The War On Scholars
The Bavli scholar Natan greatly assisted scholars in Israel by providing refuge during the Jewish war against Hadrian (132-135 CE). Most of Rebbe Aqiva’s students were slaughtered in this war. The Bavli judge Hiyya wasforemost among the Tannaim in the generation before the Amora’im. His nephew was Rav, who founded a new metivta in Sura and left Nehardea to his friend Shmuél. There were now in Bavel two contemporary metivtot. They were quite distant from each other; one did not interfere with the other’s operations.
Rav and Shmuél were peers and their metivtot were also of equal rank and influence. Thus both metivtot taught the earliest generation of native scholars and germinated the Talmud Bavli. Their coexistence originated the unique dual leadership of these Bavli metivtot or the successors. This was almost a permanent institution and a major factor in the development of Bavli Judaism. Nehardea was destroyed in 259. Its place was taken by Pumbedita.
Yehuda Ben Yehezqel was a student of both Rav and Shmuél. He was founder of the Pumbedita metivta.
Pumbedita had a reputation for intellectual keenness and discrimination. Pumbedita became the other focus of the intellectual life of Bavli Judaism. It maintained that position for almost 700 years. Its method frequently digressed into hair-splitting and Sura’s scholars often harshly criticised this metivta for its methodolgy. Sura’s attendance was unusually high when Huna succeeded Rav. Yehuda Ben Yehezqel of Pumbedita became principal also of Sura when Huna died. Sura became the only metivta when R. Yehuda died and Hisda became principal. Hisda rebuilt Rav’s ruined metivta in Sura in Huna’s lifetime. Sura’s importance diminished for a long time after Hisda’s death. Rava moved Pumbedita to Mahoza after the brilliant innovations and successions of Rabbah Bar Nahmani, Yosef, and Abayé.
Pumbedita regained its supremacy after Rava’s death. Naman Bar Ytzhak became principal. His teaching methodology was a nascent attempt to compile the database which eventually formed the Talmud Bavli.
It attained such prominence that the Resh Geluta attended every autumn to hold an official reception. Pumbedita recognized Sura’s preeminence, a leadership which it firmly held for hundreds of years. It was in Sura that the Talmud Bavli was shaped. Sura became the centre of this project as it regained its former supremacy. R. Ashi, for more than 50 years, guided Sura.
Sura had two large kala (general assembly) sessions each year, in autumn and spring. Students of varying ages and knowledge were represented. The kala was unknown in Israel. R. Ashi submitted to each kala the results of his examination and selection, and invited discussion upon them. His work was continued and completed by the succeeding principals of the metivta. Babylonian society was undergoing serious changes at this time.
Persecution was commonplace and the Talmud was compiled in writing during these uncertain times to protect the tradition. Ashi’s activity lasted more than 50 years. His editorial content was added to considerably but the form received no real change. The editorial process continues under the next generation, the Savora’im, and we will meet them in the next section.