The Writing of the Gemara and the Savorayim
After we understood in the previous blog that the Talmud that we have today, whether the Babylonian or the Jerusalem, is a reformulation of the Gemara handed down to the people from the times of Moses to fit the newly minted (or relatively new, depending on the proximity of the generation to Rebbe) Mishna of Rebbe (for more on this see this blog), now we are ready to build further.
One of the great arguments among our sages, ob”m, is the question as to when the Talmud/Gemara was actually written. What??? What do you mean Rabbi? Didn’t you just say that Ravina and Rav Ashi were the final editors of the Babylonian Talmud? Well, yes. Yes, I did. Let me rephrase.
Everyone agrees that the flow of the text that is in our hands today is based on the teachings and organization established by Rav Ashi in his great Yeshiva in Matta Machsia, which was formulated and re-formulated over the course of Rav Ashi’s nearly sixty years as the Rosh haYeshiva (see Tractate Bava Batra 157b). The order was finalized and outlined by Rav Ashi and his talmid-chaver (student and friend/colleague) Ravina. This is agreed upon by everyone.
However, the question that remains is: was it then written down or not?
Here we find a very interesting argument between the Rambam and Rav Nissim Gaon on the one hand and Rashi and Rav Shrira Gaon (more on Geonim in a later blog) on the other.
The Rambam in his “General Introduction to the Mishna” and again in his introduction to the Mishna Torah, his magnum opus, states that it was Ravina and Rav Ashi who wrote down the Talmud. Rashi (Tractate Bava Metziah 36a) and Rav Shrira Gaon, in his famous letter, say that it was the “later generations” who wrote them down as the intensity and the abilities of the generations were in decline.
No matter how we look at it there can be no doubt that during the times of the middle Geonim (650 CE – 1000 CE) the Talmud was already in written form.
Part and parcel of the reasoning as to why there is an argument on the topic (other than the fact that, let’s face it, they were all Jewish) is because the Talmud all over the place asks questions on the Mishna as to what was written. Is it like this or like this? For example in the Mishna in Tractate Ketubot (11:1) the Mishna says “An almanah (widow) is fed from the properties of the yesomim (the orphans)” which the Gemara (ibid.) asks whether the Mishna is to be read “nizonet”, which means “is fed”, or “hanizonet” which means “who is fed”. Meaning is that statement a law itself or the introduction to a law?
Now, it’s quite simple to ask: if the Mishna was written – how can there be any room for error? What does it say? (In which case Rashi and Rav Shrira should be the hands down winners, no?)
To which the Rambam answers (Responsa 142): we never follow blindly the written word, after all the real basis for all of the oral Torah is… ORAL. [To which I append: especially when anyone can add to or subtract as they will, especially since writing errors in a hand-written document are easy to do (skip a line, misread a word, etc.), especially in light of the fact that the Gemara insists that there are times when the Mishna was intentionally left in an “unfinished” state (chasurei michsarah, “it is surely lacking in wording”) so that the Chachamim would apply an oral “fix” to the language of the Mishna itself] Therefore, says the Rambam, the Gemara asked on many Mishnayot “could it be that there was a copy error or intentional quirk here”?
Rav Reuven Margoliot, in his amazing sefer “Yesod haMishna ve Arichatah” (the Foundations of the Mishna and it’s Editing) writes a sort of compromise between the two, that the Mishna was originally written in a shorthand form and only at a later time was it made into a “full” written version. The same could be said about the Gemara as well, that it was originally written in shortened form, utilizing acronyms and various other mnemonic tricks in order to try and retain an order to the oral Torah, while keeping it as oral as possible. The Gemara itself tells us that a similar tactic was done when Hilney, the Queen, donated a gold tablet to the Mikdash upon which was written the parsha of sotah, (the woman concerning whom there is a serious doubt as to whether she committed an infidelity) (see Tractate Yuma chapter 2).
In any case, proofs can be brought and explained in either direction. There are, in fact, certain clear instances where there were changes made in the nussach (text) of the Gemara. For example: see Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a, where the Gemara brings calculations as to how to compare and calculate the dates if we count from the destruction of the second Temple or leminyan shtarot (“according to the calculation of documents”, a phrase which refers to one of the oldest systems of dating made by Alexander the Great (if memory serves me correctly). There we find it the varying written texts changes in the amounts of time. The reason for this is quite simple: it’s because the scribe was re-calculating the amount of time that had passed from the destruction/shtarot until his own day instead of blindly copying the date written in the text in front of him.
Le’ma’aseh, (realistically) there is no real difference for us today whether or not the Mishna and Gemara were written documents from their very inception or whether they were purely oral “documents”. In today’s world, we are in possession of written versions of both the Mishna and the Gemara/Talmud. It does, however, give me a greater appreciation of the previous generations, who, according to Rashi and Rav Shrira, were in possession of amazing memory capacities.
After the period of the Talmud came the period referred to as “The Savorayim”. Relatively little is known of this time period. We know names and places, as Rav Shrira Gaon, in his famous letter, lists them for us. However relatively little is actually known about them. This is because for the entire period of time (about 70 years) their main focus was on two things. Finishing touches to the Gemara and its dissemination. The “finishing touches” that were done to the Gemara, consisted of things such as dividing up the Mishnayos to break up the text of the Gemara, which is done in most, but not all, masechtos, adding some further commentaries, piskei halachos and also the addition of mnemonic devices (simanim, signs) into the text of the Gemara as well.
It is due to the immense work of these great sages, who created these incredible works of scholarship, that there is such relative unity of the Torah and a closeness in learning and affiliation among Jews throughout the world today.
 For a brilliant article on this topic (Hebrew) see http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/toshba/hatalmud/a12-2.htm