“The (amora) who were leading the Talmudic Academies across

“The Talmud really is the heart of Judaism.

After the Bible, it is the book most studied by Jews.” (Norman Solomon) When
and how did the Babylonian Talmud attain such importance?

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Jews
created special institutions where they could study traditional texts, the
Talmud and the Torah. These institutions, according to the aggadah, are called
yeshivah. Later, yeshivah are known as the Talmudic Academies that are believed
to be the centre for Jewish learning of the Oral Law, the Torah. Gaon (plural. Geonim)
was a tittle given to Jewish scholars (amora) who were leading the Talmudic
Academies across Babylonia and Palestine, such as Sura Academy and Pumbedita
Academy. They were chosen in order to develop Talmudic Law and pass it on to
their followers. Geonim had an important mission to secure continuity of the
Jewish traditions. Jews regarded Geonim as the supreme authority in the
interpretation of the Talmud. This led them to be able to reply on queries that
came all across Jewish communities throughout the world in order to provide a
deeper understanding about Jewish thought and practice. These replies have a
great value when studying how Jewish communities achieved unity in that
specific period of time.

 

Sura
Academy in Babylonia was one of the two major Jewish Academies in Babylonia
between 225 CE and 1033 CE. Scholar Abba Arika, usually referred to as Rav, who
was a disciple of Judah ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah, founded this
Academy in 219 CE. Rav arrived at the city of Sura and was soon to find almost
no religious activity. Since his arrival, he stressed importance on the
continuity of the Jewish community in Babylonia, leading him to leave Nehardea
when it is believed to be the start of his mission to continue the education of
Jewish Oral Law. His arrival caused many teachers to come and help Rav in
establishing an academy that will help to teach the Oral Law. Thus, the Sura
Academy is believed to be the first Jewish Academy established in Babylonia in
the Geonim period.

 

Samuel of
Nehardea, usually known as Mar Samuel, was the founder and a Gaon at another
Jewish Academy in Nehardea. Alongside Rav, head of the Sura Academy, they have
established Babylonia as an important centre of Judaism. Rav and Mar Samuel are
believed to be the reason Judaism continued to thrive in Amoraim and Geonim
periods, as many students were attracted to these Academies. However, shortly
after Mar Samuels’ death in 254 CE, the Nehardea Academy was destroyed due to
political activity in that area. It was never reopened, but instead, a new
Academy was opened in Pumbedita by Rabbi Judah ben Ezekiel in 259 CE.1

 

Sherira
Gaon was a Gaon at the Pumbedita Academy in Babylonia. He became an important
figure within Judaism due to his famous work, Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon. This
letter was written in response to questions of a Jewish community Kairwan in
Tunisia. This letter was written around 968 CE and became an important source
of study of early rabbinic literature. The Kairwan community has written
questions to Sherira Gaon in order to get his reply, as they rejected and
doubted the authority of the Babylonian Academies. As an impact of the Jewish
diaspora after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, many communities
far away, such as the community of Kairwan, have developed their own centres of
learning rabbinic literature and the Oral Torah. Therefore, they decided to
challenge the concept of Babylonian Academies by writing to R. Sherira, the
Gaon of one of the Academies in Babylonia. Consequently, the primary objective
of R. Sherira was to convince such communities and reassure them of the
authoritative power Babylonian Academies had.

 

1 Moshe Weiss, A Brief History
of the Jewish People, (Maryland: Jason Aronson Inc., 2004), p.70

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