Tuesday, 14 June 2016



The question as to when the Talmud was written down might seem like an elementary question that any schoolchild can answer – the Mishna was written down by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi around the year 200 C.E., and about 300 years later around the year 500 C.E. the Talmud was redacted by Rav Ashi (352-427) and his student Ravina (d. 499).

The common perception, therefore, is that in 200 C.E. we had a collection of books called the Mishna and in 500 C.E. we had an even larger collection of writings called the Gemorra. Both works together formed what is known as the Talmud.

But as we shall see, the story of when the Talmud was written down may not be as simple as all that and research into it makes for fascinating discoveries.

The earliest full manuscript of the Talmud is known as the Munich Talmud, and it dates from 1342.
What happened between the years 200 and 1342 is a hotly debated issue.


Before we can begin we need to define five distinct eras of rabbinic leadership, throughout which this discussion takes place:

The Tannaic period lasted for about 210 years. The Tannaim were the rabbis whose views are recorded in the Mishna from approximately 10-220 C.E.
The Amoraim were the rabbis who expounded upon the Mishna and this period of the Gemorra lasted for about 280 years, from 220-500 C.E.  This was when the Talmudic period (10-500 C.E.) came to an end.
The Savoraim were the rabbis who edited and structured the Talmud for a period of about 150 years, from 500-650 C.E.
The Geonim were active for almost 400 years, from about 650-1038. They began to formulate and decide the law as it was derived from the (theoretical) Talmud.
The Rishonim were dominant for the next five hundred years from 1038-1500. They began the process of codification of the law.



As mentioned at the outset, the traditional view is that by the year 500 C.E. we had essentially written down the Talmud in its entirety (although all would agree that the Savoraim did edit and add a little content to the Talmud.)[1]

MAHARAL OF PRAGUE (1520-1609):

One very definitive source supporting this traditional view is the Maharal who clearly states that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi wrote down the Mishna around 200 C.E.  

The reason he gives is that Christianity had essentially been established by that time, and therefore if the Jews then had a written halachic text, there would no longer be a fear that that it would be adopted by Christianity (as they did with the written Torah). 

The oral (now written) Torah would therefore be a unique possession of the Jews and would subsequently define them as a people.
For this reason the oral Torah had to remain in oral form until that time, so that no other nation could claim it as their own.

This view intrinsically insists on a written text of Mishna that was completed around 200 C.E. [2]


Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan introduces another component as a possible variant to the discussion:

“There is a question as to when the Mishna was put in writing. Some authorities maintain that Rabbi Yehudah himself published it. According to others, however, it was preserved orally until several generations later.”[3]


According to Professor Fishman, the Talmud was only circulated in written copies towards the end of the Geonic period.[4] This makes it a few hundred years later than the traditional view. The basis for this argument is the Meiri who said that the Geonim continued to transmit the Talmud orally, and had developed ‘prodigious memories’ for this purpose.

MEIRI (1249-1310):

The Meiri wrote: 

And they (the Geonim) knew the entire Talmud by heart, or close to it...And therefore they didn’t find it necessary to go on at length in their compositions, for the explanation was all arranged in their mouths [in memory].”[5]

The Meiri is of the view that the writing of the Talmud takes place after the period of the Geonim and just before the period of the Rishonim (around the year 1000).[6]

Fishman writes: “Towards the end of the geonic period, the heads of the Baghdad academies acknowledged that it was impossible to abide by the tannaitic dicta (of not writing down the oral tradition) in their own times...presumably because of the growing prominence of inscribed texts of oral matters.”[7]

RAV HAI GAON (939-1038):

This position is also supported by a quote from one of the last Geonim Rav Hai Gaon: The stricture against writing halakhot no longer applies because hearts have become diminished and we need the written version. Therefore it is good to write halakhot.”[8]

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

In 987 Rav Sherira Gaon wrote a letter to the Jews of Kairouan, now Tunisia, of which two versions – the Tsorfati (French) and Sefardi (Spanish) - exist today. In the French version of the letter, which is considered to be the most accurate, he writes that: 

“And that which you (Jews of Kairouan) wrote (asked); ‘How was the Mishna written, and how (was the) Talmud (written)?’- The Talmud and Mishna were not written, but they were arranged. And the sages were careful to recite them by heart, but not from written versions.” [9]

According to this, the Talmud may have been ‘arranged’ earlier on, but it remained an oral tradition right up to the end of the period of the Geonim around 1038.

Furthermore Fishman develops the idea that soon afterwards, Rashi (1040-1105) began to consolidate and unify the ‘relatively recently’ written down Talmud by preparing an overall commentary on it which would bind it all together

And continuing along the same lines, Rashi’s grandsons known as the Tosafists, began reconciling apparent contradictions between the various sections of the Talmud – something which would not have been required while it was in its previous oral form.

Hence the view that the Talmud was only written down in full, sometime towards the close of the Geonic period (1038).


In what Rabbi Jeremy Rosen calls ‘one of the most scathing reviews of another academic work I have ever come across’, Rabbi Haym Soloveitchick attacks Fishman’s thesis in support of the traditional view.[10]

He refers to a collection of Geonic texts known as Otzar HaGaonim which deals in part with replies to queries sent to the Geonim regarding difficult passages in the Talmud. Soloveitchick asks; 

How can one ask for an explanation of a passage in the Talmud unless one has a copy of that passage in front of oneself...As these responsa begin around the ninth century, it is clear that written copies of the Talmud are by then in circulation...(And) the citations of the Talmud found in the Otzar ha-Geonim don’t differ that much from the printed page of the standard Vilna Talmud (in common usage today).”?

In reference to Fishman’s thesis on Rashi’s ‘relatively recently’ printed Talmudic text, Soloveitchick says; Clearly the Ashkenazi community from its very inception (ca. 950, a century or so before Rashi’s birth) employed a written text of the Talmud.” 
This is because Rashi’s teachers “profusely cite from the written text of the Talmud...”


An interesting point emerges from Rabbi Haym Soloveitchick’s critique of Professor Fishman in defence of the traditional view – and that is (in my reading of his text), that no proof is actually furnished supporting the traditional view that Rav Ashi and Ravina wrote down the entire text of the Talmud around the year 500!

He writes; “...the ‘sealing’ or ‘closing of the Talmud’ did not entail any inscription of the Talmud.”
This is an astonishing statement for someone defending the traditional view to make. This means that by his own admission the Talmud was not written down in the year 500!

He continues; “That vast, organized and articulate corpus was committed to phenomenal memories of a select few ‘reciters’ (garsinim) who were in the employ of the two great yeshivot in Babylonia. The actual inscription of the Talmud took place at a later date. As to whether that date was 450, 650 or 750, Rashi said nothing. He didn’t know nor does anyone to this day.”

Again, amazingly, Rabbi Soloveitchick is telling us that the Talmud was definitely not written down in 500 but sometime over the next few hundred years – which could be somewhere during the Savoraic or even the Geonic era!

And, accordingly, nobody knows to this day, exactly when the Talmud was written down, except that it was somewhere between around 450 and 750!

Even more astoundingly, he continues, in a way, to extend his cut off date of 750 by some extra centuries;

“Put differently (and again at the risk of oversimplification) the state of the talmudic text in the period under discussion (ca, 750-1038) resembled that of a work ready to go to print, as it were, needing only a final copy editing. That copy editing was done by a number of different people, each in his own way or each with his own tradition. But when, where and by whom it was done is unknown to this day, except that it has become progressively clear that this took place in ‘the East’...

What this means is that the text of the Talmud was basically ‘fixed’ by all accounts well before the beginning of the Geonic era ca. 750, though it lacked final copy editing. 

This ‘lexically fluid’ text existed in two forms: in manuscript which circulated throughout the Diaspora and, astonishingly enough, in the memory of a few individuals with total recall (garsinim-reciters) who were employed by the two famed geonic yeshivot of Sura and Pumpeditha, which for some still obscure reason, resisted inscribing the now relatively fixed text, but had it rather committed to memory...[11]

To me it seems that Soloveitchick is only challenging Fishman by possibly a century or two, but even he maintains that the inscription takes place perhaps closer to 1000 than to 500!



Moving away from the Soloveitchick-Fishman issue, I want to share another independent view from Dr. Shai Secuda. According to his research:

“...the Mishna was ‘published’ orally (this would have been around 200) and subsequently transmitted in oral form for many centuries.”

“...there is not a single Talmudic reference to amoraim opening up a physical volume of Mishna for consultation...Similarly, the Bavli itself seems to have remained in oral form well into the Geonic period.”[12]


This is what Rabbi Triebitz, Rosh Kollel at Machon Shlomo, writes in his book ‘The Emergence of the Written Text of the Talmud’:

(During the period of the Geonim)...there was no written text of the entire Talmud. The main difference between the works of the geonim and the works of the rishonim (medieval commentators), therefore is that the latter were able to write commentaries on the Talmud because they had it as a written text, whereas the former were unable to.”

 “The Tosafists, for example, in effect edited the Talmud through their dialectical synthesis of disparate and seemingly contradictory statements and entire sections. Such an achievement is impossible if the written text is incomplete.” So the Tosafists who came just after Rashi, were reconciling the ‘relatively recently’ written document of the Talmud.

Regarding Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon he writes: “This implies that even as late as the tenth century there was still no written text of the Talmud in existence.”

 “It is also clear from Rav Sherira that the Mishna was written down at the same time as the Talmud, and neither existed in written form until the end of the geonic period.”

The final date for the writing of the Talmud (and the change from an oral to a written culture) is approximately 960, just before Rabbeinu Chananel, and the Rif”.[13]


Rabbi Hutner writes that in spite of the fact that the oral Torah was eventually written down, “the oral character of the oral Torah was preserved to a significant degree” – so that even in its written form it would still require the guidance of a teacher. And furthermore, many portions were left unwritten in any case.[14]

This is an interesting view because neither the writing nor the lack of writing is absolute.


We have explored many and variant views as to when the Talmud was finally inscripted in the format we know and use today. The range of opinion, as to when exactly that took place, is spread over many centuries.

This is but one example of how an idea most people take as a given, can open up into great mysteries when we delve beneath the surface.

[1] We are referring to the Babylonian Talmud in this discussion. The Jerusalem Talmud predates its Babylonian counterpart by about 200 years, and was complied around the year 300 C.E. It was not written in Jerusalem as its name indicates, but rather in Galilee.
[3] Handbook of Jewish Thought, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan p.188
[4] According to Moulie Vidas; “By the ninth century, the Talmud began circulating in written copies.” See Tradition and Formulation of the Talmud, p. 208
[5] See Becoming the People of the Talmud, by Talya Fishman p. 165
[6] See Introduction to Pirkei Avot by Meiri.
[7] Ibid. P. 34
[8] Ibid.
[9] This letter is known as ‘Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon’ and deals with the history of the compilation of the Talmud. The French version is in Aramaic, while the Spanish version is in Hebrew. The two versions differ on whether or not Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi recorded the Mishna in writing.
(Nosson Dovid Rabinowich argues that even the French version is consistent with the Mishna having been written down!)

[10] According to Professor Zachary Braiterman;
“Many have speculated that the invective is fuelled by a long feud between Soloveitchick and Fishman’s mentor at Harvard, the late, legendary Isadore Twersky...
I know for a fact that the editor in chief of the Jewish Review of Books took a lot of heat for publishing a review which was actually rejected by numerous scholarly journals...
While proof has been tendered by Soloveitchick that Fishman may have made this or that mistake, no proof has been offered to prove that her thesis is not true in some basic ways.
It seems to me that Soloveitchick sought to score some points in order to knock down Fishman’s thesis without himself providing any evidence for the standard, traditional view...”
(See full Soloveitchick text here, and Fishman’s response here.)

[11] Rabbi Soloveitchick does add that; “However, what was being recited orally in these two centers was an almost fixed text that differed little from those that were found throughout the Diaspora in manuscript”.
[12] See: Why the Talmud is the Only Rabbinic Work from Babylonia, by Dr Shai Secunda.
[13] History and Development of the Talmud (shiur 20),  Rabbi Triebitz.
[14] Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah, ch. 1, p. 27

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another really interesting even-handed post and great blog!