Jewish History - Babylonian Academies

With the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AD), the Jewish cult and rites centre on learning much more than before. Judaism, as remodeled for a countryless nation by Yokhanan Ben Zakkay (Ist Century AD) became a study-oriented religion. Note that 1000 years later, in medieval Europe, all male Jews were literate, at a time when in most of Europe, only churchmen could read.

Intellectual evolution is conveyed by teachers and transmitted to their students. Jewish centres of study moved from Israel, where the Mishnah (300 BC - 200 AD) and "Jerusalem Talmud" (250 - 500 AD), i.e. the Proceedings of the Sanhedrin and Academies, were collected and edited, to Babylon (present Iraq) where the larger and more comprehensive "Babylonian Talmud" (200 - 500 AD) was composed, in the three great universities of Surah, Pumbadita and Nehardea. Creative work continued in these institutions, under the "Geonim" (Heads of Academies) until the Xth Century. Around that period, new schools were started, first in Kairouan (Tunisia) and then in Eastern France and the Rhineland ("the Wise of Lothar" in Jewish lore) where a new tradition of Biblical exegesis and of legislation was to grow, that of Rashi (R. Shlomo Itzhaki of Troyes), his grandson R. Tam and the "Tosaftists" (from the Hebrew word for "authors" of appendices). Excerpt: Astronomy in Sefarad, Yuval Ne'eman, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Centers of Jewish life in the Parthian Empire

Centers were situated in Mesopotamia in Nisibis and Nehardea. Jewish chronicles state that they enjoyed a long period of peace and maintained close and positive contacts with the reigning dynasty. This is proved among other things, by the participation of the Jews in the rebellions against Trajan (the Roman Emperor) in Mesopotamia (116 AD). In addition, the Jews took an active part in organizing the silk trade, an advantage they owed to the evident support of the kings.

No later than in the second century AD, a representative of Davidic origin called 'exilarch' represented the Jewish minority at court and also carried out functions of a political-administrative nature. Religious persecution of Jewish rebels in Palestine by the Romans in 135 AD, also brought many Jewish refugees into the Parthian empire. Philo and Flavius Josephus the famed Roman historians have documented the relations between Jews and Parthians.

Persian Control of Babylonia Continued

To the east, in the relative stability of the Sassanid Persian Empire, the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia preserved and extended Jewish learning, and their scholars and academies gradually gained recognition from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean as the ultimate source of Jewish legal and religious authority. Despite increasing religious intolerance by Sassanid rulers, by the 6th century Jewish scholars in Mesopotamia were well on their way to completing the great Babylonian Talmud, a vast compilation of commentaries on Jewish scriptures and Jewish law.
History of Iranian Jews by Massoume Price

Jewish Colonialism

During the first five centuries of the Christian era, we find numerous Jewish colonies scattered all over Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Assyria, Babylonia, Media, and as far as South Arabia. In the last-mentioned country they obtained political supremacy for a while, under the Himyarire King Dh=A3-Nuw=A0s. In Southern Babylonia, especially during the Sassanian dynasty of Persia, they acquired great ascendancy, with very flourishing religious and educational centres, such as the famous academies of Sura, Nehardea, Pumbadita, and Mahuza, whence s prang the Babylonian Talmud.

Catholic Encycl.

Mar Samuel, who became around 220 AD the Dean of the Talmudic Academy of Nehardea in Babylonia, was an astronomer who could calculate and adjust the calendar with great precision, intercalating an extra month or reassigning the length of a month. The prescriptions for the calendar adjustments were written down in a special Baraita**. They include the 19 years synchronization cycle to this very day in the Jewish Calendar

Jewish Expansion in Babylon

By the advent of the Sassanian period (224-226 CE), the Persian Jews had established their own sericulture industry in Babylonia. This was the period in which many of Babylonia's great cities, Pumbadita, Nehardea, Nisibis, Mahosa, Sura and others were entirely populated, maintained and garrisoned by Jews.4 Thousands of Judaic students were attending the great Judaic universities, the Babylonian Talmud was written, and the Jewish population burgeoned to perhaps as much as 2,000,000 persons.
Silk making and the Jews, Samuel Kurinsky 1994

The Babylonian Jewish Community From Second Temple Times to the Fifth Century

By David E. Lipman

There was a group of Jews who never left Babylonia after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE. This community more or less thrived. Living since 129 BCE under Parthian rule, a loosely knit semi-feudal state, it was able to develop its autonomous institutions with little interference from the royal government. The Parthians who always feared Roman intervention welcomed Jewish opposition to Rome, at least until the time of Hadrian.

The Parthians established a Jewish liaison between the government and the Jewish community, the exilarch, who thus became the head of Babylonian Jewry. Descended allegedly from the House of David, proud of their genealogical purity, the exilarchs wore the kamara, the sash of office of the Parthian court, and disputed precedence with high Parthian officials.

The community which they headed was both numerous (estimates of its number vary from 80 0,000 to 1,200,000) and well-based economically, comprising a fair number of farmers and many traders who grew rich as intermediaries in the profitable silk trade between China and the Roman Empire passing through Babylonia.

The Jews enjoyed not only freedom of worship, autonomous jurisdiction, but even the right to have their own markets and appoint market supervisors (agoranomoi).

In 226 CC the Sassanids conquered the Parthians. They were devout Zoroastrians, and there was some tension between the new political leadership and the Jewish community. However, after a period of troubles and disagreement at the beginning of the reign of Shapur I (241-272), better relations were gradually established with the king.

Apart from their political and economic status, the main interest of Babylonian Jewry was its relations with the rabbinic centers in Judea and its religious/political development, leading up to the creation of the Babylonian Gemara. (Talmud) So long as there was a Temple, Jerusalem was the religious center for the Jewish people. With the Temple's destruction in 70 CE, the relations of the Babylonian Diaspora with Israel were characterized by ambivalence.

There were attempts to make Babylonian rabbinic courts independent of Israel's as early as 100 CE. These attempts failed. The people and therefore the Babylonian Jewish leadership acknowledged the authority of the Israel Jewish courts.

During the Hadrianic persecution several scholars of standing, R. Yochanan Ha-Sandlar, R. Eleazar b. Shamua and other pupils of R. Akiva settled temporarily in Babylonia and thus enhanced its prestige. However, the masterful personality of the patriarch R. Judah I still dominated from Israel. There were at least five Babylonians at his court, and he claimed and was accorded the right to ordain judges for Babylonia also. R. Judah did indeed admit the genealogical superiority of the exilarch, R. Huna, but only at a safe distance.

Conditions in Babylonia changed with the arrival in 219 CE at Nehardea of Abba Aricha (Rav), one of the pupils of Judah HaNasi. He arrived at Nehardea with a copy of the new best-seller, the Mishnah. Samuel, the son of Abba b. Abba, a rich silk merchant, was the leading sage at Nehardea. Samuel had established excellent relations with King Shapur I; it was due to him that the rule that civil law has the force of religious law became the guiding light for the Babylonian Jewish community.

Rav, noting serious differences between himself and Samuel, founded a new academy at Sura. Meanwhile, the school of Nehardea was dispersed after the Palmyrene raid of 259 CE and reassembled at Pumbedita, which became the rival of Sura among the Babylonian schools.

(Pumbedita 259 to 5th century CE
There had been a Jewish community at Pumbedita, a town on the banks of the Euphrates River, since before the Roman period. In 259 CE, after the armies of Palmyra destroyed the Jewish academy at Nehardea, the scholar Judah bar Ezekiel began a new academy at Pumbedita. For the following century this academy remained the center of Jewish religious learning in Babylonia. Its scholars maintained strong ties with scholars in Tiberias, Palestine. After 352 the academy went into decline and survived in the shadow of the greater academy of Sura.)

More academies developed at Machoza and Mata Mechasya. The teaching process seems to be similar in all of the schools. Each started with a paragraph of Mishnah to which there appear to already have been attached added traditions and discussions from the period prior to the writing of the Mishnah. These were discussed and new legal statements were added. Each of these developed chunks of material connected to a statement from the Mishnah is called a sugya. Each succeeding generation learned the sugya and then added questions, challenges (usually from another known sugya), philosophical arguments, and stories connected to either the actual materials being discussed or to an assumed principle which the legal students believed the previous generations of sages held. Since most teachers had been the students of the previous leader of the academies, many of their statements were assumed to be direct quotes of their teachers. There are also many examples of noting the behavior of a teacher as proof of that teacher's underlying principles. Some teachers believed in encouraging philosophical argumentation; others emphasized close examination of the legal texts themselves. There continued to be a group of sages who traveled between Judea and Babylonia, exchanging traditions.

With the crises facing the Jewish community in the third and fourth centuries CE, the Babylonians, who were always proud of their descent, now began to insist also on their superiority in learning and in Jewish authority. During the reign of Constantine, the Nasi, Hillel II, made this easy for them. He made the rules of the calendar public, thus cutting the one remaining authoritative tie which Israel had over Babylonia. The outcome was that the legal academies in Babylonia from the 4th-6th centuries became the Jewish authoritative centers of the Jewish world. Thus far Lipman

Move of the Academies to the West

Before the Academies of Sura and of Pumbadita were closed, centres of Jewish thought and learning were already flourishing in the far West. The circumstances which led to the transference of the head-quarters of Jewish learning from the East to the West in the tenth century are thus narrated in the Sefer ha-kabbalah of Rabbi Abraham ben David: "After the death of Hezekiah, the head of the Academy and Prince of the Exile, the academies were closed and no new Geonim were appointed. But long before that time Heaven had willed that there should be a discontinuance of the pecuniary gifts which used to be sent from Palestine, North Africa and Europe. Heaven had also decreed that a ship sailing from Bari should be captured by Ibn Romahis, commander of the naval forces of Abd-er-rahman al-nasr. Four distinguished Rabbis were thus made prisoners -- Rabbi Hushiel, father of Rabbi Hananel, Rabbi Moses, father of Rabbi Hanok, Rabbi Shemarjahu, son of Rabbi Ellisanan, and a fourth whose name has not been recorded. They were engaged in a mission to collect subsidies in aid of the Academy in Sura.

Origin of the Title Gaon

One philological note is called for here - regarding the word Ga'on. In modern Hebrew, the word has taken on the meaning of "genius" - but in T'nakh the word has no association with mental acuity. The root G'H means "pride" - such that the Song at the Sea begins Ashirah laShem ki Ga'oh Ga'ah - for He has demonstrated His power.

(The word was never used as an honorific until the 8th century in Bavel, when the heads of the Acadmies at Sura and Pumbadita were given the title, e.g. "G'on Sura", to wit: "The pride of Sura". The title fell out of use with the death of R. Hai Ga'on in 1038. No one was graced with this descriptive until R. Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (d. 1797) who was, indeed, the pride of Vilnius and was therefore known as "der Vilner Ga'on"; since his fame was principally associated with his incredible mental powers, the title became associated with genius.)
Excerpt from: Rosh haShanah Psalm 47 By Yitzchak Etshalom

(14) Gueonim en Espanol

Fue el tíítulo honoríífico dado a los Presidentes de las Academias Judíías de Toráá en Babilonia, que sucedieron a los SABORAIM. Los Gueonim interpretaron el Talmud y tomaban decisiones en asuntos juríídicos y en asuntos puramente religiosos. El primero de los Gueonim fue Rav Hana de Ushkiya de la Yeshiváá de Pumbadita. Durante 449 añños se sucedieron en Pumbadita 48 Gueonim hasta el úúltimo GAON RAV HAY hasta el añño 4798. En la Yeshiváá de SURA se sucedieron 36 Gueonim desde el añño 4369 hasta 4703.

Translation: The honorific title was given to the Presidents of the Jewish Talmudic-Torah Academies in Babylon which were successors of the "Saboraim." The Gaoniym interpreted the Talmud and made legal decisions in business and in purely religious areas. The First of the Gaons was Ray Hana of Ushkiya from the Pumbidita Yeshiva. During 499 years 48 Gaons followed in Pumbidita until the year 4798 until the last Gaon Rav Hay. In the Yeshiva at Sura 36 Gaons succeeded from the year 4369 until 4703. Spanish history

Baghdad (Babylon) in the Eighth Century

Baghdad was founded in 762. The city was an expansion of a village forming one of its precincts. The village's Persian name (Bag, God; dad, has given) was applied to the whole city. Baghdad became a thriving hub of Jewish industrial as well as of intellectual and religious life. The city was born and nourished in the matrix of the great Judaic university centers at Pumbanditha, Mahosa, Sura, Nehardea and Nisibis, and of other cities thickly populated by Jews in the Sassanian period.

Baghdad's growth into a major center was due to its position at the hub of the intercontinental trade routes pioneered by Jewish entrepreneurs a thousand years earlier. The trade routes radiated out from that hub westward through Palestine, and Russia, and North Africa, and Europe, and eastward into East Africa, Turkestan, China and India.
Kurinsky op.cit.


I. Sequence of Gaoniym at Sura:

First generation:"Rav" (Actual name: Abba Arikha), died in 247. He was the founder of the great school at Sura.

Samuel, died in 254. He founded the rabbinic school at Nehardea, which later moved to Pumbedita.

Second Generation:

Rav Huna, died 297. He was Rav's successor in the leadership of the Sura school.

Rav Judah [bar Ezekiel], died 299. He led the academy at Pumbedita.

Third Generation:

Rav Hisda, died 309. He stood at the head of the Sura school.

Rav Nahman [bar Jacob], died 320. He was active in Nehardea, and is known as a judge, apparently in the court of the Exilarch (the political head of the Babylonian Jewish community).

Rabbah [bar Nahmani], died 330: The most prominent teacher of his generation, he directed the academy at Pumbedita. His astute dialectical abilities earned him a reputation as an "uprooter of mountains."

Fourth Generation:

Abaye, died 339. He headed the academy at Pumbedita

Rava [bar Joseph bar Hama], died 352. He founded an academy at Mahoza.

The disputes and discussions of these two scholars, students of Rabbah, are found on almost every page of the Babylonian Talmud.

Fifth Generation:

Rav Papa, died 375. A student of Abaye and Rava, he led a school in Narsh.

Sixth Generation:

Rav Ashi, died 427. A prominent head of the Sura academy, he has often been credited with the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud .

Seventh Generation:

Rav Ashi's son, Mar bar Rav Ashi [also known as "Tavyomi"], died 468

II. There are Six Main Parts of the Talmud:

1. ZERAIM: concerning seeds. It treats of seeds, fruits, herbs, trees; of the public and domestic use of fruits, of different seeds, etc.

2. MOED: concerning festivals. It treats of the time when the Sabbath and other festivals are to begin, ended and celebrated.

    3. NASCHIM: concerning women. It treats of marrying and repudiating wives, their duties, relations, sicknesses, etc.
    4. NEZIKIN: concerning damages. It treats of damages suffered by men and animals, penalties and compensations.
    5. KODASCHIM: concerning holiness. It treats of sacrifices and various sacred rites.
    6. TOHOROTH: concerning purifications. It treats of the soiling and purifying of vessels, bedclothes and other things.

Each of these six parts, which the Jews call Schishah Sedarim - six orders or ordinances - is divided into books or tracts, called Massiktoth, and the books into chapters, or Perakim.

  1. ZERAIM. Contains eleven books or Masechtoth.
    1. BERAKTOTH - Benedictions and prayers. Treats of liturgical rules.
    2. PEAH - Corner of a field. Treats of the corners and gleanings of the filed...The olives and grapes to be left to the poor.
    3. DEMAI - Doubtful things. Whether or not tithes must be paid on such.
    4. KILAIM - Mixtures. Treats of various mixings of seeds.
    5. SCHEBIITH - the Sevents. Treats of the Sabbatical Year.
    6. TERUMOTH - Offerings and Oblations. The Heave offerings for the priests.
    7. MAASEROTH - the Tithes, to be given to the Levites.
    8. MAASER SCHENI - the Second Tithe.
    9. CHALLAH - the Dough, the portion to be given thereof to the Priests.
    10. ORLAH - the Uncircumcised. Treats about the fruits of a tree during the first three years after its plantings.
    11. BIKKURIM - the First Fruits to be brought to the Temple.
  2. MOED. Contains twelve Books or Masechtoth.
    1. SCHABBATH - the Sabbath. Treats of kinds of work prohibited on that day.
    2. ERUBHIN - Combinations. Contains precepts about food for the Sabbath eve.
    3. SCHEKALIM - Passover. Treats of the laws relating to the Feast of Passover and the Paschal
  3. Lamb.
    4. SCHEKALIM - Shekel. Treats of the size and weight of the shekel.
    5. IOMA - the Day of Atonement. Treats of prescriptions for that Day.
    6. SUKKAH - the Tabernacle. Treats of the laws concerning the feast of Tabernacles.
    7. BETSAH - the Egg of the Day of Feast. Treats of the kind of work prohibited and permitted on the festivals.
    8. ROSCH HASCHANAH - New Year. Treats of the Feast of New Year.
    9. TAANITH - Fasts. Treats of public fasts.
    10. MEGILLAH - the Scroll. Treats of the reading of the Book of Esther. Contains the description of the Feast of Purim.
    11. MOED KATON - Minor Feast. treats of laws relating to the days intervening between the first and last days of
    Pesach and Succoth.
    12. CHAGIGAH - Comparison of rites on on the three feats of Pesach, Sukkoth and Tabernacles.
  4. 3.NASCHIM. Contains seven Books or Masechtoth.
    1. JEBBAMOTH - Sisters in Law. Treats of Levirate marriage.
    2. KETHUBOTH - Marriage Deeds. Treats of dower and marriage settlements.
    3. KIDDUSCHIN - Betrothals.
    4. GITTIN - booklet on Divorces.
    5. NEDARIM - Vows. Treats of vows and their annulment.
    6. NAZIR - the Nazarite. Treats of the laws concerning the Nazarites and those who separate themselves from the world and consecrate themselves to God.
    7. SOTAH - the Woman suspected of adultery.

    4. NEZIKIN. Contains ten Books or Masechtoth.
    1. BABA KAMA - First Gate. Treats of Damages and Injuries and their remedies.
    2. BABA METSIA - Middle Gate. Treats of laws concerning found property, concerning trust, concerning buying and selling, lending, hiring and renting.
    3. BABA BATHRA - Last Gate. Treats of laws concerning real estate and commerce, mostly based on the traditional law. Also concerning hereditary succession.
    4. SANHEDRIN - Courts. Treats of the courts and their proceedings, and the punishment of capital crimes.
    5. MAKKOTH - Stripes. The 40 stripes (minus one) inflicted on criminals.
    6. SCHEBUOTH - Oaths. Treats different kinds of oaths.
    7. EDAIOTH - Testimonies. Contains a collection of traditional laws and decisions gathers from the testimonies of the distinguished teachers.
    8. HORAIOTH- Decisions. Treats of the sentences of Judges and the punishment of transgressors.
    9. ABHODAH ZARAH - Idolatry.
    10. ABHOTH - Fathers. Treats of laws of the fathers. It is called also PIRKE ABHOTH.

    5. KODASCHIM. Contains eleven Books or Masechtoth.>
    1. ZEBBACHIM - Sacrifices. Treats of animal sacrifices and the mode of their offering.
    2. CHULIN - Profane things. Treats of the traditional manner of slaughtering animals for ordinary use.
    3. MENACHOTH - Meat-offerings. Treats of meat-and-drink offerings.
    4. BEKHOROTH - the First Born. Treats of the laws concerning the first born of man and animals.
    5. ERAKHIN - Estimations. Treats of the mode in which persons dedicated to the Lord by a vow arel legally appraised
    in order to be redeemed.
    6. TEMURAH - Exchange. Treats of the laws concerning sanctified things having been exchanged.
    7. MEILAH - Trespass, Sacrilege. Treats of the sins subject to the punishment of excision, and their expiation by sacrifices.
    8. KERITHUTH - Excisions - Treats of the sins subject to the punishment of excision, and their expiation by sacrifices.
    9. TAMID - the Daily Sacrifice- Describes the Temple services connected with the daily morning and evening offerings.
    10. MIDDOTH - Measurements. Describes the measurements and description of the Temple.
    11. KINNIM - the Birds' Nests. Treats of the sacrifices consisting of fowls, the offerings of the poor, etc.

    6. TOHOROTH. Contains twelve Books or Masechtoth.
    1. KELLIM - Vessels. Treats of the conditions under which domestic utensils, garments, etc. receive ritual cleanness.
    2. OHOLOTH - Tents. Treats of tents and houses, and how polluted and purified.
    3. NEGAIM - Plagues. Treats of the laws relating to Leprosy.
    4. PARAH - the Heifer. Treats of the laws concerning the red heifer and the use of its ashes for the purification of the unclean.
    5. TOHOROTH - Purifications. Treats of some lesser degrees of uncleanness lasting only until sunset.
    6. MIKVAOTH - Wells. Treats of the conditions under which wells and reservoirs are fit to be used for ritual purifications.
    7. NIDDAH - Menstruation. Treats of the legal uncleanness arising from certain conditions in women.
    8. MAKSCHIRIN - Preparations. Treats of liquids that prepare and dispose seeds and fruits to receive ritual uncleanness.
    9. ZABHIM - Concerning nightly pollution and gonorrhea. Treats on the uncleanness arising from such secretions.
    10 TEBHUL IOM - Daily washing.
    11. IADAIM - Hands. Treats of the ritual uncleanness of hands, according to the traditional law, and of their purification.
    12. OKETSIN - Stalks of fruit. Treats of stalks and shells of fruit as conveying ritual uncleanness.

    The complete Talmud contains 63 books in 524 chapters.

    Added to these are four other shorts tracts, which have not been included in the regular Talmud. They have been added by later writers and exponents.

    These four are:
    MASSEKHETH SOPHERIM - the Tract of Scribes. Treats of the mode of writing the books of the law. Has 21

    EBHEL RABBETI - a large treatise on Mourning. Has 14 chapters.
    KALLAH - the Bride. On the acquisition of the bride. Has one chapter.
    MASSEKHETH DEREKH ERETS - the Conduct of Lide. Divided into RABBAH - major parts, and ZUTA - the minor parts. Has 16 chapters. At the end is added a special chapter - PEREK SCHALOM - on Peace.