The Wisdom of the Talmud, by Ben Zion Bokser, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 28 p. 29
In biblical times the work of supplementing the written Torah was in the hands of priests (Kohanim), Levites and community elders. When the second Jewish commonwealth was founded by the returned Babylonian exiles, that function was taken over by the sopherim. The term sopherim has generally been translated as scribes. As a leader of culture, the sopher was usually the one who possessed the then rare skill of writing, and his derivative function was therefore that of scribe. In its original meaning, however, sopher was primarily a narrator or teacher, an expounder of a body of tradition; and his work was essentially oral. Thus the verb saper which describes the sopher's work designates, in modern as in Biblical Hebrew, the oral activity of narration and instruction.1
The pioneer of the sopheric movement was Ezra who came from Babylonia in 459 B.C.E. with the ideal of directing the reorganized Jewish settlement in Palestine toward the principles and institutions of the Torah. The leaders of the new settlement, struggling with the problems of reconstruction, had done little to safeguard the religious interests of the community. They had rebuilt the Temple, but the study and practice of the Torah was widely ignored. And the Temple itself was in a state of moral and material decline. It was this condition that Ezra sought to remedy. At a public assembly described in Nehemiah 9–10, he moved the people to pledge themselves with an oath to "walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our God and His
ordinances, and His statutes." To implement their resolve they also imposed upon themselves certain obligations for which no provision exists in the Pentateuch: a poll tax for the maintenance of the Temple; an arrangement for supplying wood for the altar by the various families in turn during the year; and the institution of priestly supervision over the Levites in their collection of the tithes.
The great task to which the sopherim gave themselves was the popularization of the knowledge and appreciation of the Torah. They instituted the public reading of the Torah not only on Sabbaths and festivals but on those weekdays, Mondays and Thursdays, when villagers gathered in the town markets. They reformed the Hebrew script, introducing the present square type alphabet in place of the old Hebrew alphabet, which is still used by the Samaritans. They enriched the collection of Biblical books by the addition of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. They re-edited the Biblical text bringing it into greater conformity with their developed religious and literary sensibilities. Thus they substituted for the original "but the Lord stood yet before Abraham" the presently accepted reading "but Abraham stood yet before the Lord".2 They enriched the liturgy with many new compositions and fixed a ritual for the daily and Sabbath synagogue services.
The teachers who supplemented the Torah did not reach their decisions on individual impulse; in every generation there were corporate bodies that deliberated and acted in concert. Such a corporate body functioned during the time of the sopherim, and was known as the Great Assembly. There are no records extant of the sessions of the Great Assembly and we have no significant information about any of its members, except fragmentary echoes in the writing of a later age, principally in the ethical treatise Abot. One of the Assembly's guiding principles is quoted as: "Be deliberate in the interpretation of the law; raise up many disciples; and
make a fence about the Torah." One of the last of the men of the Great Assembly, Simon the Just, is quoted as the author of the maxim: "The fabric of civilization depends upon three virtues, the study and practice of the Torah, religious worship, and acts of loving-kindness." Antigonus of Sacho is the only sopher we know of who lived during the early Greek period; and of him only one maxim cited in Abot has been preserved. He advocated serving God without the thought of reward. "Be not like the slaves who serve their masters for the gratuity which they expect. Serve without expecting a gratuity and let reverence for God ever be upon you."3
The sopheric movement flourished throughout the years that Persia was the imperialist master of Palestine (563–332 B.C.E.). For apart from the exaction of the tribute, Persia left her colonial provinces complete freedom in determining their inner destiny. Persia crumbled in 332 B.C.E. at the blows of the youthful conqueror of Macedonia, Alexander the Great. Alexander did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his military exploits. He died in 322 B.C.E., leaving his empire without a successor. After some bitter fighting, Alexander's leading generals divided the spoils among themselves. Seleucus took Syria, while Ptolemy became King of Egypt. Palestine was claimed both by Seleucus and Ptolemy. Several bitter wars were fought over the issue and the country changed hands a number of times, until 198 B.C.E., when by a decisive feat of arms the Seleucid king added her to his realms. The political uncertainties and the actual dislocations of war must have reacted disastrously upon the social and economic life of the country. But the cultural life remained free and the Torah loyalists continued to practice and propagate the knowledge of the Torah throughout the land.
The free development of the Torah was interrupted during the reign of Antiochus IV who ascended the Seleucid throne in 175 B.C.E. Antiochus had spent his youth as a hostage in
[paragraph continues] Rome. His knowledge of Roman imperial ambitions convinced him that Rome would continue encroaching upon his domains and that war was bound to come between the two empires, Syria and Rome. Indeed, the Roman challenge was presented boldly enough in 168 B.C.E. After successfully invading Egypt, Antiochus was forced to leave his rich spoils by a Roman envoy who threatened an immediate declaration of hostilities. To prepare for the challenge, Antiochus sought to consolidate his far-flung territories by fostering everywhere a common Hellenistic culture.
The Greek "culture" which Antiochus sought to foster was not the Hellenic achievements in philosophy, science and the arts, but the uncritical manners, customs, and superstitions of the Greek populace. He built gymnasia for Greek sports and lavish shrines for the various popular deities. The emperor himself, as the embodiment of the state, was proclaimed as divine, taking on a new title Epiphanes, a god made manifest, to be adored everywhere as a symbol of civic loyalty and imperial unity. In 168 B.C.E. the practices of the Jewish religion were proscribed on the pain of death; and the Temple at Jerusalem was converted into a pagan shrine, the Jews being called upon to offer sacrifices to a golden statue of Jupiter as their new divinity.
Antiochus had little difficulty in enacting this policy throughout his empire, but in Palestine he met with resistance. Sopheric activity had popularized the love of Torah throughout the land; and when Antiochus sought forcibly to uproot Judaism, everywhere there were people who preferred martyrdom to a betrayal of their religious traditions. The opposition of the Jewish masses was finally articulated by a priestly family in Modin, headed by a certain Mattathias, who proclaimed active resistance. Mattathias soon died, but the struggle was continued by his five sons, around whom rallied bands of Torah loyalists, waging an active campaign of open as well as guerilla warfare against the successive armies sent by the Syrians. The war was prolonged and bitter,
but in 165 B.C.E. the Temple was occupied by the loyalist forces and reconsecrated as a sanctuary of the faith of Israel. Complete independence was not achieved, however, till 142 B.C.E.
A variety of factors cooperated to make for the success of this rebellion. There was the brilliant leadership of the Maccabees, as the sons of Mattathias were called, after their oldest brother, Judas Maccabeus. Dynastic rivalries in Syria kept the empire in a state of turmoil and did not permit the king uninterruptedly to pursue the suppression of the Jewish revolt. And, moreover, the Jews had the assistance of Rome, ever anxious to break rival empires so as to be able more easily to swallow the smaller fragments. The interlude of Jewish independence lasted from 142 B.C.E. to 63 B.C.E., when the country was ruled by Maccabean princes who combined the functions of king and high priest. In 63 B.C.E., taking advantage of dissension in the country over the succession to the Judean throne, the Romans under Pompey marched into Jerusalem and proclaimed Palestine a province of imperial Rome.
The successors of the sopherim who carried on the interpretation and development of the Torah during the Maccabean times, were called Perushim or Pharisees. The primary meaning of the root parosh from which Pharisees is a derivative is "separate," and some historians have rendered Pharisees as "separatists", men who, because of their excessive piety, tended to separate themselves from the common people. But historically, the Pharisees were the popular spokesmen of the people, and therefore could not have kept themselves aloof from them. Perushim may also be related to a secondary meaning of parosh, interpret, as it is used in Leviticus 24:12.4 Perushim may thus be rendered as expounders or interpreters. Like the sopherim, they derived
their name from their function, the interpretation of the written Torah.
The Pharisees supplemented the written Torah with new clarifications, with new religious and ethical concepts and new legal formulations. They taught the beliefs in retribution in a life hereafter, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and an extensive angelology. They elaborated the Temple ritual with new ceremonials, like the impressive water libation before the altar on the Succot festival. They ordained that the daily Tamid sacrifice in the Temple be purchased not from the funds donated by the wealthy few, but from the shekel collections which were contributed by all Israelites. To counteract a popular superstition that God's physical presence resided in the inner shrine of the Temple, they insisted that the High Priest, in his annual entrance to enact the solemn Day of Atonement ritual, omit the incense whose smoke was to screen him from gazing upon God; he was to prepare that incense after his entry into the shrine. Their conception of God was so exalted that they proscribed the pronunciation of His proper name. They moderated the code of Jewish criminal law. All these and various other measures adopted by them were grounded in the recognition that the written Torah must be supplemented by a continuing new tradition which can apply the written Torah's ultimate purposes to the changing facts of life.
The Great Assembly, as a corporate body, perished with the decline of the sopheric movement, but it was reincarnated during Pharisaic times, in the Sanhedrin, a Greek term meaning a court, council or senate. There were various Sanhedrins throughout the country, charged with different aspects of the interpretation and administration of law. The supreme Sanhedrin, consisting of 71 members and originally holding its sessions in the Hall of Hewn Stone in Jerusalem, exercised judicial, legislative and executive functions. It
was headed by co-leaders, a president and chief justice, though the head of the state as High Priest could always preside at any court, including the supreme Sanhedrin.
Records have been preserved describing some of the procedure in this august tribunal. The members of the court were seated in a semicircle so that they could see each other and follow the deliberations more closely, with the president in the center and the others to his right and left in the order of seniority. Secretaries recorded the divergent views that developed in these discussions. All court deliberations were public. To enable them to profit by the proceedings, admittance was granted to advanced students who were seated in three rows, also in the order of seniority, and to general students of the law who were placed behind them. The first students in the order of seniority in the first row generally filled each vacancy as it occurred on the bench, with a general promotion following all along the line. A quorum for the transaction of any business was twenty-three judges; and decisions were reached by a majority vote.
Mishnah Abot 1:1 lists the first five co-leaders of the Sanhedrin as Jose ben Joezer of Zereda and Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem; Joshua ben Perahya and Nittai the Arbellite; Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetah; Shemaya and Abtalyon; and Hillel and Shammai. The same Mishnah cites a number of ethical maxims in the names of each of these teachers but otherwise little is known about them. Jose ben Joezer of Zereda taught: "Make your home a gathering place for the wise. Cling to them steadfastly, and avidly imbibe their words of wisdom." Joshua ben Perahya is the author of the maxim: "Provide yourself with a teacher and acquire for yourself a companion; and judge every person sympathetically." Nittai the Arbellite had as his maxim: "Keep away from a bad neighbor; do not associate with the wicked, and do not despair of retribution when it is slow in coming."5
The official opponents of the Pharisees were the Sadducees, who represented the Jewish upper classes, the lay and priestly aristocracy. The Sadducees fought Pharisaism because of an inherent dislike for Pharisaic ideas. As aristocrats to whom the world had not been unkind, they could not appreciate the drive behind Pharisaic insistence on a future retribution in a world to come. They objected to the introduction of popular ceremonials in the Temple cult or the democratization of the daily Temple sacrifice by purchasing it from a common people's fund rather than from the contributions of individual donors, because they had the aristocrats’ natural disdain for the common people. They ascribed to the slave status of an animal because they were no doubt the class of slaveholders. They advocated severity in civil and criminal law, because, unreservedly identified with the status quo, they could not treat any one who challenged it, with sympathetic consideration.
Their formal rationale was, however, grounded in a strict adherence to the written Torah. While the Pharisees, sensitive to mass needs and mass problems, advocated a flexible interpretation of tradition, whether of the written Torah or the oral traditions promulgated by past authorities, the Sadducees advocated a strict construction of tradition. In their own way, they too had supplemented the written Torah, as is indicated by their reported possession of a special code of criminal law.6 Pharisaic supplementation was, however, much more radical—a more fundamental departure from the past. The Pharisees, of course, rationalized their departure by integrating them, through midrashic links, with Scriptural precedents or by otherwise finding for them Scriptural sanctions. For the Sadducees, however, the midrash was a spurious invention, unauthorized by precedent and a device for undermining the Torah.
As the contemporary historian Josephus relates it, "The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances
by tradition from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason the Sadducees reject them, saying that only those observances are obligatory which are in the written word, but that those which are derived from the tradition of our forefathers need not be observed. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them; the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have no following among the populace, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side."7
Their strict adherence to the written Torah also explains the origin of the name Sadducees. The widely held theory that the name Sadducee goes back to the high priest Zadok mentioned in the Bible (I Kings 1:32) does not seem plausible. Zadok was High Priest in the reign of King Solomon, and why would a party go that far back for a name by which to identify itself? Why, moreover, would a party dominated by members of the Maccabean dynasty choose the name of the traditional High Priestly family, thereby reflecting on their own legitimacy? Sadducee, the Hebrew Zduki, may be taken as a derivative of the Hebrew Zaddic which means righteous, a construction following the parallel form Shmuti, which means a follower of the principles of the Teacher Shammai. The Sadducees called themselves by that name because of their conviction that their platform alone represented loyalty to the Torah, that Pharisaism was unconstitutional, a wicked distortion of the true ideals of Jewish religious and social life. The name Sadducees is used in the Talmud interchangeably with the name Boethusians because the contemporary leaders of the Sadducees were the priests of the famous Boethus family.
The early Maccabees who came to power on the wave of a popular uprising against the Syrian-Greek challenge to the Torah were naturally sensitive to Pharisaic principles. In the course of time, however, the Maccabean state gradually
changed into a petty dictatorship waging endless warfare with its neighbors, with all the military, civil, and ecclesiastical power concentrated in the hands of the head of the state. Then an ever widening rift ensued between the government and the Pharisees.
This rift is the theme of a number of stories in Josephus and in the Talmud. According to one story, John Hyrcanus (King from 135–104 B.C.E.) invited the leading Pharisees to a banquet in the course of which he asked them for a frank appraisal of his reign. One of the Pharisees told him that he ought to content himself with civil power and resign the office of High Priest. Challenged, this Pharisee produced a technicality because of which he regarded John as disqualified from the high priestly office; his mother, according to rumor, had been a captive of war before his birth which made his legitimacy doubtful. The rumor was proven false and the king demanded that the Pharisees avenge his insult, but they pronounced upon their bold colleague a light sentence. Infuriated, the king broke with the Pharisees and joined their Sadducean rivals. With minor variations the same story is related in the Talmud, but its moving figure is not John Hyrcanus but Alexander Jannai (King from 103–76 B.C.E.).
According to another story a slave of King Alexander Jannai had committed murder. The Pharisaic Chief Justice, Simeon ben Shetah, ordered the King to appear for a trial, at the same time warning his colleagues on the bench to interpret the law with impartiality and not to be intimidated by the royal defendant. The King appeared, but he defied the usual courtesy due to the court and remained seated during the proceedings. As the witnesses prepared to testify, Simeon ordered the King to stand, in accordance with the prevailing court procedure. But the King replied that he would stand only if the other judges concurred in the request. The other
judges were, however, intimidated and remained silent, their cowardice provoking a sharp rebuke from the chief justice.8
The Pharisees were the party in opposition throughout the greater part of King Jannai's reign. Those most conspicuous among them were hunted down and persecuted. Many were forced to flee the country. With the collaboration of the Sadducean nobility, the government pursued the expediencies of state without being hampered by too meticulous a consideration for the idealistic principles of Pharisaism. The Pharisaic Sanhedrin carried little official authority except insofar as the people, recognizing the Pharisees as their spokesmen, voluntarily abided by their interpretations of the law, and frequently forced those interpretations upon the reluctant government officialdom. Thus when Alexander Jannai, in exercising his high priestly functions, once performed the Succot ritual in defiance of Pharisaic teachings, the populace demonstrated, pelting him with the citrons which they had brought with them in celebration of the holiday.
At the end of his reign, Jannai realized the overwhelming popularity of the Pharisees among the masses of the people. Before his death he counselled his queen Salome Alexandra, who was to succeed him, to seek a reconciliation with them. And upon her ascent to the throne, she recalled the Pharisees to power. The Pharisaic leader Simeon ben Shetah, who was also her own brother, became the principal minister of state, and Pharisaic ideals, including a quiescent and peaceful foreign policy, dominated the government.
Upon the death of Alexandra (67 B.C.E.), her elder son Hyrcan II, who had been high priest, ascended the throne, with the consent of the Pharisaic ministers. But the leadership of the army and the nobility rallied around his younger brother, Aristobulus, and plunged the country into civil war. The Pharisees did not want to hold power at the cost of civil war and were prepared to accept Aristobulus. Indeed, some
of them, disgusted with the degeneration of the Maccabean dynasty, favored the abolition of the monarchy altogether. The struggle was finally resolved through the intervention of the Roman general Pompey who added Palestine to the Roman Empire.
The Romans respected Jewish autonomy in all cultural and religious affairs. Roman coins used in Palestine were minted locally so as to eliminate the emperor's image which was offensive to Jewish religious sensibilities. Roman law guarded the sanctity of the Temple, and pagans, including Roman citizens and soldiers, were barred from its precincts on the pain of death. Even the garrison that was stationed in Jerusalem left its standard in Caesaria in order not to offend the Jewish community with their pagan and idolatrous emblems. Jewish courts retained their autonomy and administered the law in accordance with Jewish procedure.
Outside of Palestine, too, the Roman empire treated the Jewish community with sympathetic understanding and respect. Jews were exempted from the civic duty of emperor worship; the sacrifice offered in the emperor's name at the Temple in Jerusalem was accepted by the Romans as a satisfactory equivalent. Jewish synagogues were protected by Roman law against sacrilege. Augustus Caesar even went so far as to direct Roman courts not to cite Jews to its sessions on the Sabbath; and poor Jews were given the option of taking a cash grant of money instead of the normal free grant of oil, so that they might not violate the prevailing Jewish dietary laws.
The Roman respect for Jewish cultural and religious autonomy produced a revival in the study of Torah. After the stabilization of the new regime, Pharisaic activity was resumed. Among the most important teachers who functioned
during the period of Roman domination were Shemaya and Abtalyon (60–39 B.C.E.), Hillel and Shammai (20 B.C.E.–20 C.E.), Gamaliel I and his son Simeon, and Johanan ben Zaccai.
Hillel was the most influential of the titular heads of the Sanhedrin. A Babylonian by birth, he was attracted to the schools of Shemaya and Abtalyon and made his way to Palestine. He remained to become the recognized Pharisaic leader of his day. His own school drew students from far and wide; among them was Johanan ben Zaccai who was destined to play a crucial role in Jewish reconstruction after the war with Rome.
Tradition loves to contrast his humility and broadmindedness with the severity and narrowness of his colleague Shammai. This is perhaps best illustrated in the story of the pagan who sought to embrace Judaism but insisted on learning its contents while standing on one foot. Shammai dismissed him angrily, but Hillel made him a convert to Judaism. His summary was the formula, "That which is hateful unto you, do not impose on others."9 This is not, as has generally been explained, a negative formulation of the Golden Rule in Leviticus 19:18. It is a technique for implementing the Golden Rule, by suggesting a more concrete application of it to the problems of human relations.
Mishnah Abot (1:12–14) cites a number of moral maxims in the name of Hillel: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them nigh to the Torah … If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now when?" Among his most important legal reforms was the institution of the prosbul, circumventing the prescribed cancellation of debts at the end of every seven year cycle.10 Another of his important achievements was his formulation of seven rules for the midrashic interpretation of Scripture, subsequently expanded to thirteen by a later
teacher, Ishmael. The presidency of the Sanhedrin became hereditary in Hillel's family until the final abolition of the office in 425 C.E.
The Pharisaic period in the development of the Torah came to an end with the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. A variety of factors converged to produce that tragic episode in Jewish history.
There was the enormously heavy taxation, imposed by the Romans, particularly upon the people least able to pay it. Specifically the levies included the annona, a tax from crops and other farm produce, delivered in kind; a poll tax on males from 14 years and females from 12 years to 65 years; a market tax on necessities of life like meat and salt; various tolls such as on crossing a bridge or entering a city; forced labor and compulsory requisitions of the farmer's animals. The greatest burden of this taxation clearly fell upon lower classes, particularly the rural population. Indeed beginning with Caesar, the Roman tax was as high as 25% of the total crops in the country. Some of these taxes were collected directly, under the general supervision of native officials from nearby cities. Other levies were farmed out to the publican whose rapaciousness made him a byword for sin in Jewish society.
The Pharisees called upon their people to keep aloof from their imperialist masters and to spurn their offers of collaboration. Shemaya, who lived shortly after the Romans became masters of Palestine, counselled his people: "Love work; hate mastery over others; and avoid intimacy with the government." The exponents of Torah during this period denounced the Jewish tax farmer as a reprobate and a robber because he collaborated with the Roman system of extortion
and oppression. Deceiving the Roman tax collector, they put on a par with deceiving a pirate, for Rome had no moral right to the country which she had occupied by force. As the Mishnah put it: "Men may vow to murderers, robbers or tax gatherers that what they have is Heave-offering even though it is not Heave-offering; or that they belong to the King's household even though they do not belong to the King's household. …"11
Rome opened vast markets for enterprising merchants and her fiscal policies encouraged shipping and industry with the result that individual families became fabulously wealthy. But the masses of people suffered want. Discriminatory taxation forced many farmers to abandon the land. Some became laborers on the big estates or moved to the cities where they joined the urban proletariat. Many others turned to cattle raising. This movement must have been large since Jewish authorities, probably fearful of a collapse in the economy of Palestine, a thickly populated country requiring an intensive cultivation of the soil, legislated against the raising of cattle, a move not unlike that taken by the Roman emperors beginning with Vespasian when they were confronted with a similar phenomenon in Rome.
The fate of the urban working people was equally tragic. Slave labor never flourished in Palestine as it did in other parts of the Empire; and the humanitarian legislation of the Bible tended to raise the living standard of the slave and the laborer alike. But the absence of a united labor front made for extremely low wages throughout the ancient world, and Palestine was no exception. The skilled worker was not entirely helpless. Thus the Garmu and Abtimas families, Temple bakers and chemists respectively, were able to win substantial wage increases by striking. Their highly specialized work could not be duplicated by strike-breakers who had been imported from Alexandria; and the Temple authorities were forced to accede to their demands.12 The laborer who did
not command such specialized skills was entirely at the mercy of his employer, and his earnings could not have been much above the level of mere subsistence.
The laborer, in addition, suffered from the constant threat of unemployment. Josephus records a pathetic attempt to check unemployment through a public works project. To quote Josephus: "… So when the people saw that the workmen were unemployed, who were above 18,000 and that they, receiving no wages, were in want …, and while they were unwilling to keep them by their treasuries that were there (in the Temple) deposited … had a mind to expend these treasures upon them; … so they persuaded him (King Agrippa) to rebuild the eastern cloisters; … he (Agrippa) denied the petitioners their request in the matter; but he did not obstruct them when they desired the city might be paved with white stone. …"13
Above all, there was resentment at what the Romans had done to one of the most sacred offices in Jewish religious life, the High Priesthood. For a time, the administration of Palestine was entrusted to native vassal kings, the most important of whom was Herod the Great, who reigned from 37–4 B.C.E. In 6 C.E. the country was placed under the direct administration of Roman governors or procurators. But both the Jewish puppet kings as well as the Roman procurators manipulated the selection of the High Priest so as to have in that influential position a friend and willing collaborator of government policy. Herod made and unmade seven High Priests in the course of his reign. Valerius Gratus, who served as procurator from 15–26 C.E., made and deposed of five High Priests in succession. To emphasize their control over the office of the High Priesthood, the Romans kept the High Priest's vestments in their custody and released them only on important Temple celebrations. The greatest dignitary of Jewish ecclesiastical life was thus reduced to a tool of a foreign imperialism.
The kind of men who would serve in such capacity were obviously not the spokesmen of a high religious idealism but politicians of low moral character to whom the rewards of power took precedence over their duties to their people and their faith. Many of them did not even know how to perform the Temple ritual and it became customary for a committee of the Sanhedrin to coach the High Priest in the performance of the Day of Atonement service for a full week before each holiday. The Mishnah records that this committee would always depart from its mission in tears.14
The worldliness of these High Priests is well described in a number of Talmudic satires. One popular tale reports that the Temple Court used to cry out at one High Priest, "Depart hence, Issachar of Kefar Barkai, who glorifies himself while desecrating the sacred ritual of divine sacrifices; for he used to wrap his hands with silks and thus perform his sacrificial service." Of another High Priest, Johanan ben Norhai, popular legend relates that "he ate three hundred calves and drank three hundred barrels of wine and ate forty seah of young birds as a dessert for his meal!" For him the Temple Court cried out: "Enter Johanan ben Norhai to gorge himself with the foods of the altar."15
One teacher, Abba Jose ben Hanin, lamented thus about the various high priestly families of his day: "Woe is me for the House of Boethus; woe is me for their clubs. Woe is me for the House of Anvas; woe is me for their scheming … Woe is me because of the House of Kathros; woe is me because of their pens (with which they write evil decrees). Woe is me because of the House of Ishmael ben Phabi; woe is me because of their fists. For they are the High Priests, their sons the tax collectors, their sons-in-law the Temple officers, and their servants beat the people with their staves."16
The high priests oppressed not only the people at large but also the humbler members of their own caste, robbing them often of their due share in the priestly perquisites. As
[paragraph continues] Josephus describes the high priests of his time, "they had the hardness to send their servants into the threshing floors to take away these tithes that were due to the priests, with the result that the poorer sort of priests died for want."17
Stirred by a host of unbearable evils, a revolutionary sentiment was developing in the country. The pioneer of the revolutionary movement was the Galilean peasant leader Judas, who "prevailed with his countrymen to revolt and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay taxes to Rome and after God submit to mortal men as their lords."18 The spearhead of the rebellion was the hard pressed peasantry but they were aided by the masses of the people generally, who suffered with them degradation and exploitation.
It was the behavior of the procurator Florus that started the flames of revolt. He had seized 17 talents from the Temple treasury and when, in derision, people made an alms collection for him, he ordered the armed forces to attack the citizenry. Matters were patched up and the people even agreed to extend the customary greetings to an incoming troop of Roman soldiers. But when at the direction of Florus the greetings were not returned, rebellion broke loose. The actual precipitation of the struggle was the work of the lower order of priests. They deposed the reigning High Priest and by lots designated his successor, the rural priest Phanias ben Samuel of the village Aphta. With the Temple in their control, the insurgent priests proclaimed the defiance of Rome by rejecting the special Temple sacrifice which had always been offered in the name of the emperor.
But no sooner did the revolution break when it began degenerating into a civil war. Practically the first act of the revolutionary mob was to sack the palace where the archives were deposited and "burn the contracts belonging to their creditors and thereby dissolve the obligations for paying their debts." The upper classes on the other hand remained sympathetic to Rome and were opposed to the
revolution. As Josephus innocently reports it, the "great men … the high priests and men of power …" were "desirous of peace because of the possessions they had." Unable to cope with the situation themselves, these men "sent ambassadors to Florus and … to Agrippa (the neighboring Jewish vassal prince) and they desired of them both that they would come with an army to the city and cut off the sedition before it should be too hard to the subdued."19
When in spite of their efforts, the revolutionary cause continued to make headway, they pretended conversion to the revolution but sabotaged it from within. They opposed the centralization of authority in the revolutionary leadership, agitating for moderation and "democracy", and they conspired directly with the Roman officialdom. This is perhaps best illustrated by the conduct of the commander of the revolutionary armies, Joseph ben Mattathias, aristocratic priest of Maccabean lineage. Chosen to be the sword of the revolution, he described the revolutionists as "bandits," "the slaves, the scum and the spurious and the abortive offspring of our nation," and he frankly confesses that he never expected them to win in the struggle. His assignment was to organize the defenses of Galilee, but in his autobiography, he admits that the real purpose of his command was to sabotage the revolution. When he discovered that the principal men in Tiberias opposed the war, he slipped to them the telling hint that he agreed with them but that they should be cautious. "I was well aware myself of the might of the Romans; but on account of those bandits I kept my knowledge to myself. I advised them to do the same, to bide their time and not to be intolerant of my command."20 Josephus actually instigated the escape of a spy sent by the Tiberians to Agrippa, inviting him to come and save their city from the revolution. And at the first opportunity he abandoned all pretense and surrendered to the Romans.
For his treason he was rewarded with high honors: Roman
citizenship, a pension, and the right to add the name of the imperial family to his own. Joseph ben Mattathias, the Hasmonean priest, became Josephus Flavius, the favorite of the Romans.
The revolutionaries were not without their calculations when they challenged Rome. When the revolt broke, the Roman empire was shaking with inner unrest. The "affairs of the Romans were … in great disorder … the affairs in the East were exceedingly tumultuous … The Gauls also … were in motion … and the Celts were not quiet …"21 And the rebels had reason to expect support from the far-flung Jewish communities outside of Palestine. The revolution failed largely because of an old truism in revolutionary history, that no colonial people can hope successfully to wage two revolutions at the same time, a national revolution against its imperialist masters, and a social revolution against its own ruling class. Caught between the cross-fire of the Roman legions without, and the pro-Roman forces of betrayal and counter-revolution within, the doom of the revolution was of course sealed. After a valiant and costly struggle, Palestine was once again a Roman province, with the claws of the imperialist masters more tightly drawn; and the Jewish people resigned themselves to suffer the oppression of an old tyranny and the new ignominy of defeat.
The central fact in the tragic legacy of war and revolution was that the Temple at Jerusalem had been burnt to the ground. For the Temple had functioned as a supreme national shrine in Judaism; its cult of sacrifices was regarded as the principal formula of Jewish worship, and throughout its history it had served as an invaluable symbol of unity and solidarity throughout the Jewish world. The Jews faced a difficult task to reorganize their lives without the resources of the Temple and the hierarchy of institutions that had developed around it.
Jews had once before been called upon to reorganize
their religious life without the Temple and they had done so with success. In 586 B.C.E. the armies of Babylon had destroyed the independence of Judah and burnt her national shrine, the Jerusalem Temple. The sobering realizations that followed this national disaster placed the leadership of the Babylonian exiles in the hands of prophetic teachers rather than the princes or the priests. And under their inspiration, the reorganized religious life of the community moved in new directions. The study of Torah and the practices of a personal religious life became central. The synagogue with a ritual synthesizing study and worship, began its long and eventful development.
The reorganization after the war against Rome followed a similar course. The policy of rebellion against Rome had failed miserably. The lay and priestly aristocracy were scattered and discredited. They had been the main targets of the revolutionary terror and their most influential members perished in the civil war that accompanied the revolution. And even when the flames of war and revolution ebbed, the bitterness lingered on, sustained by a vivid record of upper class betrayal perpetrated in the darkest hour of the nation. The Torah alone was left as a rallying point of Judaism and as a possible instrument of post-war reconstruction.
The leader in this movement of reconstruction was Johanan ben Zaccai. He was ideally suited for his task. He had studied under Hillel and the venerable master had proclaimed him "the father of wisdom" and "the father of coming generations". He was chief justice of the Sanhedrin before the fall of the Temple and independently conducted a school in Jerusalem. The popularity of his lectures forced him frequently to speak outdoors where larger gatherings could be accommodated. His profound scholarship was complemented by an equally profound love for human beings. He was ever the first to offer greetings to any passerby in street and market place, and his interest extended to Jew and pagan alike. The greatest of all virtues, he taught his students, was a kind
heart which reaches out with sympathy to fellow-humans. The study of Torah was the summum bonum in life, but the student of Torah was not to keep himself aloof from the common people. "If thou hast learnt much Torah, ascribe no special merit to thyself; for that is the true function of thy being." On one occasion he deliberately embarrassed himself by pretending he had forgotten an important principle of law, so as to demonstrate to his students a lesson in human fallibility. At the same time, he was endowed with a shrewd practicability, acquired no doubt in the first forty years of his life when he pursued a career in commerce. When his students once asked him for a blessing he offered the prayer: "May ye revere the Lord as ye revere men." "Is that all?" they wondered. "Would that ye revered Him at least in that measure" was his reply, "for see how a person, proceeding to commit an immoral deed, will always say to himself, 'but no man must see me'." Johanan fought hard for Pharisaic control of the Temple, but the cult of sacrifices was not indispensable for his conception of Jewish religious life. In the synagogue and the ritual of personal observance, he found adequate resources for the cultivation of the religious life. For, quoting Hosea (6:6), he explained, the Lord "desired loving-kindness and not sacrifices."22
When the challenge of rebellion was ultimately presented, Johanan and his followers counselled submission. They realized that rebellion against Rome would lead to a sanguinary war with untold devastation and tragedy. They believed, moreover, that they could achieve an even more fundamental liberation through other methods. For in the ethical implications of their monotheism, they saw the organic wholeness of the human race.
They consequently hoped not for a national revolution purposing to liberate their people from a foreign government but for a moral revolution to liberate all mankind from superstition, idolatry and falsehood. The ideals of this moral revolution were for them embodied in the Torah and they
consequently sought to teach the Torah to natives and pagans alike. Many pagans, from the highest as well as the lowest strata of Roman society, responded to the propaganda on behalf of Judaism and joined the synagogue. Many more, while not officially embracing Judaism, renounced idolatry and became the fellow-travellers of the synagogue, ordering their lives by the Torah's ideals of personal and social morality. It was a slow process but, as Johanan and his followers saw it, it was the only fundamental way of dealing with the problem. And as long as Rome did not interfere with their missionizing propaganda, they were confident that before long the truth would prove mightier than the mightiest legion of Rome.
Johanan left Jerusalem before it was taken by the Romans. He was smuggled out of the city in a coffin by his two most trusted disciples, after feigning illness and death. Thereupon he made his way to the Roman commander and surrendered. Recognizing his influential position in Jewish society, the Romans granted him his freedom and permitted him to reestablish his academy in Jabneh.
With his loyal disciples by his side, he waited breathlessly for the outcome of the struggle around Jerusalem. When the news reached him that the Temple had fallen, he proceeded to act. He proclaimed Jabneh as the new center of Judaism and, with his own disciples and others who joined him subsequently, he recreated his academy and reorganized the Sanhedrin. Study, prayer, the Sabbath and holidays, the cultivation of the spiritual and ethical life, were declared more than adequate substitutions for the cult of Temple sacrifice. And Jewish law, to be promulgated and interpreted at the new Sanhedrin, was to continue to give direction and unity to Jewish life throughout the world.
Until another scion of the Hillel family, Gamaliel II, became available for the office, Johanan bore the title rabban by which the titular head of the Sanhedrin was designated since the elder Gamaliel (20–50 C.E.). But to invest his disciples
with the new authority of their office he ordained them with the new title, rabbi, master. The rabban was recognized by the Roman government as the official head of the Jewish community; and in cooperation with the rabbis he directed the study, adaptation and application of the Torah to the new needs of life.23 All the literature of the supplementary Torah, in the form in which it has come down to our own day, including the copious literature of the Talmud, is the work of the rabbis, who became the undisputed leaders in post-war Judaism.