The Politics of Piety

The Politics of Piety: Social Conflict and the Emergence of Rabbinic Liturgy


[Tzvee Zahavy, Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota, criticizes the tendency of many recent liturgical scholars to disregard what he calls the politics of piety as the primary force in the shaping of early Jewish prayer patterns.  He urges us to give credence to reports of political strife around liturgical issues, holding that for religious leaders in antiquity, prayer mattered sufficiently for offical parties to congeal around alternative traditions.  Though critical of early reductionist attempts to see liturgies as simply political polemics against rival traditions, he holds that a nuanced reconstruction of the parties of antiquity is still possible, and that we can trace the origins of this or that prayer tradition to  these parties, who contended with each other in the shaping of communal piety.  His case in point is the twofold central rubric of Jewish synagogue prayer: the shema and its blessing on the one hand, and the tefillah on the other, each of which he assigns to competing rabbinic factions, as he posits a novel reconstruction of the way rabbinic liturgy began.]

From History to Form-criticism and Back: The Study of Jewish Prayer

            In the past decade there has been renewed scholarly interest in the development of Jewish prayer in its most formative period, from 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.  Current researchers are now applying diverse social scientific and historical methods to the study of the ancient world in general, and specifically to the development of Judaic culture, enabling us to engage in a more complex and fruitful historical mode of reconstructing the emergence of Judaic liturgy and ritual in late antiquity.

            The most original of the contemporary investigators have emphasized the need for interdisciplinary perspectives in this area and have developed new modes of social scientific and aesthetic criticism of Jewish liturgy.[1]  This represents a third stage in the critical analysis of Jewish liturgical development.  Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship (the first phase) took a mainly reductionistic historical approach to Jewish prayer.  That work is now outdated.  The more recent form-critical method dominated the second phase of research.  That mode of scholarship has proven unproductive.[2]  In this paper I summarize some of the shortcomings of these two previous stages and then propose a fresh analysis of classical rabbinic liturgy which does not abandon entirely the concern for historical context that characterized the first stage, but which obviates the reductionism of that approach by using advanced methods of analysis.

Critique of earlier research and its methodological premises

            1.  Early reconstructions of liturgical development were often theological or apologetic.[3]  No doubt the ideology of Jewish ritual was significant in its time of origin and continued to have theological impact afterward.  Research in this area must nevertheless avoid theological-apologetic explanations of Judaic institutions and take care not to impute any unique or timeless value to the philosophical content of Judaic ritual.

            2.  Rabbinism was a new Judaic system that took shape after the destruction of the Temple in the first century.  Its world views and ways of life represent distinct configurations in the history of Judaism, discontinuous in many ways with prior Israelite systems in Hellenistic Israel and the diaspora.  Most scholarly work of Stages One and Two reconstructed liturgical development without differentiating rabbinic Judaism as a new system of the post destruction era.  Research that sees Judaism as a single linear progression from Moses or Ezra through the classical age of rabbinism rests on a subtle form of historicistic apologetics.  Scholars with theological intent incline, for instance, to posit the early origin of synagogue or the antiquity of certain prayers in the absence of evidence or in spite of abundant proof to the contrary.[4]

            3.  The Jews of first- to third-century Israel, the most formative interval of liturgical growth, lived under imperial Roman rule and within social configurations dominated by local leaders, often rabbis or other holy men.  Their circumstance made them repress realistic aspirations of national political sovereignty.  Their cultural output, including the formation of liturgical rituals, must be understood as a facet of this context.  Many early reconstructions of liturgical development were based on deficient models of the social and political realities of the times.[5]

            4.  The main creative forces of rabbinic religious development derived from internal conflict and competition among the leaders of factions within Judaism.  Among those who called themselves "rabbis" we assume were scribes, priests, members of the patriarchal house, and others seeking "leadership," that is to say, dominance and control, over local communal life.  S. Talmon has developed a more advanced social scientific approach to liturgical development for Qumran.  Some of his basic premises are informative, as the following summary statement illustrates:

In order to compensate the loss of the sacrificial cult, and by reason of the group-centered ideology, the Covenanters especially promoted deindividualized, stereotyped forms of prayer that could be adapted without further qualification to communal devotion.  Their egalitarian principles, the right of each member to scrutinize the deeds of his fellow, the hierarchical structure of the community, and the resulting system of close supervision of the lower-ranking by their superiors were conducive to the development of worship patterns fixed in time, openly observable, and removed from the sphere of subjective ad hoc decisions with their concomitant individualized forms of expression.[6]

We rarely find succinct, neutral assessments like this one in early reconstructions of liturgical development since they mainly misunderstood the internal dynamics, and especially the role of prayer within Jewish culture and society in the first three centuries C.E.[7]

            5.  The artificial church-sect distinction of religious organizational life must be rejected as an inappropriate model for the description of the setting of late antique Judaism.   That is to say, dynamics of ritual development cannot simply be attributed to reactions to heresies.  Many early reconstructions of liturgical development, however, clung to the notion that prayers often developed within a normative Judaism specifically to oppose sectarian heresies.  This supposition misled historians of Jewish liturgy to differentiate an Urtext for prayers, which they associated with the imagined normative tradition, and variant versions of that Urtext, which they declared deviant.[8]

            6.  We ought to assume that the primary targets of negative speech and action in ritual were those leaders closest in competition for allegiance of the populace at large.  It is wrong to postulate readily that external challenges to the faith led to the formation of major components of Judaic rituals.  Only where we find no likely candidate internal to the religion should we consider external competing systems of religion as targets of ritual polemic.  Some early reconstructions of liturgical development placed too much emphasis on liturgy as a rebuttal to external forces such as early Christianity and Persian dualism.[9]  Hoffman succinctly describes the assumptions of the historicist approach:

The "original" prayer and subsequent additions to it all were explained as arising in response to various events and periods, as if prayer must always be a rational response to political persecution, a reaction to a foreign ideology, a blow against heresy, or an organism's response to the thousand and one other data that constitute a nation-folk's history.[10]

            7.  Both Hoffman and Sarason characterize how the philological approach dominated Jewish liturgical research and stood behind the work of the earlier historians and the form critics.  Philologists did not claim to do Jewish history but did make many historical claims.  Proponents of this text-based approach did not articulate a coherent model of social or historical circumstances for prayer and drew hasty and at times incomprehensible conclusions based mainly on unfounded assumptions.

            8.  Form-criticism, based on a model for relating religious ritual to social institutions, replaced philology as a dominant paradigm for research.  A shortcoming of the form-critical approach was that it postulated these institutions without appropriate evidence of their existence, and without defining precisely what they were, in comprehensible categories generizable to the history of religion.  Joseph Heinemann, for example, linked diverse liturgical forms to distinctive social settings,[11] but with questionable assumptions.  He associated prayers with one or another sitz im leben in early rabbinism: the Bet Midrash or study hall, the Synagogue, the Law Court, and the Temple.  Each of these was a complex and controversial institutional construct in its own right, a point to which Heinemann did not pay sufficient attention.  He errs in his basic assumptions that these were uniform and mature institutions in the first and second centuries.  His theory accordingly is built upon precarious foundations.

            Hoffman's critique on this issue is milder: "Heinemann may at times have insufficient evidence to postulate details about the functioning of a given social institution, the workings of which he takes for granted in his etiology of a given prayer."[12]  The speculative and arbitrary bases of liturgical form-criticism rendered it a somewhat sterile method, unable to lead others to additional insights based on its assertions and conclusions.

            9.  Other facets of Heinemann's basic theory are counter-intuitive, as for example: "At first many different forms of the same basic prayer grew up in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and that only afterwards, gradually in the course of time, did the rabbis impose their legal norms on this vast body of material."[13]  Heinemann does not provide firm enough evidence to establish an historical basis for a loose populist process of development of prayer.  Heinemann furthermore neglected the essential role of the leadership of the elite in propagating liturgy to serve their political and social interests.  He too often employed the unspecified passive voice to describe the growth of liturgical ritual.  Other scholars both early and recent have lapsed often into the habit of describing liturgical growth as a kind of spontaneous generation.   "Liturgy developed...," said Stefan Reif in an article.  Sarason declared, "The eighteen benedictions did not all come into being...."  At greater length Hoffman posits, "Worship is a category of human experience with rules of its own, and...these rules function in their own way to result in the formation of a liturgy."[14]

            Considering these nine areas of weakness in the study of Jewish prayer we must take a fresh look at some basic issues.  We ought not reject form criticism and return to the simple empirico-positivism of the past.  We need to carry forward its basic idea that liturgy grows out of social and political institutional life.  Fortunately, in the past few years Lee Levine has published an interdisciplinary study that represents one solid and sustained exercise in delineating the social ramifications of institutional structures in rabbinic culture.[15]  Together with Saldarini's recent inquiry and the extensive critical studies of Jacob Neusner that relate the major corpora of rabbinic literature to the social world of late antique Judaism, we now have firmer underpinnings for a revisit to the complex formative world of classic Judaic liturgy.[16]  The time has come to renegotiate aspects of the historical analysis of the growth of Jewish prayer based on current deeper and more complex understandings of the political and social circumstance of Judaism in Israel in late antiquity.

            New analysis must be devoid of theological-apologetic intent.  It must recognize the systemic discontinuities of rabbinism in Judaic history.  It must take account of the relative influence of local and national forces over internal Jewish life and the role of religious ritual in those relationships.  It must take seriously the effects of conflict on religious institutional change.  It must broaden its view of religion and social life beyond the paradigm of norm against heresy.  It must resist the temptation to posit changes in Judaism based on reactions to conditions outside the defined boundaries of the group's identity.

            These stated desiderata serve as crucial, though often implicit, grounding for the discussion that now follows.

The Formation of the Shema and Tefillah as the Core of Rabbinic liturgy

            Prayer services do not emerge spontaneously or arbitrarily in a vacuum.  They are the public pronouncements of the central values and concepts of the religious leaders who initially propounded them and are social rituals that often emerge out of intense conflict and hard-fought compromise.  Specific historical, social, and political conditions contributed to the distinct origin of two major rabbinic services.  In the crucial transitional period after the destruction of the Temple, the Shema emerged as the primary ritual of the scribal profession and its proponents.  The Tefillah at this formative time was a ritual sponsored mainly by the patriarchal families and their priestly adherents.  Compromises between the factions of post-70 Judaism later led to the adoption of the two liturgies in tandem, as the core of public Jewish prayer.  But this came about only after intense struggles among competing groups for social and political dominance over the Jewish community at large and concomitantly for the primacy of their respective liturgies.  The political, social, and even economic dimensions of the religious life of the synagogues were crucial to the formation of nascent rabbinic Judaism.

Growth of Religious Ritual through Conflict

            We are now more aware of the influence of conflict and differentiation internal to rabbinism in its historical development.  Rabbinic traditions tersely report aspects of what must have been bitter and prolonged political battles over liturgical compromise. Talmudic sources recount that Gamaliel II of Yavneh was deposed from the patriarchate at the turn of the second century on account of a dispute over the regulation of prayers.[17]  Other incidents too suggest that prayer had much more than merely spiritual and theological ramifications for late antique rabbinism and that diversity and conflict characterize the formulation of its liturgy.[18]

            New Testament pericopae agree, depicting confrontations between Jesus and Paul and the Jews of various synagogues.[19]  Richard Horsely's recent research into early Christianity[20] explains that, "In traditional historical societies there was no separation of life into different areas such as `religion' and `politics' and `economics.'"  He remarks regarding the gospels that, "The intensity and variety of conflict that runs through the gospel tradition is still overwhelming.  The situation in which Jesus heals and preaches is pervaded by conflict, some of it explicit, much of it implicit in stories and sayings."[21]  Rabbinism in this era must be viewed in the same manner.

            Once established as standard within a given community, prayers are not easily changed because their rituals must be accountable on a regular basis to a community of pious devotees.  As Heiler says of institutionalized prayer in general, "The prayer formula is stereotyped and strictly obligatory; the wording is inviolable, sacrosanct; no worshipper may dare to alter the words in the slightest degree, any more than he would think of making a change in ritual acts of sacrifice, expatiation, or consecration."[22]  While we know that changes occur and variations exist, liturgy is basically one of the most conservative of all cultural commodities.  Precisely because they resisted change, therefore, rabbinic prayers provide a window through which we may observe the development of formative Judaism in the first centuries of the common era.

            Given these suppositions let us turn to the contents, motifs, and forms of the standard formulation we possess of the two main liturgies, the Shema and the Tefillah. We shall see a progression in liturgical formulation summarized in three phases:

            1.  The Shema became the primary rite of the scribal brotherhoods, propounding the essential scribal themes.  In this perspective the exodus motif in the Shema functioned as a polemic of scribal triumphalism.

            2.  The Tefillah, by contrast, originated as the main liturgy of the deposed priestly aristocracy and was adopted by the patriarchate as a central ritual.  Priestly and aristocratic themes were central to the Amidah.  In this perspective the kingship-motif served as a justification of priestly and patriarchal authority as post-destruction client rulers of the community, implicitly for Rome, and explicitly for God.

            3.  Later, in the post-deposition era and in the wake of the defeats of the apocalyptic aristocracy in the Bar Kokhba revolt, rabbinic leadership amalgamated its social forces and merged the formerly distinct liturgical rituals in a single service.

The Scribes and their Shema

            Before we deal with the first phase, the institutionalization of the Shema in Israel in the first and early second centuries, a few words are in order regarding the social definition of the scribes in Israel.  Matthew Black says the scribes "represented a distinctive class in the community.  They practiced their legal profession throughout Palestine (and as certainly in the dispersion)."[23]  Saldarini's fresh and more complex definition proposes, "Scribes do not seem to be a coherent social group with a set membership, but rather a class of literate individuals drawn from many parts of society who filled many social roles and were attached to all parts of society from the village to the palace and Temple."[24]  We take note primarily of the struggle of the scribal faction within rabbinism for recognition in the composite social world of Hellenistic Israel.

            This social group promulgated its liturgy to advance its ideas and influence.  The Shema expressly emphasizes several dominant theological themes [e.g., love of God; unity of God; centrality of Torah] and gives priority to these ideas out of a rich repertoire of possible alternative biblical motifs.

            The scribes' support of this prayer derives from their social realities.  Saldarini discusses the overlapping roles of scribes who served in the Temple, and were involved in the wisdom and apocalyptic movements of the time.  Scribes, he says, served both in the village as copyists, teachers, and low level functionaries, and in middle-level bureaucratic official capacities in the government structures in Jerusalem and Galilee.[25]  It is likely that the scribal faction most active in rabbinic society derived its livelihood as teachers of the law and from the accompanying need for copies of the Torah, and on the widespread use of phylacteries, mezuzot, and other required religious articles.  The verses of the Shema stated plainly that Torah-study and the observance of selected commandments were among the highest values in Israelite life.

            The period of origin of the Shema as a popular scribal rite may be traced to the time of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, wisdom fellowships of the first century.  A number of rabbinic traditions associate rules and practices for reciting the Shema with the Houses.[26]  Early Christian evidence in Mark 12:29-30 depicts Jesus reciting the first two verses of the Shema in the context of a debate with a group of scribes, and as an opponent of the Temple hierarchy.[27]  The scriptural verses of the Shema appear in the earliest phylacteries found at Qumran.[28]  Of course, some of the values promoted by the Shema may be located even further back in Israelite history in the wisdom movements of the Hellenistic age.[29]  Israelite sages and scribes commonly emphasized Torah and commandments as primary motifs of religious life.[30]

            In formative rabbinic Judaism the liturgy figured prominently in daily ritual life.  Both the inclusions and exclusions of the contents of the standard rabbinic text of this liturgy clearly define its focus and original intent.  The primary motifs of the national cult in Jerusalem are noticeably missing from both the Shema and from the frame of blessings that surround it.[31]  Such ideas and institutions as the Temple, the priesthood, Jerusalem, and Davidic lineage, all prominent motifs in the Tefillah, are not primary concerns of the framers of the Shema.

            Conspicuous evidence of revision in the Shema shows that some disagreement arose over time among various subsequent sponsors of the liturgy.  Mention of the patriarchal motif of kingship was added, intruding after the first biblical verse[32] and in the framing blessings.  Mishnah Ber. 1:5 cites a dispute over the legitimacy of mentioning the exodus in the evening Shema.  Rabbinic pericopae indicate that there was significant disagreement over some main themes of the Shema liturgy.[33]  It is fair to conclude that such materials probably reflect divisions between the local scribal brotherhoods, who sought independent authority over their adherents, and the national priestly-aristocratic leadership, who likely served as part of the client governance of Israel on behalf of imperial Rome and accordingly advocated alternative values.[34]

            Admittedly the case for the origination of the Shema in a scribal social context appears to be contravened by an oft-cited Mishnah pericope (Tamid 5:1) that projects the recitation of the Shema back to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.  One might argue, however, that this evidence is secondary at best and may be suspected as a means to link artificially the Shema with ancient priestly authority.  Priests in the Temple could hardly have been expected to sponsor and perpetuate a liturgy with the limited range of content and themes of the Shema.[35]  It would be natural for a group sponsoring its own liturgical rite to seek legitimacy by establishing post factum a fictitious account of the antiquity and broad authority of the ritual.  This pericope may just be a simple projection of a later ritual back to an earlier context.  At best, it describes a variant precursor to the ritual "recitation of the Shema" which later historical and social forces adapted and adopted as a primary liturgical institution.[36]

            A more subtle and possibly contrived association with the Temple is present in the first pericope of Mishnah.  Berakhot 1:1 goes out of its way to link the Shema with the Temple and with the sons of Rabban Gamaliel the Patriarch.[37]  Other rabbinic evidence more firmly attests to the scribal provenance of the Shema, outside of the control of the Temple hierarchy.  So, for instance, a Tosefta passage in Berakhot rules that scribes only interrupt their professional duties when the time comes for the recitation of their main liturgy, the Shema.  Tosefta adds that they need not stop their tasks to recite the prayer of the Patriarchal aristocracy, the Tefillah.[38]

                        Scribal values are conspicuous in the content of the Shema's texts.  As I suggested, the blessings that became standard in later rabbinism for framing the Shema may have been established as late as the second century.[39]  Still, they continue to focus on the scribal agendum and omit direct mention of such major themes as the Temple, the Priests, Jerusalem, and David -- all crucial to the fostering of priestly and aristocratic ideals.  The framing-blessings refer prominently to cosmic motifs, suggesting the mystical dimensions of religious discourse; the exodus and the promise of future redemption; the Torah and the commandments; and the value of the study of Torah -- all essential thematic concerns of the scribal factions in post-70 Israel.

            The standard blessings before the morning Shema make reference to cosmic-mystical dimensions of the world, mention the love of God, and refer to the return to the Land of Israel, but interestingly, not to Jerusalem.[40]  The blessing recited in the morning after the scriptural passages of the Shema mentions the cosmic dimension and refers to the exodus and the ultimate messianic redemption.  The mention of the kingship of God appears only as a theme subsidiary to the exodus.  The blessings before the scriptural passages in the evening reiterate the cosmic references, and rehearse the value of Torah study.  After the passages the blessing in the evening returns to the theme of the exodus, to a generalized statement of redemption, and to references to God as protector of Israel, apropos of the dangers of the night.  This scribal liturgy builds its dramatic tension towards a promise of messianic redemption, in alternation with reiteration of the miracles of the exodus from Egypt.

The Scribes and the Seder

            The invocation of the exodus may have conjured a broader ritual complex, namely the seder, through which participants reenacted the exodus in the long-standing Israelite springtime ritual.  Scribal political interests had much to gain by persistently recalling this theme.  The rabbinic Passover, observed with a seder, was essentially a banquet for Torah study.  It previously was the most popular of Israelite festivals, celebrated through the cultic offering and feast of the Paschal lamb.  As the festival evolved it became a primary means of annually reinforcing scribal social solidarity.  The scribes promoted the seder as a ritual occasion to substitute for the sacrifice, and a vital way to promote their political and social aims.

            Beginning even prior to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism, but continuing later within rabbinism, these scribal factions renovated the festival and transformed the feast into an occasion for Torah-study, as a deft means of usurping the authority for controlling ritual formerly claimed to be exclusively in the domain of the priesthood.[41]  The fact that people participated in the seder, thus recognizing it as the authentic means to celebrate Passover, must have been a humiliation for the priests and their allies, as well as for their avowed successors, the patriarchal houses.  These constituencies felt the loss of the Temple and its sacrificial cult most acutely at the time of the Passover festival.

            The rabbinic-scribal seder was blatantly anti-cultic.  Instead of describing the paschal sacrifice and its rite, the crux of the ritual was a recitation of questions and answers and rabbinic midrashim on the ten plagues and on various historical scriptural verses.[42]  The seder mentions the paschal offering only reluctantly in the context of a statement ascribed to the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel.  The passage arbitrarily insists that it be mentioned along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  "Rabban Gamaliel said, `Anyone who has not said these three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: Paschal Offering, Matzah, and Bitter Herbs."  Note well that the unit concludes, "The Paschal Offering -- on account of God having passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt...," and not on account of the Paschal Offering brought to the Temple by generations of Israelite families from all corners of the land.[43]  This attitude persists as undertone throughout the fellowship ritual.[44]

            Another suggestive component of early traditions associated with the seder suggests the close linkage between the scribes, seder, and Shema.  We hear of students who arrive in the morning after the seder, and find that the rabbis have been discussing the exodus all through the night; they declare, "Masters, the time has come for the morning recitation of the Shema."  They make no mention of the Tefillah.  This omission may be simply dismissed by assuming that the rabbis first would have recited the Shema, thereafter followed by the Tefillah.  But if we take this anecdote at its simple face value, the students remind their masters of the Shema, the rite of the scribes, not the Tefillah, the priestly ritual.[45]

Priests, Patriarchs, and the Tefillah Prayer of Eighteen Blessings

            The literary form and thematic content of the Tefillah contrast strikingly with the Shema.  Throughout, it represents those themes most apt for reinforcing the primacy of the priestly aristocracy, including the priestly blessing itself.  Elias Bickermann in fact labelled the Tefillah, the "Civic Prayer for Jerusalem."[46]  Bickermann's position is attractive because it appeals to the content and themes of the liturgy and because it posits a simpler origin-process for the prayer.  Let me therefore begin with that hypothesis and further scrutinize the evidence in light of the social and political ramifications of the promulgation of the liturgy in the first century after the destruction of the Temple.

                        Out of the nineteen blessings of the Tefillah (which follow), seven contain national or political themes that may be associated with priestly or patriarchal interests, i.e., numbers 5, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17 and 19.

1.  Shield of Abraham, patriarchs

2.  God's powers,[47] resurrection of the dead

3.  Holiness of God, God's name

4.  Knowledge [no explicit mention here of Torah]

5.  Repentance [a cultic theme; mention of Torah with Service]

6.  Forgiveness

7.  Redemption

8.  Healing

9.  Yearly sustenance

10.  Liberation and ingathering of exiles [national motif]

11.  Restoration of judges [political motif][48]

12.  Slanderers, enemies, apostates

13.  Righteous [reference to the "remnant of the scribes"]

14.  Jerusalem [priestly theme]

15.  Davidic salvation [priestly and patriarchal theme][49]

16.  Hear prayer [followed immediately by prayer for restoration of cult]

17.  Restore the cult, return presence to Zion

18.  Thanksgiving

19.  Peace, priestly blessing

            Bickermann suggested that the last three blessings (17-19) were parts of the "High Priest's prayer," recited in the Temple and were added as a unit to an earlier prayer that concluded with the present fifteenth blessing.  Blessings 4-7 "form a group centered on the idea of sin.  They enlarge upon the appeal to God's forgiveness made by the High Priest on the Atonement Day.  The Sixth Benediction more or less repeats this pontifical prayer."[50]  He further speculates that the first, eighth, ninth, fourteenth and our sixteenth blessings form a single prayer invoking the patriarchs, and concerning health, prosperity, Jerusalem, and an appeal for the acceptance of prayer.  Bickermann argues that this group parallels similar Greek Hellenistic prayers recited for the well-being, health, peace, and prosperity of the polis.  On this basis he concludes that

the original Tefillah was the Civic Prayer for Jerusalem.  Both, the Greeks and the Jews, asked for health and food.  But while the Greek also prayed for peace or salvation of the city, the covenanted Jew expressed the same idea by supplicating the Deity to have mercy on Jerusalem.[51]

This prayer was recited, says Bickermann, in the Temple "by the people after the libation rite of the continuous sacrifice (Tamid).  The prayer was post-exilic, and is first attested ca. 200 B.C.  It was first said on the festival days only, but became a part of the daily sacrificial service after 145 B.C."[52]

            Bickermann errs, I believe, in locating the initial official adoption of the full-blown liturgy in the second century B.C.E.  This is too early, for we have ample data that factions among the rabbis in the first and early second centuries C.E. contended over its legitimacy.  But as our evidence shows -- based in part on Bickermann's analysis -- this prayer formed the core of the priestly liturgy sponsored by the patriarchate after the destruction of the Temple.  In the aftermath of the internal political crisis that led to the deposition of Gamaliel, the Tefillah was accepted by the scribal factions too, and in return, the patriarch agreed to foster the Shema, with minor modifications.  Together these prayers made up the composite liturgy that reflected a qualified compromise between priests, patriarchal aristocrats, and scribe/rabbis.

                        This line of argument is supported by several added points of importance regarding the Tefillah.  First, in the Tefillah the thirteenth blessing refers to the "remnant of the scribes."  Bickermann calls the allusion obscure, and cites Liebermann who adds that it must be "very old."  This phrase could in fact depict a facet of the conflict between the two mainly distinct social divisions who sponsored competing prayers as they strove for dominance over the populace in the post-destruction era.  This terminology may be a negative reference to the adherents of the scribal brotherhoods, and a prayer for "mercy" for those who adhere to that "decadent scribal group."[53]

            Bickermann focused our attention on the agendum of the liturgy.   Prominently absent from the blessings of the Amidah are references to creation, to other aspects of the cosmic/mystical dimension of the world, and to the exodus.   Torah is mentioned, but only in the fifth blessing, in conjunction with avodah, the sacrificial Temple cult.  We may safely say that this liturgy does not propound vital elements of a scribal agendum.

            This understanding of the dynamic of the definitive first century stage of liturgical institutionalization helps us put prior phases into perspective.  So, for example, in T. Ber. 3:13 the Houses of Hillel and Shammai dispute the number of blessings to be recited in the case of a New Year or festival that coincides with the Sabbath.  The numbers alone are given and they descend from ten to seven, leaving us to decide to what blessings the Houses refer.  One might argue that this unit is a fictionalized projection of later practice to an earlier age.  If so, we might object that the dispute does not reflect an expected simple picture of later practice by earlier masters.  Hence the disputes likely are not artificial.  Even so, little can be deduced from the tradition regarding the Houses' relationship to the early use of the Tefillah on the Sabbath and festivals.[54]  As Petuchowski sums up, the most we can say is, "Public worship on Sabbaths and festivals antedated public worship on weekdays, and an Order of Seven Benedictions for Sabbaths and festivals was in existence before the Order of Eighteen Benedictions for weekdays was devised at Yavneh."[55]

            In further support of Bickermann's assertions, internal rabbinic evidence suggests that the Tefillah was a priestly rite, later taken over by the patriarchate as its own ritual.  The relevant Talmudic source provides two traditions regarding the origin of the Tefillah.  One source attributes the authorship to the Men of the Great Assembly, an institution about which we have little definite evidence.  We can presume that this tradition seeks to associate the Tefillah with a public body attached to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Another text links the Tefillah to the later Simeon Hapakoli under the supervision of Gamaliel the patriarch at Yavneh.[56]  This unit leaves little doubt that patriarchal sympathizers sought to subsume the Tefillah as their own authorized liturgy.  No comparable patriarchal oriented tradition exists regarding the origin of the Shema.[57]

                        Based on our evidence we can go further than to say that the Tefillah and Shema were prototype liturgies of competing social factions.  We also can trace to a particular period the joint institutionalization of these prayers as permanent fixtures of rabbinic worship.  Rabbinic texts preserve evidence of the main conflict and compromise that lead to the "canonization" of the core of rabbinic liturgy.  The deposition narrative that I alluded to earlier in this article centers on the struggle between first-century factions over the imposition of a liturgical ritual as obligatory.  According to this narrative,  Gamaliel was deposed from the patriarchate because he insisted that the rabbis recite the Tefillah at night.  We have two versions of this deposition-narrative that vary on some substantive details.

                        In the version of the narrative in the Palestinian Talmud (Ber. 4:1), the action begins in the Beit Va`ad (Gathering Hall) and continues in the Yeshivah.  In the main action of the story, Elazar b. Azariah, a priest descended from a scribe, and himself an aristocrat, takes the place of Gamaliel after he is overthrown.  Elazar served as the interim Patriarch as the scribes usurped control from the Patriarchal aristocracy.  He was described as a priest who supported the ideals of the scribes, a pragmatic political figure.  Akiba, who was rejected as the compromise candidate for the Patriarchate, is portrayed as lacking the practical ability to mediate between factions as an active politician.  Tradition tells us that this political extremist supported the messianic rebellion of Bar Kokhba and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Romans.[58]

                        The Babylonian version (Ber. 27b-28a) of the deposition narrative contains several additions.  First it locates all the action in the rabbinized study hall.  It depicts a guard of shield bearers supporting the Patriarch.  Here, the reform of the patriarchal court is effectuated by packing the membership of the house of study, by "adding benches."  The deposition is followed by a reconciliation wherein Gamaliel reclaims the patriarchate, bowing to the new realities and the change in the balance of power in rabbinic leadership.  As part of this process the patriarch visits the scribe's house and suffers debasing humiliation, counterbalancing Gamaliel's earlier humiliation of Joshua.[59]  Once the deal is cut to restore Gamaliel, Elazar is informed in priestly metaphor to yield his position back to the legitimate heir.

            The deposition-narrative compresses into stylized rabbinic form an account of events that probably stretched over a sustained period of social unrest and instability within rabbinic society itself.[60]  Naturally, the struggle for dominance in the rabbinic community ought to be interpreted ultimately in light of all pertinent political, social, and economic factors.  Nevertheless, we must not ignore the fact that the traditions we have link the struggle to liturgy. Other sources too indicate historical tension in the development of the Shema and Tefillah.[61]  Prayer had a powerful and real impact within the community of the faithful.

            Accordingly we ought not assume that the liturgical account was just a peripheral means of reporting a broader conflict.  Goldenberg dismisses the ostensible issue of liturgical reform as a mere excuse, referring to the, "striking triviality of the dispute over the evening prayer."[62]  However, there is reason enough to believe that the pivotal issue over which the Patriarch was deposed is just as stated, the question of whether the recitation of the evening prayer of eighteen blessings was optional or compulsory.  Institutionalization of the Tefillah at night must have been seen as a move to displace the Shema from its place of liturgical primacy.  It was in short a direct challenge to the authority of the scribal factions within rabbinism.  Goldenberg alludes to political struggle, saying:

The Patriarchal regime was just beginning to consolidate its power.  The rabbinic conclave in general must have resented this.  At least two rival groups, the priests and Yohanan's circle, are likely to have had aspirations of their own.  The stakes in the struggle -- control over the remnant of Jewish autonomy in Palestine -- were large.[63]

But he fails to take one more step to acknowledge that promulgation of public prayers, the stated issue of the conflict he discusses, was one of the primary means of exercising influence, dominance, and control over a community of the faithful.

The Politics of Piety

            To summarize, I have posited that liturgies within rabbinic Judaism arise out of competing social circumstances.  I have argued that the scribes promoted the Shema together with particular motifs, such as the exodus,[64] to foster their authority over Israelite society.  Others seeking dominance employed their own competitive legitimizing liturgies.  What Stefan Reif has written regarding the general characteristics of Jewish liturgy applies here, "The essence of Jewish liturgy is that it carries within it all these competing tendencies and successfully absorbs them all."[65]

            Our reconstruction examined the development of two major liturgical rituals of early rabbinism as they progressed through several probable stages.  During the initial transition after the destruction of the Temple, from about 70-90 C.E., the priests promulgated the Tefillah and the scribes promoted the Shema.  At this time it would have been natural for the scribes to associate the Shema with the Temple Service.  In the second phase of development, from about 90-155 C.E., the patriarchate sponsored the Tefillah to counter a growing scribal faction within the rabbinic movement.  Scribes countered by rallying popular support, deposed Gamaliel, and effectuated a lasting compromise.  Both liturgies were adopted in tandem and made obligatory rabbinic rituals.

                        In the era from about 155-220 C.E., the rabbis amalgamated the shema and the tefillah, in a compromise that led to the present shape of the composite rabbinic service.  A probable result is that the Shema was revised to include the theme of kingship.  In this era the priests were relegated to figurehead status in rabbinic communities.  The Patriarch continued to observe the conventional boundaries of his authority established after the deposition, and was excluded from most internal rabbinic affairs.  In effect the scribal faction triumphed in the internal rabbinic power struggle, severing rabbinic ritual from meaningful national political structures.


[1].See L. A. Hoffman, Beyond the Text (Indianapolis, 1987), and especially his introductory discussion of the history of the study of Jewish liturgy; T. Zahavy, "A New Approach to Early Jewish Prayer," in B. Bokser, ed., Judaism: the Next Ten Years (Chico, 1980), pp. 45-60; S. C. Reif, "Jewish Liturgical Research: Past, Present and Future," JJS 34 (1983): 161-70.

[2].See Hoffman (n. 1 above); R. S. Sarason, "On the use of method in the modern study of Jewish liturgy," in W. S. Green, ed., Approaches to Ancient Judaism (Missoula, 1978), pp. 97-172.

[3].Examples of apologetics abound.  See, e. g., Sarason's discussion of the work of Zwi Karl, ibid., pp. 122-24.  Popular works on Jewish liturgy have obvious apologetic purposes: cf. D. Holisher, The Synagogue and Its People (New York, 1955); Evelyn Garfiel, Service of the Heart (New Jersey, 1958); A. Millgram, Jewish Worship (Philadelphia, 1971).  These represent works of great devotion and erudition but avowedly with no critical agenda.

[4].Nearly all major works in the discipline lack a consciousness of systemic shifts in Judaism.  A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and its Development (New York, 1932); I. Elbogen, Prayer in Israel in its Historical Development (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 1972); and the work of Karl are but a few examples.

[5].Examples of inadequate models of social and political life [Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene; plebeians, patricians] are common in the work of writers like Finkelstein.  See Sarason (n. 2 above);  Hoffman (n. 1 above), pp. 8, 184, n. 16.

[6].S. Talmon, The World of Qumran from Within (Jerusalem, 1989), p. 239.

[7].Examples of misunderstood internal dynamics include those who did not see Roman imperial domination as crucial, those who did not consider the distinction among priestly, scribal, and patriarchal interests; and those who did not recognize conflict as central to Judaism.

[8].Hoffman (n. 1 above), p. 4.  See, e.g., G. Alon, E. E. Urbach, and S. Zeitlin, who frequently employ the model of "normative versus heretical."

[9].K. Kohler, The Origins of the Synagogue and Church (New York, 1929), believed liturgy reacted to Persian dualism; I. Elbogen thought the Tefillah prayer for the restoration of the Davidic line was a polemic of the Exilarch in Babylonia: see Sarason (n. 2 above), pp. 108, 110.

[10].Beyond the Text (n. 1 above), p. 5.

[11].See Prayer in the Talmud (Berlin and New York, 1977).  Heinemann also misinterprets some prayers, missing the main distinction between national and political ideology on the one hand, and the enunciation of scribal ideals on the other.  For a view favoring political causality in the formation of the liturgy, see C. Roth, "Melekh HaOlam: Zealot influence in the Liturgy," JJS 11 (1960): 173-75; and cf. Finkelstein, "The Development of the Amidah," JQR 16 (1925-6): 142-69, regarding Zealot influence on the Tefillah.

[12].Beyond the Text (n. 1 above), p. 8.

[13].Prayer in the Talmud, p. 7.

[14].Reif (n. 1 above), p. 162; Sarason (n. 2 above), p. 101; Hoffman (n. 1 above), p. 8.

[15].Lee Levine, The Rabbinic Class in Palestine during the Talmudic Period (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1985).  This study deals mainly with the third and fourth centuries but its method is applicable to earlier and later periods as well.

[16].Regarding Saldarini's study see below.  Jacob Neusner's representative synthetic work for this period is Judaism: the Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago, 1981).

[17].B. Ber. 27b-28a; Y. Ber. 4:1; and see my The Traditions of Eleazar ben Azariah (Missoula, 1977), pp. 146-59.

[18].Confrontations involving prayer include those instances related in the Mishnah, such as the castigation of Tarfon (Ber. 1:3) for not reciting the Shema in the proper posture (bowing may have been suggestive of the priestly rite of the Temple on the Day of Atonement); the suspicion that Akiba and Eleazar b. Azariah were not reciting the morning Shema (T. Ber. 1:2); Roman concern over the recitation of the Shema in Akiba's house of study (T. Ber. 2:13), and the tradition that Akiba, a martyr of the Bar Kokhba war, recited the Shema at the time of his death (B. Ber. 61b).

[19].See for instance, Luke 4:16; Acts 9:2, 20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10-11, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8.

[20].Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (San Francisco, 1987). See also A. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees (Wilmington, 1988), pp. 163-73.

[21].Horsely (n. 20 above), pp. 152, 156.

[22].F. Heiler, Prayer (New York, 1958), p. 58.

[23].S.v. "Scribe," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, 1962), IV, pp. 246-48.

[24].Saldarini (n. 20 above), p. 275.

[25].See Saldarini, op. cit., pp. 241-97 for a full discussion of the social roles of scribes in Jewish society.

[26].See, e.g., M. Ber. 1:3.

[27].Regarding the role of scribes in the Gospel traditions, see Saldarini (n. 20 above), pp. 159-66.

[28].See Y. Yadin, Tefillin from Qumran (Jerusalem, 1969).

[29].The Nash Papyrus, c. 150 B.C.E., from Fayyum, contains the decalogue and the first two verses of the Shema.

[30].See James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta, 1981), pp. 27ff., regarding the sage as a member of a professional class.  Crenshaw reflects on the exodus motif in the Wisdom of Solomon.  Also see his prolegomenon to Studies in Old Testament Wisdom (New York, 1977) for the importance of the theme of creation in wisdom circles.  I. Elbogen posits the Shema and its benedictions as the earliest form of the "synagogue service."  See Studien zur Geschichte des juedischen Gottesdienstes (Berlin, 1907), pp. 38-44.

[31].Even if we place the formalization of these blessings late in the second century, these expressions undoubtedly evoke the main themes of the earliest formulations of the Shema.

[32]."Blessed be the name of his glorious Kingdom for ever and ever," and cf. T. Ber. 1:10.

[33].See the discussion in T. Ber. 1:10 of whether reference to sovereignty (a patriarchal theme) must be removed when reference to the exodus (a scribal motif) is inserted in the Shema.  The pericope may be a political dispute, rather than strictly a theological debate.

[34].See Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judea (Cambridge 1987), State and Society in Roman Galilee, A.D. 132-212 (Oxford, 1983).

[35].Josephus provides a more obvious exaggeration by associating the Shema with Moses in Antiquities, IV, vii, 13, and he avers it was part of the daily morning service in the Jerusalem Temple.

[36].My thanks to Professor Israel Knoll, Hebrew University, for helping me clarify this point.

[37].In M. Ber. 1:1. Gamaliel's children defy him by making reference to the Shema.  By proposing to regulate their liturgy, Gamaliel asserts his authority over his rebellious sons:

                Once [Gamaliel's] sons came from the banquet hall.  And they said to him, "We have not [yet] recited the Shema."  He said to them, "If the day has not yet broken, you are obligated to recite [the Shema]."

Political conflict and social circumstances help explain the artificiality and awkwardness of this anecdote as part of this initial pericope of the Mishnah.

[38].T. Ber. 2:6.

[39].See my Mishnaic Law of Blessings and Prayers (Atlanta, 1987), pp. 20-28.

[40].This distinction may be too subtle.  But consider that some modern anti-Zionists insistently employ the phrase "Land of Israel" rather than "State of Israel" in referring to modern Israel.

[41].See Bokser, The Origins of the Seder (Berkeley, 1984). In parallel developments, the early Christians appropriated the seder in their own way.

[42].For a discussion see Hoffman, Beyond the Text, pp. 86-102.

[43].E. D. Goldschmidt in The Passover Haggadah (Jerusalem, 1977), p. 51, n. 1, cites Alon's view that this passage be attributed to Gamaliel II at Yavneh, and refers to alternative opinions on its interpretation.

[44].The folk song, the Chad Gadya, appended to conclude the seder, though it may be a later addition, may be viewed as a cynical reference to the Paschal Offering, mocking the two zuzim, the monetary interest, that the priests had in the sacrifice, and reinforcing their indignity in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.

[45].A version in T. Pes. 10:12 has Rabban Gamaliel and the sages dealing with the laws of Passover all through the night.  See Goldschmidt (n. 43 above), pp. 19-21.

[46].HTR 55 (1962): 163-85.  My purpose here is not to review all the theories of the origin of the Amidah. The better known views include that of Leopold Zunz who employed a problematic monolinear sequential historical model of its development, somewhat arbitrarily tracing its composite development to several distinct eras.  For a critical assessment of Zunz's position see Sarason (n. 2 above), pp. 101ff.  Kaufman Kohler attributed its origin to other forces.  See "The Origin and Composition of the Eighteen Benedictions with a translation of the corresponding Essene Prayers in the Apostolic Constitutions," HUCA 1 (1924): 387-425.  Louis Finkelstein hypothesized yet another trajectory of development in "The Development of the Amidah," JQR 16 (1925-6): 142-69.  As we discussed above, Joseph Heinemann maintained an alternative position.  See "Prayers of the Beth Midrash Origin," JJS 5 (1960): 264-80, and Prayer in the Time of the Tannaim and Amoraim, passim.

[47].Frederic Manns, La Prière d'Israel à L'heure de Jesus (Jerusalem, 1986), p. 146, n. 6, citing Urbach, sees in this expression (gibbor -- hero) an anti-Roman sentiment, implicitly demeaning the cult of the emperor.

[48].Manns (ibid., p. 149) suggests this blessing responds to the actual loss of juridical power prior to the destruction of the Temple.

[49].The Genizah version conflates this blessing with the preceding.  See S. Schechter, "Genizah Specimens," JQR 10 (1898): 656-57; J. Mann, "Genizah Fragments of the Palestinian Order of the Service," HUCA 2 (1925): 306-308.

[50].(n. 46 above), pp. 167-68, 172.

[51].Ibid., p. 176.

[52].Ibid., p. 185.

[53].This is reminiscent of the polemics of our own day.  Some Orthodox refer for example to Conservative Jews as "dead bark" or "at best, idolaters."

[54].See my History of the Mishnaic Law of Blessings and Prayers, pp. 70-72.

[55].See J. J. Petuchowski, "The Liturgy of the Synagogue: History, Structure and Contents," in Approaches to Ancient Judaism, IV (Chico, 1983), p. 16.

[56].B. Meg. 17b-18a; see my Mishnaic Law, pp. 57-58.  See also I. Schiffer, "The Men of the Great Assembly," in Persons and Institutions in Early Rabbinic Judaism (Missoula, 1977), pp. 237-76.  Also consider M. Ber. 4:3, the dispute between Gamaliel and Joshua over the formalization of the prayer, and T. Ber. 3:12, which draws specific parallels between the times for the prayer and the sacrifices of the Temple.

[57].To make the picture even more complex, evidence also exists that the text of the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings may draw upon earlier formulae, e.g. from Ben Sirah, who appears to have been sympathetic to both scribal and priestly interests.  See Petuchowski (n. 55 above), pp. 7-11.  S. Talmon (n. 6 above, pp. 200-43) has convincingly argued that the Covenanters at Qumran recited daily prayers with some parallels to the rabbinic Tefillah.

[58].Elsewhere in rabbinic traditions, despite his aristocratic pedigree, Eleazar upholds a value of the scribal agendum, avowing that he understands why the exodus must be mentioned at night.  He thereby accepted and promoted practices of the scribes (M. Ber. 1:5).  The rabbis applied his statement to the mention of the exodus in the evening Shema and inserted it in the seder to warrant the retelling of the exodus in the evening, the seder ritual itself.

[59].As I explained above, in a touch of irony, M. Ber. 1:1 starts the primary rabbinic legal compendium by linking the Shema with the Temple and continues with Gamaliel's sons mocking him by telling him, as an excuse for their late return home from the "banquet hall", that they did not recite the Shema.  Instead of chastising them, Gamaliel is portrayed as reciting a ruling to them permitting them to recite the liturgy.  Echoes of division and transition reverberate in this and other compressed narrative references to the liturgy.

[60].In the B. T. version of the deposition narrative, the anonymous student responsible for the destabilization of the status quo is Simeon b. Yohai, the mystic apocalyptic -- a force of provocation and instability in that era.

[61].M. Ber. 4:3, for example, gives us a dispute between Gamaliel and Joshua over the formalization of the Tefillah.

[62].Robert Goldenberg, "The Deposition of Rabban Gamaliel II," in Persons and Institutions in Early Rabbinic Judaism, p. 37.

[63].Ibid., p. 38.

[64].Regarding a dispute over the dominance of the theme of sovereignty over the exodus as a liturgical subject, see T. Ber. 1:10.

[65]"The Early Liturgy of the Synagogue," in The Cambridge History of Judaism (forthcoming).  See also his articles, "Some Liturgical Issues in the Talmudic Sources," SL 15 (1982-83): 188-206; "Jewish Liturgical Research: Past, Present, Future," JJS 34 (1983): 161-70.