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Overview: The Age of the Rabbis: The Formative Years (circa 70- 3rd century CE)

Yavneh-YamWhen the Sages assembled in the vineyard in Yavneh, they said-

In the future a person might seek teachings of the Torah, and cannot find them; or seek out the words of the Sages, and not find them…Or, the teachings of Torah may be confused, and not consistent.

They said- Let us begin from Hillel and Shammai… –Tosefta Eduyot 1-1

The destruction of Jerusalem, Judaea and most significantly the Temple created a spiritual vacuum of massive proportions. While in the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE, the Psalmist could ask, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” after the loss of the Temple the Jews of Palestine lived in their own land as foreigners, often as sharecroppers and tenants. With the Temple in ruins, the Jews had reason to ask if God had finally abandoned them?

A community of Sages that came to the outlying towns and villages of Judaea thought not. Rabbinic literature remembers the historic struggle of these rabbis to maintain and preserve Judaism in the wake of catastrophe. These Sages, who saw themselves as the spiritual and sometimes biological descendants of the Second Temple period Pharisees, believed that God had transmitted His teachings and authority directly to them. The Rabbis taught that they inherited teachings that reached back to the theophany at Sinai itself—passing on the mantle of Torah from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, to the Biblical Judges and Prophets, and finally to a group of prophets and sages of the Persian period, the “Men of the Great Assembly.” At that point, this process continued through the great Sages of the Second Temple period, most prominently Gamaliel (famous from the trial of Jesus in the New Testament), Hillel, Shammai, and Yohanan son of Zakkai.

These ancient rabbis (late first-sixth centuries C.E.) developed the notion that the revelation at Mt. Sinai consisted of two complementary parts—the written Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah was believed to provide the interpretations and explanations that make God’s written revelation applicable to life in every age. In turn, this Oral Torah is traditionally divided between law (halakhah) and lore (aggadah). H.N. Bialik (1873-1934) writes that “like ice and water, Halakhah and Aggadah are really two things in one, two facets of the same entity.” Now known by the title “Rabbis,” these leaders first assembled tentatively in small groups and in places like Yavneh, Lod and Bnei Braq in the Judaean lowlands to recite and organize traditional knowledge, to expand it and to assert their leadership in an age without the Temple. The Rabbis developed the contours of what we now sometimes call “Rabbinic Judaism,” designed to preserve Judaism during an undefined period called zeman ha-zeh, the imperfect age between the destruction of Jerusalem and the messianic redemption. By the latter half of the second century, the Rabbis were widely acknowledged by Jews and Romans alike as the religious elite of Jewish Palestine, and perhaps beyond. Their stellar composition, the Mishnah, redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince around 200 CE, organized early rabbinic traditions in conceptual units, easy to memorize and to transmit, yet flexible enough to apply to a new and expanding age.

By the third century CE, Palestinian and Babylonian Rabbis were commenting on the Mishnah itself. These commentaries developed into the Talmud of the Land of Israel during the fourth century, and the Babylonian Talmud by the sixth century. The rabbinic literature in the Land of Israel during this period included expansive translations of Scripture into Aramaic (targumim), massive and diverse midrashic texts, and exquisite liturgical writings (piyyutim). An intellectual religious elite that thrived within the Babylonian, Persian, and the Greco-Roman worlds, the Rabbis of this formative age set the contours of Judaism for the generations.

Posted in: The Rabbis

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