The Palestinian Patriarchate was the governing legalistic body of Palestinian Jewry after the destruction of the Second Temple until about 425 CE.
It was headed by the chief scholars of the great Palestinian academies, and with the decline of the Sanhedrin, their spiritual and legal authority was generally accepted, the institution itself being supported by voluntary contributions by Jews throughout the ancient world. Being a member of the house of Hillel and thus a descendant of King David, the Patriarch, known in Hebrew as the Nasi (prince), enjoyed almost royal authority. Their functions were political rather than religious, though their influence was not limited to the secular realm. The Patriarchate attained its zenith under Judah ha-Nasi who compiled the Mishnah a compendium of views from Judean thought leaders of Judaism other than the Torah.
The system of a Patriarchate of Palestinian Jewry continued under Roman rule for some 350 years (ca. 80-425 CE), until Theodosius II (408-450) abolished it. Its demise begun in 313 with the Edict of Milan regarding religious tolerance and marking the end of the persecutions against Christians, thus seen as the first step towards Christianity becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The exact reason for the abrogation of the patriarchate is not clear, though Gamaliel VI, the last holder of the office who had been for a time elevated by the emperor to the rank of prefect, may have fallen out with the imperial authorities. Thereafter, Jews were gradually excluded from holding public office.
Court of the Patriarch
Rabbinic texts indicate that following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the southern Galilee became the seat of rabbinic learning in the Land of Israel. This region was the location of the court of the Patriarch which was situated first at Usha, then at Bet Shearim, later at Sepphoris and finally at Tiberias.
Summary of Patriarchal powers
The following is a summary of the powers and responsibilities of the Palestinian Patriarchate from the onset of the third century, based on rabbinic sources as portrayed by L.I. Levine:
- Representative to Imperial authorities;
- Focus of leadership in the Jewish community:
- Receiving daily visits from prominent families;
- Declaration of public fast days;
- Initiating or abrogating the ban (herem);
- Appointment of judges to Jewish courts in Palestine;
- Regulation of the calendar;
- Issuing enactments and decrees with respect to the applicability or release from legal requirements, e.g.:
- Use of sabbatical year produce and applicability of sabbatical year injunctions;
- Repurchase or redemption of formerly Jewish land from gentile owners;
- Status of Hellenistic cities of Palestine re: purity, tithing, sabbatical year;
- Exemptions from tithing;
- Conditions in divorce documents;
- Use of oil produced by gentiles;
- Dispatching emissaries to diaspora communities;
- Taxation: both the power to tax and the authority to rule/intervene on the disposition of taxes raised for local purposes by local councils.
Up to the middle of the fourth century, the Palestinian Patriarchate retained the prerogative of determining the Hebrew calendar and guarded the intricacies of the calculation process in an effort to subdue interference from the Babylonian community. Due to Christian persecution, Hillel II was obliged to fix the calendar in permanent form in 359 CE. This institution symbolised the passing of authority from the Palestinian patriarchate to the Babylonian Academies.
List of Patriarchs
|Gamaliel II of Jamnia||80||118|
|Eleazar ben Azariah||118||120|
|Interregnum (Bar Kokhba revolt)||120||142|
|Shimon ben Gamliel II||142||165|
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