Challenge and Transformation: Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism – Part 2

Lawrence H. Schiffman, PhD

Foreign Rule and Revolt

In the last years of the Second Commonwealth, as Roman rule became more and more intolerable, different revolutionary groups began to spring up. Foreign domination was nothing new for the Jews. In First Temple times there never ceased to be disagreements about how to relate to the dominant empires. Often, it was assumed that a revolt against the Mesopotamian power would he supported by Egypt, or vice versa. More often than not, these were but vain hopes. Such an assumption led in part to Zedekiah’s rebellion against Babylonia, which resulted in the destruction of the nation and its Temple in 586 B.C.E. Indeed, there can be discerned at this time pro-Egyptian and pro-Babylonian parties. The former counseled rebellion as their ally, Egypt, was expected to lend support. The latter, including the prophet Jeremiah, advised the king to pay tribute to Babylonia. After all, they reasoned, foreign or military domination was but a small price to pay for internal self-government and the freedom to pursue their ancient way of life.

In the Maccabean uprising, the lines had been drawn more clearly. The rebellion had begun in a civil war regarding the extent to which Judea was to be Hellenized. At the outset there were the Hellenizers and their opponents. Once Antiochus stepped in and outlawed certain basic Jewish practices and defiled the Temple, the masses of Jews rallied behind the Maccabean family, leaving only the extreme Hellenizers and the armies of Seleucid Syria on the other side. Thus, the revolt became primarily that of the Jewish people against their Greco-Syrian overlords.

With Rome the situation was much more complex. Josephus speaks of the so called Fourth Philosophy (alongside Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes). This group seems to have been identical with the Sicarii (“dagger-carriers”), who played so important a role in the revolt against Rome. These were primarily Galileans who, under Judah the Gaulanite, began to attack the Romans in 4 B.C.E. This faction must have continued its operations and stayed under the leadership of the same family through the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E. They held that Israel had no master but God Himself and steadfastly refused to accept foreign domination, continuing an old Maccabean belief. Josephus states that these men agreed in other respects with the Pharisaic approach. It should be remembered that the revolt against Rome was brewing from the very start of the century, and guerilla groups such as the Sicarii were active throughout this period. The Fourth Philosophy, then, seems to be a Pharisaic-like group especially dedicated to the revolt against Roman domination.

Another group involved in the rebellion was the Zealots. Some have tried to see the Zealots identical with the Sicarii, but this view is unacceptable. After all, Josephus was himself a participant in the revolt and gives us very detailed accounts of the revolutionary groups and specifically differentiates them from one another. The Zealots were a group that crystallized quite late in the revolt. Its main leadership came from lower-level priests of the Jerusalem Temple. Indeed, it was they who suspended the twice-daily sacrifice for the welfare of the Roman emperor, an act tantamount to a declaration of war (66 C.E.). Like the Sicarii their methods were those of terrorists. For both groups, extreme tactics, including assassination of moderate Jews whom they regarded as Roman sympathizers, ultimately may have caused the populace, at least in Jerusalem, to turn against them.

Simeon bar Giora and John of Giscala (Gush Halav in the Golan) stand out as individuals who led factions in the revolt. Both of these men seem to have been charismatic leaders who headed private armies. Simeon was closest in approach to the Sicarii and John to the Zealots, although these leaders cannot be identified with these two groups. Simeon seems to have embodied Messianic dreams to some of his followers, like the later Simeon bar Kosiba (bar Kokhba), who led the revolt against Rome in 132–135 C.E. John, on the other hand, seems to have been more moderate and was friendly with Simeon ben Gamliel, the leading Pharisee.

They are mentioned by Josephus only once in regard to the revolt. A certain John the Essene appears as a revolutionary commander. While there is no other direct evidence of Essene participation in the war, the reports that the Romans tortured the Essenes would seem to indicate that the Essenes had thrown in their lot with the rebellion. To be sure, Philo had pictured the Essenes as pacifists, but we must assume that they saw this war as the eschatological battle and, therefore, that they had no qualms about participating in it.

We have discussed above the issue of whether the Essenes are to be identified as the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Various theories regarding participation by the Qumran sect in the revolt have been proposed. The War Scroll has been seen as a description in eschatological terms of the already-brewing revolt. We do know that Qumran was destroyed during the revolt in 68 C.E. Who opposed the revolt? The aristocratic leaders, most probably high-level Sadducean priests and their supporters, as well as the extremely Hellenized Jews supported Roman rule, from which, no doubt, they gained commercial and financial advantage. In addition, the moderate Pharisees believed that it was better to submit to the military domination of Rome than to risk subjecting their religious freedom and the Temple to the wrath of the Empire. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who established an academy at Yavneh in the last hours of the revolt, certainly took this view. It was as a consequence of the Pharisaic tolerance of Roman rule that the descendants of Rabban Gamliel were entrusted by the Romans with the internal self-government of the Jewish people, usually termed the Patriarchate.

What emerges from this picture is an alignment which cut across sectarian lines. It seems that the Sicarii represented those followers of the Pharisaic order who actively supported the revolt. This was despite the much more moderate, almost pacifist view of some members of the Pharisaic leadership. Whereas the upper-level Sadduceans would have preferred peaceful coexistence with Rome, it was lower-level priests, also of the Sadducean order, who formed the Zealots and effected the formal declaration of revolt. Whereas the sectarian group at Qumran seems to have sat out the war, although ultimately engulfed and destroyed by it, some Essene sectarians were actively involved. While some Judeans saw the revolt as the culmination of the apocalyptic movements of Second Temple times, this was certainly not the view of most rebels or their supporters among the population. Finally, both rebels and moderates had urban and rural, rich and poor constituents. With all we have said, though, it is doubtful whether the revolt could ever have gotten as far as it did if not for the support of the majority of the Jewish population of Judea.

In this cursory survey, in which we have covered only a small number of issues, it is clear that Judaism in the Land of Israel during the Hellenistic period was variegated and certainly not monolithic. This situation continued until the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. The Talmud gives its reason for the destruction as the Jews’ lack of ability to function as a unified people. In fact, rabbinic tradition looked askance at the entire phenomenon of sectarianism. Its view was that Pharisaism, the intellectual and religious approach the Rabbis had inherited, was in direct continuity with the Mosaic oral tradition. From the vantage point of rabbinic Judaism, everyone else was a schismatic. Had Israel only adhered to the tradition of the Pharisees, there would have been no Hellenization, no revolt, and no destruction. Just as the Deuteronomic editor of Kings saw the misfortunes of the Israelites in biblical times as stemming from deviation from the teachings of the Lord, so it was this deviation, in the form of the rejection of the true tradition, which led, in the Talmudic view, to the destruction in 70 C.E.

We must inquire here as to whether this evaluation is valid. We have seen that the issues raised by the sectarian movements in the Second Temple period were not, in almost every case, new ones. Rather, they constitute a series of unresolved problems remaining from First Temple times. What was new was the venue. It was no longer the Israel surrounded by Semitic paganism that would argue these issues. It was now a nation of Jews first in the Persian, and then in the Hellenistic or Greco-Roman world. This new environment, culturally and historically, gave new impetus to some conflicts and modified others. By and large, though, it did not bring about the schisms; they were already present in biblical times.

So the sectarianism of the Second Temple period is really a continuation of earlier divisions. If so, can we speak of a normative tradition at any time in pre-rabbinic times? I think not. Despite the rabbinic ideal, it seems that the Jewish people always had room for differences and for movements within it. These could be religious, political, or socioeconomic.

Were these divisions beneficial or harmful to Jewish life? There is no question that from a political or military point of view they were a disadvantage. Had the Jewish people been unified, there would have been a better chance of holding out longer against Rome, although there can be no question that enough Roman men and materiel would have eventually been victorious.

But Judaism was not meant to be simply a military or political entity. It was and is a way of relating to God and man, of bringing meaning and purpose to human existence, and of explaining the world around us. The emergence of the Jewish people into the Hellenistic period was in many ways analogous to its emergence into modem times. The world in which the Jews lived was suddenly changed. This new world intensified the old conflicts. At the same time, the Hellenistic environment created a greater need to answer the pressing questions Judaism raised. As such, this was a period in which Judaism was not sure in which direction to go. What Judaism and the Jewish people needed was to experiment by playing out the results of the old conflicts to see how the various approaches would work in this new era. Thus, the sects were a proving ground from which emerged an answer to which way Judaism would move in the post-70 C.E. period.

It was the destruction in 70 C.E. which served as the time of decision. It must be remembered that the destruction of the Temple was not just a religious tragedy. By the time Jerusalem and the Temple fell, the entire country had been devastated by years of war and pillage. ‘The entire socio-economic, political, and religious order had been overturned. Finally, the conflicts that had seethed above and below ground in Second Temple times needed to be resolved. It was here that history played its usual role. It decided.

Apocalypticism and the approach of such groups as the Essenes and the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls had already served as the background for emerging Christianity. After all, these groups that had seen the end of days about to dawn. Their energies and many of their ideals, from an historical point of view, found their way into the nascent Christian Church, and these approaches were no longer to be considered Jewish. The mainstream of Jewish life would confront this approach again only in the guise of false Messiah movements, most notably that of Shabbatai Zevi, or in the form of Christian conversionist preaching.

The Sadducean movement was so tied up with the priestly aristocracy and Temple worship that when the Temple was destroyed and the social order decimated, the priestly, Sadducean approach simply could not endure. Perhaps its emphasis on the primacy of the Temple made its views untenable in the new situation. Perhaps it was the religious victory of the Pharisees and the attendant recognition of their political powers (which we shall mention below) ‘which further weakened the Sadducees. There are some references to Sadducees in post-70 times in Talmudic literature, but, as we have said, these are often the result of Christian censors in the Middle Ages who changed words meaning “Christian” or “heretic” to “Sadducee.”

What of the Pharisees? It seems that a combination of their religious and political views made them uniquely able to serve as the continuers of the Jewish tradition. On the political front, they had always counseled cooperation with the existing authorities, and it was through them after the catastrophe of 70 that the Romans set up a system of local Jewish self-government known as the Patriarchate.

On the religious front, of all the sects of the Second Commonwealth, the Pharisees seemed best able to command the allegiance of the common people, the am ha’arets. Most important, the Pharisaic approach to halakhah, Jewish law, was flexible. By allowing it to change with the times, at least in terms of practical applications, they made it a livable system, denying the later Pauline view that Jewish law was an insuperable burden. Thus, Judaism never faced the problems it might have, had a literalist approach to Jewish law become the norm. In regard to theological questions, the Pharisaic beliefs had long accorded with those of most Jews, for in times of trouble, the Jewish people longed to believe in such ideas as afterlife and the Messianic era. If life in this world was not what it should he, they would be rewarded in the next for their observance in this world. And so it was that after the destruction, the Pharisaic approach, as interpreted by the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, furnished the groundwork for what we have come to call rabbinic or normative Judaism. This Pharisaic heritage in the Middle Ages, when Judaism faced the challenges of the Islamic and Christian worlds, was again able to prevail and to flourish by the process of organic, subtle, and imperceptible self-modification and adaptation. Rabbinic Judaism has again had to face alien values in the modem world. It still remains to be seen how the heritage of the Pharisees will continue, but there can be no question that it will.


The Rise of the Early Church

The earliest years of the Christian church unfolded during this period of decline and unrest. In these years what would later be called the “church” was in reality a Jewish sect, and it is in this context that it is treated here. The difficult economic and political conditions in Judea during the career of Jesus and in the period of the emerging church tended to encourage the rise of religious movements. In addition, the multiplicity of sects and movements in Second Temple Judaism provided a rich legacy which could serve as the basis for the Christian apocalyptic movement. These two factors together constituted the major influences on the rise of this new religious group and the schism which would eventually follow.

Indeed, Christianity was firmly anchored in the heritage of Second Temple sectarianism. Various sects, some of which are represented in the corpus of materials discovered in the Qumran caves, tell us of the extreme apocalypticism of some groups of Jews at that time. These groups hoped for the immediate revelation of a messiah who would redeem them from their misfortunes and tribulations. As time went on, and as political and economic conditions worsened, these groups became more and more convinced that this messianic deliverance would be accompanied by a cataclysm. When Christianity came to the fore in the first century C.E., its adherents saw themselves living in the period of the fulfillment of biblical eschatological visions. It identified Jesus as the Davidic messiah who would usher in the eventual destruction of all evil.

Any study of the career of Jesus and the rise of the Christian church must acknowledge that Palestine in this period was the scene of the occasional messianic and prophetic figure. Among these was clearly John the Baptist, who, according to the New Testament, was the teacher and inspiration of Jesus. John preached repentance as well as the need for baptism (immersion) in the Jordan River as a one-time experience designed to bring about true repentance. (John was put to death in c. 29 C.E. by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who ruled Galilee and Peraea in Transjordan from 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.) Statements regarding Jesus found in certain modern writers to the effect that he studied among Essenes or the Dead Sea sectarians must be rejected as purely speculative. Rather, Jesus was affected, as was early Christianity, by a variety of ideas in the air among the various sectarian groups, of which by chance only certain texts survive. The Qumran materials, if properly understood, provide this background for Christianity, showing that it was on the foundation of a Judaism like this, not that of the Pharisees, that the church was erected. Yet at the same time, some Pharisaic tendencies had a great impact on the church, as did Second Temple sectarian trends on rabbinic Judaism.

The immediate followers of Jesus in the early days of his career and soon afterwards gathered together in Jerusalem and formed (according to the Acts of the Apostles) a small group which sought both to live as Jews and to accept the messiahship of Jesus. It was only later that the notion of the divinity of Jesus appeared, towards the end of the New Testament redactional process in the second half of the first century C.E. This group evolved from a coterie of Jews seeking to propagate the belief in Jesus as messiah to an apostolic group seeking to convert the world. Following the lead of Peter, Paul convinced the fledgling church to formally open itself to gentile converts and brought to it the notion of a mission to the gentiles, transforming Christianity in the process.

The split between Judaism and Christianity did not come about simply or quickly. It was a complex process which took some one hundred years, starting from the crucifixion, and which has different causes and effects depending on whether it is looked at from the point of view of Judaism or Christianity. Further, the question of legal status as seen through the eyes of the Romans also had some relationship to this issue.

From the point of view of Christianity, the schism is not difficult to trace. In the earliest Gospel texts which picture Jesus as debating issues of Jewish law with the Pharisees no hostility is observed. The crucifixion is said to have been carried out by the Romans with the support of some (apparently Hellenized) priests. As we trace the history of the New Testament traditions, they move from disputes with Pharisees, scribes and chief priests, to polemics against the Jews and Judaism, from the notion of some Jews as enemies of Jesus to the demonization of the Jewish people as a whole. By some time in the first century the New Testament redactors clearly decided that they were no longer part of the Jewish people. Therefore, they described Jesus as disputing with all the Jews, not just some, as would be appropriate to an internal Jewish dispute. Once the Christians saw the Jews as the “other,” it was but a short step to the notion that the Jews were all responsible for the rejection of Jesus and, hence, for the failure of his messianic mission to be fulfilled.

From the point of view of Judaism, the matter is more complex. By this time, tannaitic Judaism was already the dominant form of Judaism, for the Pharisees had emerged from the revolt as the main influence within the Jewish community. After the destruction, the tannaim immediately recognized the need to standardize and unify Judaism. One of their first steps was to standardize the Eighteen Benedictions which, along with the Shema, constituted the core of the daily prayers. At the same time, they expanded an old benediction to include the minim, Jews with incorrect beliefs, which, in this period, meant the early Jewish Christians. In addition, the tannaim enacted laws designed to further separate the Jewish Christians from the community by prohibiting commerce with them and forbidding certain other interrelationships.

Hereafter, it is possible to trace the growing process of separation from the end of the first century C.E. until the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.) in which the tannaim outlawed the writings of the early Christians, declaring that even if they possess Torah scrolls or texts with Divine names, these texts have no sanctity. This was clearly a polemic against the Gospels which must have been circulating in some form, even preredactional, by this time.

In the time of Paul, by about 60 C.E., the decision to open Christianity to gentiles had taken place, and the tannaim gradually found themselves facing a church the members of which were not Jews from the point of view of halakhah. To the Rabbis, these were not Jews with incorrect views about the messiah. They were gentiles who claimed to be the true Israel. By the Bar Kokhba period, this process was complete. Gentile Christianity had gained the ascendency totally and now was virtually the only form of Christianity the Rabbis encountered. Jewish Christianity had been submerged. Then, the Rabbis termed the Christians noserim (“Nazarenes”) and regarded them as a completely separate and alien religious group.

The third point of view, that of the Romans, can be traced as well. The Romans at first regarded the Christians as part of the Jewish people. As Christianity spread and took on a clearly different identity, as acknowledged by both Jews and Christians, the Roman Empire modified its view. The emperor Nerva (96–98 C.E.) freed the Christians (probably including the Jewish Christians) from paying the fiscus judaicus, the Jewish capitation tax decreed as a punishment in the aftermath of the revolt of 66–73 C.E. Clearly, the Romans now regarded the Christians as a separate group. The way was paved for the legitimization of Christianity as a licit religion. The decline of the old pagan cults coupled with the tremendous success of Christianity would eventually lead to the acceptance of the new faith as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 324 C.E.


Jewish Christian Relations in the Early Centuries

How did Jews and Christians relate once the final break had come about? Several forms of evidence for this question exist, all of which point to a deterioration of relations and a rise of hostility. The early days of the schism were marked by questioning and debate. This is clear from accounts in both Rabbinic literature and in the writings of the church fathers. Jews and Christians discussed such questions as interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and the authority of their respective traditions. Even in this literature, however, one can trace the rising tensions which would ultimately prevail between the two groups. At some point, probably connected with the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century, the Christians began to approach their Jewish neighbors with a much greater degree of antagonism, especially in Byzantine Palestine. Physical attacks against Jews and their houses of worship were not unknown in this period. Whereas in earlier times, there was coexistence and harmony, by the fifth century anti-Semitic legislation was prominent in Byzantine codes. Jews were forbidden to build synagogues and to study the oral Law. The Jews were said to be the Christ-killers, and anti-Judaism was the norm in Christian preaching.

By the end of the Talmudic period, Christianity had taken up the classical positions of anti-Semitism which were to inform its relations with the Jews in the Middle Ages. Jews were able to resist only by comforting themselves in the belief that they were correct and that their suffering would end with the messianic redemption.


From Temple to Synagogue

The most central aspect of the transition from pre-destruction to post-destruction times was the change of the center of worship from Temple to synagogue. This change must be fully understood to grasp the essence of Rabbinic Judaism. In Temple times, the Jerusalem Temple was understood as a place where the Divine Presence could always be approached. In other words, it was the locus of God’s abiding in Israel, in fulfillment of the biblical statement, “I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). It was the sudden disappearance of this avenue of communing with God that was most tragic.

The question of the discontinuance of animal sacrifice itself is more complex. Certainly, animal sacrifice was perceived in the years leading up to the revolt and the destruction as the highest form of worship. Yet it was not the only form. Various evidence, including that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, demonstrates that the role of prayer was increasing constantly in Second Temple times. In the last years of the Temple, prayer had so extensively found its way into the Temple service that it was assigned a special place, a proseuche (a Greek term for a prayer room), in the Jerusalem Temple.

There is no evidence for the synagogue as an institution in Palestine before the first century C.E. Mentions of a synagogue in inscriptions from Hellenistic times in the Diaspora refer not to a prayer area (proseuche in Greek), but rather to a Jewish communal organization which managed the local affairs of the Jews in their Diaspora communities. The synagogue in its English meaning, a place of prayer, may first be observed in Palestine in the first century C.E. (Masada, Herodion and Gamla), and probably somewhat earlier in the Diaspora.

Where did Jews pray before the rise of synagogue buildings? We cannot be sure. It has been theorized that the synagogue had its origins in the Babylonian exile when the Jews first had to adapt to the lack of a Temple and animal sacrifice. Yet there is absolutely no evidence, literary or archaeological, for this theory. On the other hand, the history of post-biblical prayer begins early in the Hellenistic period, and perhaps even before. There must have been places for prayer, maybe in the town squares, but this is simply speculation.

Clearly, however, the concomitant development of the synagogue as an institution, along with the gradual ascendency of prayer over sacrifice as a means of worship, prepared Judaism for the new situation that the destruction of the Temple would bring. When the Temple was taken away, its replacement had already been created. From that time forth the daily prayers would serve in place of sacrifice, and the synagogue, the “Temple in miniature,” would replace the central sanctuary of Jerusalem. The Jew would look forward to the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of its system of worship. Yet the Jewish people was equipped with a portable system of worship which it could carry throughout its wanderings, and which would preserve the closeness to God which had once been symbolized and embodied in the Jerusalem Temple.


The Redaction of the Mishnah

Scholars have long debated the exact nature and history of the process that led to the redaction, arrangement and selection of the Mishnah, the first major document to emerge from and to represent the tannaitic tradition. The Mishnah was the only major text to be redacted in the tannaitic period itself, although other texts edited afterwards in the amoraic period (200–500 C.E.) depended heavily on tannaitic materials. The Mishnah became the formative document which shaped Talmudic Judaism, in turn, the basis for the development of the Jewish tradition in medieval and modern times. The redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Judah the Prince (c. 200 C.E.) represented the end of a process, although the extent of the contribution of Rabbi Judah should not be minimized.

Most modern scholars agree that the Mishnah originated in discrete statements, some attached to specific named authorities. Only a small part of the Mishnaic material is attributed to the period before the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.E. Between then and the period leading up to the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E. are attributed materials relating to Hillel and Shammai and the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, the schools of tannaim ascribed to the students of these two preeminent sages.

With the destruction of the Temple and the shifting of the activity of the tannaim to centers at Yavneh, Usha, Bet Shearim and Sepphoris, profound changes occurred in the manner by which tannaitic material was transmitted. A process began of bringing together divergent views on issues into disputes and shaping the statements so as to reflect the divergence of opinion. Further, mnemonic formulations become more common, as students and teachers were expected to be familiar with an increasingly large body of oral tradition.

It is difficult to determine at what point in the history of the Mishnaic material the process of redaction began. By redaction, we mean the bringing together of diverse materials into blocks of material, assembled from disparate sources by a compiler. Sometime after the destruction, the approach of organizing the materials by subject became prominent. This opened the way to the development of large scale “essays” on topics of law. Later tradition and many modern scholars ascribe the basic subject classification into orders (Hebrew sedarim) and tractates (massekhtot) to Rabbi Akiva who flourished at the Yavneh academy ca. 80–132 C.E. Whether he himself is responsible for this concept is impossible to determine with precision. Yet the large number of highly developed treatises which remain embedded in, or which even constitute, Mishnaic tractates from the period between the Great Revolt (66–73 C.E.) and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132–135 C.E.) proves that this approach, at least on the level of individual tractates, was evolving in his day. It was left for those who came after Rabbi Akiva at the academy at Usha to bring many tractates to a well-developed state.

After the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the process continued with renewed vigor. Attempts were made to gather together traditions, as often happens after a tragedy of great proportion. Thus, many more tractates began to move toward completion while halakhic concepts developed over the years served as the basis for new organizational and redactional approaches. By the time Rabbi Judah the Prince began his work of final redaction, he had most probably inherited many almost completed tractates and a basic system of classification by orders. He completed the compilation of the individual tractates and placed them into the appropriate orders.

Rabbi Judah the Prince, known often as “Rabbi” in the Mishnah, the Rabbi par excellence, did not seek to create an authoritative code of law. Had he, we would have had to judge his work a failure. After all, the amoraim, the teachers of the Talmud (Gemara), set aside or modified so many of his rulings. He provided variant rulings on many subjects, explaining that his purpose was to keep options open for later courts of greater authority and wisdom. He intended to create a curriculum for the study of Jewish law. Yet he sought to point out which rulings he favored by providing information on majority and minority status or rulings, and by indicating the greater or lesser authority of individual tradents (transmitters of tradition) and decisors whose statements he included. He even placed materials in his text anonymously, the tradents for which he was well aware of, in order to indicate the ruling he thought was to be followed. These views, by and large, he reproduced anonymously, or with the label “the opinion of the sages,” where there was an individual who dissented.

The material was organized into six orders: Zera’im (Agricultural laws), Mo’ed (Holy Occasions, Festivals), Nashim (Women, Marriage law), Neziqin (Damage and Civil law), Qodashim (Sacrifices), and Tohorot (Purification Rituals). Each order was comprised of a number of tractates. Today, these tractates are arranged roughly in size order within each order, at least in the Mishnah texts. The same order was later used for the Tosefta, and for the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds. Within the six orders there are a total of sixty-three tractates.

The Mishnah reflects the full variety of the Torah’s laws, and that it is firmly anchored in a Temple centered reality in which priests, sacrifices and purity remain as important as Sabbath and festivals, civil law, marriage, and family. This does not mean that the Mishnah was created in the days of the Temple. Rather, it was edited in an atmosphere in which the restoration of that Temple-centered reality was still a living hope, and in which the conception of sanctity still flowed from that reality, even in its absence.

The oral law was believed by the tannaim to have been revealed by God at Sinai to Moses, alongside the written law. This should have required that the oral law be transmitted orally, and, indeed, it was so in the tannaitic period. At the same time, evidence exists that individual tannaim did keep notebooks in which they listed certain oral traditions. There was a debate throughout the medieval period on the question of when the Mishnah was written down. Some believed that Rabbi Judah the Prince himself had recorded his Mishnah in writing, while others believed that the Mishnah was written down in Babylonia only at the end of the Talmudic period as the threat of the Islamic invasion became real and it was feared that the oral traditions would be lost. The problem is best solved by realizing that the oral law concept required that the publication of the Mishnah, its teaching, and its exegesis all be carried on in oral form. For this reason, the formal study in amoraic circles was based on oral tradition. The formal transition to the use of a written Mishnah as an object of teaching, study and exegesis took place only at the end of the amoraic period or later. Rabbi Judah the Prince, however, promulgated his Mishnah in oral form. To the Rabbis, what God had given orally had to be transmitted orally, and so it was with the Mishnah, the consummate summary of the oral law.


From Amoraic Interpretation to Talmudic Texts

The Talmuds (Gemarot) are complicated texts, originally constructed orally as part of the study sessions of the amoraim. These study sessions were organized around the formal curriculum provided by the Mishnaic tractates. In Palestine and Babylonia different Mishnaic tractates were selected for detailed study, and different emphases existed even within the various Palestinian and Babylonian schools. The Mishnaic tractates served as the basis for these discussions. Only occasionally do the amoraim base their discussions on a baraita (tannaitic tradition outside the Mishnah) or on a Mishnah which has been quoted incidentally. For the most part, the Mishnah endows the Talmuds with their organizational framework.

The Mishnah was studied orally in amoraic times. A memorizer (known in amoraic times as a tanna, a teacher of the Mishnah and baraitot) was instructed to recite aloud the text to be studied. The discussion and analysis of that section of the Mishnah then ensued. There followed comparison and contrast with other tannaitic traditions, including Mishnah and baraita material. This in tum led to various digressions and to the comments and glosses of various amoraim to the tannaitic texts under discussion. Some digressions were rather extensive, and sometimes included the aggadic analysis of related (or even unrelated) biblical material. In this respect, the record we have seems to preserve real discussions which often ranged beyond the specific topic at hand.

Typically, amoraic discussion of a Mishnah began with the citation of a contradiction from another Mishnah or a baraita and then proceeded to resolve that contradiction. Indeed, at its origin, the main activity of “Talmud” was the resolution of contradictions in tannaitic materials. The resolution of a contradiction between the Mishnah and a baraita often serves as the jumping off point for more extensive discussion of the details of the law on the specific topic.

Another important aspect of amoraic analysis is inquiry into the Scriptural source (proof text) for a particular rule. The Mishnah, virtually devoid of biblical proof texts, had separated the law from its biblical origins. The amoraim and the later redactors of the halakhic midrashim (the so-called tannaitic midrashim) sought to reintegrate law and Scripture, to demonstrate that the written and oral laws constituted one unified revelation of God.

Had the process stopped there, the structure of the Talmuds would have been much simpler. Yet the process described here continued over generations, even centuries. This led to the gradual development of what are called sugyot, Talmudic discussions, better essays, on specific topics. As generation after generation passed down their discussions to circles of later scholars, the discussions were augmented with the later scholars’ comments and glosses. This process continued in both Babylonia and Palestine into the fifth century. At this point, the development of the Palestinian Talmud was virtually arrested by the onset of anti-Semitism and the difficult conditions which the Jews of the Byzantine Empire faced.

In Babylonia, however, the developing text of the Talmud was subjected to an additional process. It was at this time that the anonymous discussions of the Talmud, the setam, which weaves together and places into relationship all the earlier material, was intertwined in the text. In this way a more prolix and more easily understandable Talmud was achieved. This, indeed, was one of the several factors leading to the greater popularity and authority of the Babylonian Talmud. The redactors of the Babylonian Talmud who inserted these anonymous links and glosses also added some of the more extensive digressions, and provided the formulary introductions which allow us to identify Mishnah, baraita, and the statements of individual amoraim. In essence, it can be said that up through the end of the fifth century, the vast majority of statements preserved in the Talmuds are with attributions, Rabbis in whose name the statement is cited. Thereafter, the bulk of the material is anonymous and serves to fill in gaps and make the whole a unified, sensible creation. In Babylonia, activity continued in the hands of the anonymous redactors. Then the final touches, including the occasional halakhic rulings (“the law is according to . . . “) and some philological explanations were added by the savoraim, interpreters, whose work continued up to the seventh century and even later.

While we know that some individuals kept written notes, the formal activity of the amoraim, like that of their tannaitic predecessors, was conducted orally. There is little information about the writing down of the texts of the two Talmuds. In fact, the specifics of that mystery cannot even be the subject of reasonable speculation. It can be said only that after the Islamic conquest (634 C.E.) written manuscripts of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds are first mentioned, and the dissemination of these manuscripts continued throughout the Middle Ages until the rise of printing.


The Hegemony of the Babylonian Talmud

Central to the subsequent history of Judaism is the process by which the Babylonian Talmud gained hegemony and authority as the preponderant source of Jewish legal rulings and the main object of study for Jewish scholars. There are two aspects to this process, first, the displacement of biblical tradition as the central authority in Judaism, and second, the ascendancy of Babylonian, Diaspora tradition over the Palestinian.

The displacement of the Bible was a process long in the making. It was fear of such a development which led the tannaim to practice a system of oral teaching designed to highlight the greater authority of the written word. The Rabbis went so far as to prohibit the writing down of the oral law. Yet as the oral tradition became so extensive and complex, and as individuals kept private written texts, this distinction no longer held. More important, the ever-expanding, developing nature of the oral law attracted the best minds, leaving the written Torah to serve as an object of elementary instruction, midrashic exegesis, and technical grammatical study by a select few. By the amoraic period, the Rabbis openly asserted the superiority of the oral Law, and so it is natural that the Mishnah would become the central teaching to be studied. When the amoraic commentary in the form of the Talmuds became available, it was this material which became the new Scripture of Judaism, and the authority of the Bible was now defined in terms of how it was interpreted in the Rabbinic tradition. Scripture had been displaced by Talmud.

The second process, by which the Babylonian tradition attained ascendancy, is somewhat more complicated. The earlier Hellenistic Diaspora had also provided a competing approach to Judaism to that of the tannaim which was based in the Land of Israel. Yet Hellenistic Judaism lacked the necessary vitality, and failed to survive the rise of Christianity and the Christianization of the Greco-Roman world. The new Babylonian Judaism attained this vitality precisely because it was so strongly linked to that of Palestine and almost identical with it. Differences between the two concerned mostly detailed halakhic rulings or certain ideas prominent in Babylonian society that entered the Jewish tradition there.

Nonetheless, the primacy of the Land of lsrael should have been expected to have guaranteed its Talmud first place. However, two factors militated against this development: first, the nature of the Palestinian Talmud itself, and second, the political history of Jewry under the Islamic caliphate in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The political conditions and resulting anti-Semitism in Byzantine Palestine led to an early end to the amoraic process at work creating the Palestinian Talmud. Not only did the amoraim not complete their task, but also the Talmud of the Land of Israel was hastily compiled. The work of the anonymous scholars who wove together the traditions in the Babylonian Talmud has no parallel in Palestine, either because of the difficult historical conditions or because the final redactors saw their role otherwise. In any case, the Palestinian Talmud remained a more difficult text than the Babylonian.

From the point of view of later Jewish tradition, there was another factor which caused the Babylonian Talmud to attain dominance. There is a general medieval Jewish rule that the law follows the later authority. The Babylonian Talmud was redacted after the Palestinian. Many Jews believed, incorrectly we think, that the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud must have had at their disposal the work of the Palestinian amoraim and that they had consciously selected or rejected its views. Accordingly, many concluded, based on this principle, that the Babylonian Talmud had greater authority than the Palestinian.

It may simply be, however, that this halakhic argument is a post facto way of explaining what the forces of history had created on their own, namely the ascendancy of the Rabbinical authorities of Babylonia. The Jews of the Near East came under control of the Moslems after the Arab conquest of 638 C.E. The Rabbis of Babylonia found themselves living in the shadow of the rulers of the caliphate of Baghdad which initially ruled virtually the entire Islamic world, including most of world Jewry, and which thereafter held considerable sway even after the territorial fragmentization of the Islamic world. The Babylonian Rabbis quickly became, in the form of the Geonim, “eminences,” de facto chief rabbis of world Jewry. They wielded the authority of the state to help enforce Rabbinic law and to spread the teachings of the Babylonian Talmud. In this effort they were greatly helped by the opportunity to piggyback onto the Islamic postal system and administrative apparatus which made possible the wide-ranging influence of the Babylonian Geonim. The result, along with the factors we have already addressed, was the unquestionable hegemony of the Babylonian Talmud. Henceforth this would be the “Talmud” par excellence and the basis of all later development of Talmudic law and thought.



Republished with permission of the author