The Ancient Beit Midrash and the Modern Academy: An Exploration of Origins and Methodology


If you were to visit a Geonic yeshiva during the months of Elul and Adar you would find a situation not too dissimilar from a modern beit midrash. There would be students hearing a lecture from a teacher, all of them having a set place to sit. Everyone would be studying the designated masekhta of that yarhei kallah, the set two months of the year when people from all over the world would travel to the great Babylonian yeshivot to learn. There were even financial aspects of the yeshiva. Some students received stipends and some of the faculty had a salary. Throughout the Geonic era these gatherings happened semiannually and the yeshivot functioned with their set curriculums and structure. The yeshivot even functioned throughout the year, albeit at a smaller capacity.[i] Clearly, the yeshiva was an institution, independent of its own members. Teachers died, students left, yeshivot even moved, but nonetheless, there was a continuous existence of the same yeshiva. But how far back does the concept of the yeshiva as an institution really go? The answer is not a simple one. Scholars attempting to discuss the origins of the Geonic academy look towards the Talmudic material for sources on the early beit midrash. These texts, however, are not without ambiguity.[ii]

A starting point for this discussion can be found in the comprehensive study on this issue by David Goodblatt. Focusing solely on Talmud Bavli, Goodblatt suggests that that the beit midrash as an institution did not exist at all in Amoraic times.[iii] The core of Goodblatt’s argument is that the term used most frequently with respect to the place of study for Babylonian sages is either “bei rav- the house of a Rav (the Amora)or “bei R. X,- The house of Rabbi ‘X’.” Goodblatt points out that these terms seem to connote a kind of teacher-student teaching circle located in the teacher’s house, which is very different than the institutionalized yeshivot of the Geonic times which were both larger in scale and not dependent on a specific rabbi in order to function.[iv] Furthermore, mentions of beit midrash and bei midresha, which undoubtedly mean some sort of school, are typically associated with non-Babylonian sages, and therefore they do not indicate what was happening in Babylonia.[v] Regarding Talmudic usage of the terms yeshiva and metivta, Goodblatt suggests that these words do not refer to the yeshivot and metivata found in Geonic times, but rather are related to their literal meaning of sitting. He claims that these phrases actually refer to either courts since the places in which they are found largely deal with practical-legal issues as opposed to theoretical debates, or alternatively, that they could sometimes mean study sessions.[vi] However, he concedes that, in a small minority of cases, these terms actually refer to real schools. Nevertheless, after reducing the amount of references to both of these terms with textual evidence from manuscripts or parallel sugyot in the Bavli, he ultimately tallies the number of total number of references of yeshiva and metivta to 6 and 11 respectively. Contrasting this to the 159 mentions of beit midrash, 98 of be midrasha, 69 of bei rav, and 157 of bei R. X, Goodblatt grants only minor significance to the small number of problematic passages.[vii]  Essentially, Goodblatt’s claims are statistical. Since most mentions of a place of learning in the Talmud Bavli do not describe an institution like the later Geonic yeshivot, they must have not existed.

In an article entitled “Yeshiva and Metivta,” Yeshayahu Gafni argues with Goodblatt’s position, claiming that the Geonic-style yeshiva did exist during the Amoraic period.[viii] Regarding the terms yeshiva and metivita, Gafni agrees that in Tannaitic sources it meant courthouse, but regarding the Bavli he challenges Goodblatt on many of his readings, as they are sometimes forced. For example, Gafni cites the following Bavli:

 “Both [Rav and Samuel] agree that the Get requires confirmation. Rav, however, is of opinion that since there are Talmudical Colleges (metivata) in Babylonia, witnesses can always be found while Samuel is of opinion that the Colleges (metivata) are busy with their studies”[ix]

It is hard to imagine that the term metivata is talking about study groups in this context.  Study groups imply something informal, and metivata clearly implies a set and formal institution where “witnesses can always be found.” Furthermore, it is difficult to suggest that metivata in the above passage is merely referring to courts. Otherwise, how could they ever be too “busy with their studies”  to help out in a judicial case if that was their primary role? Gafni’s approach also addresses the statistical component of Goodblatt’s argument. Indeed, even according to Gafni if every mention of yeshiva and metivata does mean a real institutionalized yeshiva, there are still many more mentions of informal learning sessions in “the house of rabbi X.” However, fewer mentions of institutionalized yeshivot does not mean that they did not exist whatsoever and instead might suggest that they were just not that popular as of yet. Furthermore, placing the origins of the institutionalized yeshiva in the Amoraic period allows for a more realistic period of development for this institution, which is important since significant cultural changes rarely happen overnight. Therefore, according to Gafni, the yeshiva surely existed in the Amoriac period.


In an article reexamining this topic, Jeffrey Rubenstein –applying a new methodology of Talmudic study – argues that essentially both Goodblatt and Gafni were correct.[x] Gafni was right that many mentions of the yeshiva and metivta were actual schools, but Goodblatt was right that these mentions were post-Amoraic since they actually belong to a later stratum of the Talmud. Rubenstein builds from the method of Talmudic analysis known as redaction-criticism, made popular by both David Weiss-Halivni and Shamma Friedman.[xi] Both of these scholars essentially argue that unlike the traditional view of the Talmud containing two chronological literary layers, Tannaitic and Amoraic materials, there is in fact a third and later layer of the Talmud: a layer known as the stammaim, or the stam-layer (meaning anonymous). They argued that this layer of the Talmud was different than earlier strata in various ways: it lacks any authorial attributions, consists of a highly dialectical give-and-take, and heavily uses Aramaic. Due to these stylistic differences and seemingly forced answers given by this stratum of the Talmud, they conclude that the stam-layer of the Talmud is later than the Amoraic layer. Standing in contrast to the traditional view that the Bavli was finished by Ravina and Rav Ashi, Halivni argues that that the phrase “Ravina and Rav Ashi were the end of instruction (hora’ah)”[xii] really means that they were the end of the official apodictic—non-justified legal—teachings, but in no way are the end to editing or the dialectic arguments so commonly found in the Bavli.[xiii] To mention just one example demonstrating the existence of a stam-layer, Halvini notes that the Gemara in Yevamot 11a is unaware of whether to attribute an opinion to Rav Aha or Ravina II, both of whom are students (and grand-students) of Ravina and Rav Ashi. This is a question that could easily have been solved if the editors of the Talmud were their teachers, since they would just have to ask their students who said what.[xiv]

Following this newer methodology, Rubenstein argues that all of the mentions of institutionalized schools in the Bavli are really found in this later stratum. For example, in Makkot 11b (and also Sot. 7b and BQ 92a) there is an Amoraic Midrash that says:

Throughout the forty years that Israel remained in the wilderness, Yehuda’s bones shook in his coffin until [in the end] Moses stood up and supplicated for mercy on his behalf: Lord of the Universe! [said he.] Who influenced Reuven to make free confession [of his guilt]? Was it not Yehuda? ‘and this [was due] to Judah!’ And he [Moses] said, Lord, hear the voice [appeal] of Yehuda’.”

Right after this Midrash is an Aramaic gloss:

Thereupon, joint slipped into socket. Yehuda, not having yet been ushered in to the Celestial College (metivta de-raki’a). [Moses again prayed] — ‘and bring him unto his people’! Yehuda, being unable to parry in debate [through prolonged absence, Moses prayed] — ‘let his hands [capacity] be sufficient for him’; being unable to disentangle [analyze or explain] intricate points raised in discussion, Moses prayed — ‘and be the Lord and help unto him from his adversaries’”.

In his analysis of this story, Goodblatt suggests that one can read this source as saying that Yehuda was not allowed into a heavenly learning session, while Gafni disagrees.[xv] However, Rubenstein points out that this later back-and-forth to let Yehuda into the heavenly school and the further debate to let him participate in the studying there are all in Aramaic, demonstrating that it was not connected chronologically with the previous hebrew Midrash and is actually part of the later stammaitic layer. He further points out how this addition is quite typical of the stam-layer of the Bavli, specifically the portrayal of Moshe having a debate with God as well as Yehuda trying to join into the heavenly academy’s give-and-take. Therefore, this gemara serves as another example of the stam’s predilection towards dialectic and ultimately reflects the nature of the beit midrash present in the times of the stam layer’s writing, and not the existence of a beit midrash from the time of earlier Amoraim.[xvi] Rubenstein furthers applies this methodology to other examples where the word metivta or yeshiva appear, such as the aforementioned case of witness confirmation on a Get, reading the reasoning that the Bavli gives for Rav and Shmuel really belong to a later generation.

A second methodological development which Rubenstein utilizes is the question of how we treat Aggadah in the Bavli.  Until now, we have only dealt with places where a school-like word was the focus of the discussion. Taking a broader look throughout the Bavli, there are many stories that never mention the words beit midrash or metivta but clearly describe such institutions. However, Rubenstein argues that these stories can also be dated to post-Amoraic times, stating that: “it has increasingly become the scholarly consensus that Talmudic stories are didactic fictions, not accurate historical reports. Consequently the stories inform us of the ideas, values and cultural situation of the storytellers, not the characters.”[xvii] In the editing of the Bavli, its creators were not aiming to preserve old stories, rather to update and change them in order to convey more compelling lessons to their contemporary audience.

A great analysis of such an aggadah is Daniel Sperber’s article about the story of Rav Kahana’s flight to Israel in Bava Kama 117a-b.[xviii] In this gemara, a person wants to inform on a fellow Jew to the tax collector. Even after Rav’s protest, the would-be-informer still wants to betray his friend, and subsequently Rav Kahana kills him. Following the advice of Rav, Rav Kahana flees to Israel, but on the condition that he will not ask R. Yochanan any questions for seven years. After meeting Resh Lakish, Rav Kahana demonstrates his intellectual prowess. Resh Lakish subsequently warns R. Yochanan that a great Torah scholar had come from Babylonia and that he should prepare for next days lecture. At the start of lessons the next day, Rav Kahana is put in the front row, the place reserved for the brightest students. However, after R. Yochanan continues in the lesson and Rav Kahana does not respond, he is subsequently moved back, ultimately put back seven rows. Not able to remain silent anymore, Rav Kahana declares that these seven rows should be in the place of the seven years of silence he promised Rav. Asking R. Yochanan to go back to the beginning, Rav Kahana starts to refute R. Yochanan’s lesson and returns to the front row. He further questions R. Yochanan’s lesson, and with each additional question the students remove one of the seven mats that R. Yochanan is sitting on, until they take all seven away. After he is left on the floor, R. Yochanan asks a student to open his eyelids, because he is too old himself to do so, and a student did so with a silver stick.

There is a lot more to the story such as the subsequent death and resurrection of Rav Kahana, but for the purposes of showing how this story is not historical but rather didactic, this segment is sufficient. It is clear from this story that the beit midrash as a proper school existed, but the question is what beit midrash could it be describing? It is hard to take this story at face value, as chronologically the facts do not of the narrative do not add up. Firstly, Rav was much older than R. Yochanan, as Rav died circa 248 while R. Yochanan died 279. Therefore it does not make sense that Rav would have been able to send Rav Kahana to an elderly R. Yochanan as the former should have been dead. Furthermore, another part of the aggadah mentions a change of political power, which was most likely referring to the change from Parthian control to Sasanian in 226, almost 50 years before R. Yochanan died.[xix] From all of this evidence, it seems that already this story is not necessarily historically accurate.

Furthermore, not only do we have negative evidence that this story does not reflect early Amoraic times, but there are also certain elements of the story itself that point to a much later dating. For example, the motif of sitting on mats does not really make sense from a Palestinian perspective, as they would have sat on cushions.[xx] Furthermore, the theme of the aristocracy sitting on mats is found in sixth-seventh century Sasanian art, not only pinning down the geographical location of the story, but most likely its time period as well. Once we realize that this story was told in a Sasanian context, even more motifs can be discerned, such as the old man not being able to lift up his eyes and the value of silver.[xxi]  These motifs would only have appeared in a world where Sasanian culture was the surrounding force, and following other themes in the story particularly a sixth- to seventh-century Sasanian culture. Following this method of analysis, Rubenstein, both in his article and in other works, reads most aggadah as not reflecting a historical endeavor of the stammaim, but rather a literary creation meant to put a modern message in the mouths of older heroes.

Almost indispensable to modern understanding of limmud Torah is its primary location: the beit midrash. But as our historical analysis demonstrates, the connection between the two is not as inherent as we might think. Starting with Goodblatt’s study, we saw that the institutionalized yeshiva may not have started until the times of Geonim. Gafni’s analysis of the sources, on the other hand, moved the inception of the Babylonian yeshiva institution back into the Amoraic period. Rubenstein’s new methodologies toward approaching the redaction and ahistorical nation of the gemara offered a fascinating middle ground approach to the institutionalized beit midrash’s origins. Indeed, Talmudic texts referring to batei midrash were discussing institutionalized yeshivas. However, these references belong to later stratum of the Bavli, a stratum that was not afraid to insert its own voice into the chain of the tradition.

Sam Berkovitz is a Junior in Yeshiva College and enjoins his readers to peruse the endnotes.




[i] Brody, Robert. “The Geonic Academies: Continuity and Change .” In The geonim of Babylonia and the shaping of medieval Jewish culture.( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). 35-65.

[ii] For the purpose of the essay we will mainly focus on Babylonian Jewry, as the previous description of the yeshiva is from that region and since scholars have pointed out many differences between the two culture centers of Babylon and Israel we have to be cognizant of comparing evidence from within more or less the same culture.

[iii] Goodblatt, David M.. Rabbinic instruction in Sasanian Babylonia. (Leiden: Brill, 1975). 7

[iv] Ibid. 108

[v] Ibid. 96

[vi] Ibid.63

[vii] Ibid. 74,90

[viii] Yeshayahu Gafni, “‘Yeshiva’ and ‘Metivta,’” Zion 43 (1978), 12-37 (Hebrew).

[ix] Gittin 6a, all translations are from Soncino Press, with minor revisions

[x] Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. “The Rise of the Babylonian Rabbinic Academy: A Reexamination of the Talmudic Evidence.” JSIJ 1 (2002): 55-68

[xi] Halivni, David. The formation of the Babylonian Talmud, Transl. by Jeffrey Rubenstein. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013..   And Friedman, Shamma, “’Al derekh heqer hasugya” (“On the Method of Critical Research of the Sugya”) in his “Pereq ha’isha rabba babavli,” Mehqarim umeqorot, ed. H. Dimitrovsky (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1977), 283-321.

[xii] Baba Metsia 86a

[xiii] Halivni, David. The formation of the Babylonian Talmud, Transl. by Jeffrey Rubenstein. 85

[xiv] Ibid. 92. The opinions of Halivni and Friedman were simplified and conflated for the purpose of this article, for a detailed and clear analysis of the different approaches see Vidas, Moulie. “Introduction.” In Tradition and the formation of the Talmud. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 1-19.

[xv] Gafni, Yeshiva 31 and Goodbaltt, Rabbinic Instruction 85

[xvi]  Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. “The Rise of the Babylonian Rabbinic Academy: A Reexamination of the Talmudic Evidence.” 60-61

[xvii] Ibid. 58

[xviii] Sperber, Daniel “On the Unfortunate Adventures of Rav Kahana: A Passage of Saboraic Polemic from Sasanian Persia,” Irano-Judaica, ed. S. Shaked (Jerusalem, 1982), 83-100.

[xix]Ibid. 88

[xx] Ibid. 91

[xxi] Ibid. 90