the Land of IsraelEven before the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E., Jewish communities had been established outside Israel. The Second Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., however, carried the Jews to the far corners of the settled world and established the “Diaspora” (Greek for “dispersion”) as the proper description of the Jewish condition. No longer was there an independent national home to which one could turn or return. Given that situation, the very existence of an historical entity called the “Jewish people” is placed in doubt, and one must first note the legitimacy of the subject of inquiry.

The argument for peoplehood begins with the unity that Jews themselves felt. This Jewish cohesiveness over the centuries of the Diaspora is no mystery. Jewish communities from Spain to India, from Yemen to Germany, shared as much as each group had in common with its immediate neighbors. Their basic religious patterns and cultural references had been established centuries earlier, when the Jewish world was compact. The structure and the primary texts of both prayer and law were a shared inheritance. Hebrew, though no longer spoken, united the people both through the classic texts and as a language of written communication.

Perhaps most important, all Jews understood their existence in terms of an identical past-future axis. The beginnings were the same, preserved in the Biblical records. The future, too, was the same, as set down in the visions of the prophets and the rabbis. Nor was the present devoid of national unity. Wherever Jews went, they would find a similar relationship to the outside world- exclusion from the outside in, seclusion from the inside out. Times were sometimes good and sometimes bad, but whatever the fate, it was shared. A crisis in one part of the world would often bring help from afar. Occasionally, the flowing lines of communication were sadly augmented by local or national expulsions.

It was the literature of the Diaspora, which became diversified, though not according to geographical areas. As time passed and numbers grew, there arose a need for new literary genres. Among them there were three primarily internal developments- law, prayer, and commentaries. The first, the law, initially grew through explanations of the Talmud and through written responses to questions. Later, law entered the continuing stage of collection and codification. Prayer had achieved set form, practices, and even wording early in the Diaspora period, and subsequent development was limited to relatively minor changes of text and occasional original prayers from community to community. Organized commentaries, on both the Bible and the Talmud, were the results of continuing study and teaching throughout the Jewish world.

Other literary genres were “Judaized” through a process of adoption and adaptation from other cultures. The Middle Ages witnessed the birth and flowering of Jewish philosophy, encouraged by reading the great Greek philosophers, as preserved in Arabic translation. Poetry took root and thrived in the Diaspora, in each case influenced by the immediate cultural surroundings. Other new forms of literature arose, each bearing its own fascination, including accounts of travel, ethical treatises, and letters.

The leadership of the people became principally a local matter, though there were exceptions. Ironically, the dispersion created situations whereby truly outstanding scholars could gain (though often posthumously) international fame and authority. Thus, in retrospect, the names of great scholars, law authorities, and commentators such as “Rashi,” “Maimonides,” and “Nachmanides” seem both to support the history of their times and to stand above them as well.

The outstanding fact of this period, which can be dated from the completion of the Talmud in the sixth century to Emancipation in the late eighteenth century, remained the dispersion itself. The Jews were spread across the face of the world, organized in separate if similar communities. It is not overly difficult to conceive of a continuing relationship of the people to its God even in such circumstances, but what of the Land? How did the people relate to that territory while away so long? The sources bear witness to a difficult, internal struggle as the people tried to hold on to both the dream and the reality of the Land.

The Diaspora—A Chronology


590 In Babylonia, inception of leadership through “Geonim” (outstanding Jewish scholars of the day). Babylonian academies dominate the Jewish world.

614-622 Persian domination in Israel.

622-634 Renewed Byzantine (Roman) domination.

634-1099 Arab period. Jerusalem taken, 638.

1099 Jerusalem captured by Crusaders.

1187-9 Jerusalem captured by Saladin.

1291-1516 Mameluk (Egyptian Moslem dynasty) domination over Israel.

1516 Israel captured by Turks, beginning of Ottoman rule.

1541 Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem.

1665-1666 Shabbtai Tsvi proclaims himself Messiah, and is accepted by many; converts to Islam.

1799 Napoleon’s campaign in the Middle East.


c. 850 First prayer book published.

c. 900 Daniel el-Kumisi in Israel.

921 Dispute between rabbis in Israel and Babylonia over right to set the annual religious calendar.

1075-1141 Yehuda Halevi, poet.

1135-1204 Maimonides, philosopher.

1210 Settlement in Israel of three hundred French and English rabbis.

1267 Nachmanides arrives in Israel.

1313 Estory Haparchi arrives. First geography of Israel.

1538 Renewal of rabbinic ordination in Safed.

c.1550-1625 Renewal of rabbinic ordination in Safed.

1561 Joseph Nasi leases Tiberius from Turkish sultan.

1700 Yehuda Hechasid and his followers arrive in Jerusalem.

1777 Large Hassidic group settles in Galilee.

1797 Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s trip to Israel.

1808 Disciples of Elijah Gaon of Vilna settle in Jerusalem.