Quick Book Review: The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud

babyloniantalmudTitle: The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud

Author: David Halivni

Bibliographic info: 352 pp.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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With thanks to OUP for the review copy!

The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud is an English translation of Halivni’s work relating to his Meqorot umesorot (Sources and Traditions) project. This project is a commentary (written in Hebrew) on the Babylonian Talmud which, so far, has been published in eight volumes from 1968-2012. The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud represents an in-depth account of Halivni’s source-critical approach in this project. Most academic research on the Talmud is actually written in Hebrew, with much of it never seeing the light of day in English. This fact alone makes this English translation of Halivni’s work a great step forward in Talmudic studies.

In a nutshell, here is what Halivni proposes concerning the Babylonian Talmud (the Talmud consists of the Gemara, completed ca. 500, and the Mishnah, completed ca. 200). It is typically thought that the Gemara was produced by the Amoraim and that the Mishnah was produced by the Tannaim (both being groups of rabbis). Halivni, however, disputes this chronology and presents a revised rabbinic timeline of the literary production of the Talmud. He believes that the Talmud was only made to look like it was written by the Amoraim, and that the unique style of the Gemara was, in fact, produced by the Stammaim during the 6th-8th centuries (rabbis who followed the Amoraim).

To argue his case, Halivni first puts forward his case for the Stammaim (“the anonymous ones”), who he sees as being a cohort of rabbis that is primarily responsible for the Gemara. Next, he discusses the editing of the Talmud, arguing against the typical belief that the Talmud went through a standardized editorial revision process (which he sees as being due to the contradictory Tannaitic and Amoraic sayings). Then Halivni hones in on the finer details of his proposed redactional process, and finishes by tackling the beginning of the Talmud’s written form (which involves a oral proto-Talmud that was retained by memorization by the Stammaim, some of whom cross-referenced thematically connected segments in the nascent Talmudic body by duplicating them in various redactional contexts).

The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud is an impressive volume and is also somewhat intimidating for the uninitiated like myself. I would say that this volume is more suited for those already familiar with Talmudic scholarship, rather than someone seeking an introductory volume.

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