Daily Life Culture of the Rabbis (3rd – 7th century CE)


Qumran Phylactery (Tefillin)

Qumran Phylactery (Tefillin)

The Daily Life of the Jew

The rabbis sought to sanctify all of man’s actions, even the most mundane. Accordingly, it was expected that such matters as personal hygiene and dress would come under the halakhah as well as matters usually understood as “religious” in the modern sense. Jews were expected to begin their day by washing their hands, a practice that was meant to purify them any impurities they might have contracted during sleep. Clothing was to be modest, especially in the case of women. Certain clothing and haircuts were excluded because of their pagan associations.

Men were expected to have the biblically mandated fringes (tsitsit) on their garments, as reminders of the obligation to observe the commandments. The fringes included the sky- blue fringe coiled around the others, the dye for which ceased to be available after talmudic times. Throughout the tannaitic and amoraic periods, such garments were part of the normal garb of Jews. It was only later that they evolved into specific ritual or prayer garments, such as the modern tallit (prayer shawl).

The tefillin (phylacteries), leather boxes bound with thongs to the arm and head, contained parchments inscribed with biblical passages interpreted by the rabbis as dealing with the requirement of wearing tefillin (Exod. 13-1–10, 11–16; Deut. 6-4–9, 11-13–21). The tefillin were put on in accord with the rabbinic interpretation of the very same passages and were intended to symbolize the notion that a man’s actions and thoughts should all be harnessed to do the will of his Creator. Despite certain theoretical debates, the amoraim saw the fringed garments and phylacteries as the garb of men, not women. The tefillin were originally worn by the pious all day, but in rabbinic times were evolving into prayer accoutrements for male Jews. Phylacteries have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

By tannaitic times there had evolved a series of benedictions to be recited while getting up and dressing in the morning. They were intended to thank God for providing for the day-to-day needs of His creatures. (Much later, in the Middle Ages, these benedictions were grouped together and placed at the start of the morning service.)

The Jew was to pray three times daily. In tannaitic tradition the Shema (Deut. 6-4–9, 11-13–21, Num. 15-37–41) and the benedictions surrounding it were to be recited both morning and night, but they were still not integrally connected with the Amidah (the Eighteen Benedictions), recited morning, afternoon, and night. The morning and afternoon Amidah prayers were considered to be required, since they were recited at the same time as the two daily sacrifices and, after the destruction, came to be regarded as replacements for them. The tannaim debated whether the evening Amidah was obligatory or not. By the end of the amoraic period, both in Palestine and Babylonia, the Shema unit (the Shema and its benedictions) was associated with the Amidah unit, so that the system of daily prayer consisted of services based on the Shema and its benedictions followed by the Amidah in the morning, the Amidah alone in the afternoon, and the sequence of Shema with benedictions and Amidah again in the evening. In amoraic times, the morning benedictions had already been expanded to include the blessings on the Torah and a variety of other passages, and the preliminary psalms had been fixed at the beginning of the morning service.

The obligation to recite the entire Amidah was only in the process of being fixed in tannaitic times. Some tannaim believed that abbreviated texts might be recited instead. The decision to require all eighteen benedictions was made only in the amoraic period. Moreover, at Yavneh, soon after the destruction of the Temple, an imprecation against heretics, including the Jewish Christians (Birkat Ha-Minim), was inserted into the Amidah. It was intended to exclude them from leading the services, since no one would recite a prayer against himself. Other adjustments to the text were still occurring in the tannaitic period, but order and contents of the benedictions were certainly fixed by the end of the tannaitic era.

It was in the amoraic period that the supplicatory prayer (Tahanun) recited after the Amidah at the morning and afternoon services were introduced. Torah readings, however, were central to the service by tannaitic times, taking place on Mondays and Thursdays, the market days when people assembled in the towns, and on Sabbath mornings and afternoons, as well as on holidays and special occasions.

The tannaim outlined a detailed set of benedictions to be recited before and after eating (a full meal had to begin with the eating of bread). The benedictions after eating were in accord with the Torah’s command, “You shall eat, be satisfied and bless the Lord your God” (Deut. 8-10), but the rabbis required benedictions before partaking of food as well. They reasoned that man owed a debt of gratitude to the Creator which had to be discharged before eating; one had to praise God and acknowledge His gift of sustenance to be entitled to partake. The text of the Grace after Meals from the rabbinic period has not come down to us, but evidence indicates that the basic structure known from later
texts was already in effect in tannaitic times. Most rabbis took the view that while the specific obligations of daily worship applied only to men, reciting the benedictions on food was equally incumbent on women, since they too benefited from God’s bounty.

In rabbinic times, although women took a substantial role in economic life, their primary responsibility was that of mother and wife. For this reason, the tannaim distanced women from a small number of commandments which had specific time requirements, such as prayer at fixed times, hearing the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, and dwelling in the sukkah. Amoraic sources maintain that these commandments may be performed by women but are not obligatory for them. Over time, it became customary for women to perform most of these commandments. When the values and customs of the era in which the Talmud developed are taken into account, and especially when the surrounding societies are compared, Rabbinic Judaism is certainly seen to have accorded an elevated and respectful status to women. The differing roles assigned by halakhah to men and women had their basis in a view which saw male and female as complementary, not competitive, aspects of humanity. In the same way, rabbinic aggadah depicted God in both male and female terms.

The system of prayers and benedictions was meant to give sanctity to the life of the Jew, but rituals were by no means the totality of Rabbinic Judaism. Also required, and often stressed in tannaitic sources, was equal attention to the commandment pertaining to relations between man and his fellow man. These were enshrined in the many commercial, civil, and criminal laws as well as in the mishnaic tractate Avot, known in English as Ethics of the Fathers, in reality a guide for the rabbis on the conduct becoming their station and role as judges. Aspects of modesty in behavior, respect for one’s parents, spouse, and other people, and similar topics are treated in great detail by tannaim and amoraim, both in halakhic and aggadic contexts. The Jew was to live a holy life each and every minute of the day, “walking humbly” with God (Micah 6-8), and loving and respecting others.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.


Primary Sources

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