Rav Sherira Gaon, who wrote in ca. 987, provides an idealized account of the history of the tannaitic movement from the time of Hillel and Shammai up to the generation before Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah. Sherira pictures the Rabbis as solving all problems and resolving all doubts, a view difficult to accept in light of the state of tannaitic literature and talmudic descriptions of amoraic debate.
The early sages were not known by their names, except for the nesi’im and the presidents of the bet din, 91 because there were no disputes among them. Instead, they knew clearly all the explanations of the Torah. They also knew the Talmud 92 clearly, with all its detailed discussions and inferences….
As long as the Temple was standing, each one of the sages taught his students the explanations of Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, using words which he composed for the occasion; and the sages would render halakhic decisions for their students as they saw fit. Wisdom was abundant, and they were not troubled by other distractions. Only the semikhah controversy 93 existed among the early sages. And when Shammai and Hillel came, they, too, only argued on three points, as we say- “Rav Huna said- ‘Shammai and Hillel were in disagreement on three issues.’” 94
When the Temple was destroyed, the sages moved to Betar, 95 and when Betar was also destroyed, they dispersed in every direction. On account of all these upheavals, persecutions, and disturbances, the students did not serve the sages sufficiently, 96 and disputes increased.
After the death of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, 97 Rabban Gamliel 98 as well as Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus were still alive as were others from the earlier period. Nevertheless, the disputes between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel took place. And although the House of Shammai was overruled, and it was established that the halakhah follows the House of Hillel, there still were other disputes in the time of Rabban Gamliel [such as] those between Rabbi Eliezer… and Rabbi Joshua. Both these sages were former students of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai….
Second to them, [in] that they were [first] students but [later] became related to them both as students and as colleagues, were Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer ha-Moda’i, Rabbi Judah ben Bava, and Rabbi Ishmael. Moreover, at that time Rabbi Judah was in Nisibis. 99 Although he was there during the Temple period, he was also there after the Destruction. The reprieve after the destruction of the Temple was an important time, for the sages then convened in order to retrieve the laws that were nearly lost in the turmoil and persecutions and as a result of the strife between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel.
There were many sages at that time. Some of them had seats in the House of Study and others sat before them. On the day when Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was inaugurated as nasi, we say in Tractate Berakhot- 100 “That day, many seats were added to the House of Study. Rabbi Yohanan said- ‘Abba Yose ben Dustai and the sages disagree. One says that four hundred seats were added, and one says seven hundred.’” If so many were added, certainly many more were there originally.
Rabbi Akiva sacrificed his life after the death of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma; and then Rabbi Hannina ben Teradion was executed. 101 The wisdom of the sages decreased after the passing [of these great men]. Rabbi Akiva had trained many students, but there was a persecution against the students of Rabbi Akiva [and they died]. 102 Thus, the authority over Israel was entrusted to his latter students…. 103
During that generation, 104 Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel was nasi. Rabbi Nathan came up from Babylonia and served as av bet din…. Rabbi Meir was the wisest sage of the generation- “When Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nathan entered the house of study, the entire academy stood before them.” 105 That generation also had many great sages constantly promulgating Torah…. 106
During all these years [the sages] clarified all the laws which had been left unresolved in the academies due to the great loss that took place because of the Temple’s destruction and the unresolved halakhic questions that had arisen during those troubled and confused times. All the halakhic disputes that had come into existence during those three generations were decided. The individual and majority opinions were made known after our sages had diligently and completely analyzed and investigated them. They thoroughly examined all the traditions and mishnayot 107 in order to establish the correct version. They did not add to the earlier teachings of the Men of the Great Assembly. But they toiled mightily and examined the material until they understood what the earlier masters had said and had practiced. Thus they finally resolved all their doubts.
90. Trans. N. D. Rabinowich,The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon (Jerusalem- Moznaim, 1988), pp. 4-14.
91. The Rabbinic court.
92. The explanation of the oral traditions in their possession.
93. About a detail of the procedure for sacrificing the festival offering. See text 10.1.1.
94. Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 14b. The three controversies concerned the minimum quantity of dough requiring the separation of the priests’ portion (hallah), the amount of drawn water poured into a ritual bath that might render it unfit, and the determination of the onset of menstruation for observance of the purity laws.
95. The stronghold of Bar Kokhba.
96. The intricate details of the law were not studied thoroughly enough and some were even forgotten.
97. Who led the sages after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
98. Rabban Gamliel II of Yavneh became nasi and the leading sage after Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai ca. 80 C.E.
99. A city in the northeast comer of Mesopotamia.
100. Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 28a.
101. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-5 C.E.
102. This passage has given rise to the view that Rabbi Akiva’s students died at the hands of the Romans as a result of their participation in the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
103. Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b.
104. Thesecond generation of tannaim after the destruction of the Temple.
105. Babylonian Talmud Horayot 13b.
106. Here Rav Sherira Gaon lists twenty-six prominent sages.
107. Paragraphs of the Mishnah.