The Late Rabbinic Era

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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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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