Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Window into the Yeshiva, Pt. I: the 10th century

This begins a series of posts which I hope to make consisting mainly of primary source descriptions of Yeshivoth throughout the ages.

This first one is a description of the Geonic yeshiva of Sura at Baghdad, from the late 10th century, by a R. Nathan ha-Bavli. R. Nathan was present during one of the two kallah months during which people would travel to the yeshivoth for intensive learning.
And this is the order in which they sit. The Head of the Academy stands [var.: sits] at the head, and before him are ten men [comprising] what is called the "first row," all facing the Head of the Academy. Of the ten who sit before him, seven of them are "Heads of the Kallah" and three are associates....

...And the seventy [comprising] the Sanhedrin are the seven rows. The first row sits as we mentioned. In back of them are [another] ten [and so on] until [there are] seven rows, all of them facing the Head of the Academy. All the disciples sit behind them without any fixed places. But in the seven rows each one has a fixed place, and no one sits in the place of his colleague....

When the Head of the Academy wants to test them in their studies, they all meet with him during the four Sabbaths of Adar. He sits and the first row recite before him while the remaining rows listen in silence. When they reach a section requiring comment, they discuss it among themselves while the Head of the Academy listens and considers their words. Then he reads and they are silent, for they know that he has already discerned the matter of their disagreement. When he finishes reading, he expounds the tractate which they studied during the winter, each one at home, and in the process he explains what the disciples had disagreed over. Sometimes he asks them the interpretation of laws. They defer to one another and then to the Head of the Academy, asking him the answer. And no one can speak to him until he gives permission. And [then] each one of them speaks according to his wisdom....

(translation by David Goodblatt in Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia. Leiden: Brill 1975.)

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