Nation of Israel — will be exiled, and gradually all those Divine revelations will no longer exist, at which time it will be much harder to serve Hashem fully.

Preparing for Redemption

The amazing thing is that the closer we get to the final Geulah and the more we begin to sense its special illumination, the more the Talmud Yerushalmi becomes redeemed from its loneliness. The Geonim of Bavel did not study it; the Rishonim started to do so but were unable to access its complete text; later scholars began to write commentaries that made it much easier to learn; and today it is studied prolifically, and we are very close to having the most accurate version.

The most widely consulted commentaries on the Jerusalem Talmud are Korban HaEdah, by David ben Naftali Frankel of Berlin, and Pnei Moshe, by Harav Moshe ben Shimon Margolies, both of 18th century Ashkenaz. They also added Tosafos-like analysis by the names of Shyarei Korban and Mar’eh Panim, respectively.

Other famous commentators on the Yerushalmi include the Ridbaz, the Rid, Sefer Chareidim, Harav Shlomo Sirloi, Sdei Yehoshua, Pnei Mar’eh, the Vilna Gaon (on Zera’im), Yefei Einayim, Ruach Z’kenim, and Harav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l.

It is quite enlightening to see what the Piltzer Rebbe (brother-in-law of one of the Gerrer Rebbes), who passed away 100 years ago, wrote in a letter to one of his Chassidim who was engaged in printing the Jerusalem Talmud: “It appears that in the future, the primary study of Talmud will be of the Talmud Yerushalmi.”

The pinnacle of Yerushalmi study was reached some 40 years ago when the Lev Simcha, who served as the Gerrer Rebbe from 1977 until his passing in 1992, issued a call at the Knessiah Gedolah in Jerusalem to add a daily page of Yerushalmi to the popular Daf Yomi cycle for the Talmud Bavli. The public responded with enthusiasm, setting up daily classes, printing up new editions of the Yerushalmi, and even writing new commentaries that eased the way for new students to join.

The following is recounted in the book, HaGaon HaChassid. about Harav Shamai Ginzburg, zt”l:

The Lev Simcha often liked to discuss with Rav Shammai topics mentioned in the Yerushalmi, which took on renewed life when the Admor promoted the Yerushalmi Daf Yomi learning cycle. We read in the Yalkut Shimoni: “Rav Yosi bar Chalafta said: ‘If you wish to see the Divine Presence in this world, engage in Torah in the Land of Israel,’” and the Lev Simcha’s father, the Imrei Emes, explained that this surely refers to the Talmud Yerushalmi, which is called Toras Eretz Yisrael (the Torah of the Land of Israel).

This statement led his son, the Lev Simcha, to encourage public classes in the Yerushalmi. Rav Shammai knew that the Lev Simcha spent many hours studying the Yerushalmi, and even merited to learn it together with the Lev Simcha himself. The latter said that while meis mitzvah, a corpse with no one to take care of its burial, usually refers to a deceased person, there are also mitzvos that reach a similar stage, in that they are infrequently carried out and are largely forgotten. The Talmud Yerushalmi, said the Lev Simcha, was long in that state, and it is a special mitzvah to engage in it. 

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