Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity

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RABBINIC JUDAISM IN LATE ANTIQUITY . In its formative period, 70640 ce, rabbinic Judaism forged a synthesis between two antithetical phenomena in the religion of Israel: first, the messianic movement, with its stress on history's meaning and end, and second, the priestly component, with its interest in enduring and ahistorical natural life, celebrated in the cult. Starting with the Mishnah, the systematic expression of the priestly viewpoint, composed in the aftermath of the two great messianic wars against Rome (6673 and 132135), the rabbis of late antiquity so reconstructed the Mishnah's system of law and theology as to join to that system the long-standing messianic and historical emphases. Rabbinic Judaism thus presents a way of life of order and regularity, lived out beyond the disturbances of one-time events of history, but in which Jews looked forward to the end of time and the coming of the Messiah. That is, as a result of their adhering to that same, permanent, holy way of life, the Messiah would come. The thesis of historical and teleological messianism generated its antithesis, the Mishnaic system of the everyday celebration of eternal things, which then fused into the rabbinic synthesis, legal-messianic Judaism as it has been known from late antiquity to the present time.


By Judaism is meant a worldview and way of life held by a group of Jews, defining the holiness of their people. Any kind of Judaism will draw upon the Hebrew scriptures (the "Old Testament"), usually called Tanakh, an acronym standing for Torah (Law), Neviʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Every kind selects and interprets a particular part of the Hebrew scriptures.

Late antiquity refers to the first six centuries of the common era, from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce to the Muslim conquest of the Near and Middle East about 640 ce. The countries in which rabbinic Judaism took shape and flourished were the Land of Israel (Erets Yisraʾel, i.e., "Palestine") under Roman, then Byzantine, rule (from before the first century ce to the Muslim conquest nearly seven centuries later) and Babylonia, part of the western satrapies of the Iranian empire (to about 225 under the Parthians, an Iranian people of the northeast; from about 225 to the Muslim conquest, under the Sasanids, an Iranian dynasty from the province of Fars).

As to sources, rabbinic Judaism is known from documents created in the period under discussion: the Mishnah (c. 200 ce) and the two Talmuds (one produced in Babylonia about 500 ce, the other in the Land of Israel a century earlier), which in form constitute commentaries to the Mishnah. Other important rabbinic documents of the time include commentaries on parts of the Hebrew scripturesin particular Mekhiltaʾ, for Exodus; Sifraʾ, for Leviticus ; and Sifrei, for Numbers and Deuteronomy and Bereʾshit Rabbah and Vayiqraʾ Rabbah, compilations of exegeses on Genesis and Leviticus. The Jewish prayer book (siddur ) and certain mystical writings come down from this same period. They clearly relate to the larger rabbinic form of Judaism. But the precise definition of that relationship has not been fully clarified.

The adjective rabbinic before the noun Judaism signifies a kind of Judaism named after its principal kind of leader, a rabbi, a supernatural sage. The definition of rabbi shifts in ancient times. The title itself was originally quite neutral, and not unique to Jews. It means simply "My lord," and hence no more than Monsieur or Mein Herr. When Jesus was called "rabbi," the term was equivalent to teacher or master, Sir. Rabbis in the Mishnah, figures of the first and second centuries, generally give opinions about trivial legal matters; they were considered sages but were never represented as wonder-workers. Representations of rabbis in documents from the third century onward, including discussion of first- and second-century figures in those later documents, by contrast present the rabbi as a supernatural figure. The rabbi then emerges as a lawyer-magician, or supernatural judge-sage-mystic. Accordingly, through the centuries the title rabbi has come to refer solely to a distinctive amalgam, within the Jewish nation, of learning, piety, and holiness or supernatural power, associated with the sages of the Talmud and related writings.

"Rabbinic Judaism," then, is the worldview and way of life applied to the Jewish nation by rabbis. The Judaism under discussion also is called "Talmudic," after its principal literary documents. It may be called "classical" or "normative" in reference to its definitive character from its own day to today. In Talmudic times, however, the conception of a systematic-ism, a Judaism, is not attested in the rabbinical literature. Outsiders, coming after the fact, identify and name a religion. That an abstract system was perceived and named is not likely. One cannot isolate a word, or a concept to be presented by a single word, for "Judaism." The closest verbal symbol for this kind of Judaism is Torah. A sage became a rabbi because he knew Torah in the right way, having learned under proper auspices and having given ample evidence of accurate mastery and correct interpretation of the Torah.

It follows that the definitive trait of rabbinic Judaism is stress upon Torah. In fact, one may define the character of this kind of Judaism within three elements: holy faith, holy man, holy way of life. Thus, first is emphasis upon the doctrine of the dual revelation to Moses at Sinai, a written Torah (the Pentateuch) and an oral Torah. Second comes belief in the leadership of the sage, or rabbi (in context, "My lord"). Third is stress upon doing the will of God through study of Torah under the guidance of sages and upon living the holy way of life laid down in the Torah as interpreted by rabbis.

The Myth

This article will now consider in detail the definitive symbolic structure of rabbinic Judaism, as it emerges from late antiquity. The central myth of classical Judaism is the belief that the ancient scriptures constituted divine revelation, but only a part of it. At Sinai God had handed down a dual revelation: the written part known to one and all, but also the oral part preserved by the great scriptural heroes, passed on by prophets to various ancestors in the obscure past and finally, and most openly and publicly, handed down to the rabbis who created the Talmuds. The "whole Torah" thus consisted of both written and oral parts. The rabbis taught that the "whole Torah" was studied by sages of every period in Israelite history from Moses to the present. It is a singular, linear conception of a revelation preserved only by the few but pertaining to the many, and in time capable of bringing salvation to all.

The Torah myth further regards Moses as "our rabbi." It holds that whoever embodies the teachings of "Moses, our rabbi," thereby conforms to the will of God, and not to God's will alone but also to his way. In heaven God and the angels study Torah just as rabbis do on earth. God dons phylacteries like a Jew. He prays in the rabbinic mode. He carries out the acts of compassion called for by Judaic ethics. He guides the affairs of the world according to the rules of Torah, just as he does the rabbi in his court. One exegesis of the creation legend taught that God had looked into the Torah and therefrom had created the world.

The myth of Torah is multidimensional. It includes the striking detail that whatever the most recent rabbi is destined to discover through proper exegesis of the tradition is as much a part of the way revealed to Moses as is a sentence of scripture itself. It therefore is possible to participate even in the giving of the law by appropriate, logical inquiry into the law. God himself, studying and living by Torah, is believed to subject himself to these same rules of logical inquiry. If an earthly court overrules the testimony, delivered through miracles, of the heavenly one, God would rejoice, crying out, "My sons have conquered me! My sons have conquered me."

This is a mythical-religious system in which earth and heaven correspond to one another, with Torah as the nexus and model of both. The heavenly paradigm is embodied upon earth. Moses "our rabbi" is the pattern for the ordinary sage. And God himself participates in the system, for it is his image that, in the end, forms that cosmic paradigm. The faithful Jew constitutes the projection of the divine on earth. Honor is due to the learned rabbi more than to the scroll of the Torah, for through his learning and logic he may alter the very content of Mosaic revelation. He is Torah, not merely because he lives by it but because at his best he forms as compelling an embodiment of the heavenly model as does a Torah scroll itself.

The final and generative element in the rabbinic Torah myth concerns salvation. It takes many forms. One salvific teaching holds that had Israel not sinnedthat is, disobeyed the Torahthe scriptures would have closed with the story of the conquest of Palestine. From that eschatological time, the sacred community would have lived in eternal peace under the divine law. Keeping the Torah was therefore the veritable guarantee of salvation. The opposite is said in many forms as well. Israel had sinned; therefore, God had called the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem; but in his mercy he would be equally faithful to restore the fortunes of the people when they, through their suffering and repentance, had expiated the result and the cause of their sin.

So, in both negative and positive forms, the Torah myth tells of a necessary connection between the salvation of the people and of the world and the state of Torah among them. For example, if all Israel would properly keep two Sabbaths, the Messiah would come. Of special interest here is the rabbinic saying that the rule of the pagans depends upon the sin of Israel. If Israel would constitute a full and complete replication of "Torah"that is, of heaventhen pagan rule would come to an end. When Israel makes itself worthy through its embodiment of Torahthat is, through its perfect replication of the heavenly way of livingthen the end will come.

The Mishnah's Layer of Rabbinic Judaism

The history of the Judaism expressed in this Torah myth is obscured by the superficially uniform character of the rabbinic compilations of late antiquity. All of them, early and late, appear to wish to say pretty much the same thing. It goes without saying that each rabbinic document finds in scripture ample precedent for its own viewpoint. That is why they all look alike. The documents, moreover, are collective, bearing the names of many authorities in common. Accordingly, when turning to the sources for the viewpoint just now outlined, one finds it everywhere. So it is difficult to trace the history of the ideas shared in common by them. Yet that is not entirely the case, for there is one rabbinic document of late antiquity, the Mishnah, that stands apart from the rest. It ignores scripture and the need for proof-texts, on the one side, and it omits reference to the Torah myth as the critical symbolic element, on the other.

The Mishnah is the first document of rabbinic Judaism, and it constitutes the foundation for the two Talmuds and the law of Judaism thereafter. The Mishnah rarely cites a scriptural proof-text for any of its propositions, even when the laws simply rephrase in the Mishnah's own language the facts supplied by scripture. Except for the tractate Avot, distinct in language and character, the Mishnah finds no room in its definitive constructionthat is, in the formation of its principal divisions, let alone in its subdivisions (tractates) and their chaptersfor extended discussion on the matter of the study of Torah, the place of the sage in the heavenly-earthly continuum, and those other propositions definitive of the Judaism that rests upon the Mishnah.

That is not to say the Mishnah knows nothing of the priority of learning. On the contrary, here and there are found explicit statements that the sage takes precedence. But the issue is this-worldly, not a matter of supernatural consequence, as is the case in equivalent allegations in Talmudic and later writings. An instance of the Mishnah's phrasing of the matter is in Horayot 3.5, followed by the Tosefta's gloss of the passage:

A priest takes precedence over a Levite, a Levite over an Israelite, an Israelite over a mamzer, a mamzer over a natin, a natin over a proselyte, a proselyte over a freed slave. Under what circumstances? When all of them are equivalent [in other regards]. But if the mamzer was a disciple of a sage, and a high priest was an ignoramus, the mamzer who is a disciple of a sage takes precedence over a high priest who is an ignoramus. The Tosefta adds: A sage takes precedence over a king. [For if] a sage dies, we have none who is like him. [If] a king dies any Israelite is suitable to mount the throne. (Tosefta, Horayot 2.8)

Here is the first stage in the process by which the sage is moved from a merely earthly status as a principal authority to the supernatural position described above. Accordingly, the notion that Torah-learning enjoys priority is not alien to the Mishnah, and indeed begins there. But the Mishnah contains no hint of the view of the sage as a supernatural figure. Furthermore, the Mishnah distinguishes wonder-workers, such as Honi the Circle Maker (Taʿan. 3.8), from the sages, expressing disapproval of the former.

A still more striking trait of the Mishnah's kind of Judaism is the stress, within the Mishnah's system, upon enduring things and the omission of reference to one-time, historical events. The Mishnah presents a world in stasis, in which regularities and orderly patterns govern. It scarcely alludes to the coming of a messiah, the end of days, the meaning of Israel's suffering. The Mishnah offers no explanation or interpretation of Israel's history. If, therefore, one may characterize the first literary evidence of rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, as of about 200 ce, this Judaism is described as focused upon the ongoing life of nature, the priesthood, and the Temple, with the sage telling the priests what to do. The Mishnah's simple, descriptive laws indicate how Israelite society, revolving about the cult, is maintained in stasis.

The Talmudic Rabbis' Return to Scripture and History

Now at the other end of the period at hand, about 600 ce, that is not the Judaism that emerges. On the contrary, as has been seen, rabbinic Judaism fully revealed focused upon the meaning of Israel's history, its end in the coming of the Messiah. It was deeply engaged by one-time events and their meaning. Torah was defined by the sage as a supernatural figure who was qualified by constant reference to scripture. The contrast between the Mishnah's statements, divorced from scripture even where repeating scripture's own facts, and the later reception of the Mishnah, is seen in one fact. Both Talmuds systematically supply to Mishnah's laws precisely those proof-texts omitted by the Mishnah's framers. Accordingly, the Talmudic authorities will cite Mishnah's passage and immediately ask, "How do we know these things?" What follows will be scriptural proof-texts.

There is further indication that, in the two centuries after the closure of the Mishnah, about 200 ce, a massive reaction against the Mishnah's formulation of an ahistorical Judaism of eternal return took place. The character of other writings produced by the rabbis of those centuries provides important evidence of a renewed interest in history and its meaning. Beyond the two Talmuds and Tosefta, centered upon the Mishnah, is the formation of compilations of exegetical remarks, systematically laid forth for the Pentateuchal books of Genesis and Leviticus. These are generally supposed to have come into existence in the fifth century, that is, just as the Talmud of the Land of Israel had come to conclusion and the Talmud of Babylonia was coming to closure. Even more striking is the character of Sifraʾ, a systematic essay on the Book of Leviticus. One basic literary form of that exegetical document is the citation of a passage of the Mishnah, or of Tosefta, verbatim or nearly so. The anonymous voice of the document then asks, "Is this not a matter of [mere] logic?" The argument then will unfold to prove that logic alone cannot prove with certainty the proposition of the Mishnah that has been cited. To the contrary, the only foundation of certainty is in a cited scripture, sometimes then subjected to exegetical work to prove the proposition of the Mishnah that stands at the head of the passage. The polemic is unmistakable. The Mishnah's laws, standing by themselves, cannot endure. Only provision of exegetical bases for them will suffice.


Beyond the emphasis upon the sage as a supernatural figure and upon scripture as the sole sound basis of truth, the third pillar of rabbinic Judaism as it emerged from late antiquity was its emphasis upon Torah as the means of reaching the messianic fulfillment and resolution of Israel's history. The authoritative expression of the messianic expectation is in the siddur (prayer book), emerging from late antiquity and enduring to the present day:

Sound the great shofar to herald man's freedom;
Raise high the banner to gather all exiles;
Restore our judges as in days of old;
Restore our counselors as in former times;
Remove from us sorrow and anguish.
Reign over us alone with loving kindness;
With justice and mercy sustain our cause.
Praised are You, O Lord, King who loves justice.

The restoration of the exiles to Zion and the gathering of the dispersed followed naturally by the prayer for good government, government under God's law. Then comes the concrete reference to the Messiah:

Have mercy, O Lord, and return to Jerusalem, Your city;
May Your presence dwell there as You promised.
Rebuild it now, in our days and for all time;
Reestablish there the majesty of David, Your servant.
Praised are You, O Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.
Bring to flower the shoot of Your servant David.
Hasten the advent of the messianic redemption;
Each and every day we hope for Your deliverance.
Praised are You, O Lord, who assures our deliverance.

The link between the messianic hope for salvation and the religion of Torah and of rabbinic authority is expressed time and again in rabbinic writings. One example is as follows:

Rabbah [a fourth-century rabbi] said, "When a man is brought in for judgment in the world to come, he is asked, 'Did you deal in good faith? Did you set aside time for study of Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you look forward to salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom? Did you look deeply into matters?'" (B.T., Shab. 31a)

Rabbah's interpretation of the scripture "And there shall be faith in thy times, strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge" (Is. 33:6) provides one glimpse into the cogent life of rabbinic Judaism. The first consideration was ethical: Did the man conduct himself faithfully? The second was study of Torah, not at random but every day, systematically, as a discipline of life. Third came the raising of a family. Celibacy and abstinence from sexual life were regarded as sinful. The full use of human creative powers for the procreation of life was a commandment. But, fourth, merely living day by day according to an upright ethic was not sufficient. It is true that people must live by a holy discipline, but the discipline itself was only a means. The end was salvation, daily expected in consequence of everyday deeds.

When one reflects upon the Talmudic teaching, already cited, that if all Israel only twice will properly keep the Sabbath (as the rabbis instruct), the Messiah will come, one sees the true state of affairs. The heirs of the Mishnah took over the messianic hope, so deep in the consciousness of the Jewish nation from biblical times onward, and harnessed its power to the system now known as rabbinic Judaism, a holy way of life taught by masters of Torah. Accordingly, as stated at the outset, in late antiquity is witnessed the formation on the disparate foundations of, first, the Mishnah, a law code lacking reference to history, on the one side, and, second, hope for the end of history and the coming of the Messiah, on the other, the kind of Judaism called rabbinic.


The institutional forms of rabbinic Judaism as known in particular from the Talmuds, are two. The first, not surprisingly, is the figure of the rabbi. The second is the court-school, that is, the place in which the rabbi ruled on certain matters affecting the Jewish community and also taught his apprentices, that is, disciples. First considered will be the figure of the rabbi as known in the third through the seventh century in the Babylonian Talmud.

The rabbi

The rabbis of that period conceived that on earth they studied Torah just as God, the angels, and "Moses, our rabbi," did in heaven. The heavenly schoolmen were even aware of Babylonian scholastic discussions. This conception must be interpreted by reference to the belief that the man truly made in the divine image was the rabbi; he embodied revelation, both oral and written, and all his actions constituted paradigms that were not merely correct but actually heavenly. Rabbis could create and destroy people because they were righteous, free of sin, or otherwise holy, and so enjoyed exceptional grace from heaven. It follows that Torah was held to be a source of supernatural power. The rabbis controlled the power of Torah because of their mastery of its contents. They furthermore used their own mastery of Torah quite independently of heavenly action. They were masters of witchcraft, incantations, and amulets. They could issue blessings and curses, create men and animals, and communicate with heaven. Their Torah was sufficiently effective to thwart the action of demons. However much they disapproved of other people's magic, they themselves were expected to do the things magicians did.

The rabbi was the authority on theology, including the structure and order of the supernatural world. He knew the secret names of God and the secrets of the divine "chariot"the heavensand of creation. If extraordinarily pious, he might even see the face of the Shekhinah, the presence of God; in any event, the Shekhinah was present in the rabbinical schools. The rabbi overcame the evil impulse that dominated ordinary men and was consequently less liable to suffering, misfortune, and sickness. He was able to pray effectively because he knew the proper times and forms of prayer. Moreover, the efficacy of his prayers was heightened by his purity, holiness, and other merits, which in turn derived from his knowledge of the secrets of Torah and his consequent particular observances. He could bring rain or cause drought. His blessings brought fertility, and his curse, death. He was apt to be visited by angels and to receive messages from them. He could see and talk with demons and could also communicate with the dead. He was an authority on interpretation of omens and dreams, on means of averting witchcraft, on incantations for cures, on knot tying (for phylacteries), and on the manufacture and use of amulets.

A central conception set rabbinic Judaism apart from Manichaeism, Mazdaism, Christianity, and other contemporary cults. It was not expected that the masses would assume the obligations of or attain to the supernatural skills of the Manichaean elect, Mazdean magi, Christian nuns and monks, or the religious virtuosi and cultic specialists of other groups. All male Jews, however, were expected to become rabbis. The rabbis wanted to transform the entire Jewish community into an academy where the whole Torah was studied and kept.

These beliefs aid in understanding the rabbis' view that Israel would be redeemed, the Messiah brought, through Torah. Because Israel had sinned, it was punished by being given over into the hands of earthly empires; when it atoned, it would be removed from their power. The means of this atonement or reconciliation were study of Torah, practice of commandments, and doing good deeds. These would transform each male Jew into a rabbi, hence into a saint. When all Jews had become rabbis, they then would no longer lie within the power of history. The Messiah would come. So redemption depended upon the "rabbinization" of all Israel, that is, upon the attainment by all Jewry of a full and complete embodiment of revelation or Torah, thus achieving a perfect replica of heaven. When Israel on earth became such a replica, it would be able, as a righteous, holy, saintly community, to exercise the supernatural power of Torah, just as some rabbis were already doing. With access to the consequent theurgical capacities, redemption would naturally follow.

The school

Study of Torah was just that: primarily an intellectual enterprise whose supernatural effects were decidedly secondary. The resources of the schools were knowledge of the laws and traditions that for the rabbis constituted the Torah of Moses. The actual method of learning used by the academies had nothing whatever to do with magic. The "Torah" of the rabbis was essentially no more than a legal tradition that had to be studied by the classical legal methods. The rabbis were expected to act as did other holy men, but they themselves respected legal learning and the capacity to reason about cases. Not everyone would achieve such skills of reasoning any more than everyone could make rain, and the academies doubtless attracted many who could only memorize and repeat what they knew. The whole process of learning, not merely its creative and innovative aspects, was, however, regarded as sacred, for the words themselves were holy.

The following exposition from the school of Rabbi ʿAnan exemplifies this process:

What is the meaning of the Scripture You that ride on white asses, that sit on rich cloths, and that walk by the way, tell of it (Judges 5:10)? Those that ride on asses are the sages who go from city to city and from province to province to study Torah. White means that they make it clear as the noon hour. Sitting on cloths means that they judge a case truly. And that walk refers to masters of Scripture. On the way, these are masters of Mishnah. Tell of it refers to masters of Talmud, all of whose conversation concerns matters of Torah. (B.T., Eruv. 54b)

Found in the Song of Deborah, this verse about the victory of Israel over the Canaanites was explained by the rabbis as a description of the triumph of the Lord in the "wars of the Torah," a frequent image of rabbinic Judaism, and the consequent celebration by the people of the Lord. That people included many whose talents were limited but who, added all together, constituted, and celebrated, the Lord's triumph. Some, like itinerant philosophers, would wander in search of teachings. Others had great skill at clarification. Others were able and selfless judges. Still others merely knew scripture, or Mishnah, or Talmud, but spoke of nothing else. Here is the integrated, mature vision of the academies: a whole people devoted to revelation, each in his own way and according to his talent.

Rabbis and Ordinary Folk

What average Jews ordinarily did not know and the rabbis always did know was the one thing that made a common man into a rabbi: "Torah" learned through discipleship. It begs the question to speak of the ordinary people as "ignorant of Judaism." One does not have to exaggerate the educational attainments of the community as a whole to recognize that learning in the rabbinic traditions did not by itself separate the rabbi from other people. It would, accordingly, be a gross error to overestimate the differences separating the way of life of the ordinary Jews from that of the rabbinical estate.

In general the rabbis' merely conventional social manners or customs were deepened into spiritual conceptions and magnified by their deeply mythic ways of thinking. In the villages ordinary people regarded the rabbi as another holy man, but still as a man, heart and soul at one in community with other Jews. The rabbinical ideal was antidualistic; the rabbis believed that all Israel, not just saints, prophets, and sages, stood at Sinai. All bore common responsibilities. No one conceived of two ways of living a holy lifetwo virtues or two salvationsbut of only one Torah to be studied and observed by all, and thus the cutting edge of rabbinical separateness was blunted. The inevitable gap between the holy man and the layperson was further reduced by the deep concern felt by rabbis for the conduct of the masses. This concern led them to involve themselves in the everyday affairs of ordinary people, and it produced considerable impact upon daily life.

A review of the primary distinctive characteristics of the rabbinical school will show that the rabbis could not have created unscalable walls of social or religious difference. The sages spent a good part of their years in these schools; ordinary Jews, obviously, did not. Yet the schools were not monasteries. Disciples who left but who remained loyal to the school's way of life did not engage in ascetic disciplines of an outlandish sort, calculated to utterly divide the sages' way of living from that of normal men. They married. They ate regularly and chose edible food, not wormwood or locusts or refuse. They lived in villages, not in the wilderness. They did not make their livelihood through holy vagrancy. Their clothes were not supposed to be tattered or in rags. These differences between rabbis and other types of holy men, such as the Christian monks and the Manichaean elect, are obvious and therefore all the more important. The sages sought the society of ordinary Jews, so they lived in the villages rather than in the countryside ("wilderness"). Not engaged in begging ("holy vagrancy"), they owned property and were glad of it. They occupied important and permanent positions in the administration of communal life, and so came into constant and intimate contact with the common people. Access to rabbinical schools remained open to all, and the rabbis actively proselytized within the community to gain new candidates for their schools. Advantages of birth were minimal. In no way did the rabbis form a caste or a clan; the right marriage counted for little.

What, therefore, did the peculiarities of the rabbinical way of living amount to? A rabbi could eat with any other Jew in Babylonia because the biblical taboos about food were widely observed. Differences between the rabbis' interpretation of taboos about food and those advanced by others gradually diminished, as in time the rabbis' growing domination made their learned exegeses seem more commonplace. For example, although the rabbis said grace at meals and offered intelligible blessings for food, they were willing to teach others just what those blessings and prayers meant. Nothing in the rabbinical ritual of eating was to be kept secret. A person showed himself "ignorant" if he violated the rituals. His remedy was to go to a sage to study and learn, and this was explicitly recommended by the rabbis.

The Rabbi as Judge

What did a rabbi actually do as a community administrator? The following account gives a helpful portrait of the workday function of Rabbi Hunaʾ, head of the Sura academy about 300 ce:

Every cloudy day they would carry him out in a golden palanquin, and he would survey the whole town. Every wall which looked unsafe he would order torn down. If the owner could rebuild it, he did so, but if not, he [Rabbi Huna] would rebuild it of his own funds. On the eve of every Sabbath, he would send a messenger to the market, and all the vegetables that remained to the market-gardeners, he would buy and throw into the river. Whenever he discovered a medicine, he would fill a jug with it, and suspend it above the doorstep and announce, "Whoever wants to, let him come and take." Some say, he knew from tradition a medicine for [a certain disease caused by eating with unwashed hands], and he would suspend a jug of water and proclaim, "Whoever needs it, let him come so that he may save his life from danger." When he ate bread, he would open his door wide, and declare, "Whoever is in need, let him come and eat." (B.T., Taʿan. 20b21a)

The variety of public responsibilities carried out by the rabbi is striking. He had to prevent the collapse of mud buildings during a rainstorm. He had to ensure a constant market by encouraging truck gardeners to provide a steady supply of fresh vegetables. He had to give out medical information, to preserve public health, and to make certain that poor people could benefit from the available remedies. And he had to provide for the poor, so that no one would starve in his town.

These responsibilities reflected the different roles played by the rabbi. Only the first and second duties listed depended upon his political function. As judge he could order the destruction of dangerous property; as administrator he had to supervise the marketplace and use his funds to control supply and prices. But these roles had nothing to do with medical and eleemosynary activities. The former was contingent upon his reputation as a man of learning who had mastered the occult sciences, which then included medicine; the latter was based upon his possession of great wealth, accruing from his positions in politics, administration, and academic life.

Litigations coming before the Jewish courts were not particularly important in the evidence covering 200500 ce. On the whole they corresponded to those likely to come before a small-claims court in modern society. Thefts involved a book or a few rams. Betrothal cases concerned the exchange of property, such as a few zuz, a willow branch, some onions, or a piece of silk. Settlements of marriage contracts required division of a robe of fine wool, a silver cup. A few cases of alleged adultery were recorded, all of sufficient innocence for the court to rule that no adultery had taken place. The preparation and delivery of proper divorce documents hardly amounted to weighty matters of state. Divorce litigations in any event were provoked by peculiar and exceptional circumstances; normally a man could divorce his wife without court intervention, merely with the help of a scribe who wrote out the writ of divorce in accordance with the law.

The settlement of estates entailed somewhat larger sums of money. A woman's marriage contract stipulated that if she were divorced, she would be given an alimony of four hundred zuz, a round number that probably represented approximately enough capital for two years' maintenance. Provisions by the court for widows (food, wine, clothing) were humble and more typical matters. Even most estate cases pertained to rather small claims, such as a few trees, a slave, or a choice plot of ground. Settlement of debts, collections of mortgages and bonds, and the like did require rulings on somewhat more substantial sums, but the real issues were still relatively inconsequentiala hundred zuz, or whether a pledged spoon or knife had to be returned.

Some commercial litigations were brought before the courts. Questions of contract involved a few ferrymen and sharecroppers, or devolved upon a hired ass, a purchase of wine or poppy seed, a flooded field. Some commercial disputes demanded that the courts decide about a few zuz worth of silk beads, some sour wine, the sale of a wine press or a field. Others concerned a damaged jar or utensil, a dead goat, a stolen purse, a broken ax or wine barrel. Property cases similarly involved alleged fraud in a relatively small plot, the claim of an option to purchase a field, the use of canal water, and, very frequently, squatter's rights over a house or field and the eviction of tenant farmers.

Cases such as these clearly reveal the real substance of issues left in the rabbis' hands. With a few exceptions, strikingly petty sums of money or barely consequential pieces of property were all that the lower classes of society brought to litigation. And it was those classes that were primarily subject to rulings by the rabbinical courts. Large commercial transactions for many thousands of zuz worth of silk or pearls, wine or beer; enormous property transactions involving a whole village or town; claims of a considerable number of workers against a single employer, or vice versa; the affairs of large estates, rich landowners, big businessmen, important officialsnone of these appears with any frequency, if at all, in extant reports.

The rabbis surely could not have agreed, however, that the humble and petty issues before them were of no consequence. It was their viewa very old one in Judaismthat the least and humblest affairs, as much as the largest and most weighty ones, testified to heaven about the moral state of society. If the prophet Amos had condemned Israel of old because a poor man was cheated of his shoes, then one can hardly be surprised that a later rabbi insisted upon the return of a cooking utensil given in pledge. What was important to the rabbis was that justice should prevail. They knew that if justice did not characterize the street, the trading market, the small farms and shops, then great affairs of commerce and the state would not likely be morally superior. They knew that the ethics of daily life, the life concerned with exchanges of onions and the use of water in a small canal, determined the destiny of Israel.


The history of Judaism in late antiquity can be summarized very simply. First came the Mishnah, shaped over the first and second centuries ce. Then, second, followed four hundred years in which the legal and theological system of the Mishnah was drastically reshaped into something new. Since the Mishnah's system constituted a reaction against the messianic wars of the time in which it came into being, one sees a process by which the messianic "thesis" generated the Mishnah as its antimessianic antithesis, so producing the rabbinic synthesis in the Talmuds. That is to say, the messianic "thesis" rested on prophetic, historical, and apocalyptic passages of scripture. The Mishnah's "antithesis" constructed a system based on priestly and ahistorical legal passages. The Mishnah's system stood aloof both from biblical proof-texts and from the messianic interest in the meaning and end of history characteristic of its own day. Over the next four hundred years the rabbinic heirs of both the Mishnah and the scripture brought the two back into relationship. They forged them into a messianic and legal synthesis, the one "whole Torah" of "Moses, our rabbi," just as their Torah myth alleged.

See Also

Amoraim; Judaism, overview article; Midrash and Aggadah; Mishnah and Tosefta; Pharisees; Talmud; Tannaim.


The best systematic account of the theology of rabbinic Judaism is George Foot Moore's Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1954). The same categories of historical theology are addressed by E. E. Urbach in The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1975), translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams; by Solomon Schechter in Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909; reprint, New York, 1936); and by E. P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia, 1977). These three works present a categorically similar picture of rabbinic Judaism's theology. An important anthology of sources is C. G. Montefiore and Herbert Loewe's A Rabbinic Anthology (New York, 1974). Two collections of essays on special topics provide guidance into the principal scholarly approaches of the last generation: Jacob Z. Lauterbach's Rabbinic Essays (Cincinnati, 1951) and Louis Ginzberg's On Jewish Law and Lore (Philadelphia, 1955). A different approach to the description of rabbinic Judaism is provided in my book Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago, 1981). On the mysticism of rabbinic Judaism the most important book is Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1954); on messianism, Scholem's The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1971). On the liturgy of Judaism in this period, the two definitive books are Joseph Heinemann's Prayer in the Talmud (Berlin and New York, 1977) and Lawrence A. Hoffman's The Canonization of the Synagogue Service (Notre Dame, Ind., 1979). On the archaeology of Judaism in this period one should consult, as a start, Eric M. Meyers and James F. Strange's Archaeology, the Rabbis, and Early Christianity (Nashville, 1981) and Lee I. Levine's edition of Ancient Synagogues Revealed (Jerusalem, 1981). On rabbinic Judaism viewed historically, there is my own History of the Jews in Babylonia, 5 vols. (Leiden, 19651969).

New Sources

Avery-Peck, Alan J., ed. The Mishnah in Contemporary Perspective. Leiden and Boston, 2002.

Baskin, Judith Reesa. Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature. Hanover, N.H., 2002.

Boccaccini, Gabriele. Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002.

Cohen, Shaye J. D., ed. The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature. Providence, R.I., 2000.

Freeman, Gordon M. The Heavenly Kingdom: Aspects of Political Thought in the Talmud and Midrash. Lanham, Md., Jerusalem and Philadelphia, 1986.

Harrington, Hannah K. Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World. London and New York, 2001.

Hoffman, Lawrence A. Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism. Chicago, 1996.

Jacobs, Irving. The Midrashic Process: Tradition and Interpretation in Rabbinic Judaism. Cambridge and New York, 1995.

Neusner, Jacob. The Four Stages of Rabbinic Judaism. New York, 1999.

Zlotnick, Helena. Dinah's Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to Late Antiquity. Philadelphia, 2002.

Jacob Neusner (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity

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Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity