Minds On Fire

Imagining A Jew

Minds on Fire

The minds which produced the Gemara belong to the 3rd century CE Orient but are separated by a cultural divide. Before we describe the differences I want to dwell on the names we Jews call these cultures. Gentiles have a habit of referring to Israel as Palestine, the Latin name for that which the Greeks called Philistia – Land of the Philistine. Babylon is a city in the area called Mesopotamia. Jews have never used these terms.

Eretz Yisra’él

Israel is Eretz Yisraél, Jerusalem is Yerushalayim and Babylon is Bavel. And those are names I use, in their Hebrew and English forms.
The distance between Israel and Bavel is perhaps 500 miles. Measure 500 miles from New York City and you can traverse these US states – Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Or you can be in Canada. A similar divide separates Israel from Bavel but this divide is less political than cultural. The religious differences are also significant. And these differences required that separate Gemaras be authorised.

What Is Mishna?

Mishna is mostly a compilation of municipal law – the ordinances which ensure good government. There is some sacral law – ordinances applied to the Temple, to the holy days, to purity, and so on. The sacral law applies only in Israel. The teachers of the the Mishna are called Tanna’im. Because every legal compilation deteriorates in time, governments today publish revised statutes or codes. The revised code of Mishna is called Talmud (teaching) because it consists of two complementary texts – source (Mishna) and commentary (Gemara). The teachers of the Talmud are called Amora’im.
The Talmud Yerushalmi addresses the needs and conditions of Israel; the Talmud Bavli addresses the needs and conditions of Bavel – actually, the entire Galut. Many of the authors of these two compilations were identical. The Bavli became the primary revised code, since it closed much later than the Yerushalmi; its outlook is also more universal. They were succeeded by the Savora’im and the Geonim in turn. Who were these rabbis?

Rav Yohanan Ben-Nappaha & Rèsh Laqish (Rav Shimon Ben-Laqish)

Rav Yohanan was a 2nd generation Amora in Israel, but his teaching forms the base on which all future Amora’im stand. He was head of the Sanhedrin in the late 3rd century. Many students transmitted tradition in his name. He began learning under Rebbe and continued under Yann’i, Hanina Ben-Hama, and Oshi’ayah Rabba. the leading 1st generation Amora’im in Israel. Rav Yohanan eventually formed his own yeshiva, wherein the core generation of Amora’im in Israel were taught. His primary disciple was Rèsh Laqish, who became the leading Amora of his time. He also taught Rebbe’s grandson, Yehuda III, who eventually became Nasi. Rav Yohanan’s teachings were known in Galut. He did not recognise any halakhic authority outside Israel accept for Rav, a 1st generation Bavli Amora, whom he addressed as “Our Bavli Master”. Shmuél, Rav’s successor, was similarly addressed only after he proved himself to Rav Yohanan’s satisfaction. He never visited Bavel, unlike previous heads of the Sanhedrin, but his students frequently made the journey. Rav Yohanan is frequently quoted in responsa directed to Galut. His teachings form a core of both the Yerushalmi and Bavli.

Rèsh Laqish was the most prominent 2nd generation Amora’im in Israel other than R. Yohanan – his teacher, brother-in-law, and primary disputant. Rèsh Laqish had been a gladiator. R. Yohanan saw Rèsh Laqish bathing in the Jordan River and promised his sister in marriage if Rèsh Laqish would return to his studies. When R. Yohanan began his yeshiva in Tiberias, Rèsh Laqish went as his right hand. R. Yohanan was often overcome by R. Shimon’s logic and acted according to his opinions. Rèsh Laqish based his objections to R. Yohanan’s conclusions on Mishnah.
If he found no support he was not ashamed to abandon his opinion. He had a strong love of truth and an unusually courageous way of saying what he thought. He disputed with Yehuda Nesiah, his Nasi and Rebbe’s grandson, for fear of the Nasi did not compel him to step back from a deeply held opinion based on his understanding of Torah. He rebuked the Nasi for avarice. He revoked decisions of his colleagues even after the decision had been acted upon. R. Yohanan once demonstrated the halakha before R. Yann’i, his teacher; Shimon refuted R. Yohanan’s opinion even after R. Yann’i publicly praised it. He sometimes judged in conflict with the Mishnah. His opinions did not generally make halakha when they differed from those of R. Yohanan.

We’ll learn more of this when we meet Rav, Shmuél, and the other successors to the Tanna’im in the next section.