The Wisdom of the Talmud, by Ben Zion Bokser, , at sacred-texts.com
The fall of the Temple had left a void in Jewish religious life. Gladly, the Jews would have labored at its reconstruction, but that was banned by the Romans. Jerusalem which was a symbol of all that was glorious in Jewish history was an armed camp, where Jews were forbidden to enter. They could come as tolerated pilgrims to visit ruined shrines and shed tears over their departed national glory, but they could no longer make their homes there. The half shekel which the Jews had always contributed to the upkeep of the Temple was now collected by the Romans as the fiscus judaicus, a special tax upon the vanquished people to be devoted to the maintenance of Roman pagan shrines. There were large scale confiscations of Jewish property, particularly land, which Jews could now occupy only as tenant farmers; and Rome added humiliations to injury by erecting an arch of triumph to Titus and issuing special coins to commemorate the Jewish disaster. "Judaea capta", "Judaea devicta", "captured, vanquished Judea", these coins proclaimed, and they carried, as an illustration of the slogan, the image of a decrepit, broken woman, bowing before her proud conqueror.
These conditions distilled a great spiritual depression in Jewry. Asceticism became widespread. There were those who shunned the use of meat and wine because these had at one time been offered on the sacrificial altar which was now in ruins. Large numbers refused to raise families and beget children, apprehensive of life's uncertainties in a cruel world. And the seemingly unchallenged march of brute power undermined
for many the faith in their people's way of life, their beliefs in divine providence, the election of Israel and the supreme worth of the Torah. "If there is a God Who cares for justice, why does He allow all this wrong to go unchallenged in the world?" came the constant cry of questioning multitudes.
The basis of Jewish rehabilitation in this all pervasive crisis had been laid by Johanan ben Zaccai. He shifted the center of Judaism from Jerusalem to Jabneh and launched the new Sanhedrin and the rabbinic movement, rescuing the most important element in the life of a people, centralized direction and authoritative leadership. The nominal head of the Jewish community had been the High Priest whose office perished with the Temple, but he was not indispensable; and the Nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin, stepped forth to replace him. The nasi's office lacked the glamour of the High Priesthood, but he more than made up for it by his piety and scholarship and by his devotion to Pharisaic principles. And he had one more important virtue to recommend him: he was a direct descendant of the famous sage Hillel, and, on his mother's side, of Judah's royal family, going back to King David. Johanan remained the acting head of the Sanhedrin until arrangements could be made for its legitimate occupant to succeed him. Gamaliel II, the legitimate heir of the nasi, finally received the recognition of the Roman officials in Syria, and, with the collaboration of a grimly determined but hopeful group of rabbis, including Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Joshua ben Hananiah and Akiba ben Joseph, he inaugurated a new and colorful chapter in the history of Judaism.
The new nasi was well suited for his position. He was a man of independent means, having inherited his family estates in land and slaves, which enabled him to devote himself
freely to scholarship and communal work. He was educated in the traditional culture of his people as well as in the worldly knowledge of his day. He was a fine mathematician and astronomer and he had a good command of the Greek language. The Talmud records many anecdotes illustrating his kind and sympathetic character. The joy of having his colleagues as guests in his home was unbounded; and he insisted on taking the place of his servants in waiting on them. He was touchingly devoted to his slave Tebi. Members of his household were trained to call the slave "father" and the slave's wife, "mother". And when Tebi died Gamaliel sat in mourning as for a departed member of the family. "Tebi was not like other slaves," he explained; "he was a worthy man." "Let this be a token unto thee," he once exclaimed, "so long as thou art compassionate, God will show thee mercy; but if thou hast no compassion, God will show thee no mercy."1
We do not know the date of his death. Before his passing he left a will which was to convert even his burial into an important lesson for his people. It had been customary to bury the dead in lavish outfits and funeral costs weighted heavily on poor families. Gamaliel therefore ordained that he be buried in simple linen shrouds in the hope that his example would be imitated by others. Thus began a tradition which has endured in Jewry to this very day.
The achievements of the rabbis at Jabneh were varied and far-reaching. To give expression to the universal gloom over the national disaster, they ordained formal rites of grief and remembrance. People were to leave patches of unpainted wall space in their homes; they were to omit some dish from their customary meals; women were to reduce their use of cosmetics and jewelry. This was to remind them that without the Temple their lives were incomplete and that they must ever strive for its restoration.
But there was to be no despair. The rabbis denounced the growing asceticism as inconsistent with the national interest.
[paragraph continues] To abstain from procreating, Rabbi Eliezer ruled comparable to the shedding of human blood. Rabbi Joshua argued with those who were avoiding meat and wine in mourning for the destruction of the altar, by explaining that to be consistent they would have to renounce fruit, bread, and water as well, since they were also used upon the altar.2
The destruction of the Temple was a tragic blow to Judaism, but it was not to interfere with an active religious life. Pending the Temple's rebirth, the rabbis proceeded to displace the sacrificial cult with new disciplines for communing with God. They promulgated the famous Eighteen Benedictions as the nucleus of a formalized prayer service which was to be recited thrice daily in private as well as congregational devotions. Some of these benedictions were old and had been recited in the Temple as well as in many synagogues that flourished side by side with it. But they were now re-edited so as to include references to the hoped for resurgence of Jewish freedom and the restoration of the Temple. These prayers, moreover, were now to be recited by every individual worshipper and not alone by the public reader who led in the service. The initiation of a proselyte into Judaism was reorganized, omitting the customary sacrificial offering. The Haggadah, a ritual of narration and dramatic re-enactment of the Exodus, was developed to take the place of the solemn Passover rites in the Temple at Jerusalem.
The rabbis were equally active in counteracting schismatic and heretical tendencies which were making their appeal among the people. They induced Aquila, the Greek proselyte from Pontus, to undertake a new and more literal translation of the Bible which would bring the Greek text into closer harmony with Jewish tradition. The current Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, was too free and inaccurate, making it frequently an easy weapon for Christian and other sectarian propaganda. And they introduced into the religious service a special prayer in denunciation of
heresy and heretics. Prayers of denunciation were repugnant to the rabbis who taught the virtues of universal love. To make sure that this prayer would not be inspired by hate or bitterness toward other men, that it would be directed against error rather than against the erring, they entrusted its composition to the saintliest and humblest of their members, Samuel the Modest.
By fearless and searching self-criticism they met the challenge of those who had lost faith in the moral order. The disaster was not an indication of a morally lawless universe, but on the contrary, of the workings of a moral law which cannot be evaded with impunity. Like the prophets of old, they blamed their people's tragedies upon their own mistakes and failures. Jerusalem was destroyed because men hated one another, because her people were not united in the national crisis, because they permitted grave injustices to prevail in their midst.3 Rome, like Assyria and Babylonia of old, was only the rod of God's indignation, smiting and healing a sinful people. And the disaster itself pointed to the way of redemption. It was for them to repent. to purge themselves of their imperfections, to rebuild their lives on more wholesome foundations, and, in due time, they would be restored to freedom.
Perhaps the most important achievement of the rabbis was the creation of an authoritative Jewish law. The supplementation of the Torah had proceeded ever since the days of the sopherim and a variety of men had contributed to it. The inevitable differences in social and ideological orientation prevailing among men had naturally led to differences in Torah supplementation. But now how was the Torah to guide life if its official interpreters could not agree?
The Pharisees had solved this problem by developing a fine tolerance. All views that developed in the course of their deliberations were regarded as equally sincere attempts to understand and apply the ideals of the Torah to the necessities of life. Men were therefore advised to exercise their
own discretion and follow the particular school of thought that best expressed their own conception of right and wrong. "Although," the Mishnah relates4, "one group permitted marriages which the other prohibited, and declared pure what the other considered impure, they freely intermarried and did not scruple to use each other's food." To signalize this tolerance, the leadership of the Sanhedrin was divided between the representatives of the majority and minority. The spokesman of the majority became the nasi, President, while the leader of the minority group became the ab bet din, the chief justice.
After the destruction of the Temple when the Torah was the only surviving institution that could unify Jewish life, the old arrangement was changed. The new Sanhedrin at Jabneh repudiated the old formula of tolerance, except in the field of doctrine. On questions of theology and ethics, individuals remained essentially free to formulate their own doctrines in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience. In the field of action, however, the minority was now to give way to the majority whose views alone were to be promulgated as authoritative law.
The new formula was first applied to the disputes between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. By a majority vote, the rabbis, deliberating at the new Sanhedrin in Jabneh, repudiated the Shammaites and declared the views of the Hillelites alone authoritative.
These reforms were not achieved without struggle. One such struggle developed between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues. Rabbi Eliezer was one of the pioneers in post-war reconstruction. Together with his colleague Joshua ben Hananiah, he had helped smuggle Johanan ben Zaccai out of the besieged city of Jerusalem and had participated in the organization of the new Sanhedrin. But as the deliberations at Jabneh proceeded, a serious cleavage developed between him and his colleagues. In the general unfolding of his ideology, Rabbi Eliezer followed consistently the general
point of view of the Shammaite system of Torah interpretation which had been rejected by a decisive vote of the great majority of rabbis.
The hostility which had been gathering for some time finally culminated in an open break during a discussion about the so-called "Akhnai" stove. According to Biblical law (Lev. 11:33), earthenware, pots and ovens, which had become unclean, for example, through contact with a dead body, were to be broken. The "Akhnai" stove had become exposed to uncleanliness, but the owner cut it into tiles which were separated from each other by sand and externally plastered over with a layer of cement. This was a loose arrangement, but it could still be used as a stove. At the same time, as a "broken" vessel, it would no longer be susceptible to uncleanliness. Rabbi Eliezer's colleagues objected to the arrangement. What was important to them was not so much the objective fact that the stove was "broken", as the manifest intention of the owner who continued to use it. The owner's intention made it again into a "whole" vessel, and its impurity, therefore, persisted. Rabbi Eliezer, who, like the Shammaites, was generally more concerned with objective facts rather than with the intentions behind them, regarded the stove as actually broken, and, therefore, no longer subject to laws dealing with whole vessels. The controversy that raged over this question was prolonged and bitter. Finally the matter was put to a vote, and Rabbi Eliezer was dramatically defeated by a great majority. But Rabbi Eliezer refused to yield. He counselled his followers to defy the majority, and in his judicial decisions continued to formulate the law in accordance with his own views. Behind this impasse stood not only a difference in attitude toward the Akhnai stove, but a challenge to the concept of a disciplined Jewish life.
To break the impasse, the rabbis finally responded with excommunication. In demonstration, they held a public burning of certain types of food which they had pronounced
impure, but which he, in defiance of their opinions, persisted in considering pure. Rabbi Akiba, his own disciple, carried the news of the decision to him. Seated in mourning dress, at some distance from him, Akiba spoke: "My master, it appears to me that thy colleagues keep aloof from thee." Rabbi Eliezer understood the message, but remained unyielding to the end.5
Rabbi Eliezer felt his isolation most keenly. The terms of his excommunication apparently left him free to continue teaching in his school at Lydda, but he realized that the centre of Jewish learning and authority was at Jabneh. From his pupils, who occasionally attended the sessions at Jabneh, he sought to learn what went on there, but such conversations would only pain him, reminding him that he was an outcast. Once, when he was told that the council at Jabneh had deliberated on a question concerning which he felt himself qualified to speak authoritatively, he actually shed tears, and although the decision of the scholars was in accordance with his own opinion, he dispatched to Jabneh a message of acquiescence. Moved, no doubt, by his own experience, he warned his disciples: "Be as careful about the respect due to your colleagues as about the respect due to yourselves—and do not permit yourselves to become easily provoked to anger"; "Warm yourselves before the hearths of scholars, but see that you are not burnt, for when they bite, it is the bite of a fox, and when they sting, it is the sting of a scorpion."6
Rabbi Eliezer was not reconciled with his colleagues until his dying moments. Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Akiba, and a number of other scholars, hearing of his illness, had come to pay him a visit. They could not draw close—he was still under the ban—and they, therefore, stood at some distance. But he recognized them. "Why have you come?" he demanded summarily. "To study Torah," they replied. "And why have you not come until now?" he continued. Embarrassed, they apologized that they had been busy. Rabbi Eliezer recalled
the days when he was still the great teacher in Israel, and looked back upon the time when Rabbi Akiba was still his devoted disciple. To erase the pain induced by these recollections, the visiting scholars drew him into legal discussion. In the midst of it he expired. Forgotten now were all the dissensions; only Rabbi Eliezer's great sincerity, his profound learning and his piety remained. Overwhelmed with grief, Rabbi Joshua arose and formally dissolved the sentence of excommunication that had been between them. Rabbi Akiba applied the verse spoken by Elisha at the passing of Elijah (II Kings 2:12): "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof." A great but turbulent personality had passed from Israel.7
There were similar rifts between Rabbi Joshua and the patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II. Exercising his prerogatives as nasi to arrange the calendar, Rabban Gamaliel announced the date of the New Year Day. A number of scholars, including Rabbi Joshua who was chief justice of the court, made calculations of their own which led them to different conclusions and they recommended that the date be changed. Rabban Gamaliel, however, refused, regarding the matter as closed. Whereupon Rabbi Joshua proceeded to plan celebrating the Holidays not on the date officially designated, but on the date supported by his own calculations.
Rabban Gamaliel saw the threat of a schism and, to maintain the authority of the court, he ordered his associate "to appear before me with thy cane and thy purse, on the day which is the Day of Atonement according to thy reckoning." Rabbi Joshua was in a dilemma and he came to consult some of his colleagues and friends. Rabbi Akiba advised him to obey, for the authority of the court must be upheld even if its decision was based on technically inadequate testimony. He cited the text describing the jurisdiction of the court in the determination of the calendar. "These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, even holy convocations which ye shall proclaim in their appointed seasons" (Lev. 23:4); their holiness
is not inherent, but derived from the proclamation of the court. Another colleague, Rabbi Dosa, likewise recommended compliance. "If we are to review the decisions made by Rabban Gamaliel's court," he explained, "we might as well reconsider every decision which was promulgated from the days of Moses to our own." With a heavy heart Rabbi Joshua finally obeyed. The patriarch was overjoyed at this recognition of his authority, and exultantly greeted him: "Peace on thee, my master and my disciple; my master in learning, and my disciple in acknowledging the authority of my office."8
On another occasion, Rabbi Joshua and the patriarch clashed over a question of ritual procedure. Rabban Gamaliel ruled religious worship in the evening obligatory. It was an innovation in tradition, but he apparently judged it necessary because the Temple had been destroyed and formalized prayer was to replace the cult of sacrifice as an organized and authoritative expression of Jewish piety. Rabbi Joshua wanted more spontaneity in religious life, and to a student who had consulted him, he expressed himself that the evening service ought to remain voluntary. The patriarch heard of this, and he decided to make another demonstration of his authority. When the Sanhedrin gathered for a formal session, Gamaliel had the question submitted for formal consideration, and then he repeated his ruling that the evening service is obligatory, asking whether there were any dissenting opinions. Rabbi Joshua, who was chief justice, announced that there were none. Whereupon Rabban Gamaliel ordered, "Joshua, stand up and a witness will testify that you dissented." Rabbi Joshua confessed his guilt, but the patriarch, as a mark of displeasure, left him standing throughout the day's proceedings.
There was shock among the rabbis at the overbearing and dictatorial manner of the patriarch. When the memorable session broke up and Rabban Gamaliel departed. the members of the Sanhedrin reassembled. After gravely considering
the difficult situation that had developed, a motion was made and carried impeaching the patriarch from his office as head of the academy. He remained patriarch but he was shorn of the academic prerogatives which had gone with the office. A younger member of the court, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah was elected head of the Academy. Rabban Gamaliel accepted the verdict calmly and took his place as a lay member of the court, bearing no grudge and carrying no vindictiveness. Duly humbled, moreover, he apologized to Rabbi Joshua for having treated him with discourtesy. A reconciliation followed and Rabban Gamaliel was finally reinstated, but since Rabbi Eleazar had held the high office, he was to share some of the prerogatives of the office with Rabban Gamaliel. Thus he was to deliver the public lecture on the Sabbath every third week.9
The program of reconstruction as inaugurated at Jabneh was interrupted by a new uprising against Rome. Scattered remnants of the old army of zealots who had challenged Rome in 70 C.E. fled Palestine to settle in various other centers of Jewish population within the empire, including Egypt, North Africa and Cyprus. There they had sown the spirit of discontent and rebellion. And in 116 when Trajan launched a campaign of new conquest in the East, the Jews renewed the old struggle. Palestine played a minor role in the uprising. Jabneh exerted an influence of moderation. the rabbis seeking to dissuade their people from resuming the struggle on the military level. But the rebellion was pursued with unprecedented bitterness and determination in the Jewish diaspora. Fierce battles raged in such cities as Alexandria, Cyrene and in Cyprus, with casualties running in the hundreds of thousands. But it was not a clear-cut struggle between the Jews and the Romans. For many of the natives in each of these conquered provinces bore willingly the yoke of Roman imperialism. And when the crisis
was precipitated the native collaborators of the Romans struck out against their Jewish populations who alone battled for freedom. The civil wars which thus ensued doomed the rebellion to failure. There were new executions, new persecutions, and new despair. Most of the Jewish communities in the diaspora were destroyed. But an embassy of rabbis under the leadership of Rabban Gamaliel hurried to Rome and succeeded in warding off a series of retaliatory measures which had also been projected against Palestine.
A new storm broke after Hadrian came to power (117–138). Content to mark time within the old frontiers and temporarily not to encroach upon the domains of the sturdy Parthians, who maintained a free and flourishing kingdom in what is present-day Iraq, Hadrian became a reformer, devoting his energy to the inner needs of his vast empire in preparation for the next Roman bid for world conquest. One of the most vital of these needs, as he saw it, was the strengthening of imperial unity which he tried to achieve through the cultivation of a common culture. What culture other than Hellenism enjoyed the prestige qualifying it to become the imperial culture? The experiment of Antiochus IV, King of the Syrians, was to be tried again, though on a minor scale. The heterogeneous territories of Rome were to be molded into a national state, linked together by the culture of old Hellas. His program included the restoration of Jerusalem, but as a pagan city, its crowning edifice to be a Greek Temple dedicated to Jupiter.
There was consternation among the Jews when this program was announced. For it held out its threat not merely to Jewish social and political institutions, but to the Jewish way of life, to the Jewish religion. With the Torah in jeopardy, the rabbis now joined the camp of open rebellion. The youthful but brilliant Talmudist, Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, a leader of the Jabneh Sanhedrin, gave his blessings to a new anti-Roman rebellion which was proclaimed by Bar Kokba.
The new insurrection broke out in 132, and it registered some initial success. For 2½ years the Jews held the recaptured city of Jerusalem. They even made attempts to restore the sacrificial cult at an improvised altar. Coins were struck proudly marked in honor of the First, Second and Third Year after the Liberation of Jerusalem. The Romans, however, soon reasserted their power. Jerusalem was retaken. The Jews entrenched themselves in the fort of Bethar, southwest of Jerusalem, but were forced to surrender in 135. Half a million Jews are said to have perished in the struggle. Judea was practically turned into a desert; its cities and villages were in ruins.
The Romans had paid dearly for their victories. So huge were the Roman losses that the emperor omitted the usual reassuring formula from his report to the Senate: "I and my army are well." But they could at last proceed with their plans. Jerusalem was plowed up to dramatize the new foundations of the city, to be called Aelia Capitolina. Temples were built to Bacchus, Serapis, Venus and Jupiter. No Jew could set foot into the new city. The practices of Judaism were forbidden on the pain of death. There was to be no observance of the Sabbath, no performance of the rite of circumcision, no study of Torah, and, to break the continuity of an authoritative religious leadership, they outlawed the ordination of new rabbis. Stricken at the source of its vitality, this dissident people was at last to give way and the totalitarian empire was to pursue unchallenged its ambitions of building a new world state.
In the contest of arms, Rome had once more emerged victorious. But brute power, no matter how overwhelming, has generally proven impotent in the face of a people that was actuated by a profound will to live, and was prepared to pay the cost of survival in suffering. There were Jews. in all layers of society who no longer had the strength to suffer and whose morale was waning. Elisha ben Abuyah, a famous figure in the rabbinical academies, some of whose
moral maxims have been preserved in the ethical treatise Abot, turned renegade and offered himself as a willing collaborator to the Roman officialdom. He helped the Roman police in ferreting out leaders of Jewish resistance and in closing schools where the old way of life was being taught. Rabbi Jose ben Kisma who had once claimed, "If all the precious metals in the world were offered me, I would not live but in an atmosphere of Torah," saw in the repeated successes of Rome the evidence of divine favor. Rome was apparently invincible and it was folly to resist the sweep of the future.10
But there were others, of sterner stuff, who did not lose themselves in the crisis. Rabbis Akiba, Tarfon, and Jose the Galilean held a secret conclave and issued a joint statement to their people, urging them generally to comply with Roman edicts but to resist unto death any orders involving the commission of idolatry, murder, or unchastity.11 And a company of distinguished teachers openly defied the Roman police by continuing to meet with their students for the study of Torah. Their attitude was best summarized in Akiba's famous parable of the fishes and the fox. Warned that his open defiance of Roman law would lead to imprisonment, he replied with the story of the fox who invited the fishes to seek safety from the fishermen on dry land. But the fishes replied, "If the water which is our normal habitat hold out no safety, what will happen to us on the dry land which is not our habitat?" "So, too," expounded Akiba, "if our existence is precarious when we persist in the study of Torah, how shall we survive if we abandon it?"12
The forebodings came true soon enough. The Romans unleashed a reign of terror against the obdurate Jews; many were imprisoned, banished or sold into slavery. There were numerous executions. Intimidated by the terror, many fled Palestine to neighboring countries, particularly Babylonia, where a more tolerant government offered these political refugees a ready welcome.
The records of some of those who perished in the terror have been preserved and they recount a memorable story of steadfast faith and heroic struggle. The Midrash Eleh Ezkerah is the vivid description of a mass execution of ten renowned rabbis. It has been rendered into verse and included in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement.
Among those arrested by the Romans was Rabbi Akiba. From his prison cell, he continued to defy his captors, dispatching secret messages to his followers. A hurried trial was held and the Romans condemned him to death. According to tradition, they executed him by tearing the flesh from his living body. Rabbi Akiba remained steadfast to the very last, expiring with a resolute confession of his outlawed faith: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."13
Akiba's work was immediately taken up by Rabbi Judah ben Baba. Gathering Akiba's five most gifted disciples, Meir, Judah ben Ilai, Simeon ben Johai, Jose ben Halafta and Eleazar ben Shammua, he officially conferred upon them rabbinical ordination and charged them with the task of continuing the tradition of a courageous and devoted leadership amidst confusion and terror. The meeting was raided by the Romans before its conclusion. The five younger men were able to escape, but Rabbi Judah ben Baba was stabbed to death.14
Hadrian's experiment in totalitarianism came to an end with his death in 140, when he was succeeded by Antoninus Pius. The Sanhedrin was at once reorganized, but it now abandoned Jabneh for Usha in Galilee. As one Midrash relates it, "At the termination of the persecutions, our teachers met in Usha. They were Rabbis Judah ben Ilai, Nehemiah, Meir, Jose, Simeon ben Johai, Eliezer (the son of Rabbi Jose the Galilean), and Eleazar ben Jacob. They sent to the elders in Galilee saying, 'Those who have already
learnt, come and teach; those who have not yet learnt, come and be taught.' They met and arranged everything that was necessary."15
One of the things which they finally arranged was the selection of another scion of the Hillel family as their leader, Simeon, the son of Gamaliel II. Simeon, the new nasi, had been in Bethar, the last Jewish stronghold, during the Bar Kokba rebellion, and had witnessed its fall to the Romans. A narrow escape saved him from the massacre that followed in the city.
Having experienced the horrors of war, Simeon extolled the virtues of peace. "The fabric of civilization rests on three moral foundations—truth, justice and peace." "Great is peace, for Aaron the High Priest acquired fame only because he promoted peace." He is also the author of the famous maxim: "It is unnecessary to erect monuments to the righteous; their deeds are their monuments." Rabban Simeon advocated equal justice to Jews and pagans. In one instance he declared it obligatory to ransom pagan slaves who had been kidnapped. And he was lavish in his admiration for those semi-Jews, the Samaritans, for loyally observing those elements in the Torah which they recognized. He was so highly esteemed by the Sanhedrin that in all but three instances his opinion was accepted as authoritative law.
The achievement of the rabbis at Usha extended over a varied field and continued the precedents established at Jabneh. They defended the supremacy of Palestine as the center of Judaism against the claims of the rising Jewish community in Babylonia. An attempt had been made to found a Sanhedrin in Babylonia during the Hadrianic persecutions of Judaism in Palestine. It threatened to start a schism in Israel. When the Usha Sanhedrin was reorganized, a delegation of two rabbis was sent to Babylonia and they succeeded, after a struggle with the local authorities, in inducing the Babylonians to continue to heed Palestinian leadership.
They reorganized the procedure of the Sanhedrin to invest its sessions with new pomp and dignity. In addition to the nasi and chief justice, a new office was created, the hakam, literally a "wise" or learned man. The new functionary seems to have been in charge of the academic functions of the Sanhedrin.
They continued the process of literary reorganization in traditional law as well as the application of that law to new situations; and they enacted a number of reforms dealing with various aspects of religious, domestic, and social life. They ordained that parents were to maintain their children throughout their minority, and that where parents deeded their property to their children, they must be supported from the estate; a person was to contribute a fifth of his income to charity; a father must be patient in teaching his children till the age of twelve, but thereafter he may take severe measures with them.16 Perhaps the most important reform was the declaration of immunity for members of the Sanhedrin who could not be excommunicated for their views, regardless of circumstances.
Judah I, who succeeded his father Simeon to the patriarchate, was born about 135. He received his education at Usha under his father and from intimate contact with the various members of the Sanhedrin. It is uncertain when he assumed the office of his father or when the seat of the Sanhedrin was transferred from Usha to Bet Shearim, also in Galilee. He was not of very good health and for the last seventeen years of his life he lived in Sepphoris, a section of the country renowned for its high altitude and pure air. He died in 217.
Judah was a man of very great wealth and was held in high esteem by Jews as well as by Romans. His universal recognition as a master of tradition and leader in Israel is well attested by his popular designation "Rabbi," without his name, the master par excellence, or Rabbenu ha-Kadosh, "our holy master." The Sanhedrin over which Judah presided
had no chief justice or hakam; he himself fulfilled the varied functions for which the other two offices had been created.
A number of his aphorisms have been preserved in the Talmud. "I have learned much from my masters, more from my colleagues, but most of all from my pupils." "Do not consider the vessel but its contents; many a new vessel is full of old wine and many an old vessel is without even new wine." To the question, "Which is the right path that a man is to choose in life?" he offered the following answer: "That which will be a source of pride to him, before his own conscience, and which will also bring him honor from mankind." He held that children must revere both parents equally.
Under Judah's leadership the Sanhedrin enacted a number of important social reforms. Those who purchased property twelve months after its seizure by the Roman government were required to compensate the original owners by a fourth of its purchase price, but the transfer of possession was declared valid. Certain frontier districts of Palestine were exempted from tithing their crops or leaving their land fallow on a sabbatical year. The theory on which these exemptions were made was that those had not been part of the country regions originally invaded by the Israelites under Joshua. But their purpose was obviously to alleviate conditions among the Jewish masses upon whom the tithes and the seventh year loss of the harvest had proven a very heavy burden.
Rabbi Judah sought to abolish the fast of the ninth day of Ab, when Jews mourned for the fall of the Temple. There was no point in maintaining the fast, he felt, since the Jews were free of persecution and were living everywhere as a free community within the Roman Empire. Indeed, the continued commemoration of that fast day fostered ill-will between Jews and Romans. But Rabbi Judah's colleagues opposed the move and the fast remained.
The most important achievement of Judah was the completion of the great literary enterprise that had been started
in Jabneh—the compilation of the Mishnah. Judah synthesized in his work all that had been accomplished before him. He relied particularly on the compilations of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir. But he ultimately made them all his own and what he produced was a succinct and comprehensive record of Jewish legal tradition from the dawn of Pharisaism until his own times. The opinions that he recognized as authoritative law are generally presented anonymously, but the views of the dissenting masters are given as well. With some minor variations, the product that left the hand of Judah is the classic text of the Mishnah which has been preserved to our own day.
With the passing of Judah I, the old lustre departed from the office of nasi. A number of more or less inconspicuous personalities succeeded him, but they made little mark for themselves as teachers and leaders in Israel. The most important of them was Judah's grandson, Judah II. Judah was a close friend of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus. To facilitate more cordial relations between Jews and Romans, he sought to abolish some of the restrictions against free relations with pagans. He succeeded in lifting an old ban against the use of oil bought from pagans. This was also an important economic amelioration for the Jewish community which used oil as a staple in the common diet. In his own home, the patriarch allowed himself certain deviations from Jewish custom, yielding to the influence of Roman manners to which he was freely exposed. He was openly criticized for this, but the rabbis rationalized that as representative of Jewry he was obliged to mingle with Roman officials which made such accommodations inevitable.17
The rabbis who functioned after the compilation of the Mishnah were called amoraim, expositors, to distinguish them from their predecessors who were called tannaim, teachers. The Mishnah had greatly simplified their labors, for they now had an authoritative record of tradition on which to base their interpretations and decisions.
The pioneer of amoraic activity was Rabbi Johanan (199–279), who headed the academy in Tiberias and who has frequently been called the compiler of the Palestine Talmud. Johanan had studied under Judah I and he extolled the value of his Mishnah. "I base all things on the Mishnah," he declared. Johanan established the principle that no amora could contradict a tanna unless he had tannaitic support for his position. "Whatever is written in the Mishnah has been communicated to Moses on Mount Sinai."
Six commandments he extolled with particular emphasis: hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, careful prayer, rising early to go to the academy, raising children to the knowledge of the Torah, and judging everyone according to his good deeds. Johanan was a great humanitarian. He treated his slave as an equal and served him regularly the same food eaten by the rest of the household. "The slave," he explained, "is the same child of God that I am." He suspended all laws proscribing labor on the sabbath to save a sick person who could then live to observe many sabbaths. He ruled that the injunction to return a straying ox or sheep (Deut. 22:1) applied even if the owner was a Jew who had renounced his Judaism, and he called upon people to give full recognition to whatever truths pagan wise men might discover.
He complained bitterly about the oppressive taxations levied by the Romans. "Such is the way of an evil kingdom when it proposes to seize people's property," he once explained. "It appoints one to be an overseer and another a tax collector. By these devices it takes away the possessions of people." He was hopeful that the Parthians would finally prevail and make good their challenge to Roman supremacy, thereby liberating Jewish Palestine. But, in spite of prevailing persecutions, he sought to discourage the emigration of Jews from Palestine. The national cause demanded that Jews hold on to every position in their native land.
Johanan did not edit the Palestinian Gemara, as has
sometimes been asserted. Johanan died in 279, and the Palestinian Gemara quotes scholars who lived in the fourth and early fifth centuries. But Johanan's work was the most important contribution to the making of this Palestinian supplement to the Mishnah.18
After the passing of Johanan, there set in a continuous decline in Palestinian scholarship. The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity under Constantine (311–337)—another experiment in unifying a heterogeneous empire with a common faith and a common way of life—brought new disabilities upon the Jewish community. In 351, the Jews attempted another uprising against Rome and brutal retaliations followed. The most important centers of Jewish life and learning, including Tiberias and Sepphoris, were destroyed. The Roman Empire itself was weakening, moreover, under the weight of constant warfare with the Parthians and neo-Persians in the East. In the early fifth century, the west was invaded by the Goths and Vandals, and chaotic conditions spread throughout the empire. In Palestine, as in the other provinces, the population was constantly diminishing, through natural decline, as well as through emigration and social and cultural life gradually came to a standstill.
The decline of Palestinian Jewry is perhaps best illustrated by the patriarchs who succeeded Judah II. They were essentially figureheads as far as their functions in Jewish life were concerned. Their knowledge of tradition was mediocre. They were the political representatives of Jewry before the Roman officialdom and assisted the Government in the collection of taxes. The leadership in cultural life passed into the hands of the amoraim, who carried on their work more or less independently, without centralized direction from the patriarchal office.
As nominal heads of the Sanhedrin, the most important function of these patriarchs was the annual promulgation of the calendar. Even this ceased in 359 when the patriarch,
[paragraph continues] Hillel II, formulated a mathematically calculated fixed calendar, doing away with the periodic calendar determination on the basis of the observed position of the new moon. The inertia of a long and colorful past kept the office going for another sixty years, but its usefulness had long since ended. And in 425 when the patriarch Gamaliel VI died childless, the patriarchate was officially abolished.
The abolition of the patriarchate marked the termination of Palestine's role as a center of Judaism. We do not know whose hands put the finishing touches upon the literature of Mishnah supplementation, the Gemara, which had grown up in the various schools. Together with the Mishnah, it proved to be a rich legacy that a fruitful and creative epoch had left to its posterity.
Babylonia, the modern Iraq, ranks second only to Palestine as a center of classical Judaism. Situated along the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the country is rich in alluvial soil, and was one of the most fertile regions of the ancient world.
There had been a Jewish community in Babylonia ever since the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the independence of Judah in 586 B.C.E. and deported to Babylonia a large part of the Judean population. including the leaders of political and religious life. The deportees were given their freedom and were allowed to settle on the land or to engage in any other pursuits of their liking. Babylonia's rich soil rewarded their labors with a lavish bounty; and they grew and prospered in the new land.
The political convulsions of the ancient world repeatedly bore their full weight upon Babylonian life. Cyrus, the Persian, conquered the country in 539 B.C.E., and his dynasty maintained its domination for more than two centuries. Persian power was broken by Alexander the Great
in 331 B.C.E. In the division of empire which followed Alexander's death, Babylonia was joined to Syria as part of the kingdom falling to the general Seleucus.
In one essential respect did the fate of Babylonia differ from the rest of the Near East: she never succumbed to Roman conquest. In 160 B.C.E., a Parthian King, Mithridates I, established himself in the country and the new dynasty, which reigned until 226 C. E., built a powerful military machine that was repeatedly able to hurl back the Roman legions seeking to invade it.
The Jews suffered all the repercussions of the various wars that ravaged the country, but their freedom remained intact. And with the benevolent cooperation of the government, they evolved an ingenious pattern of community life. The Jews were recognized as a national minority, governed by a hereditary prince, called the Resh Galuta, the head of the captivity. This prince who was a descendent of the royal house of David, was the fourth highest ranking noble of the state, representing the Jewish population. As far as the Jewish community was concerned, he was vested with the right to supervise trade and commerce, to appoint judges and to direct the various other tasks of regional government. including the collection of taxes.
The autonomous organization of the Jewish community was made possible by the compact character of the Jewish settlements. Such cities as Nehardea, Nares, Sura, Mehoza, and Pumbedita, had predominantly Jewish populations. The contact between Jews and native Babylonians was free and unrestrained; and the impact of mutual influence was evident on both cultures. The Jews adopted the Aramaic vernacular spoken in Babylonia. Many Babylonians, on the other hand, embraced the Jewish faith and were welcomed into the synagogue. Among the greatest triumphs to Jewish proselytising in Babylonia was the conversion of the royal family of Audiabne, a vassal state in northern Mesopotamia.
Pursuing their own culture, the Jews of Babylonia had
developed important centers for the study of the Torah. The pioneer of the sopheric movement in Palestine, Ezra, had received his training in Babylonia. The venerable teacher, Hillel, received his preliminary education in the Babylonian schools, before migrating to Palestine. The chief justice of the Palestinian Sanhedrin under Simeon ben Gamaliel III was a Babylonian scholar, Nathan. a member of the family of the Resh Galuta.
But the Jews of Babylonia realized that the central authority in Jewish life must be directed from Palestine. Most of them did not want to leave their new homes to take advantage of the Persian edict allowing them to return to Palestine. But they organized an expedition of pioneers who were willing to return; and they helped the new Palestinian settlement with material and moral support until it could get on its feet to resume once again a normal national life. And when Palestine was prepared to offer leadership, they gladly followed. They sent their annual contributions for the maintenance of the Temple and went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They respected the authority of the Sanhedrin and its hierarchy of teachers and leaders who directed Jewish religious and cultural life.
The Roman invasion sent a new wave of immigration from Palestine to Babylonia. This was augmented particularly after the Jewish uprisings of 70 C.E. and 135 C.E. when the Romans devastated Judea and destroyed the Temple. As a Babylonian teacher, after witnessing the tragedy of Palestine, under Rome, remarked: "The Lord, knowing the Jews would not be able to bear the hard decrees of Rome, exiled them to Babylonia."
Among these new Palestinian emigres who came to Babylonia was Hananiah, a nephew of Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, and also a distinguished scholar. Apprehensive that the Romans would completely uproot Palestinian Jewry, Hananiah attempted to organize a Sanhedrin in Babylonia. He organized a school at Nehar Pekod for advanced study of the
[paragraph continues] Torah, and, as its head, proclaimed his competence to promulgate the calendar of Jewish festivals, without reference to the Palestinian authorities. He won local Jewish support, and Babylonian Jewry thus seceded from its dependence on Palestine.
Hananiah's attempt was, however, premature. Babylonia's time had not as yet come. For in 140, peace was restored in Palestine and the Sanhedrin reconstituted at Usha. To recover the loyalty of Babylonia, the Usha Sanhedrin sent a delegation of rabbis to Hananiah, who, however, remained obdurate. The delegates finally appealed, over Hananiah's head, to the Jewish laity.
The Talmudic story relates that one of these delegates when called upon to read the Torah at a synagogue service on a festival date fixed by Hananiah's calendar, substituted "These are the holidays of Hananiah" for "These are the holidays of God." Members of the congregation, of course, corrected him, but he replied, "It is we in Palestine who may read, 'These are the holidays of God'; here in Babylonia one must substitute the name of Hananiah since he fixes the holidays as he chooses and not as God commanded." The second delegate then arose to read and he recited the verse, "Out of Zion shall go forth the Torah," as "Out of Babylonia shall go forth the Torah." When corrected, he replied similarly: "In Palestine we may read as written, but judging by your conduct the amended reading appears justified." Public pressure finally forced Hananiah to yield; and Jewish life was once again under a unified centralized leadership, the Palestinian Sanhedrin.19
The Jews in Babylonia continued to heed the Palestinian Jewish leadership until the fifth century when the Sanhedrin was abolished. But as Jewish life in Palestine declined and Babylonian Jewry grew with ever more accretions from Palestine, the active enterprises of Jewish culture were increasingly transferred to Babylonia. By the third century, a series of schools of higher Torah studies sprang up in Babylonia
which conducted for centuries an active intellectual life, the choicest product of which is the Babylonian Gemara.
The pioneer in this intellectual development was Rabbi Abba Areka, or as he was popularly designated Rab, master par excellence. He had studied in Palestine under Rabbi Judah I, where he distinguished himself in his studies, winning the plaudits of a scholar like Rabbi Johanan who acclaimed him as his own superior. It was at Judah's school that he probably acquired the epithet Areka, tall, to differentiate him from another scholar by the same name, the father of the famous Babylonian amora, Samuel.
In spite of his high standing as a scholar, Rab could not achieve full ordination from Judah or his successor, Gamaliel III. The patriarchs were apparently unwilling to invest Abba with full authority because they did not want to see a self-sufficient religious life established among the Babylonian Jews, with a rival academy under Abba's leadership. The hegemony of Palestine remained unbroken so long as it remained the only Jewish community with a fully ordained religious leadership. Nevertheless he was recognized as an equal in rank to the great teachers who were active before the compilation of the Mishnah and privileged freely to dispute their opinions, a distinction accorded to him alone among all the amoraim, as the rabbis of post-Mishnaic times were called.
Rab returned to Babylonia in 219 with a widely recognized reputation as a great scholar. The Resh Galuta at once appointed him commissioner of markets in Nehardea and he was invited to lecture in the local academy which was then headed by a certain Shila. But neither office proved an adequate outlet for his independent spirit and creative intellect. When Shila died, he was offered the rectorship of the Nehardea academy, but he turned it down, with the recommendation that it be offered to a local scholar, Samuel, who had a greater claim to it.
Rab's final decision was to become a pioneer, to found
a new academy with new traditions and in a region where there was little knowledge of the Torah and a widespread neglect of Jewish religious life—the city of Sura. As the Talmud puts it, he entered "an open and neglected field and fenced it in." With his own funds he erected a school building, and he offered scholarships to needy students, providing tuition and maintenance, and before long 1200 students had enrolled to study under him.
Rab had brought with him from Palestine the text of the Mishnah, edited by Judah I, and he based all his lectures on it, supplementing it, however, with explanations, illustrations, and various new applications. But he was equally interested in the exposition of moral lessons. The Talmud has preserved a number of his moral maxims and they are among the choicest ethical expressions in all literature: "The rituals of the Torah were given only to discipline men's morals." "Whatever may not properly be done in public is forbidden even in the most secret chamber." "It is well that people occupy themselves with the study of Torah and the performance of charitable deeds even when inspired by ulterior motives; for the habit of right doing will finally ennoble their intentions as well." "Man will be held to account for having deprived himself of the enjoyment of good things which the world has offered him." "When necessary, flay dead carcasses in the street and do not say, I am a priest, I am a great man." "It is better to throw one's self into the fiery furnace than to humiliate one's fellow-man."
Rab did not confine his interests to the classroom alone. He was one of the most active and influential communal leaders in his day. He enriched the Jewish liturgy with a number of beautiful prayers which still offer the most inspiring motifs of the synagogue service. His compositions include the prayers on the occasion of the new month, a good deal of the New Year and Day of Atonement liturgy, and the Adoration, Alenu Leshabeah, with which every Jewish religious service, private or congregational, is concluded.
He interested himself in elementary education, ordaining that pupils shall not begin their studies before the age of six; that teachers must create discipline through the winning of the interests and affection of children rather than through corporal punishment; and that no children shall be deemed unworthy of instruction because of mental backwardness. He also contributed immeasurably to the reformation of Jewish family life. Thus, he ruled against child marriages and advocated a period of courtship to enable the boy and girl to discover their own preferences and to choose their own mates without parental dictation.
Rab started his school at the age of 64; and he continued as its active head for 28 years. When he died, all the Jews in Babylonia mourned him for a full year, observing all the rites of mourning which are followed at the loss of a member of the family. He had made himself immortal by raising the religious and cultural life of Babylonian Jewry and by establishing a great institution of high learning which was destined to endure, with minor interruptions, for seven centuries.20
The academy at Nehardea which had invited Rab to its leadership after the passing of Shila was presided over by the local scholar, Samuel, or as he was often called, Mar (Master) Samuel. Like Rab, he had studied in Palestine, but he did not receive even partial ordination. In addition to his studies of Jewish tradition, he had an excellent scientific training. He was a practicing physician and a well-known astronomer. It is interesting that he traced many diseases to the unhygienic conditions under which people lived. He was especially famous for his skill in treating the eye. He denounced the then, and, in many circles, still prevalent superstition ascribing diseases to the evil eye. He attributed a great deal of therapeutic value to air and climate.
As head of the Nehardea academy, Samuel distinguished himself particularly in the field of civil law. He was the author of the famous principle of Jewish law that the legal
system of any country where Jews are residing is binding upon them, even when it is in conflict with their own system of law. And though the Babylonian Jews enjoyed an autonomous court system, he demanded that Jewish judges reckon with the prevailing Babylonian law in reaching their decisions.21
Between Rab and Samuel there was constant intellectual commerce, and the two men frequently disagreed. Samuel's leadership was followed to the full in his specialty, civil law, while Rab remained supreme on questions of ritual law. Samuel survived his colleague by ten years, and during that time Sura was without a successor to Rab. The Nehardea academy was looked upon as the supreme center of Jewish scholarship and religious authority in Babylonian Judaism. The city of Nehardea was sacked in 261 as one of the incidents in the constant warfare between the Babylonians and the Romans. But the famous academy was transferred to a neighboring city, Pumbedita, by a pupil of both Rab and Samuel, Judah ben Ezekiel. This famous academy now remained in Pumbedita throughout the Talmudic period, except for a brief interlude between 339 and 352 when the new rector, Raba, had it transferred to his native city, Mahoza.
The Babylonian academies developed an ingenious educational institution which enabled them to reach large numbers of non-professional students. During the two months, Adar and Elul, when the average farmer is free from his work in the fields, special educational sessions, called Kalla were held in the schools of Sura and Pumbedita. The subject to be taken up at each of these sessions was announced in advance, and laymen were encouraged to spend their hours of leisure in preparation. The lectures of the rector of the academy were supplemented with the discourses of special lectures. The basic text discussed in all these gatherings was the Mishnah; and one tractate was generally covered each month. 12,000 students are reported to have
been enrolled in one such Kalla session.22 This institution brought the academies into close contact with life, and closed the gap between the professional scholar and the layman. And more than anything else, it helped raise the cultural level of Babylonian Jewry.
The two academies continued their parallel development, under various heads, until the end of the fifth century. There were other schools similarly dedicated to the advanced study of the Torah, but Sura and Pumbedita were the supreme centers of intellectual life, where the Mishnaic utterances, so succinctly formulated by Judah I, were enriched with a supplement of new legal discussions and where the doctrines of Jewish theology and ethics were expounded to offer inspiration and guidance to a new community in Israel.
The turning point in this cultural enterprise was the new domestic policy adopted by Kings Yezdegerd II (438–57) and his son Peroz (459–86). Celebrating a respite from the constant warfare with the Romans, these kings entered upon a policy of the intensive nationalization of their realm. Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the country was proclaimed the medium of national integration as well, and all dissident religions were proscribed as treason to the state. The blow of the new nationalism fell with particular severity upon the Jews. The observance of the Sabbath was prohibited. Synagogues were destroyed and schools closed. Jewish children were caught and delivered to the priests of Zoroaster to raise them as devotees of the national religion. Under these severe persecutions, the once proud Jewry of Babylon began to crumble. There began a mass flight of Jews to friendlier shores, to Arabia, India and the Caucasus.
The accumulated cultural achievements of the Babylonian academies were, however, preserved for posterity through the timely labors of principally two men, Rab Ashi (d. 427) and Rabina (d. 500). Ashi headed the Sura academy for
more than 50 years of peace, and he had begun the organization of the vast literature which had grown up in the different academies, around that unique classic of Jewish tradition, the Mishnah. What Ashi started as a leisurely work of detached scholarship became a pressing necessity after his death when the Jewish community was overwhelmed with a great disaster. And his successors at the Sura academy continued his work, finally completing it and, it seems, also reducing it to writing. The final job of editorial revision was rendered by Rabina, the last of the rectors of the Sura academy in Talmudic times. Babylonian Jewry eventually recovered from these persecutions and the schools were reopened for another five centuries of cultural leadership. But the Gemara which had been completed by the close of the fifth century was the apex of its cultural life and its chief contribution to the Judaism of the future.