Jewish law has delved into a bewildering variety of issues with a degree of complexity that is nothing short of daunting. It is enough to scare away all but the most persistent of potential students of rabbinic lore. It includes multiple layers built upon a foundation of primary sources dating from up to 2000 years ago, embellished by 1800 hundreds of years of exposition and commentary, including 1000 years of final conclusions drawn from all this scholarship. Where did all this come from? It stretches the imagination to claim that it originates from the Bible, since we see there nothing but the briefest mentioning of most of these laws. There are entire sections of which we find nothing at all. How did the rabbis come up with all this?
The transition from Biblical Judaism into post-Biblical Rabbinic Judaism was a long and tedious process. The simplistic explanation imagines that the singular event of the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE was the catalyst that ushered in a new era. But the truth is that the destruction of the temple and the upheaval that followed it were not the beginning of the process, but the end. It had been taking place for hundreds of years. At times it occurred slowly and unnoticeably, like erosion on a mountain. But occasionally it happened swiftly and quite out in the open, like a volcano or an avalanche. This process began with the destruction of the first temple and the exile to Babylonia in 586 BCE. The return from that exile, ultimately guided by reformers such as Ezra the Scribe, initiated the changes that would eventually lead to what we now know as rabbinic Judaism.
It is difficult to really ascertain what changes took place following the return from exile. The only contemporary evidence comes from a few vague hints in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, scanty clues from the Apocrypha, and whatever can be dredged out of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For a more definite story we have to turn to the historical works of Josephus and the rabbinic statements scattered over numerous texts, though they were written hundreds of years after the fact.
The earliest traces of changes in the Biblical structure of Judaism are associated with a somewhat obscure group known as the Great Assembly. Ezra and the later prophets were the first generation of this group and it lasted until the time of Simon the Righteous. Rabbinic sources say that it was comprised of 120 members. Among their other activities, they composed the basic structure of Jewish prayer and authorized the texts of a few books of the Bible, including Daniel and Esther. It may have been in existence for up to 200 years, but other than the Biblical figures at its inception and Simon the Righteous at its close, we know of no other names associated with it.
The more palpable changes came with the Hasmonean war against the Syrian Greeks that took place from around 200 BCE until 130 BCE. The actual war may have lasted about a decade and a half (165-150), but turmoil was in the air decades before the war and lasted until the Hasmonean dynasty was firmly established on the entire land of Judea. During this period, two distinct groups emerged that were in direct competition for the spiritual leadership of the Jews of Judea. These two groups were the famous Pharisees and Sadducees, of New Testament notoriety. The Pharisees were the unquestionable forerunners of the rabbis, though it is a little tough to determine when the earlier group ends and the later group begins. We know a good deal about the Pharisees, including the names of several of their leaders and teachers, from quotes and stories in rabbinic writings. The same cannot be said about their opponents, the Sadducees.
Of this second group, our knowledge comes solely from the various negative statements said about them in those same rabbinic sources, and from even more derogatory descriptions in the New Testament, and from Josephus. Other than in a context of disagreeing with some Pharisee opinion, we no longer have a single complete statement that unquestionably comes from the Sadducees. Some scholars attribute the bulk of the Dead Sea scrolls to Sadducee authors, but there is wide disagreement on this claim. They argued with the Pharisees on numerous points, including the existence of the afterlife and the structure of the Jewish calendar.
The main point of contention between the two groups was on the existence and the nature of a vast body of Jewish thought that explains and expands the texts of the Bible. The subject of this controversy ultimately took the name of the ‘Oral Law’. By definition, this meant that it was not written down. This alone led to controversy – how did such a huge quantity of thought go unwritten for so many years? The Pharisees maintained that the foundation of the Oral Law was rooted in the Bible, or the ‘Written Law’. The two were given together to the Israelites, one in written form and one in oral form. The oral tradition explained the many brief commandments in the Torah and expanded upon them in numerous directions. In addition, it added a vast amount of extensions to the original laws and rituals, leading to the two main categories of Jewish law – Torah law and Rabbinic law. Furthermore, it came to include an equally vast collection of stories and parables that elucidate the Bible and make its Biblical language come alive with rabbinic teachings
The Sadducees had none of this. To them, there were only the written texts. Any additions, such as an afterlife or a complex calendar, were anathema. The Sadducees became the eternal opponents of the Pharisees, and by extension, of all future Rabbinic Judaism. A version of the Sadducee position later arose with the Karaite movement, which first began around the year 700 in the Jewish communities around Bavel. At times they comprised a significant percentage of Jews in the world both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Their numbers began diminishing about 1000 years ago. Today there may be around 30,000 of them, almost all living in modern Israel. They, like the ancient Sadducees, have almost no oral tradition, and rely entirely on their own interpretations of the written texts.
But the Judaism of the Pharisees became dominant following the upheaval of the destruction of the temple and the society that surrounded it. Their survival was due to two things: a religious philosophy that wasn’t dependent on the central institution of the temple, and a flexible outlook that allowed for major changes to fit with the times. Pharisee belief did value the temple and considered it the center of Jewish religious life. But, unlike the Sadducees, they could live without it. Even more important, the Oral Law of the Pharisees created a religious structure that could fit into almost any society in the world. It was able to blend in with the Greeks or to reject them. It could live within Christianity and even accommodate some of its beliefs. It could spread with the rapid growth of Islam and contribute significantly to Islamic society. Finally, it could deal with the challenges of science and the modern world in a way that enabled Judaism to survive and thrive to the present.
What exactly is the Oral Law? It is an amorphous collection of traditions, stories, laws, and customs that only slowly and painfully became organized into a form that can be learned and mastered. The earliest rendition of the oral law was called the Mishna. The word ‘Mishna’ means either teaching or repetition. It is a ‘teaching’ in that it does state the primary content of the oral tradition. It is a ‘repetition’ in that it was to be memorized and gone over repeatedly almost like a mantra. By and large, the Mishna dealt with the legalistic sections of the Oral Law.
The Mishna was the primary product of the first two centuries of rabbinic Judaism, ending around the year 200. This period is known as the era of the Tana’im, or ‘teachers’. Among the rabbinic names associated with the Mishna and this general period of Jewish history are some of the most famous. Including among them are two whom we have already encountered – Hillel and Shammai, who lived around 2,000 years ago and were the final names associated with the Pharisees and the bridge between that older group and their successors, the rabbis.
The Mishna was composed in a style that was brief and extremely complicated. Many of the legal details were deliberately left outside of the text to be filled in automatically by the scholars studying it. This made memorization easier and it allowed for further interpretation of the law. There was never any intention for the Oral Law to be fixed. On the contrary, it was meant to be flexible enough to fit into a variety of situations by providing the rabbis with the basic tools for reinterpretation. But the details and the interpretations had to be studied and clarified. Countless discussions took place in academies both in Israel and Bavel over the interpretation and application of the principles of the Mishna. Many of these discussions were recorded in some form, at first orally, and written down at some point. The recordings of these discussions comprise what we know of as the Talmud, roughly translated as ‘study’. Talmud is the second branch of the Oral Law. Talmudic discussions took place over a period of about 300 years (200 – 500). They ultimately became the principle source material of the Oral Law.
The third branch of the Oral Law consists of the stories that explained and expanded the texts of the Bible. They come under the name of Midrash, a term of many meanings (study, teaching, search, interpretation, parable). A good working translation for the word is ‘interpretive teaching’. Midrash supplemented the dry legal content of most of the Mishna and the Talmud with lively and imaginative stories, both factual and fanciful. While Midrashic interpretation probably goes back deep into second temple times, it expanded greatly in the Talmudic period, with the primary texts being composed during the years from around 400 to 1200.
These three sections, Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash, each constitute a separate foundation of the Oral Law, paralleling the Chumash, Prophets, and Writings of the Written Law. Needless to say, they were all crucially important for the development of Judaism. The texts of each are the primary sources of the Oral law. Each will be treated in more detail in the next three sections of this work.
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