Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Academies in Babylonia and Erez Yisrael

The talmudic term for an academy, yeshivah (lit., "sitting"), derives from the fixed order of seating assigned to the sages and their pupils who regularly participated in the activities of the academy. Occasionally the term meant not an academy but the private activity of studying the Torah (Nid. 70b). There are several synonyms for yeshivah, such as bet ha-midrash (lit., "the house of study"), bet din (lit. "the house of law"), bet din gadol (lit. "the great house of law"), and metivta (or motva) rabba (lit. "the great session"; Bek. 5b). In Babylonia the expression metivta, the literal Aramaic rendering of yeshivah, was used. As for bet va'ad (lit. "meeting place"), this refers specifically to the yeshivah (bet din) of the nasi in Ereẓ Israel.

History of the Academy in the Second Temple Period

According to the aggadah, the biblical patriarchs and their sons studied in a yeshivah. There was one in existence, too, during the Egyptian bondage, as also during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness (Yoma 28b; et al.). But the first reference to "yeshivah" as a place of study occurs apparently in the appendix to Ecclesiasticus 51:29: "Let my soul rejoice in my sitting (yeshivah), and be ye not ashamed with my song." The expression "in my sitting," in parallelism with "my song," would seem to point to the ethical and wise maxims which Ben Sira taught in his school, and not to halakhic subjects. But since Ben Sira declares in the same chapter (verse 23), "Turn unto me, ye unlearned, and dwell in my house of learning" (bet ha-midrash), it is very probable that yeshivah and bet hamidrash are synonyms for a school. More than a century later, Hillel the Elder said: "The more Torah, the more life; the more yeshivah, the more wisdom" (Avot 2, 7). There is no detailed information extant on the academies of Hillel and Shammai, nor on the arrangements relating to the discussions and studies prevailing in them. There is, however, information on the discussions of these two sages and their pupils on halakhic subjects. For example, "When grapes are being vintaged for the vat (i.e., for making wine), Shammai holds that they are susceptible of becoming unclean, while Hillel maintains that they are not.… A sword was planted in the bet ha-midrash and it was proclaimed: 'He who would enter, let him enter, but he who would depart, let him not depart' (so as to be present when a vote was taken). And on that day Hillel sat in submission before Shammai, like one of the pupils" (Shab. 17a). There were extremely bitter controversies on halakhah between the pupils of Hillel and those of Shammai which, on one occasion, ended in bloodshed (TJ, Shab. 1:7, 3c). There were halakhic discussions in the bet ha-midrash that continued inconclusively for years (Er. 13b). On one occasion the halakhah was decided in accordance with Hillel's view, outside the academy, in the courtyard of the Temple Mount (Tosef., Ḥag. 2:11; TJ, Beẓah 2:4, 61c). Generally, however, the halakhah was decided within the academy, after thorough consideration and discussion, by finally "taking a vote and deciding" according to the opinion of the majority.

The tannaim regarded the Great Sanhedrin, which had its seat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, as a yeshivah (Mid. 5:4; Sanh. 32b) "from which Torah goes forth to all Israel" (Sif. Deut. 152). R. Ishmael relates "when a man brings the tithe of the poor to the Temple, he enters the Chamber of Hewn Stone and sees the sages and their pupils sitting and engaging in the study of the Torah, whereupon his heart prompts him to study the Torah" (Mid. Tan. to 14:22). In a like manner, Yose b. Ḥalafta (of Sepphoris, who flourished in the middle of the second century C.E.) described the functions, procedures, and religious authority of this central institution: "… The bet din in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, though comprised of 71 members, may function with as few as 23. If one must go out, and sees that there are not 23, he remains. There they sit from the time of the daily burnt-offering of the morning until the time of the daily burnt-offering of the afternoon. On Sabbaths and festivals they enter the bet ha-midrash on the Temple Mount only. If a question was asked, and they had heard (the answer), they gave it; if not, they took a vote. If the majority held it to be levitically unclean, they declared it unclean; if the majority held it to be levitically clean, they declared it clean. From there the halakhah goes forth and spreads in Israel.… And from there they send and examine whoever is a sage and humble, pious, of unblemished reputation, and one in whom the spirit of his fellow-men takes delight, and make him a *dayyan in his town. After he has been made a dayyan in his town, they promote him and give him a seat in the Ḥel ("a place within the Temple area"), and from there they promote him and give him a seat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone. And there they sit and examine the pedigree of the priesthood and the pedigree of the levites" (Tosef., Sanh. 7:1). Although the participation of pupils in the debates was a characteristic feature of the academies, when it came to arriving at a decision, only their teachers, and not they, voted (ibid., 7:2).

The question has been raised as to whether an institution similar to the academy of the Pharisaic sages existed among other sects. C. Rabin (Qumran Studies (1957), 103ff.) regards the term moshav ("session") or moshav ha-rabbim ("the public session") in the Dead Sea Scrolls as referring to an academic-juridical institution, analogous to the academy mentioned in rabbinic literature, which met from time to time.

The Pupils at the Academies in the Second Temple Period

In rabbinic literature, information about the pupils who studied in the academies is extremely sparse. One aggadah relates of Hillel in his student days that "once, when he found nothing from which he could earn some money, the guard of the bet ha-midrash (who usually received half of what Hillel earned) would not allow him to enter. He climbed up and sat upon the skylight to hear the words of God from Shemaiah and Avtalyon" (Yoma 35b). It is further related that "Shammai and Hillel did not teach the Torah for remuneration" (Mid. Ps. to 15:6). In the appendix to Ecclesiasticus 51:23–25 it is stated: "Turn unto me, ye unlearned, and dwell in my house of learning.… Buy wisdom for yourselves without money." Hillel, of whom it is said that "he drew his fellow-men near to the Torah" (Avot 1:12), had 80 pupils and "the least among all of them was Johanan b. Zakkai" (BB 134a). On the subject of accepting pupils there was a divergence of opinion between Hillel and Shammai: "Bet Shammai maintain that one should only teach a person who is wise and humble, of a good pedigree, and rich (some read "worthy"), and Bet Hillel declare that one should teach every person, for there were many sinners in Israel who were attracted by the study of the Torah and from whom there came forth righteous, pious, and worthy men" (ARN1 3, 14).

There is no information extant on academies for the study of the Torah outside of Jerusalem, except for an account of Johanan b. Zakkai, who spent some time in Galilee, where scarcely any pupils or householders sought instruction from him (TJ, Shab. 16:8, 15d). One who wished to study had to leave his home and go to Jerusalem, and this naturally imposed a burden on the poor, who for years had to live away from their homes in order to spend the major part of the day in the company of their teachers, listening to their halakhic discussions, to their decisions, and to what took place in the academy, this being the accepted manner of the study of the Torah, known as "attendance on scholars." It is recorded of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, that he left his father's home, went to Jerusalem, where he studied under Johanan b. Zakkai, and suffered from hunger, as he received no support from his father (ARN1 6; ARN2 13, 30–1). Pupils also went from abroad to study the Torah in Jerusalem. They included Nehemiah of Bet Deli, who went from Babylonia and studied under Gamaliel the Elder (Yev. 16:7), and Saul of Tarsus, i.e., Paul, who went from Cilicia in Asia Minor (Acts 22:3). There were no written halakhic works available, for in general the principle was observed that "words which are transmitted orally are not permitted to be recited from writing" (Git. 60b).

From the Destruction of the Second Temple to the Close of the Mishnah

After the destruction of the Second Temple, several academies were established simultaneously. This is attested by a baraita (Sanh. 32b) which enumerates the academies and their heads, as follows: Johanan b. Zakkai at Beror Ḥayil, Gamalielat Jabneh, Eliezer at Lydda, and Joshua at Peki'in. In the next generation there were Akiva at Bene-Berak, and Ḥanina b. Teradyon at Siknin, and these were followed by Yose at Sepphoris, Mattiah b. Ḥeresh in Rome, Judah b. Bathyra at Nisibis (in Mesopotamia), and Hananiah, the nephew of R. Joshua b. Hananiah, in Babylonia. The list, though incomplete, testifies to the founding of academies both in and outside Ereẓ Israel during the second century C.E. (See Map: Main Academies.) It concludes with a reference to the academy at Bet She'arim, headed by Judah ha-Nasi, which, because of the unique nature of his position and of the religious authority with which he was invested, was apparently the only one in his day, although after his death, academies were again established simultaneously at Tiberias, Caesarea, and Lydda.

The Function and Authority of the Academies

On the assembly of the sages at Jabneh after the destruction of the Second Temple there is the following statement: "When the sages assembled at the academy of Johanan b. Zakkai at Jabneh, they said: 'A time will come when a man will seek one of the laws of the Torah and not find it, one of the rabbinic laws and not find it.'… They said: 'Let us begin from Hillel and Shammai …'" (Tosef., Eduy. 1:). Hence, the sages began to receive "testimonies" from those who had survived the war against the Romans. They scrutinized these, arrived at a decision, and laid down the halakhah. At that time the arrangement of halakhic collections according to subject matter received renewed and fruitful impetus. The center of religious authority was the Great Academy, in whose activities the *nasi took part and over which he presided when not engaged in public affairs. In this bet din the new moon was proclaimed, as was the intercalation of the year (RH 2:8–9; Eduy. 7:7), the fixing of a uniform calendar for Ereẓ Israel and the Diaspora contributing greatly to the preservation of national unity. Here, too, matters relating to the liturgy (Ber. 28b), and religious questions which were of public concern and on which no general agreement had hitherto been reached, were finally decided. In this central institution, 71 sages sat (Sanh. 1:6) when it was necessary to decide on basic halakhic matters affecting the people of Ereẓ Israel as a whole – matters such as the levitical uncleanness of hands through touching sacred scrolls, etc. (Yad. 3:5; 4:2). The following description of the proceedings of the Sanhedrin may well have applied to the central academy at Jabneh: "The Sanhedrin sat in a semicircle so that its members might see one another, and two judges' scribes stood before them, one on the right and one on the left, and wrote down the arguments of those in favor of acquittal and of those in favor of conviction.… In front of them sat three rows of scholars, each of whom knew his proper place. If they needed to ordain another judge, they ordained one from the first row, whereupon one from the second row moved up to the first, and one from the third row to the second. A member of the public was chosen and given a seat in the third row. He did not occupy the seat of the first scholar but one suitable for him" (Sanh. 4:3–4). The discussions in the Sanhedrin were thus conducted in public in the presence of pupils and of members of the community. In this way the pupils had learned the Torah in the days of the Second Temple. Both in Ereẓ Israel and in Babylonia, a bet din was always an integral part of an academy. The order of discussion was as follows: If several matters of law came up, only one would be dealt with on one day (Tosef., Sanh. 7:2). "No vote is taken on two matters simultaneously, but votes are taken separately and questions put separately" (Tosef., Neg. 1:11). At the end of the discussions a vote was taken, where necessary, such as in cases where "one prohibits and one permits, one declares levitically unclean and one clean, and all say: We have not heard a tradition concerning this – in such instances a vote is taken" (Tosef., Sanh. 7:2). The Tosefta also describes procedural details and ceremonial arrangements customary in the academies in Ereẓ Israel in tannaitic times.

Information on the academies in Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia in the Days of the Amoraim is more detailed than on the preceding period, Generally, the amoraim adopted the arrangements and methods of instruction of their academies from the tannaim.

The Rosh Yeshivah and his Assistants

The rosh yeshivah – the head of the academy – would "sit and expound" and convey his remarks to the meturgeman ("interpreter";

Map showing the main academies in Babylonia and Ere Israel.
Map showing the main academies in Babylonia and Ereẓ Israel.

Ber. 27b), also called an amora. Where the audience was large, the rosh yeshivah would be assisted by numerous amoraim (Ket. 106a). Since all the pupils did not immediately grasp what was said, the outstanding pupils would repeat and explain the lesson (BK 117a, and Rashi, ibid.; Ta'an. 8a, Rashi). After they understood it, the pupils would repeat the lesson orally (Er. 54b). It is possible that the sages permanently attached to an academy prepared the pupils for the rosh yeshivah's forthcoming lecture by teaching them the Mishnayot (see Meg. 28b; cf. Hor. 12a: Mesharsheya's statement). The rosh yeshivah gave his lectures, at least in the large academies, in the morning and in the evening (Shab. 136b), the pupils spending the rest of the day in reviewing the lecture and perhaps also in preparing for the next one. These outstanding pupils were called reishei kallah ("the leaders of the rows"), possibly because of the permanent seating arrangements at the academy. Mention is made of seven rows of pupils, graded according to their knowledge, the first row being occupied by the outstanding pupils (BK 117a) and so on, There is also a reference to 24 rows of pupils (Meg. 28b), the youngest pupils occupying seats behind the fixed rows (Ḥul. 137b).

The rosh yeshivah was also assisted by a tanna, distinguished by his exceptional knowledge of the "Mishnah of the Tannaim" and of the Oral Law in general, which he memorized by constant repetition, the Oral Law generally not having been written down (Git. 60b). The services of the tanna were often required in the academy for the quoting of tannaitic statements, his remarks being cited in the Babylonian Talmud, usually after the introductory formula: "A tanna taught before rabbi so-and-so." In general the tanna's knowledge was mechanical and not rooted in an especially profound understanding of the material; in consequence the sages, especially in Babylonia (Meg. 28b), did not have a particularly high opinion of them.

The Election of a Rosh Yeshivah

A rosh yeshivah was generally appointed by the sages of the academy both in Ereẓ Israel (Sot. 40a) and in Babylonia (Ber. 64a). Sometimes several candidates would compete for the position, the ability to make an irrefutable statement serving as the criterion for election (Hor. 14a).

The Academies in Babylonia in the Days of the Amoraim

The beginnings of the central academies in Babylonia are associated with Rav at *Sura and Samuel at *Nehardea . Each headed a famous school which possessed central religious authority in the Babylonian Diaspora. The academy at Sura flourished almost 800 years; that at Nehardea was destroyed at the end of the '50s of the third century C.E. and was succeeded by a number of academies, finally settling in *Pumbedita , where it survived, with intermissions, until about the middle of the 11th century C.E. (See Map: Main Academies). The principal innovation of the Babylonian academies was the institution of the yarḥei kallah (months of *kallah ), the assembly of the Babylonian sages at one of the leading academies in the months of Adar and Elul, when they discussed a prescribed tractate which they had studied during the preceding five months. A detailed description of the arrangements of study during the yarḥei kallah is given by R. Nathan ha-Bavli in Seder Olam Zuta (ed. Neubauer, 87–88). Although this account relates to the middle of the tenth century C.E. similar arrangements were presumably already in vogue in the days of the amoraim.

The Aim of the Studies in the Academies

The studies in the academies were designed to produce scholars who would be conversant in all fields of the Oral Law and who could derive from the existing halakhah laws applicable to new situations (see Rav's statement and the discussion in Ḥul. 9a).

The Method of Study

The pupils participated actively in the rosh yeshivah's lectures, as well as in the halakhic discussions in the formulation of the law, the students' religious responsibility in this connection being duly stressed (Sanh. 7b). It was the duty of the pupils to raise objections when they believed their teacher to have erred in judgment (Shevu. 31a) and students even contested legal decisions of the rosh yeshivah (Ket. 51a). The rosh yeshivah often called in his students when deciding in cases of ritual law (Ḥul. 45b), when examining a slaughterer's knife (ibid., 17b), or when dealing with questions concerning the ritual fitness of an animal (ibid., 44a–b), and similar questions. From time to time the rosh yeshivah would test his pupils in their knowledge and understanding of the halakhah (Er. 76a; Ḥul. 113a).


Schwarz, in: JJGL, 2 (1899), 83–106; Bacher, Trad, 255–6 (on the function of the tanna); H. Zucker, Studien zur juedischen Selbstverwaltung im Altertum (1936), 126–47; Halevy, Dorot, 2 (1923); Alon, Toledot, 1 (1953), 114–92; Assaf, Ge'onim, 42–52; Epstein, Mishnah 488 (on bet va'ad as an academy); 673–81 (on the tanna); Beer, in: Bar-Ilan Annual (Heb., 1964), 134–62; idem, in: Papers of the Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 1 (1966), 99–101 (Heb.).

[Moshe Beer]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.