Origins of Rabbinic Judaism
Rabbinic Judaism or Rabbinism has been the mainstream form of Judaism since the 6th century, after the codification of the Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism gained predominance within the Jewish diaspora between the 2nd to 6th centuries, with the development of the oral law and the Talmud to control the interpretation of Jewish scripture (specifically the Masoretic Text) and to encourage the practice of Judaism in the absence of Temple sacrifice and other practices no longer possible, while waiting for the Third Temple.
- 1 Historical background
- 2 Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
- 3 Development of Rabbinic Judaism
- 4 References
Critical scholars reject the claim that sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible, were dictated by God; and reject the claim that they were divinely inspired. Instead, they see these texts as authored by humans and possibly meaningful in specific historical and cultural contexts. Many of these scholars accept the general principles of the documentary hypothesis, and suggest that the Torah consists of a variety of inconsistent texts edited together in a way that calls attention to divergent accounts.
These scholars have various theories concerning the origins of the Israelites and Israelite religion. Most agree that the people who formed the nation of Israel during the First Temple era had origins in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, although some question whether any or all of their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. Many suggest that during the First Temple period, the people of Israel were henotheists, that is, they believed that each nation had its own god, but that their god was superior to other gods. Some suggest that strict monotheism developed during the Babylonian Exile, perhaps in reaction to Zoroastrian dualism.
In this view, it was only by the Hellenic period that most Jews came to believe that their god was the only god (and thus, the god of everyone), and that the record of his revelation (the Torah) contained within it universal truths. This attitude reflected a growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a god that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which sought to establish universal truths, thus leading—potentially—to the idea of monotheism, at least in the sense that "all gods are one." It was also at this time that the notion of a clearly bounded Jewish nation identical with the Jewish religion formed. According to one scholar, the clash between the early Christians and Pharisees that ultimately led to the birth of the Christian religion and Rabbinic Judaism reflected the struggle by Jews to reconcile their claims to both national particularism and theological universalism.
According to Prof. Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, monotheism, as a state religion, is probably "an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel." Herzog states that "The question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah. At two sites, Kuntiliet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet el-Kom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention 'Jehovah and his Asherah', 'Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah', 'Jehovah Teman and his Asherah'. The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his consort Asherah, and sent blessings in the couple's name."
In 332 BCE the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great. After his demise, and the division of Alexander's empire among his generals, the Seleucid Kingdom was formed. During this time currents of Judaism were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy developed from the 3rd century BCE, notably among the Jewish diaspora in Alexandria, culminating in the compilation of the Septuagint. An important advocate of the symbiosis of Jewish theology and Hellenistic thought is Philo.
Hellenistic culture had a profound impact on the customs and practices of Jews, both in Judea and in the Diaspora. These inroads into Judaism gave rise to Hellenistic Judaism in the Jewish diaspora which sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism.
There was a general deterioration in relations between Hellenized Jews and other Jews, leading the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to ban certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Consequently, the orthodox Jews revolted against the Greek ruler leading to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated in a civil war. The people, who did not want to continue to be governed by a Hellenized dynasty, appealed to Rome for intervention, leading to a total Roman conquest and annexation of the country, see Iudaea province.
Hellenistic Judaism spread to Ptolemaic Egypt from the 3rd century BCE, and became a notable religio licita throughout the Roman Empire, until its decline in the 3rd century concurrent with the rise of Gnosticism and Early Christianity.
The decline of Hellenistic Judaism is obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by, absorbed into or became Early Christianity (see the Gospel according to the Hebrews). The Acts of the Apostles at least report how Paul of Tarsus preferredly evangelized communities of proselytes and Godfearers, or circles sympathetic to Judaism: the Apostolic Decree allowing converts to forgo circumcision made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than Rabbinic Judaism which instituted a more stringent circumcision procedure in response, see Brit milah. See also Circumcision controversy in early Christianity. The attractiveness of Christianity may, however, have suffered a setback with its being explicitly outlawed in the 80s CE by Domitian as a "Jewish superstition", while Judaism retained its privileges as long as members paid the Fiscus Judaicus. However, from a historical perspective, Persecution of Christians seemed only to increase the number of Christian converts, leading eventually to the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine and the subsequent development of the Byzantine Empire.
On the other hand, mainstream Judaism began to reject Hellenistic currents, outlawing use of the Septuagint, see also Council of Jamnia. Remaining currents of Hellenistic Judaism may have merged into Gnostic movements in the early centuries CE.
Hillel and Shammai
In the later part of the Second Temple period (2nd century BC), the Second Commonwealth of Judea (Hasmonean Kingdom) was established and religious matters were determined by a pair (zugot) which led the Sanhedrin. The Hasmonean Kingdom ended in 37 BC but it's believed that the "two-man rule of the Sanhedrin" lasted until the early part of the 1st century AD during the period of the Roman province of Iudaea. The last of the zugot, Hillel and Shammai, were the most well-known of the Sanhedrin leaders. Both were Pharisees, but the Sadducees were actually the dominant party while the Temple stood. Since the Sadducees did not survive the First Jewish–Roman War, their version of events has perished. In addition, Hillel's views have been seen as superior to Shammai's by Rabbinic Judaism. The development of an oral tradition of teaching called the "tanna" would be the means by which the faith of Judaism would sustain the fall of the Second Temple.
Jewish messianism has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd to 1st centuries BC, promising a future "anointed" leader or Messiah to resurrect the Israelite "Kingdom of God", in place of the foreign rulers of the time. This corresponded with the Maccabean Revolt directed against the Seleucids. Following the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom, it was directed against the Roman administration of Iudaea Province, which, according to Josephus, began with the formation of the Zealots during the Census of Quirinius of 6 AD, though full scale open revolt did not occur till the First Jewish–Roman War in 66 AD. Historian H. H. Ben-Sasson has proposed that the "Crisis under Caligula" (37–41) was the "first open break" between Rome and the Jews even though tension already existed during the census in 6 and under Sejanus (before 31). See also Anti-Judaism in the pre-Christian Roman Empire.
Judaism at this time was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, Saducees, and Zealots, but also included other less influential sects. This led to further unrest, and the 1st century BC and 1st century AD saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism, including Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa. The ministry of Jesus, according to the account of the Gospels, falls into this pattern of sectarian preachers or teachers with devoted disciples (derived from the Greek word for students).
Orthodox Jewish view
Orthodox Judaism does not accept the scholarly view that Rabbinic Judaism only came into being in the post Second Temple era. Rather, it sees the Judaism of this period as continuing organically from the religious and cultural heritage of the Israelites, stemming from the Revelation at Sinai onwards. According to this view, while the title "Rabbi" was not used earlier, Moses was the first rabbi (and is commonly referred to by Orthodox Jews as "Moses our Rabbi"), with the knowledge and laws received at Sinai being passed down from teachers to students through the era of the Judges, and the prophets (most of whom are seen as the "rabbis" of their time), through the Sages of the late Second Temple period, and continuing until today.
Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, Saducees, and Zealots, but also included other less influential sects. This led to further unrest, and the 1st century BC and 1st century AD saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism, including Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa.
The Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple
By 66 CE Jewish discontent with Rome had escalated. At first, the priests tried to suppress rebellion, even calling upon the Pharisees for help. After the Roman garrison failed to stop Hellenists from desecrating a synagogue in Caesarea, however, the high priest suspended payment of tribute, inaugurating the Great Jewish Revolt.
After a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 66 CE, the Romans all but destroyed Jerusalem. Following a second revolt, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem and most Jewish worship was forbidden by Rome. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews, Jewish worship stopped being centrally organized around the Temple, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and worship was rebuilt around rabbis who acted as teachers and leaders of individual communities (see Jewish diaspora).
In 70 the Temple was destroyed. The destruction of the Second Temple was a profoundly traumatic experience for the Jews, who were now confronted with difficult and far-reaching questions:
- How to achieve atonement without the Temple?
- How to explain the disastrous outcome of the rebellion?
- How to live in the post-Temple, Romanized world?
- How to connect present and past traditions?
How people answered these questions depended largely on their position prior to the revolt. But the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans not only put an end to the revolt, it marked the end of an era. Revolutionaries like the Zealots had been crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility (the last Zealots died at Masada in 73). The Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple cult, disappeared. The Essenes also vanished, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the issues of the times that the destruction of the Second Temple was of no consequence to them; precisely for this reason, they were of little consequence to the vast majority of Jews.
Two organized groups remained: the Early Christians, and Pharisees. Some scholars, such as Daniel Boyarin and Paula Fredricksen, suggest that it was at this time, when Christians and Pharisees were competing for leadership of the Jewish people, that accounts of debates between Jesus and the apostles, debates with Pharisees, and anti-Pharisaic passages, were written and incorporated into the New Testament.
The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
Of all the major Second Temple sects, only the Pharisees remained (but see Karaite Judaism). Their vision of Jewish law as a means by which ordinary people could engage with the sacred in their daily lives, provided them with a position from which to respond to all four challenges, in a way meaningful to the vast majority of Jews.
Following the destruction of the Temple, Rome governed Judea through a Procurator at Caesarea and a Jewish Patriarch. A former leading Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zakkai, was appointed the first Patriarch (the Hebrew word, Nasi, also means prince, or president), and he reestablished the Sanhedrin at Javneh under Pharisee control. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and sacrificing offerings at the Temple, the rabbis instructed Jews to give money to charities and study in local Synagogues, as well as to pay the Fiscus Iudaicus.
In 132, the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter, called Aelia Capitolina. Some of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin supported a rebellion (and, for a short time, an independent state) led by Simon bar Kozeba (also called Bar Kochba, or "son of a star"); some, such as Rabbi Akiba, believed Bar Kochbah to be messiah, or king. Up until this time, a number of Christians were still part of the Jewish community. However, they did not support or take part in the revolt. Whether because they had no wish to fight, or because they could not support a second messiah in addition to Jesus, or because of their harsh treatment by Bar Kochba during his brief reign, these Christians also left the Jewish community around this time.
This revolt ended in 135 when Bar Kochba and his army were defeated. The Romans then barred Jews from Jerusalem, except to attend Tisha B'Av.
After the suppression of the revolt the vast majority of Jews were sent into exile; shortly thereafter (around 200), Judah haNasi edited together judgments and traditions into an authoritative code, the Mishnah. This marks the transformation of Pharisaic Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism.
Although the Rabbis traced their origins to the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism nevertheless involved a radical repudiation of certain elements of Pharisaism—elements that were basic to Second Temple Judaism. The Pharisees had been partisan. Members of different sects argued with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, see also Hillel and Shammai. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these sectarian divisions ended. The term "Pharisee" was no longer used, perhaps because it was a term more often used by non-Pharisees, but also because the term was explicitly sectarian. The Rabbis claimed leadership over all Jews, and added to the Amidah the birkat haMinim (see Council of Jamnia), a prayer which in part exclaims, "Praised are You O Lord, who breaks enemies and defeats the arrogant," and which is understood as a rejection of sectarians and sectarianism. This shift by no means resolved conflicts over the interpretation of the Torah; rather, it relocated debates between sects to debates within Rabbinic Judaism.
The Yeshiva at Yavne
The survival of Pharisaic or Rabbinic Judaism is attributed to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the founder of the Yeshiva (religious school) in Yavne, see also Council of Jamnia. Yavneh replaced Jerusalem as the new seat of a reconstituted Sanhedrin, which reestablished its authority and became a means of reuniting Jewry.
Development of Rabbinic Judaism
The destruction of the Second Temple brought about a dramatic change in Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism built upon Jewish tradition while adjusting to new realities. Temple ritual was replaced with prayer service in synagogues which built upon practices of Jews in the Diaspora dating back to the Babylonian exile.
As the Rabbis were required to face two shattering new realities—Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy—there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing. The theory that the destruction of the Temple and subsequent upheaval led to the committing of Oral Law into writing was first explained in the Epistle of Sherira Gaon and often repeated.
The oral law was subsequently codified in the Mishnah and Gemarah, and is interpreted in Rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Written Law cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law (the Mishnah).
Much Rabbinic Jewish literature concerns specifying what behavior is sanctioned by the law; this body of interpretations is called halakha (the way).
Originally, Jewish scholarship was oral. Rabbis expounded and debated the law (the written law expressed in the Hebrew Bible) and discussed the Tanakh without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (megillot setarim), for example of court decisions. This situation changed drastically, however, mainly as the result of the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth in the year 70 CE and the consequent upheaval of Jewish social and legal norms. As the Rabbis were required to face a new reality—mainly Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy—there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing.
The earliest recorded oral law may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Pentateuch. But an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, became dominant about the year 200 CE, when Rabbi Judah haNasi redacted the Mishnah (משנה).
The Oral Law was far from monolithic; rather, it varied among various schools. The most famous two were the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. In general, all valid opinions, even the non-normative ones, were recorded in the Talmud.
The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), the first written compendium of Judaism's Oral Law; and the Gemara (c. 500 CE), a discussion of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Tanakh.
The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but merely the collection of existing oral laws, traditions and traditional wisdom. The rabbis who contributed to the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim, of whom approximately 120 are known. The period during which the Mishnah was assembled spanned about 130 years, and five generations.
Most of the Mishnah is related without attribution (stam). This usually indicates that many sages taught so, or that Judah haNasi (often called "Rebbi") who redacted the Mishnah together with his academy/court ruled so. The halakhic ruling usually follows that view. Sometimes, however, it appears to be the opinion of a single sage, and the view of the sages collectively (Hebrew: חכמים, hachamim) is given separately.
The Talmud records a tradition that unattributed statements of the law represent the views of Rabbi Meir (Sanhedrin 86a), which supports the theory (recorded by Rav Sherira Gaon in his famous Iggeret) that he was the author of an earlier collection. For this reason, the few passages that actually say "this is the view of Rabbi Meir" represent cases where the author intended to present Rabbi Meir's view as a "minority opinion" not representing the accepted law.
Rebbi is credited with publishing the Mishnah, though there have been a few edits since his time (for example, those passages that cite him or his grandson, Rabbi Yehuda Nesi'ah; in addition, the Mishnah at the end of Tractate Sotah refers to the period after Rebbi's death, which could not have been written by Rebbi himself). According to the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, after the tremendous upheaval caused by the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt, the Oral Torah was in danger of being forgotten. It was for this reason that Rebbi chose to redact the Mishnah.
One must also note that in addition to redacting the Mishnah, Rebbi and his court also ruled on which opinions should be followed, though the rulings do not always appear in the text.
As he went through the tractates, the Mishnah was set forth, but throughout his life some parts were updated as new information came to light. Because of the proliferation of earlier versions, it was deemed too hard to retract anything already released, and therefore a second version of certain laws were released. The Talmud refers to these differing versions as Mishnah Rishonah ("First Mishnah") and Mishnah Acharonah ("Last Mishnah"). David Zvi Hoffman suggests that Mishnah Rishonah actually refers to texts from earlier Sages upon which Rebbi based his Mishnah.
One theory is that the present Mishnah was based on an earlier collection by Rabbi Meir. There are also references to the "Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva", though this may simply mean his teachings in general. It is possible that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir established the divisions and order of subjects in the Mishnah, but this would make them the authors of a school curriculum rather than of a book.
Authorities are divided on whether Rebbi recorded the Mishnah in writing or established it as an oral text for memorisation. The most important early account of its composition, the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, is ambiguous on the point, though the "Spanish" recension leans to the theory that the Mishnah was written.
The Gemara is the part of the Talmud that contains rabbinical commentaries and analysis of the Mishnah. In the three centuries following the redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Judah the Prince (c. 200 CE), rabbis throughout Palestine and Babylonia analyzed, debated and discussed that work. These discussions form the Gemara (גמרא). Gemara means "completion" (from the Hebrew gamar גמר: "to complete") or "learning" ( from the Aramaic: "to study"). The Gemara mainly focuses on elucidating and elaborating the opinions of the Tannaim. The rabbis of the Gemara are known as Amoraim (sing. Amora אמורא).
Much of the Gemara consists of legal analysis. The starting point for the analysis is usually a legal statement found in a Mishnah. The statement is then analyzed and compared with other statements used in different approaches to Biblical exegesis in rabbinic Judaism (or—simpler—interpretation of text in Torah study) exchanges between two (frequently anonymous and sometimes metaphorical) disputants, termed the makshan (questioner) and tartzan (answerer). Another important function of Gemara is to identify the correct Biblical basis for a given law presented in the Mishnah and the logical process connecting one with the other: this activity was known as talmud long before the existence of the "Talmud" as a text.
- Yehezkal Kauffman, The Religion of Israel
- Robert Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry
- E. A. Speiser Genesis (The Anchor Bible)
- John Bright A History of Israel
- Martin Noth The History of Israel
- Ephraim Urbach The Sages
- Shaye Cohen The beginnings of Jewishness
- Daniel Boyarin A Radical Jew
- mideastfacts.org - Deconstructing the walls of Jericho
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Hellenism: "Post-exilic Judaism was largely recruited from those returned exiles who regarded it as their chief task to preserve their religion uncontaminated, a task that required the strict separation of the congregation both from all foreign peoples (Ezra x. 11; Neh. ix. 2) and from the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine who did not strictly observe the Law (Ezra vi. 22; Neh. x. 29)."
- H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, The Crisis Under Gaius Caligula, pages 254–256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37–41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then—if one accepts Sejanus' heyday and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment—there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East."
- Unbroken Chain of Transmission
- Maimonides' Introduction to the Mishnah Torah
- Jacob Neusner 1984 Toah From our Sages Rossell Books. p. 175
- See, Strack, Hermann, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Jewish Publication Society, 1945. pp. 11–12. "[The Oral Law] was handed down by word of mouth during a long period...The first attempts to write down the traditional matter, there is reason to believe, date from the first half of the second post-Christian century." Strack theorizes that the growth of a Christian canon (the New Testament) was a factor that influenced the Rabbis to record the oral law in writing.
- See, for example, Grayzel, A History of the Jews, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 193.
- The theory that the destruction of the Temple and subsequent upheaval led to the committing of Oral Law into writing was first explained in the Epistle of Sherira Gaon and often repeated. See, for example, Grayzel, A History of the Jews, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 193.
- This theory was held by David Zvi Hoffman, and is repeated in the introduction to Herbert Danby's Mishnah translation.
- e.g. Pirkei Avot 5.21: "five for the Torah, ten for Mishnah, thirteen for the commandments, fifteen for talmud".