Now that the US’s role in Iraq has formally changed, I want to mention something about the city of Falluja. During the early years of US presence in Iraq, we heard a lot about violence there. E.g. four contractors were dragged from their cars, beaten and set on fire — and then their bodies were dragged through the streets and hung off the bridge.
Well, Falluja is well known to those of us who learned gemara, but under its Aramaic name, Pumbedisa, which was a borough of the larger area of Nehardea.
Shemuel (a 1st generation amora) had already established a school in Nehardea, but it didn’t really survive his death. His and Rav’s student (thus 2nd generation), Rav Yehudah [ben Yechzqeil] (220-299 CE), re-established the school in Pumbedisa, which already boasted a large Jewish population. Pumbedisa was the home of one of the two Babylonian academies that gave us the Talmud. (The other was in Sura.)
Rav Yehudah’s style of learning becomes part of Pumbedisa throughout the centuries that the academy survived. Rav Yehudah was dialectical, finding the exact distinctions between similar but not-quite-the-same laws. (See Bava Metzia 38b, Sanhedrin 17b and Chullin 110b.) We also find this identification in a discussion between Rav Sheishes and Rav Amram in Naharda’a (which we saw was the home of the predecessor school whose glory had faded), R’ Sheishes belittles R’ Amram statement by asking “Are you from Pumbedita, where they push an elephant through the eye of a needle?” (Bava Metzia 38b)
Pumbedisa produced very little aggadita (the non-halachic portions of Oral Torah); its names are known almost entirely for halachic statements.
In these two ways, Rav Yehudah sounded to me much like what Brisk later became. Rav Yehudah even determined that the center of Torah study was in Babylonia, and said it was prohibited therefore to leave Bavel for Israel (Kesuvos 111a) — perhaps prefiguring Rav Chaim Brisker’s anti-Zionism. (Gilgulim of the same soul?)
Rav Yehudah seems to have enjoyed exploring the meanings of words and precision in speech, both halachic (Pesachim 2a, Sukkah 50b, Moed Qatan 6b, Beitzah 35b), and as far as I can tell this is all of his aggadic statements (Taanis 9b, Gittin 31b, Nedarim 62b, Chullin 63a). And in regular conversation as well — Rav Nachman compliments him for it.
The Jewish Encyclopedia conjectures that Rav Zeira rebelled against R’ Yehudah’s new mode of study, since he does leave Pumbedisa and goes to Israel. Adding my own 2 cents: Rav Zeira not only discusses aggadita, he is a figure in a significant number of its narratives.
During the Saboraic (the early ge’onim who lived before the Talmud was fully closed and therefore occasionally appear in it) and Geonic periods, Sura tended to have the more prominent role of the two schools — such as Rav Amaram Gaon and Rav Saadia Gaon. However, Pumbedisa closed later, and its last two heads, R’ Sherira Gaon and R’ Hai Gaon, who are also among the most famous of the geonim. The school finally shut down in 1038 (839 years after its founder’s death), with Rav Hai Gaon’s death, and the role of Sepharadic and Ashkenazic centers of learning came to the fore.
(Actually Sura didn’t really close. Yes, it ceased being the center of learning of geonim, but there was a school for the mainstream in existence with a direct lineage to Sura until 1958. That’s when the Baath Party, makers of Sadam Hussein, shut it down. Sura was the longest lasting institution of learning in human history, operating approximately 2100 years.)
But because Pumbedisa was the only Babylonian academy during this transition, most of our mesorah today comes via rishonim who took Pumbedisa’s Torah with them to Spain, Italy, Germany and France. It was Pumbedisa’s R’ Hai Gaon that taught Rabbeinu Gershom Meor haGolah and started the Ashkenazic line which produced Rashi, the Baalei Tosafos, Chassidei Ashkenaz, etc… He also taught Rav Yaaqov Gaon, who started a school in Kairouan, Teunisia, where Rav Yaaqov’s son, R’ Nissim Gaon (“the Ran”) studied, who in turn passes the torch to R’ Yitzchaq el-Fasi (the Rif), and eventually the Rambam.
And so, Rav Yehudah’s style of learning became the centerpiece of the Babylonian Talmud and of all learning since. (I would like to write in the near future about how the Yerushalmi’s style of learning differs, as seen from a look at its first 5-1/2 mesechtos. Part I, Part II – TBA)
It’s not an exaggeration to say כי מפלוג’א יצאה תורה!