Jewish Thought and History

What is Yerushalmi Shekalim Doing in the Babylonian Talmud?

courtesy of private collection
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Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg

Those participating in the daily Talmud learning of the Daf Yomi cycle are in for a disorienting couple of weeks. On Monday, March 22, Tractate Pesahim will conclude, and the following day, Daf Yomi learners around the world will turn to a new tractate. The next tractate in line, the fourth in the Seder – or order – of Moed, which centers on the Jewish time-cycle, is Tractate Shekalim, about the annual half-shekel that every male Jew would contribute to the communal treasury. As the Daf Yomi learners will soon realize, tractate Shekalim is a little different. Alephs are dropped, turning words such as “amar” (“he said”) into “mar,” usually a honorific preceding someone’s name. Instead of the usual chains of transmission, mentioning rabbi so-and-so who said to rabbi so-and-so, who learned it from yet another rabbi; the reader is greeted simply by lists of names. It all feels foreign compared to the fare that the Daf Yomi student is used to.

In fact, foreign is exactly what this text is: Although the spines and covers of the Talmuds they are cracking open still say “Talmud Bavli,” (Babylonian Talmud, or “Bavli,” for short) the text inside is actually from the Talmud Yerushalmi, (the Jerusalem Talmud, or “Yerushalmi,”) from the sages of the land of Israel, who predated their Babylonian counterparts. There is no text of the Talmud Bavli on tractate Shekalim, and the alternative text from the Yerushalmi acts as a substitute for this missing tractate. There are other tractates that have no Talmud Bavli, and, while just the Mishnah is sometimes provided in lieu of Talmud, nowhere else is the Yerushalmi provided as a substitute.

A Talmud scholar participating in Daf Yomi may wonder: How bad would it be if she or he skipped the coming tractate? Could they still be considered to be “doing the Daf,” as participating in this global learning enterprise is often called? After all, this tractate is not really part of the Babylonian Talmud, which is what the Daf Yomi aims to cover over a seven-and-a-half year cycle. In the volume dedicated to tractate Shekalim, the editors of the highly popular Schottenstein edition of the Talmud (its cover is titled “Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shekalim, from the Jerusalem Talmud”) seem to have preempted this question. The very first paragraph of their introduction to this tractate concludes: “the study of the Bavli is not considered complete if it does not include this tractate.”[1]

Indeed, what made this tractate from the Jerusalem Talmud part of the Babylonian Talmud? It may very well begin with a Christian from Antwerp.

In 1515, Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer from the Low Countries, received permission from the Venetian Signoria (governing authority) to print Hebrew books in the city. In 1521, he set out to begin his most ambitious project yet: printing the entire Babylonian Talmud. This was a feat that none before him had even attempted. At first, Bomberg had printed a Latin Psalter and Hebrew Bibles, which were ambiguous as to the religious affiliations of their potential buyers. Printing the Talmud, however, was an unequivocally Jewish enterprise, and made explicit Bomberg’s shift from a printer who, as he had presented himself to the Venetian Senate, planned to print Hebrew works that would interest Christian scholars, to someone who produced materials for a Jewish market (although they would come to interest some Christian Hebraists as well).

Bomberg had assembled a team of talented editors and correctors, including Rabbi Hiya Meir ben David, a rabbi of uncertain provenance (some think he is Greek), who set out to print the Babylonian Talmud in 1521.[2] They probably began with tractate Pesahim.[3] Unbeknownst to Bomberg and R. Hiya, their layout, with their pagination and foliation of the tractates, would end up becoming the touchstone of Torah scholars for centuries, replicated in edition after edition to this very day. In the past, scholars writing their Talmudic interpretations had referred to specific places in the Talmud citing the chapter and an approximate location, such as towards the beginning or end of the chapter. If necessary, scholars could refer to the specific “sugya” or section discussing a certain issue, and fellow scholars would certainly know where they should look, or they could always cite a line or two if closer textual analysis was needed. From Bomberg on, the page division was standardized. A rabbi could simply mention the page and folio, and their colleague would know where to look.

Four centuries later, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin suggested the idea of Daf Yomi, completing a daily page, as a universal learning cycle for the Babylonian Talmud, this was readily conceivable because everyone could, quite literally, be on the same page. Tractate Shekalim is actually a bit of an exception where pagination is concerned. While it was always included in the Daf Yomi cycle, the amount of days varied slightly depending on which popular edition was used: Bomberg’s Shekalim has eleven pages; Zhitomir, which was more widespread when R. Shapiro inaugurated the Daf Yomi, has twelve; but Vilna has twenty-one, which is the amount of days spent on the tractate among Daf Yomi learners today. Be that as it may, the overall idea of learning the entire Talmud communally, page by page, was made possible by Bomberg’s press. Was the inclusion of Shekalim also Bomberg’s innovation?

Bomberg’s Talmud had forty-four tractates, traditionally bound in twelve volumes. As mentioned, Bomberg sometimes filled out missing tractates by printing only the Mishnah of those tractates for which no Bavli could be found, such as, for instance, the Mishnah of Zeraim, but nowhere else did the text of the Jerusalem Talmud fill the void left by its Babylonian counterpart. (In one case, tractate Horayot, the Yerushalmi was added not as a replacement but instead as a “bonus” for a tractate that did have a Bavli, because the latter was the subject of very few commentaries.) How did Shekalim enter this series?

After having printed twelve tractates, the third of Tishrei 1522 saw the printing of Tractate Shekalim, “edited with great care” (im rav ha-iyyun), as the title page proclaims. The title page says nothing explicit about the different nature of the tractate within, although the announcement that this volume contains “Tractate Shekalim with the Mishnah commentary of the Great Eagle, Maimonides, and the Jerusalem Talmud” already hints that something different will greet the reader who turns the page. The header on the first page announces “Talmud Yerushalmi” at the top. The page does not look like the usual Talmud page that Bomberg immortalized for Jewish scholars, with the medieval commentaries flanking the text on either side. Instead, we get the text from the Yerushalmi, with Maimonides’ interpretation of the Mishnah of this tractate.

Nowhere does Bomberg’s team provide any explanation as to why they decided to print a Jerusalem Talmud text of Shekalim as part of the Babylonian Talmud rather than just leaving it out or providing only the Mishnah, as they had done for other tractates. The answer may be related to the idea of the Talmud as a complete text, something that historians see as Bomberg’s very own contribution. Manuscripts of the entire Talmud are very rare. Before print, the Talmud was mostly studied in manuscripts that often did not feature the entire tractate, let alone an entire set of the whole Talmud. The Talmud was often studied sugyah by sugyah. Before print, scholars would sometimes have manuscript copies only of certain sugyot. It is certainly possible for the individual student to study in this manner, and, to some extent, this approach continued in certain print environments too. As late as the seventeenth century, students who needed only a specific sugyah for in-depth study at the yeshiva, could purchase only the necessary sections in so-called kuntresim or little booklets created by printers for this purpose, probably with better portability and affordability in mind.[4]

After Bomberg printed the entire Talmud in 1521-1523, and then twice again soon after, the Talmud suddenly materialized as an attainable complete set. This would have an immense impact on how students of the Talmud related to the object of their study. In the past, a scholar could only relate to the full Talmud as an imaginary text, picturing the whole Talmud from the texts they or their colleagues did have, and the passages from other texts cited within; suddenly, the full Talmud became a very real material object that could be purchased, bound, and fit on a shelf.

According to some historians, this new possibility set off a profound cultural revolution far beyond the scholars who could actually purchase and consult these volumes. Elchanan Reiner, an expert on Ashkenazic scholarly culture, has ventured that the Talmud’s emergence beyond a legal source text as a canonical cultural text writ large, can in many ways be traced back to the printing of this full set of the Talmud. Yakov Z. Mayer has discovered a letter from a student in the mid-sixteenth century, indicating that such a shift had indeed taken place: In a letter to home from yeshiva in Siena, this young student, asks to beg his brothers back home, “to give me the six sedarim, without which I cannot make heads or tails out of anything in the beit midrash.” These “six sedarim,” are, of course, the six orders that make up the full set of the Talmud. This item was, as Elijahu exclaims, a “must-have” without which he could not expect to make any progress in his studies: “what will come of me, if I cannot join in the pilpulim (casuistic interpretations) that are created in this yeshiva… for it is impossible for me to belong to their camp if I do not have the entire six sedarim with me.”[5] In two decades, a text that many of the greatest scholars would often not possess in full had become an absolute “must-have” in the eyes of an average yeshiva student![6]

The decision to include the Yerushalmi on Shekalim where the Bavli was missing may very well be the result of this desire to create such a “complete set” of the Talmud. Especially in seder Moed, which is otherwise complete, the lack of tractate Shekalim would ruin that completeness. We can speculate how this attitude is tied to the commercialization of the book as a for-profit object. As of Bomberg’s printing in 1523, the Talmud was, for the first time, being produced with a large upfront investment and larger future profit in mind, requiring the investors to consider ahead of time their market of readers. From a culture that largely copied texts for themselves according to personal choice, often in piecemeal fashion, adding their own glosses in the margins; print introduced an anonymous projected readership, a standardized product, and a very different kind of margin. The Talmud went from being a text bounded only in the imagination to a very real object, a distinct set of volumes that consumers would wish to possess, inviting the buyer to “collect them all.”

But this was no simple case of technology and commercialism dictating the future of scholarship. The decision to include Shekalim Yerushalmi in the Bavli may indeed have come from this new vision of the Talmud as a physical complete set. But machines and markets rarely tell the full tale of learned cultures. In fact, the substitution of the Yerushalmi for the missing tractate Shekalim was not created in the print shop alone. As some scholars have remarked, there is a long tradition of tractate Shekalim being copied and studied alongside the tractates of the Bavli. The Munich manuscript, our only complete manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud (copied in November 1342 for a French rabbi), already features Shekalim alongside its Babylonian counterparts.[7]

And this is not the only such copy. Saul Lieberman remarks having seen other manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud with this tractate from the Yerushalmi.[8] The thirteenth-century French Talmudist, Rabbi Menahem ha-Me’iri, wrote that tractate Shekalim “does not have a Bavli gemara, only a Yerushalmi,” and notes that they had the tradition of studying this tractate after tractate Pesahim, as current students of Daf Yomi do.[9] Some medieval authorities who did not write commentaries to the Jerusalem Talmud did do so for Shekalim. There are even some Geonic sources that cite Shekalim in this vein.[10] This can be seen as reassuring news for Daf Yomi purists: Shekalim may not have been an original part of the Babylonian Talmud, but it is an established “honorary” member of the Talmud Bavli. The Schottenstein editors certainly back up their statement that the Bavli cycle would not be complete without Yerushalmi Shekalim in such a fashion: they cite the Munich manuscript and refer to the Me’iri to show that studying Yerushalmi Shekalim is a traditional part of the Bavli.[11] More recently, another organization arguing for the inclusion of the Yerushalmi Shekalim in their study of the Bavli assembled all of Rashi’s mentions of tractate Shekalim to prove that, unlike for all the other tractates of Yerushalmi, where Rashi always adds “of the Jerusalem Talmud,” as a clarification; in the case of Shekalim, Rashi sees no need to add this label. Clearly, he argued, this shows that Rashi already considered this tractate of the Yerushalmi to have a special place alongside the Bavli.[12]

However, this welcome notion of Shekalim Yerushalmi as part of the Bavli since time immemorial is also not that simple, and involves more contingencies than that. For the rest of the story, we need to return to Bomberg’s print shop, this time looking backwards: Almost immediately after completing the Babylonian Talmud, Bomberg went on to print the Talmud Yerushalmi in full. It is clear that the Yerushalmi that Bomberg had published as part of the Babylonian Talmud series was not the same as the one they printed later, in the Jerusalem Talmud series. If we investigate the manuscripts used by Bomberg’s team, there seem to have been two traditions of tractate Shekalim: A typical Yerushalmi tractate, and a different tractate of “Shekalim Yerushalmi-as-part-of-the-Bavli.”

Yakov Sussman determines that the two printed Talmuds emerged from two entirely different manuscript traditions.[13] The Leiden manuscript, which was the basis for Bomberg’s Yerushalmi edition, is the more authentic manuscript tradition, “an original, good, and clean” textual tradition, as Sussman calls it, noting that it corresponds surprisingly well with texts from the same tractate that were found in the Cairo genizah.[14] The tractate Shekalim in Bomberg’s Babylonian Talmud series, on the other hand, is the product of a manuscript tradition that was highly corrupted.[15]

Even Bomberg’s Yerushalmi, printed from a good manuscript, is inaccurate. Sussman laments that the editors of Bomberg’s Yerushalmi extensively edited and “corrected” the Shekalim tractate based on the tractate that they had printed just a year earlier as part of their Bavli series, with the result that the printed Yerushalmi Shekalim does not accurately reflect the superior Leiden manuscript. Yakov Mayer’s groundbreaking research on the printing of the Yerushalmi (to be published in Hebrew soon) gives us an in-depth view of how Bomberg’s editors went about preparing this work, and lays out the many revelations this process holds for their attitude towards texts. As Mayer has shown, the editors indeed used the Leiden manuscript together with the Shekalim tractate from the Bavli as the basis for the printed Yerushalmi, as Sussman mentioned. However, they also often relied on their own experience, linguistic background, and common sense to adapt the printed text throughout. In sum, there were two separate manuscript traditions of the Yerushalmi tractate Shekalim which became the basis of Bomberg’s two separate printings of the tractate: One, as part of its own Talmud, based on the superior Leiden manuscript, but emended (to its detriment) by the printers; the other, as part of the Babylonian Talmud, which had its own manuscript history. It is the latter tradition that gave us our Yerushalmi Shekalim in the Bavli series.

Sussman considers much of the evidence for this tradition to study Shekalim Yerushalmi as part of one’s regular studies of the Babylonian Talmud, and concludes that it was not nearly as widespread or as old as some scholars have portrayed it. He finds the earliest traces of this tradition in eleventh-century Italy with the Arukh. This second textual tradition then continues in twelfth and thirteenth-century Ashkenaz, especially in the circles of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. This tradition somehow made its way into the manuscript used by Bomberg for the 1522 printing of tractate Shekalim when he published the Bavli.

This tradition, then, was not as widely established as we may have thought. It was certainly not “pure.” Sussman notes what Saul Lieberman already termed the heavy “Bavlicization” of tractate Shekalim in this Bavli tradition, adding that the Leiden manuscript and the other manuscripts that conform to its tradition are innocent of these corruptions. In tractate Shekalim as included in the Bavli, however, these changes were rampant, as generations of scholars who studied this text had wittingly and unwittingly assimilated the tractate’s distinct linguistic patterns to a more familiar Babylonian text and even added entire sections from the Bavli as they studied, copied, and taught this tractate. According to Sussman, this “Bavlicization” was for a large part done consciously and systematically by what must have been great scholars of the Bavli, but it also included many accidental changes that came from their unfamiliarity with the Yerushalmi’s distinctive style, resulting in what Sussman calls “a strange and infinite collection of misunderstandings.”[16]

Perhaps, then, the place of Shekalim in our Babylonian Talmud study is undeserved? “It turns out,” Sussman concludes, “that even this exceptional tractate of the Yerushalmi did not truly merit to enter the study hall of the Bavli scholars. The tractate only arrived there by coincidence, and conquered its place using the power of print.”[17] While the tractate’s place in our Daf Yomi cycle may indeed be a result of historical coincidence and the blunt force of print, this should not diminish its position in the least. In fact, its history can hold many lessons for us.

The “Bavlicization” of tractate Shekalim serves as a reminder that these texts, especially the ones from the Torah she-ba’al Peh, the Oral Torah, were not handed down to us as sealed texts. As much as its texts impress themselves on their readers, we, its students, also leave our imprints on the text. The inclusion of Shekalim as a honorary member of the Bavli, with all the linguistic adaptations and alterations that such a conversion implies, is the result of one learned tradition and a chain of contingencies that led it to survive into the printed age and beyond. It is a testament to the effect that the Talmudic texts have on generations of scholars, and the many ways, intended and unintended, that scholars impact the text. It is a reminder that studying the Talmud is never only the study of a pure text, it is the participation in a tradition.

Shekalim’s insertion into the Babylonian Talmud can inspire us in yet other ways: It is perhaps an example of one of the positive sides that our materialistic desire for ownership can generate. The marketing ploy of instilling in the consumer the longing to own a full set of tractates evolves into a longing for completeness in our intellectual and spiritual aspirations: the desire to learn all these tractates. The decision to use a replacement that does not quite perfectly fit is also a lesson in making do, in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and continuing to strive for completeness even in an imperfect world where real completeness is unattainable.

Finally, its history is a beautiful example of tradition and innovation acting upon one another. Bomberg was one important step in a long path of textual standardization that went from one medieval manuscript tradition to Bomberg’s press, to the nineteenth-century Vilna edition, to R. Shapiro’s idea of the Daf Yomi cycle, and from there to the many men and women who will be jolted by the Yerushalmi’s slightly strange (but, as Lieberman has said, actually strongly “Bavlicized”) Aramaic in the coming weeks, many on their smartphones and tablets. As it turns out, this long path of textual continuity and innovation, of canon and change, also stretches back long before a Venetian printer and his team decided to make the full text of this core of the Oral Torah an accessible reality. Certainly, there is no denying the contingencies of history. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that studying Shekalim from an error-riddled, Bavlicized Yerushalmi is an embrace of this strange and infinite collection of misunderstandings, a testament to an eternal effort to overcome and understand.  


[1] “General introduction,” [Hebrew] in Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shekalim of the Jerusalem Talmud, eds. Rabbis H. Malinowitz, Y. D. Ilan, Y. Goldstein, Y.S. Scherer (New York: Artscroll/Mesorah, 2006).

[2] Meir Benayahu, Prolegomenon to Sefer Benyamin Ze’ev [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Yad HaRav Nissim, Jerusalem, 1989), 39.

[3] Marvin J. Heller, Printing the Talmud: A History of the Earliest Printed Editions of the Talmud (Brooklyn, NY: Im Hasefer, 1992), 135-155.

[4] R. Yitzhak Yudlow, “Masekhtot ha-Talmud ke-Sefer Limmud: ha-Kuntresim ve-Takanat ha-Masekhet ha-Ahida,” Yerushatenu 7 (2014): 281-308.

[5] The letter is printed in: Letters of the Rieti Family [Hebrew], ed. Yakov Boksenbaum, vol. 5 in the series Letters of Jews in Renaissance Italy, series ed. Daniel Carpi (Tel Aviv : Tel Aviv University Press, 1987).

[6] We wonder what Elijahu of Pissaro would have thought of his Eastern European counterparts in the following centuries, who brought only little booklets with one sugya to the yeshiva with them. This difference in required “school supplies” is certainly only a glimpse of a larger phenomenon that includes changes in both methods and means of study and the curriculum. Students may have had more books available in a communal study hall, and they may have been more intent on iyyun and in-depth study methods focused on one section of text compared to the kind of pilpulim mentioned by Elijahu, which, so it seems, required overall knowledge of the Talmud.

[7] Munich95. For a link to the Munich manuscript from the National Library of Israel: https://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/en/manuscript/pages/munich_95.aspx.

[8] “The commentaries on tractate Shekalim should be discussed individually. This tractate was already connected to the Babylonian Talmud from ancient times.” Saul Lieberman, “Something on the Old Commentators of the Jerusalem Talmud,” [Hebrew] in Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume II (New York: JTS, 1950), 287-315. Quote is from p. 295 (translation mine). In note 29, Lieberman mentions Sefer ha-Zahir and the Munich manuscript as examples. In note 30 he also considers the fact that medieval sages who typically did not deal with the Yerushalmi wrote commentaries on this tractate as evidence for such a tradition.

See also, Moshe Assis, “On the History of the text of Tractate Shekalim,” in Seventh World Congress of Jewish Studies 3 (1981), 141-156.

[9] “So said Menahem… this tractate, meaning, tractate Shekalim, despite being from seder Moed, and us having the habit of studying it after tractate Pesah Sheni… it has no Bavli gemara, only a Yerushalmi …” R. Menahem ha-Meiri, Beit ha-Behirah, tractate Shekalim, introduction. There was a custom to divide tractate Pesahim into the first four chapters, plus the final chapter (“Arvei Pesahim”), and call this section “Pesah Rishon,” on the one hand,  and the remaining five chapters, called “Pesah Sheni,” on the other.

[10] Mainly in Sefer ha-Zahir or Midrash ve-Hizhir on parashat Ki Tisa.

Yakov Sussman does not think that the quotes from Shekalim in Sefer ha-Zahir point to any such tradition of studying this tractate among the Geonim. He remarks that this is the only such example for the Geonic literature, and even here it is limited to one place (the introduction to parashat Ki Tisa)   See Yakov Sussman, “On the Scholarly Tradition and the Tradition of the Text of the Yerushalmi,” [Hebrew] in Studies in the Talmudic Literature: In Honor of Saul Lieberman’s 80th Birthday (Jerusalem, 1983), 18-19.   He also considers the Medieval commentaries to stem from one particular school (see below).

[11] They also refer to R. Dov Ber Ratner’s Ahavat Zion ve-Yerushalaim, in which the author suggests that this tradition dates back to pre-Geonic times, even to the Savoraim who composed the text of the Bavli, something Sussman roundly dismisses as one of Ratner’s typical exaggerations. See D.B. Ratner, Ahavat Zion ve-Yerushalaim: Tractate Shekalim, Hagiga, Mo’ed Kattan (Vilna, 1914), 138; Sussman, “On the Tradition,” 17.

[12] See R. Yitzḥak Schwartz, “Limmud Masekhet Shekalim ha-Yerushalmit be-tokh seder Shas ha-Bavli” in “Mashmi’in al ha-Shekalim,” ch.1., ed. R. A. Sh. Y Reichman. This was in the context of a Satmar organization that studies the Bavli (Satmar is opposed to the Daf Yomi).

[13] Yakov Sussman, “On the Scholarly Tradition and the Tradition of the Text of the Yerushalmi,” [Hebrew] in Studies in the Talmudic Literature: In Honor of Saul Lieberman’s 80th Birthday (Jerusalem, 1983), 12-76.

[14] Sussman, “On the Tradition,” 23.

[15] Sussman, “On the Tradition,” 25.

[16] Sussman, “On the Tradition,” 29-31.

[17] Sussman, “On the Tradition,” 41.