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Rabbinic Judaism (Hebrew: יהדות רבנית Yahadut Rabanit), also called Rabbinism, has been the mainstream form of Judaism since the 6th century CE, after the codification of the Babylonian Talmud. Growing out of Pharisaic Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism is based on the belief that at Mount Sinai, Moses received from God the Written Torah (Pentateuch) in addition to an oral explanation, known as the "Oral Torah," that Moses transmitted to the people.
Rabbinic Judaism contrasts with the Sadducees, Karaite Judaism and Samaritanism, which do not recognize the oral law as a divine authority nor the rabbinic procedures used to interpret Jewish scripture. Although there are now profound differences among Jewish denominations of Rabbinic Judaism with respect to the binding force of halakha (Jewish religious law) and the willingness to challenge preceding interpretations, all identify themselves as coming from the tradition of the oral law and the rabbinic method of analysis.
Written and oral law
Rabbinic Judaism is distinguished by belief in Moses as "our Rabbi" and that God revealed the Torah in two parts, as both the Written and the Oral Torah, also known as the Mishnah. All the laws in the Written Torah are recorded only as part of a narrative describing God imparting these laws to Moses and commanding him to transmit them to the Jewish nation.
The Talmud contains discussions and opinions regarding details of many oral laws believed to have originally been transmitted to Moses. Some see Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 as a display of Moses' appointing elders as judges to govern with him and judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the laws of God while carrying out their duties. The Oral Torah includes rules intended to prevent violations of the laws of the Torah and Talmud, sometimes referred to as "a fence around the Torah". For example, the written Torah prohibits certain types of traveling on the Sabbath; consequently, the Oral Torah prohibits walking great distances on the Sabbath to ensure that one does not accidentally engage in a type of traveling prohibited by the written Torah. Similarly, the written Torah prohibits plowing on the Sabbath; the Oral Torah prohibits carrying a stick on the Sabbath to ensure that one does not drag the stick and accidentally engage in prohibited plowing.
As the rabbis were required to face a new reality, that of 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 Gemara, and is interpreted in rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Torah cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law. It states that many commandments and stipulations contained in the Torah would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep without the Oral Law to define them—for example, the prohibition to do any "creative work" ("melakha") on the Sabbath, which is given no definition in the Torah, is given a practical meaning by a definition of what constitutes 'Melacha' provided by the Oral Law. Numerous examples exist of this general prohibitive language in the Torah (such as, "don't steal", without defining what is considered theft, or ownership and property laws), requiring—according to rabbinic thought—a subsequent definition through the Oral Law. Thus Rabbinic Judaism claims that almost all directives, both positive and negative, in the Torah are non-specific in nature and require the existence of either an Oral Law, or some other method to explain them.
Much rabbinic Jewish literature concerns specifying what behavior is sanctioned by the law; this body of interpretations is called halakha (the way).
Until the Haskalah (Hebrew: "Jewish enlightenment") of the late 18th century, and the resulting division of Ashkenazi Jews into religious movements or denominations, especially in North America and anglophone countries, halakha had the universal status of required religious practice. This remains the prevailing position among Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Reconstructionist and Reform Jews do not generally treat halakha as binding.
- Early Rabbinic Judaism: Historical Studies in Religion, Literature and Art by Jacob Neusner, p. 1
- 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.