The Late Rabbinic Era
What is God?
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The years from around 200 to 900 are known to some scholars of Jewish history as the ‘Silent Era’. The reason for this odd name is the almost complete lack of manuscripts of Jewish literature from this entire period. Until the last century of the period there is virtually nothing. Two fragments of a copy of the Chumash have been found from somewhere around 700 but that’s about it. An early version of a Siddur from about 800 was found recently. The Silent Era ends with the famous Aleppo Codex, the earliest complete copy of the Tanakh written around 900 that serves as a basis for the accurate wording and punctuation of the Hebrew Bible until today. The Codex was complete until some time after it was removed from its 600 year home in a synagogue in Aleppo, Syria in 1947. Following the writing of the Aleppo Codex we have to wait another 100 or so years until the first known copy of the Mishna around 1000. After that easy-to-remember year, things open up.
This doesn’t mean that Jews weren’t composing anything during this 700 year span. On the contrary, this was one of the most productive intellectual periods of Jewish history. The entire corpus of Talmudic literature came from this period along with a good deal of the Midrashic literature. A vast collection of rabbinic responsa based on Talmudic law was composed during the second half of the era. The earliest prayer books and the completion of most of the Jewish system of prayer date from these centuries. The Jewish calendar was likely first constructed and put into practice in the middle of these years. The first work of Jewish philosophy since Philo was written by Saadia Gaon around the year 900. The first known stirrings of Jewish mysticism gestated in the minds of a handful of unknown initiates for hundreds of these years. Finally, the composition of the Bible as we know it – the accepted texts and their proper wording, largely took place throughout this long time span.
These were highly productive years. The lack of written material is probably due to two things: the writings have either vanished or haven’t been found, and they didn’t write down everything. The Talmud and Midrash, the main cultural achievements, probably were not first written down until the last couple of centuries of the Silent Era. The only things written down earlier were the Tanakh books, in the form of a complete text known as a ‘Codex’, and the few prayer books. Everything else was supposed to be transmitted orally, as the name ‘Oral Law’ indicates. This taboo was only broken at towards the end of the Silent Era. We don’t know how or when the early works of mysticism were transmitted, but in all likelihood, the last thing the initiates wanted was for their ideas to become public.
The work that covered the entire period was the Talmud. The two Talmuds were a product of the Jewish communities of Israel and Bavel. The other Mediterranean communities and more widespread communities were eventual recipients of the Talmud, but not contributors. It was only in Israel and Bavel that Judaism had developed to the point that it could really trail blaze in the rarefied intellectual air of rabbinic law. Everywhere else could only repeat the old law of the Mishna, or remain in almost total ignorance of accepted Jewish law.
It sounds hard to believe that Jewish communities could exist for hundreds of years and not know anything about post-Mishnaic Jewish practice. But such was indeed the case. It wasn’t until around 800 that the Talmud first left Bavel and made its way to Spain, North Africa, and France. Probably the same is true for the Jerusalem Talmud reaching Egypt and Italy. We simply have no idea what scholars in these other areas were up to and what the common people did to maintain the Jewish lives. History is known almost exclusively through the written word, which simply does not exist for most of these regions.
But during the first two centuries of the Silent Era, Talmudic study flourished in a few communities in Israel. The result of these Talmudic discussions is the Jerusalem Talmud. During these same centuries and for another three hundred years the Talmud Bavli was undergoing composition. Judaism as we know it would not exist without the Talmud. Even though the actual number of people who have studied it in any given generation has been small until recent decades, its influence was enormous. It was nothing less than the cutting edge of Jewish thought.
The bulk of the Talmud is intricate discussions about Jewish law. They largely cover the six broad categories of Mishna, but invariably go into tangential expansions on basic Mishnaic law. They also cover a bewildering variety of things not even hinted at in the Mishna. These discussions range from Bible interpretation to Midrash to popular medical remedies to superstition to the nature of God. Among the ‘God’ topics are countless anecdotes about how God deals with the Jews and with the world in general. God is usually identified with either the Shechina or the Holy One Blessed be He. The rabbis were intensely interested in how God continued to make His presence known in the world now that the temple was destroyed and the days of regular Biblical contact with God were a thing of the past. Elijah would make period visits and occasional voices would ring out from heaven, but by and large things had become rather mundane.
God lurked in the background. There were no longer any prophets. Messianic fervor had died down. The new wisdom was almost entirely practical – economic and social and all too rarely divinely inspired. But God was still there. The Talmud is sprinkled with little hints here and there that clue us in on what God was up to during an intense rabbinic discussion. It tells us which synagogue the Shechina dwelt in among the exiles of Bavel. It also tells us bits and pieces of what the Shechina really is – a topic that was largely unexplored earlier. This will be the subject of the first image of the Silent Era.
Among the many subjects covered in great detail in the Talmud are the various blessings to be recited over every imaginable occasion. The subject of blessings was one of the 60 or so tractates of the Mishna, so the origin of the blessings predates the Talmud by centuries. However, many of the blessings hadn’t reached their final form until Talmudic times. Others were first composed during the centuries of the Talmud. It is these blessings, combined with the readings from the Bible that make up almost all of Jewish prayer. Consequently, more than anything else they are the constant universal mode of Jewish religious practice throughout post-temple history. There were philosophers philosophizing away, mystics ascending in the Chariot, and rabbis arguing the fine points of the law. But the Jews were reciting blessings.
Among these blessings is one that has its earliest origins in a single obscure mention in the Mishna but which went through considerable development during Talmudic times and even beyond. It probably didn’t reach its final form until the 1500’s. It is commonly called Borei Nefashot, meaning ‘Creator of living souls’. It is an all-purpose blessing said after eating any food not covered within certain specific categories that have specific longer blessings. This blessing is fairly short but ultimately reached a form that is fascinating in what it says about God. This will be image number two.
Throughout the entire Talmudic era, Jewish mysticism flourished in secret circles that rarely rose to the surface. We don’t know how much they interacted with their rabbinic contemporaries, and we only rarely even know their names. They obviously kept very low profiles and likely almost never wrote down their teachings. One of the few works from this period is the famous Sefer Yetzira, or ‘Book of Formation’. This short work became this basis for much of later Jewish mysticism. A good deal of what these early mystics believed and practiced was probably at odds with the standard Judaism of the Bible and the Talmud. They may have been influenced by surrounding mystical cults that flourished during much of this period.
Their activities largely focused on a theme that has become known as ‘Throne Mysticism’. This esoteric knowledge is based around the vision of Ezekiel and a few scattered books from Apocryphal times such as the obscure Book of Enoch. There are angels all over the teachings. The Throne of Glory is always a primary goal. Experiencing the ‘Man’ on the Throne is, of course, the ultimate destination. These were not intellectual pursuits. They were experiential. They weren’t trying to explain things in the way the philosophers would. They wanted to experience God and visit the divine chambers, or Hechalot. Their journeys represent what is probably the most bizarre and extreme form of Jewish practice in its long and varied history. Nowhere does it get more extreme than in the rarely quoted and largely unknown text called Shiur Komah, or ‘Measure of Height’. If you’re wondering what that could possibly have to do with Judaism, you’ll have to wait until the third image from this section. It is almost beyond belief.
The Midrashic literature were rabbinic teachings originating almost entirely in Israel during the post-Talmudic period of the Holy Land (about 400-1000). The Midrash collections that we have were probably snippets of public preaching in synagogues around the Galilee. Some of them are long teachings that go on for several paragraphs and other are one-liners. They cover Jewish morality, Jewish spirituality, a huge amount of Bible interpretation, and just about anything else that the rabbis deemed important for the Jewish public to understand.
The most important collection is called Midrash Rabbah, meaning ‘great’ Midrash. It was put together in several stages, of which Genesis is the earliest, probably dating from the 5th century. Midrash Rabbah covers the five books of the Chumash and the books of the Bible that were read on various holidays. They were probably the result of the rabbinic public sermons dealing with the Torah readings on Shabbat and Holidays. Our fourth image deals with one fascinating angle through which the rabbis of the Midrash envisioned the infinite scope of God.
Philosophy was a discipline that had largely escaped rabbinic notice entirely. This changed with Saadia Gaon, the 10th century dean of the most important Talmudic academy in Bavel. His most significant work was not Talmudic or Midrashic, but philosophic. ‘Beliefs and Opinions’ is without a doubt one of the most influential Jewish books ever written. It covers all the major issues of Jewish belief in a surprisingly non-Talmudic manner. Needless to say, the nature of God’s interaction with creation is one of the major topics. Saadia’s philosophic approach to this question will be our final image from late rabbinic times.
There was a lot going on during the Silent Era. It wasn’t just a transition stage in between the Mishna and the medieval period. It blazed its own trails in Jewish religious thought and experience. Much of this may not have been written down, but it was important enough to be carried orally until the time when it could be recorded for posterity. What would Judaism be like if we didn’t have these rabbinic and mystical teachings? We cannot possibly know the answer to that question, but we do know that these were the centuries in which Judaism took the form that we know it today. This may be called the Silent Era, but the rabbinic thinkers were anything but silent.
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