Rabbinic Judaism and Its Development: A.D. First to Fifth Centuries

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Rabbi Akiva

Rabbanic Judaism has been the mainstream form of Judaism since the A.D. 6th century after the codification of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism has its roots in the Pharisaic school of Second Temple Judaism, and is based on the belief that Moses at Mount Sinai received both the Written Torah (Torah she-be-Khetav) and the Oral Torah (Torah she-be-al Peh) from God. The Oral Torah, transmitted orally, explains the Written Torah. At first, it was forbidden to write down the Oral Torah, but after the destruction of the Second Temple, it was decided to write it down in the form of the Talmud and other rabbinic texts for the sake of preservation. [Source: Wikipedia]

The vast majority of Jews are Rabbanites. the alternative, the Karaites are a very small minority (See Karaites). The Rabbinites trace their origins back to the Pharisees of Judea, during the Maccabeean and Roman periods. The Pharisees and their successors developed a tradition of interpretations of the laws of Moses which became codices in the Talmudic literature. Many features of contemporary Judaism — including the substitution of fines and payments of compensation for body mutilations to enforce “lex taliois” , lighting of candles to begin the Sabbath and holidays, the Seder ceremony to mark Passover, the Hebrew prayer book and Talmudic study and argumentation — stem from the Rabbanite tradition.

Rabbinic (Rabannite) Judaism emerged around the the beginning of the A.D. 1st century and went through a period of development that lasted until around the year A.D. 500. Many of the ideas put forward by the great rabbis of the Rabbinic Judaism creation period had their origin in an earlier age. In the rabbinic literature there is a fairly consistent treatment of the three ideas of God, Torah, and Israel, with much debate among the rabbis on the details of these ideas. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

Some trace the origins Rabbinic Judaism back to Ezra, who lived in the 4th century B.C. He was Jewish religious leader and reformer who returned from exile in Babylon and reconstituted the Jewish community on the basis of the Torah (Law, or the regulations of the first five books of the Old Testament). His work helped make Judaism a religion in which law was central, enabling the Jews to survive as a community when they were dispersed all over the world. According to Encyclopedia Britannica: Since his efforts did much to give Jewish religion the form that was to characterize it for centuries after, Ezra has with some justice been called the father of Judaism; i.e., the specific form the Jewish religion took after the Babylonian Exile. So important was he in the eyes of his people that later tradition regarded him as no less than a second Moses. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Post-Temple Roman Period of Jewish History

Rabbinic Period from A.D. 66 to 500
66-73: First Jewish Revolt against Rome.
69: Vespasian gives Yochanan ben Zakkai permission to establish a Jewish center for study at Yavneh that will become the hub for rabbinic Judaism.
70: Destruction of Jerusalem and the second Temple,
73: Last stand of Jews at Masada.
ca. 90-100: Gamaliel II excludes sectarians (including Christians) from the synagogues.
114-117: Jewish Revolts against Rome in Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrene. The Great Synagogue and the Great Library in Alexandria are destroyed as well as the entire Jeiwsh community of Cyprus. Afterwards, Jews were forbidden on Cyprus.
132-135: Bar Kokhba rebellion (Second Jewish Revolt). Roman forces kill an estimated half a million Jews and destroy 985 villages and 50 fortresses.
136: Hadrian renames Jerusalem Aelia Capatolina and builds a Pagan temple over the site of the Second Temple. He also forbids Jews to dwell there. Judea (the southern portion of what is now called the West Bank) was renamed Palaestina in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel.
[Source: Fordham University, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

138-161: Antoninus Pius, Hadrian's sucessor, repeals many of the previously instituted harsh policies towards Jews.
193-211: Roman emperor Lucious Septimus Severus treats Jews relatively well, allowing them to participate in public offices and be exempt from formalities contrary to Judaism. However, he did not allow the Jews to convert anyone
212: Roman Emperor Caracalla allows free Jews within the empire to become full Roman citizens.
222-235: Emperor Alexander Severus allowed for a revival of Jewish rights, including permission to visit Jerusalem.

ca. 250: Babylonian Jews flourish (as does Manichaeism) under Persian King Shapur I.
306: One of the first Christian councils, the Council of Elvira, forbids intermarriage and social interaction with Jews.
315: Code of Constantine limits rights of non-Christians, is Constantine's first anti-Jewish act.
439: Theodosis enacts a code prohibiting Jews from holding important positions involving money. He also reenacts a law forbidding the building of new synagogues.
During the later Roman period Jews were allowed to become Roman citizens, but later were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to marry Christians. In 439 CE the Romans banned synagogue building, and barred Jews from official jobs.”

Development of Rabbanic Judaism and the Talmud

According to the BBC: “The Rabbis encouraged the Jewish people to observe ethical laws in all aspects of life, and observe a cycle of prayer and festivals in the home and at synagogues. This involved a major rethink of Jewish life. Although the Temple still stood, its unique place as the focus of Jewish prayer and practice was diminished. Many synagogues had been founded in Palestine and right around the Jewish Diaspora. [Source: BBC |::|]

Between 200 and 700 CE Judaism developed rapidly. Following the twin religious and political traumas, the academies moved to new centres both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. A sense of urgency had taken hold and it was considered vital to write down the teachings of the Rabbis so that Judaism could continue. Around 200 CE, scholars compiled the Mishna, the collection of teachings, sayings and interpretations of the early Rabbis. The academies continued their work and several generations of Rabbis followed. Their teachings were compiled in the Talmud which expands on the interpretations of the Mishna and established an all-encompassing guide to life.|::|

ca. 90-150: Writings (third and last division of Jewish Scriptures) discussed and accepted as sacred scripture.
120-135: Rabbi Akiva active in consolidating Rabbinic Judaism.
ca. 200: Mishnah (Jewish oral law) compiled/edited under Judah the Prince.
203: Because of his health, Judah HaNasi relocates the center of Jewish learning from Beth Shearim to Sepphoris.
220: Babylonian Jewish Academy founded at Sura
220-470 Amoraim, or Mishna scholars, flourish. The Amoraim's commentary, along with the Mishna, comprises the Talmud.

368: Jerusalem Talmud compiled.
410: Rome sacked by Visigoths.
425: Jewish office of Nasi/Prince abolished by Rome.
426: Babylonian Talmud compiled.
500: Babylonian Talmud recorded. After conquering Italy in 493, Ostrogoth king Theodoric issues an edict safeguarding the Jews and ensuring their right to determine civil disputes and freedom of worship.


Great teaching academies were founded in the first century BCE with scholars discussing and debating God's laws. The most well known of the early teachers were Hillel, and his contemporary Shammai.

Hillel (370-425) founded Beit Hillel, a school emphasizing tolerance and patience. A descendant of King David, Hillel is one of the first scholars to devise rules to interpret the Torah. In A.D. 359, he created a new calendar based on the lunar year to replace the dispersed Sanhedrin, which previously announced the festivals.

The Talmud (Shab. 31a) tells the story of a non-Jew who wished to be converted to Judaism but only on the understanding that he would be taught the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel accepted him and, in response to his request, replied: "That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study." Presumably if the Greek-speaking Jews had told the story they would have made the prospective convert demand to be taught Judaism while standing on one leg. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

Judaism after the Jewish-Roman Wars

The Jewish–Roman Wars were a series of large-scale revolts by the Jews of Judaea and the Eastern Mediterranean against the Roman Empire between A.D. 66 and 135. The First Jewish–Roman War (A.D. 66–73) and the Bar Kokhba revolt (B.C. 132–136) were nationalist rebellions, striving to restore an independent Judean state (more or less in present-day Israel) , The devastating impact the Jewish Wars had on the Jewish people can not be emphasized enough. At the time the wars began, by some estimates, Jews made up seven percent of the population of the Roman Empire. The wars transformed them from a major population in the Eastern Mediterranean into a dispersed and persecuted minority. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Sanhedrin was a legislative and judicial assembly of either 23 or 71 elders (known as "rabbis" after the destruction of the Second Temple) that existing off an on at both local and centrals level among Jews from around 170 B.C., when the independent Hasmonean Jewish state emerged, until around the A.D. 5th century when it was shut down by the Romans.

Following the First Jewish-Roman War Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: there was a growing realization that an alternative to political and military leadership had to be found. This was offered by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, a leader of the Pharisees during the first century. He had slipped out of Jerusalem during the city's siege and reconstituted the Sanhedrin in the coastal town of Jabneh, already a center of learning. Through his inspiration the Sanhedrin took measures to strengthen Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. When asked by one of his disciples how the Jews were to atone for their sins now that the Temple was destroyed and expiatory animal sacrifices were no longer possible, Johanan replied by citing the prophet Hosea: "Do not fear, we now have charity as a substitute" (6:6). Johanan was joined by many of the leading sages of the time, and together they laid the ground for Judaism to continue as a faith independent of the Temple. Without relinquishing hope for the restoration of the Temple, they implicitly established a new scale of values, at whose pinnacle was the study of the Torah. At Jabneh the Jews truly became a People of the Book.[Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Upon Johanan's death in c. 80, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel II was appointed president of the Sanhedrin, and he continued the work of reorganizing the national and religious life of the Jewish people. Gamaliel frequently traveled to Rome, where he was greeted as the head of the Jewish nation, and he negotiated with Roman authorities with determination and skill. Under him the community of sages gathered at Jabneh established guidelines for Judaism as a religious faith and practice. Toward this end they elaborated a body of theological, legal, ritual, and ethical teachings that Gamaliel's grandson, Judah ha-Nasi (c. 138–c. 217) brought together in the Mishnah.

Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The Pharisees, whose name may have meant "separatists," were a group of religious lay leaders committed to the purification of Judaism through meticulous observance of moral and ceremonial laws. They supported the temple cult but were most uneasy about the usurpation of the high priesthood by one of non-priestly caste. More often they were identified with synagogues, the local autonomous gathering places of the masses, where prayer and study were conducted. In addition to the study of the scriptures, the Pharisees emphasized the teachings of the elders or oral tradition as a guide to religion. They professed belief in the resurrection of the body and in a future world where rewards and punishments were meted out according to man's behavior in this life. They believed in angels through whom revelations could come, and later were to develop a belief in a Messiah.3 They tended to view alliances with foreigners with suspicion. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, infidels.org ]

“The Sadducees were pro-Greek, aristocratic priests, whose interests were centered in the temple and the cultic rites. Their name was probably derived from Zadok, the famous priest of the time of David and Solomon (II Sam. 8:17;. 15:24; I Kings 1:34). Because the offices of high priest and governor were combined, the Sadducees tended to be deeply involved in high-level politics. Politically, they were committed to independence and to the concept of the theocratic state, as were most Jews. Although they were opposed to foreign domination, they did not object to the introduction of foreign elements into Jewish life. Like the Pharisees, they stressed the importance of observance of the Torah, but they rejected the authority of oral tradition. When confronted by situations not covered in the Torah, they enacted new laws. They rejected the Pharisaic doctrine of a resurrection and a future life and held to the older Jewish belief in Sheol. Nor did they accept the belief in angels.

The Essenes were a breakaway, apocalyptic Jewish sect that lived around the Dead Sea. Regarded as the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls, they moved to the desert to await the Messiah and believed in baptism and redemption. Since their monasteries were so close to John's baptismal site many believe they were early purveyors of Christianity. Most everything that is known about the Essenes has been derived from the Dead Sea scrolls.

From Pharisees to Rabbis

The leaders of the Pharisees evolved into rabbis Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Two thousand years ago, Jews were divided between competing sects all based on the Jewish scriptures, but with different interpretations. After the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., one main group, who called themselves “rabbis” — sages or teachers — began to dominate. What we now know as “Judaism” grew out of this group, technically called “Rabbinic Judaism.” [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Rabbinic Judaism believed that God gave Jewish teachings and scriptures to Moses at Mt. Sinai, but that they came in two parts: the “written law” or “written Torah” and the “oral law” or “oral Torah.” The oral Torah is a vast body of interpretations that expands upon the written Torah and is the source for most of the rules and theology of Rabbinic Judaism.

Fearful that these traditions might be lost, the early rabbis began the process of writing them down, culminating in two texts called the Mishna and the Talmud. This corpus became the foundation of rabbinic literature. The rabbis assured the Jews that although the temple’s destruction was devastating, Jews could continue to serve God through study, prayer and observing God’s commandments, called “mitzvot.” Someday, they promised, God would send the Messiah, a descendant of King David who would rebuild the temple and return the exiled Jews to the land of Israel.

Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai and the Triumph of Pharisaism

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: One man was able to make the Roman destruction of Jerusalem into a triumph. Before the city fell, Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai had himself carried out in a coffin. He went to the Roman camp and obtained the permission of its commander, Vespasian, to open a school for the study of Torah in the coastal town of Jamnia. This daring move enabled Judaism to survive; or more exactly, it established Pharisaism, rather the school of Hillel, as the foundation of all future forms of Judaism.[Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

Rabbi Johanan was joined by other rabbis. Under his presidency, the Great Bet Din (“House of Judgment”), a sort of supreme court or council, continued some of the functions of the extinct Sanhedrin. In the course of time it fixed the calendar and the canon of Scripture, from which it rejected the so-called Apocrypha — books contained in the Septuagint, such as Sirach, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees — as well as the Gospels and other "heretical" writings (see Moore, 1:186–187). The Great Bet Din had to tackle also the many problems arising from the fact that at least one third of Torah, the laws pertaining to Temple worship, could no longer be carried out. The groundwork was laid, therefore, for teachings such as these: study of the laws on sacrifice takes the place of the sacrifices themselves; God accepts the former as if the latter had been offered (see Pes. K 60b). Since the Temple was destroyed, prayer, "the service of the heart," acquired the atoning power that had resided in the institutions of old. "We have no prophet, no priest, no sacrifice, no sanctuary, no altar to help win forgiveness for us," R. Isaac mourned; "from the day the Temple was laid waste, nothing was left to us but prayer. Lord, hearken then, and forgive" (Midr. Teh. 5.7).

Under Johanan's successor, Gamaliel II, Jewish Christians were expelled from the Synagogue by an ingenious strategem. A curse on renegades, heretics, and Nazarenes (i.e., Christians) was introduced into the daily prayers: that they be without hope and stricken from the book of life. No follower of Christ could have repeated this imprecation without committing spiritual suicide.

Conflicts and Unrest in Jewish Religious Community in the A.D. 2nd Century

The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. found the Jews prepared to face the tragedy. A body of teachers and expositors of the Torah — the rabbis — was solidly in place. The synagogue, established in virtually every community, replaced the Temple as the focus of ritual and prayer. Led by Johanan ben Zakkai, the rabbis transferred many of the rites and ceremonies that had belonged to the Temple to the synagogue, where they were often recast as symbolic gestures. Sacrifices were replaced by acts of charity and repentance. The rabbis also recognized that, with the decentralization of religious authority, it was urgent to fix the biblical canon. Hitherto, aside from the Torah, the corpus of sacred writings had been fluid, with several competing versions. By the end of the first century the biblical text was sealed, with 31 books organized according to three parts — Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Hagiographa), collectively known by the acronym Tanakh. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Despite the efforts of the Sanhendrin to channel Jewish loyalties into a life of prayer and study, national feelings continued to erupt in revolts against Roman rule, both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel. In the early second century Jewish revolts broke out in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyprus, and the Land of Israel.When the emperor Hadrian disclosed plans to establish a Roman colony on the ruins of Jerusalem — to be called Aelia Capitolina in honor of himself, Aelius Hadrianus, and the god Jupiter Capitolinus — he provoked a war. Led by Simeon Bar Kokhba, the well-planned revolt, which broke out in 132, took the Romans by surprise. The Jewish rebels first liberated Jerusalem and then seized control of Judea and large parts of Galilee. Enthralled by Bar Kokhba's spectacular victories, many Jews, including Rabbi Akiva, widely regarded as the pre-eminent scholar of his generation, hailed him as the Messiah, and he was named the nasi (prince or president) of Judea. After three years, however, the revolt was suppressed, leaving 600,000 Jews dead in battle or from hunger and disease. Tens of thousands of others were sold into slavery, and many more, including scholars, fled the country. Judea was now empty of Jews.

The Sanhedrin was relocated to a small town in Galilee and through resolute leadership extended its authority throughout the Diaspora, where the majority of the Jews now lived. It retained the sole right to ordain rabbis, and emissaries were periodically dispatched to regulate the religious observances of the scattered communities and to collect a voluntary tax for the support of the Sanhedrin and its president. The Roman administration allowed the Sanhedrin to function as part of an implicit agreement that it act to restrain Jewish militants and national sentiments. During this period the Sanhedrin became not only a judicial but also a deliberative and legislative body, and its president, referred to by the Romans as the patriarch, served in effect as the chief executive of the Jewish people. In 420, however, the Romans withdrew their recognition of the patriarch and dissolved the Sanhedrin.

Pre-Rabbinic Age and the Rise of Oral Tradition

Louis Jacobs wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The period after the return from Babylon is shrouded in obscurity, but some of the main lines of development can be traced. Not later than the fifth century B.C. the Pentateuch had become the Torah, sacred Scripture, with the prophetic books and the books of the Hagiographa being added later on as holy writ. The process of canonization of the biblical books, other than the Pentateuch, was a lengthy one, the full acceptance of all 24 books which constitute the Hebrew Bible, taking place as late as the second century A.D. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

The concept of Torah was, of course, known in the earlier biblical period, but there it referred to groups of laws taught by the priests (Lev. 6:2, 7; 7:11, 37; 13:59; 14:2; 15:32; Num. 5:29–30; 6:13, 21) or to general "teaching" or "doctrine" (Isa. 2:3). In this period, for the first time, the new idea of the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch) as a sacred text came to the fore. The regular reading of the Torah in assembly began at this period. Out of these assemblies the synagogue and the whole system of public worship evolved. The reading of the Torah was accompanied by its exposition and its application to new situations.

It is commonly assumed that the notion of an Oral Law, as distinct from the Written Law, was the invention of the Pharisees in their determination to make Judaism viable by freeing it from the bonds of a text written down in former ages. It is said, further, that the Sadducees rejected the whole notion of an Oral Law. While it is undoubtedly true that the full development of the Oral Law idea was the work of the Pharisees, the issue must not be oversimplified. The Sadducees, too, must have had some traditions of Torah interpretation, if only because the literal reading of the Torah text cries out for further amplification. Buying and selling, for instance, are referred to in the Torah, but no indications are given there as to how the transfer of property is to be effected. There are references in the Torah to keeping the Sabbath, but hardly any indication of what is involved in Sabbath work. .

Persian, Greek and Messianic Influences

Louis Jacobs wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The two civilizations with which the Jews came into contact at this period, first the Persian then the Greek, made their influence felt on Jewish beliefs. Under Babylonian and Persian influence there came into Jewish life and thought the notion of angels as identifiable, sentient, but not necessarily corporeal beings, each with his own name: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and so forth.. The personification of the evil in the universe as Satan probably owes much to Persia, as do the beliefs in demons and the resurrection of the dead. It was probably under Greek influence that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul came into Judaism. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

The doctrine of the resurrection also established itself, possibly at the time of the Hasmoneans when young men were dying for their religion, so that the older solutions to the problem of suffering, in terms of worldly recompense, became increasingly untenable. There are no doubt indications of this belief in the earlier period, but it had not at that time obtained a complete foothold in the faith. Basically, the two beliefs of resurrection and the soul's immortality are contradictory. The one refers to a collective resurrection at the end of days, i.e., that the dead sleeping in the earth will arise from the grave, while the other refers to the state of the soul after the death of the body. When both ideas became incorporated into Judaism it was held that, when the individual died, his soul still lived on in another realm (this gave rise to all the beliefs regarding heaven and hell), while his body lay in the grave to await the physical resurrection of all the dead here on earth. However, the pronounced this-wordly emphasis of the early biblical period was not abandoned completely. This life was still held to be good in itself as a gift from God. But the thought took shape that, in addition, this life was a kind of school, a time of preparation for eternal life.

Toward the end of the Second Temple period, when ominous clouds of complete national catastrophe began to gather, the eschatological note was sounded particularly loudly. Speculations were rife regarding the end of days and hope for a new era to be ushered in by direct divine intervention. The doctrine of the Messiah and the messianic age, heralded by the prophets, was seen as a hope shortly to be realized. Some groups of Jews fled into the desert, there to await the coming of the Messiah, as is evidenced by the sect of Qumran (held by most scholars to be identical with the Essenes).

Affirming the Importance of Torah Study

One key aspect of the creation of Rabbinic Judaism was a reaffirmation of the importance of Torah study. The Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. According to traditional Jewish — and Christian — teachings, the Torah contains the revelation of God, written down by Moses. Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai 50 days after their exodus from Egyptian slavery. They believe that the Torah shows how God wants Jews to live. It contains 613 commandments and Jews refer to the ten best known of these as the ten statements

Louis Jacobs wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The study of the Torah is now the supreme religious duty, the closest approach to God, the Pharisaic form of the beatific vision. Typical is the saying in the Mishnah (Pe'ah 1:1): "These are the things whose fruits a man enjoys in this world while the capital is laid up for him in the world to come: honoring father and mother, deeds of lovingkindness, making peace between a man and his fellow; but the study of the Torah is equal to them all." [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

When a rabbi took an unduly long time over his prayers it was not considered incongruous for his colleague to rebuke him: "They neglect eternal life [Torah study] and engage in temporal existence [prayer]" (Shab. 10a). Only such devotion to Torah study can explain the remarkable ruling in the Mishnah (bm 2:11): "If a man is called upon to seek the lost property of his father and that of his teacher, his teacher's comes first — for his father only brought him into this world but his teacher, that taught him wisdom, brings him into the world to come; but if his father was also a sage, his father's comes first.

If his father and his teacher each bore a burden, he must first relieve his teacher and afterward his father. If his father and his teacher were taken captive, he must first ransom his teacher and afterward his father; but if his father was also a sage he must first ransom his father and afterward ransom his teacher." The reference to wisdom in this passage comes at the end of a long process in which wisdom no longer means, as it does in the Bible, worldly knowledge and practical philosophy but the wisdom of the Torah. Moreover, Torah is no longer the province of the priest but the heritage of all the people.

Creation of the Talmud

As important as the Torah is, the thing that marked the true creation of Rabbinic Judaism was the creation of the Talmud. Also known as the Gemara, the Talmud is a running commentary on The Torah written by rabbis (called amoraim, or "explainers") from the third to the fifth centuries A.D. in Palestine and Babylonia. The work of the former is called the Jerusalem Talmud and the latter the Babylonian Talmud, which is generally regarded as the more authoritative of the two

The Mishnah: is the written text of the Talmud.. The Midrash is commentary on the Scriptures, both Halakhic (legal) and Aggadic (narrative), originally in the form of sermons or lectures The Aggadah nonlegal, narrative portions of the Talmud and Mishna, includes history, folklore, and other subjects. The Halakhah legal portions of the Talmud as later elaborated in rabbinic literature; in an extended sense it denotes the ritual and legal prescriptions governing the traditional Jewish way of life

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: At the turn of the 1st Christian century, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, then head of the Great Bet Din, gathered the oral traditions and probably had them put into writing. The compilation was named mishnah for the method applied, i.e., repetition; it contained the important halakic (legal) teachings of the preceding generations of rabbis, the Tannaim, or traditioners. The Mishnah soon became the standard work of study and investigation in the academies of Palestine and Babylon. The men who commented on it, the Amoraim, or expositors, produced the gemarah, or completion. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

Both, Mishnah and Gemarah, make up the Talmud, which is, therefore, basically halakic. Haggadic material, however (see haggadah), i.e., spiritual and moral reflections, together with practical counsels, metaphysical speculations, historical narratives, legends, scientific observations, etc., appear in it as well. The Talmud was completed at the end of the 4th century in Galilee and a century later in Babylonia; hence the two versions, the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds. The Talmud is not the only compilation of rabbinic thought. There are, e.g., collections of haggadic commentaries on the Biblical books, the Midrashim.

Complexity, Vaugeness and Confusion in The Talmud

The Talmud exists in two forms. The first was finalised around the A.D. 3rd century in Palestine — the Palestinian, or Jerusalem, Talmud — , and the second and superior version — the Babylonian Talmud — was completed during the A.D. 5th century in Babylon.

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: What makes the understanding of the Talmud difficult is that it is a code of laws, a case book, and a digest of discussions and disputes that went on among various rabbis; interspersed are reflections of every kind; its contents are at times as motley as a daily newspaper. Now and then the opinions recorded are dissimilar or even contradictory. Quite often, the rabbis consider a man ignorant of the Law unworthy of trust, unreliable as witness in a court, unfit to be an orphan's protector. Yet the compilers of the Talmud rejoice in telling of the power a simple man has in heaven. During a drought, Honi (1st century B.C.) drew a circle around himself and said to God, "I swear by Your great name that I will not budge from here until You have mercy upon Your children," and rain fell (Ta’an. 23a). Moreover, the Talmud engages in a great deal of casuistry, and all casuistry tends to be tortured; still, in admonishing its readers not to wrong another man through words, it calls moral demands that cannot be codified "things entrusted to the heart" (Bava Metzia 58b). [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

So great is the occasional contrast between rabbinical statements that, in one place, it can be said that the nations' charity is but sin since they practice it for no other reason than to boast; in another, that the Holy Spirit rests on a man, be he Gentile or Jew, according to his deeds. Many rabbinic sayings are, therefore, tentative or are located in a definite situation so that evaluation of rabbinic thought is a special science, indeed, an art. It is not only the variety of opinions recorded in the Talmud and other rabbinical literature that hamper their appreciation, but also the style — succinct, telegraphic, often bare to the bone — makes the Talmud inaccessible without a guide. Such guidance was provided by the heads of the two leading rabbinic academies of Babylonia, titled Geonim, "illustrious ones." From the 6th to the 11th centuries their authority was supreme all over Babylonia — which in the meantime had become the center of all Jewry — and thus, for most of that time, in other countries as well. Yet at the very moment the rule of talmudic Judaism seemed unassailable, it was contested by the Karaites, schismatics who, in the 8th century, repudiated the entire rabbinic tradition.

Challenges and Influences of Christianity and Other Religions

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: From the time of Judaism's contact with Zoroastrianism, faith in the unity of God had to be defended against dualistic theories that there were two gods, one of light and goodness, the other of darkness and evil. With the rise of Christianity the challenge came from the doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity. These challenges took the place of the polytheism and idolatry of the earlier biblical period, though, of course, idolatry continued to exist in the form of the Greek and Roman gods, and made polemics and legislation against avodah zarah ("strange worship") all but academic. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

The establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine (ruled 306–37) marked a turning point in the life of Western Jewry. Christians had an ambivalent attitude toward Jews. On the one hand, Jews were the people from whose midst Jesus and the first apostles of the church came, and they were the living custodians of the Old Testament, which contained the prophecies of the advent of Jesus as the Messiah. On the other hand, Jews were despised for rejecting Jesus.

Despite the resulting history of antagonism, which often occasioned discrimination and persecution, there was also a rich cultural exchange. Early Christians adopted many Jewish beliefs and practices. The Gregorian chants of the Orthodox Church, for instance, are said to bear traces of the music of the Temple, and the structure of the Christian liturgy and many of its prayers are derived from Judaism, as is the practice of baptism. Medieval Jewish scholars took Greek philosophy, a knowledge of which they had acquired under the tutelage of Islamic sages, to Christian Europe. In turn, Christianity exercised an influence on popular Jewish religious practices, music, folklore, and thought, especially mysticism.

Divisions in Rabbinic Judaism Emerge

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: There were tensions in Rabbinic Judaism from the outset. For example, starting in the Middle Ages, a Jewish group called the Karaites challenged the rabbis’ authority by rejecting the oral Torah. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Even within the rabbinic tradition, there were regular disagreements: between mystics and rationalists, for example; debates over people claiming to be the messiah; and differences in customs between regions, from medieval Spain to Poland to Yemen.

Still, Rabbinic Judaism remained a more or less united religious community for some 1,500 years — until the 19th century. Around that time, Jews began to experience emancipation in many parts of Europe, acquiring equal citizenship where they had previously constituted a separate, legal community. Meanwhile, thousands — eventually millions — of Jews moved to the United States, which likewise offered equal citizenship.

These freedoms brought opportunity, but also new challenges. Traditionally, Judaism was based on Jewish autonomy — communities governed by rabbinic law — and taking the truth of its beliefs for granted. Political emancipation challenged the first, while Enlightenment ideas challenged the second. Jews were now free to choose what to believe and how to practice Judaism, if at all, at a time when they were experiencing widespread exposure to competing ideas.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s; Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, Encyclopedia Britannica; Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023

Last updated February 2024

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