The Mishnaic Period

[Published in the Anchor Bible Dictionary,  New York, 1992, vol. III,  pp. 1083-1089.]

by Tzvee Zahavy

The early first through early third centuries of the Common Era are commonly referred to as the Mishnaic Period, a recognition of the centrality of the corpus of the Mishnah (a third-century Hebrew compilation of traditions, see below) within rabbinic Judaism, the dominant religious system of the Jews from the third century up to the modern period. These years are also known as the late Hellenistic, or the Roman, or the Early Christian period, depending on the context of the reference. In this complex and turbulent transitional era new systems replaced the Temple-centered Israelite religious and political structures that had endured during the previous millennium.

Continuity with Israelite religion. In many respects Judaism of this period perpetuates major elements of the myth and ritual of ancient Israel. The idea of the centrality and sacrality of the territory of Israel and of Jerusalem derive from Israelite antecedents. The period witnessed the canonization of biblical literature, under rabbinic sponsorship, and with it the acceptance of theological ideas and frameworks of Israelite origin within rabbinic communities.

One such focus was the emphasis on Torah and scribal ideals. Other influences included the use of the Hebrew language for sacred writing and prayer (though Aramaic was the common language of the marketplace and Greek was used in official communications) and the continued espousal of many symbols out of Israelite culture. The rabbinic calendar was built directly upon the Israelite model, with a few notable additions and modifications. Dietary regulations in rabbinism (rules of kashrut) drew heavily on antecedents from older Israelite practice and the cult, but the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. by Rome necessitated significant modifications.

Obviously, the forced cessation of the cult led to the abandonment of the rituals of sacrifice, though the details of past practices were subjects of much concern in rabbinic literature. The practice of the earlier Israelite system of purity and uncleanness also was suspended with the demise of the Temple, though rabbinic teachers maintained an active interest in debating and delineating the rules for cultic purity. Together, rules for sacrifice and purity occupy about one third of the Mishnaic corpus. The remainder deals with agricultural, festival, familial and civil matters.

Historical discontinuities and developments. Several key historical and social forces shaped Judaism in this period. The destruction of Temple and the subsequent Roman imperial domination of Israel deprived Jewish leaders of meaningful political power and forced them to turn inward for fresh expressions of Jewish identity. The failure of a messianic rebellion against Rome under the leadership of Simeon bar Kokhba with support from leading rabbis in 132-135 C.E. left little doubt of the futility of hope for the restoration of political independence under the Judaic leadership of that age. In this period the influence of quasi-governmental Jewish authorities, such as the patriarchate, declined and the authority of the rabbinate, internal to the Jewish communities of the near East (Israel and Babylonia), increased. The rise and spread of Christianity and other serious competing religious systems in the area in this epoch demanded that Judaic religious leaders articulate new understandings of Israelite destiny.

The irrepressible hope for redemption from political subjugation led to complex speculation on the nature of the promise of messianic redemption, a subject of Israelite contemplation in earlier ages (cf. biblical depictions in Isaiah and Micah). Overall, the rabbinic emphasis on Torah overshadowed and even eclipsed many of the major themes of alternative theological world views inherent in the received Israelite heritage.

Religious systems. The amalgam constituting rabbinic Judaism which took shape in the Mishnaic period drew on the contributions of several immediate Jewish predecessor and contemporaneous groups and ignored or rejected others. The rabbis themselves claimed to be heirs of the Pharisees, a group of politically active Judean pietists of the first century. Mainly concerned with the Sabbath, agricultural taboos and rules of purity, this society established a model of table fellowship and religious literacy emulated within later rabbinic circles. By way of contrast, the authors of the New Testament Gospels adopted a caricatured and stylized view of the Pharisees and type-cast them as the opponents of Jesus.

The integration of an apocalyptic perspective is less apparent within the later rabbinic synthesis of Judean religious attitudes of the first century. Recent theories argue that apocalyptic speculation is a mode of expressing alienation from the corridors of political power and social resistance to external control. As rabbinic views evolved they tended to tacitly condone national powerlessness, dismissing it as irrelevant to the present and ultimate reality they envisioned, and in the process they thereby devalued apocalyptic expressions which loomed as threats to the stability of rabbinic society. Likewise they rejected miracle-working charismatic holy-men (cf. the story of Honi the Circle Drawer, M. Ta`anit 3:8).

Rabbinic synthesizers correspondingly down-played the major dimensions of other Judaic systems which did not express values and concerns sympathetic to their social condition and philosophical tendencies. The Sadducees, about whom we possess little systematic evidence, appear within rabbinic traditions as adversaries whose theological views were rejected. We also have incomplete data concerning early communities of mystics, though many scholars assume that merkabah and other forms of Jewish mysticism have their roots in the mishnaic period.

The Dead Sea community serves as an informative example of an intermediary system of Judaism of the early part of this era. The residents of the village of Qumran left ample evidence of their apocalyptic-messianic theology and social organization and ritual, locating this community on a historical continuum between Israelite and early Hellenistic forms of religion on the one hand, and early Christian communal patterns on the other. Although small in number and insignificant in cultural influence, the Qumran example illustrates a stage of Judaic development prior to the incipient rabbinic and early Christian alternatives.

Major communities of diaspora Judaism (i.e. outside the Land of Israel) in this age were located in Alexandria, Babylonia, and in Asia Minor. The writings of Philo illustrate the philosophical literacy achieved by the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria and, according to some interpretations, they demonstrate the emergence of a cosmic-mystical form of Judaic speculation. The Jewish community of Babylonia shows signs of growth in this time but takes a position of leadership only after the transition to Sassanian rule (226 C.E.) and the decline of the community in Israel in the third and fourth centuries. In Asia Minor, archaeological evidence substantiates the existence and influence of Jews within communities like Sardis and indicates they occupied central positions within the social structures of the towns of the area.

Clerical Leadership. In this era the axis of Judaic leadership shifted from national political figures associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, provincial princes and hereditary priests, to local authority vested in rabbinic scribal holy-men in villages and towns. Imperial Roman authorities encouraged similar transfers of prerogative throughout the near East to better facilitate the ultimate arrogation of dominance and control within the empire. These historical developments are echoed in the internal rabbinic traditions themselves. The narrative account for instance of the founding of the first rabbinic academy at Yavneh by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai portrays the master emerging from a besieged Jerusalem, obtaining the sanction of Roman authority and establishing an authorized center of Torah study at the defenseless coastal town (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, ch. 4).

The rapid rise of rabbinism may be associated in part with the sanctioned ascendence of local holy-men, ascetics, miracle-workers, dream-interpreters and magicians throughout the area. Consequently, factors including changes in patters of leadership, the greater literacy of the age, attributable to minor technological advances in writing, such as the adoption of the codex for publication and dissemination of knowledge, and the breakdown of priestly custody over the authorized canon, all contributed to the successful expansion of the influence of the rabbinic class.

As other forms of local authority lost influence, and rabbis increased their political engagement with governmental forces, they became adept at balancing their needs to hold sway within their communities and to refrain from challenging the external forces which governed their land and lives from without. The Judaic system they established, with adaptation and accretion along the way, provided for centuries a viable set of social, political and philosophical structures for the Jewish community in the subsequent historical settings under Roman, Babylonian, Islamic and medieval Christian European domination.

We know of the life and teachings of hundreds of rabbinic figures. The following mention of the activities of a few helps better illustrate the character of rabbinic leadership in this era.

At Yavneh. The period ensuing upon the destruction of the Temple and founding of the Yavnean center was a time of internal conflict, self-definition and transition. Influential leaders of the epoch included Rabbis Yohanan ben Zakkai and his disciples, Joshua, and Eliezer (M. Abot 2:8), and numerous others such as Aqiva, Ishmael, Gamaliel, and Eleazar ben Azariah.

Aqiva ben Joseph was among the best known sages of this time. His extensive ventures included engagement in rabbinic legislation, biblical exegesis, mystical speculation, and (ill-fated) political activism and martyrdom in support of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

His contemporary, Joshua ben Hananiah was rabbi in Jerusalem and later at Yavneh and Peki'in in Israel (first and second centuries C.E.). As a Levite, it is assumed that he sang in the Temple before it was destroyed. He then took up the trade of needle-maker or blacksmith

With Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Joshua is said to have carried Yohanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem in a coffin during the siege of the city (Talmud Babli Gittin 56a). During his later career he was the center of some contention within rabbinic circles. Several sources recount how he was humiliated by the Patriarch, Gamaliel (Talmud Babli Rosh Hashanah 25a). Joshua's dispute with Gamaliel over the requirement to recite the evening prayer brought about the events which lead to the deposition of Gamaliel and ascension of Eleazar ben Azariah to the Patriarchate (Talmud Babli Berakhot 28a). Eleazar exemplified the wealthy adherent of the rabbinic movement, a man of prominent ancestry who sought conciliation between the contending factions of the sages and those who supported the interests of the priestly and patriarchal followers.

Joshua is also associated with a dispute with Eliezer ben Hyrcanus over the ritual cleanness of the tiled ovens of Akhnai. Joshua ruled these ovens be deemed unclean. Eliezer said they were clean. Eliezer invoked a heavenly voice on his own behalf to prove his position correct. Joshua responded with the famous declaration: "The Law is not in heaven (a reference to Deut. 30:12)" i.e. the rabbis alone have the authority to decide matters of the law, not some supernatural voice, or even a direct revelation.

Many other legal disputes between Joshua and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus appear in rabbinic sources. According to tradition he engaged in discourses with political figures and various groups: the Roman emperor Hadrian; with the elders of Athens; with the Jews of Alexandria.

At Usha. The generation following in the aftermath of the failed revolt (132-135 C.E.) was a time of systematization and standardization within Judaic thought and practice. Judah, Meir, Simeon ben Gamaliel and Simeon bar Yohai are representative of this generation's central rabbinic authorities.

Judah bar Ilai was a Rabbi of the second century C.E. in Usha, in the lower Galilee in Israel. He was a student of Aqiba and Tarfon, was ordained by Judah ben Baba and survived the Hadrianic persecutions. Numerous traditions attributed to Judah and his contemporaries Meir, Simeon and Yose are preserved in rabbinic literature.

Judah's legal sayings illustrate some of the concerns and activities of the rabbis of his generation. Several of his rulings, for example, deal with the standardization of rabbinic liturgy (Mishnah Berakhot 4:1) and the regulation of prayer (Mishnah Berakhot 4:7, Tosefta Berakhot 1:9, Tosefta Berakhot 3:5) and daily liturgical blessings (Tosefta Berakhot 6:18). Other rules ascribed to Judah emphasize the importance of concentration and intention during the performance of rituals (Tosefta Berakhot 2:2), or with the importance of maintaining the proper frame of mind during recitation of prayers (Mishnah Berakhot 2:2). Judah also is associated with legislation concerning the recitation of blessings over foods (Mishnah Berakhot 6:4, Tosefta Berakhot 4:4-5), with blessings over natural wonders, both those for which one is permitted to recite blessings (Mishnah Berakhot 9:2) and those for which one is forbidden to recite because it would appear to be a form of idolatry (Tosefta Berakhot 6:6).

Judah's contemporary, Meir was a descendent of a family of proselytes which traced its line back to the Roman emperor Nero. He was a student of both Aqiva and Ishmael and is listed as one of the seven disciples of Aqiba who issued a famous edict concerning the calendar. He also was one of the five rabbis ordained by Judah ben Baba during the Hadrianic persecutions. He was married to Beruryah, one of the few learned women mentioned in the Talmud. Meir was thus involved in her tragic life (discussed below) and in the events of the Bar Kokhba war.

Meir was associated with the legendary Elisha ben Abuya, the well-known heretic of his time, known also as Aher, the "other". Some rabbinic sources depict Meir as Aher's would-be disciple and is also said to have been called after Elisha's death to extinguish the fire of his burning tomb.

Meir is prominently linked to the major rabbinic legislative and political activities of his generation. He is said to have served as Hakham, Sage, in the Ushan court. His technical ability to defend both sides of opposing legal viewpoints was greatly extolled. Ultimately, his opposition to the patriarch Simeon ben Gamaliel, is said to have been the basis for his exile from Israel.

Legal rulings ascribed to Meir comprise an important part of the earliest rabbinic compilations, Mishnah and Tosefta. His role in these works is so important that the Talmud stipulates that any anonymous ruling in the Mishnah is to be attributed to Meir, hence the corpus of his traditions was one of the primary documents used in its redaction.

Meir's dicta deal with most of the central values of rabbinic Judaism in its period of systematization in the latter half of the second century. An illustration of a tradition attributed to him indicates his understanding of rabbinic ritual as a coherent system of practice:

R. Meir used to say, "There is no man in Israel who does not perform one hundred commandments each day [and recite over them one hundred blessings] . . . And there is no man in Israel who is not surrounded by [reminders of the] commandments: [Every person wears] phylacteries on his head, phylacteries on his arm, has a mezuzah on his doorpost and four fringes on his garment around him . . . [Tosefta Berakhot 6:24-25]."

Simeon ben Gamaliel (II), another Rabbi of this period held the hereditary office of Patriarch or President. He studied Greek and supported a policy of peace with Rome. According to one Talmudic source, two of his rabbinic colleagues, Meir and Nathan sought to oust Simeon from his position as Patriarch during a struggle for power within the ranks of rabbinic leadership. In the talmudic account of the political tension, the two masters became angry when Simeon decreed that the students in the academy should not stand in their honor when they entered the college. They then conspired to test Simeon on an obscure tractate of the law in order to bring him to disgrace. One of Simeon's supporters prepared him in the laws of this tractate and he was able to pass the test. He then banished Meir and Nathan from the academy. Nonetheless they continued to send messages with legal problems to the college. The leaders of the academy then recognized that they should readmit the two, and did so (Talmud Babli Horayot 13b). The account demonstrates how one episode of internal strife was brought to resolution through compromise.

Among the other rules attributed to Simeon was his statement that not all who wish to recite God's name in the prayers may do so (Mishnah Berakhot 4:8), showing a restrictive view regarding the use of divine names for liturgical purposes. Simeon's legal views were almost always decisive. The Talmud declares that the law follows in accordance with Simeon Ben Gamaliel in all instances except for three (Talmud Babli Ketubot 77a).

Another prototype of rabbinic leadership was Simeon bar Yohai, a second century C.E. rabbinic leader, mystic and ascetic of the generation of rabbinic activity at Usha in the Galilee. Simeon was one of the two most prominent students of Aqiva (with Meir), another of the five rabbis ordained during the Hadrianic persecutions following the Bar Kokhba revolt. According to the version of the incident in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 28a), he was the student who provoked the deposition of Gamaliel from the position of Patriarch of Israel by bringing up in the academy the issue of whether the recitation of the Evening Prayer was obligatory or optional.

Simeon is the subject of many rabbinic legends. Best known is the story of his hiding in a cave with his son after having been sentenced to death by the Romans. According to some versions of the story when he emerged from the cave after twelve years and saw that people were not engaged solely in the study of Torah, his mystical gaze set the world afire with only a glance (Talmud Babli Shabbat 33b), and a heavenly voice reprimanded him and sent him back to the cave for another year.

Simeon's rulings cover most of the major topics taken up in rabbinic sources. On the importance of the study of the Torah for instance, he says, "If I had been at Mount Sinai at the time the Torah was given to Israel, I would have asked God to endow man with two mouths, one to talk of the Torah and one to attend to his other needs." On further reflection, he retracted this saying, "But the world can barely withstand the slander of [persons with] one [mouth]. It would be all the worse if [each individual] had two [mouths] (Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot, i, 3b)."

The Talmud uses Simeon as the paradigm of a scholar totally immersed in the study of the Torah. Accordingly a rabbi of his caliber would not be required to interrupt his study even for the important and timely daily recitation of the Shema` (ibid).

Medieval Jewish mystics identified him as (pseudonymous) author of the Zohar, one of the most important rabbinic mystical compilations. He was also associated with the day of Lag B'Omer, the eighteenth of Iyar, a mystical festival celebrated to this day at the traditional place of his burial in Meron in the Galilee in Israel.

One of the more famous messianic sayings attributed to him declares that if the Jews properly observed two consecutive Sabbaths, they would be redeemed (Talmud Babli Shabbat 118b). He is assigned authorship of the Midrashic compilations of Sifre Numbers and Deuteronomy (Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 86a) and of the Mekhilta of R. Simeon Bar Yohai to the book of Exodus. Several short apocalyptic mystical compilations are also linked with his name.

The Role of Women. Beruryah (second century C.E.) was one of the few famous women in rabbinic Judaism of late antiquity, a rare woman-scholar in that male-dominated culture. She was the daughter of Hananyah ben Teradyon, and wife of Meir. Rabbinic traditions portrayed Beruryah as a sensitive yet assertive figure. The Talmud recounted anecdotes illustrating Beruryah's piety, compassion and wit. In one source she admonished her husband Meir not to be angry at his enemies and not to pray for their death. She suggested that instead he pray that their sins cease and that they repent (b. Berakhot 10a).

When two of her sons died one Sabbath day, a story in the Midrash reported that she delayed telling her husband until Saturday night when he had finished observing the Sabbath in peace (Midrash to Proverbs 31:10). The Talmud also narrated anecdotes of Beruryah's sharp wit. When Yose the Galilean asked her for directions on the road, she derided him for speaking to much with a woman (b. `Eruvin 53b).

The folklore surrounding Beruryah was extensive and poignant. Accounts which weave together the rabbinic sources retold the tragic events of Beruryah's life and the life of her family. According to tradition, Beruryah's father was martyred in the Bar Kokhba rebellion, two of her sons died suddenly one Sabbath day, her sister was taken captive to Rome, and her brother became a brigand, possibly an anti-Roman terrorist, and was murdered.

The drama of her life climaxed in the so-called Beruryah Incident. She was said in an eleventh century tradition preserved by Rashi (commentary to Talmud Babli Avodah Zarah 18b) to have mocked a misogynistic rabbinic tradition which labelled women as flighty. Meir was said to have sent a student to tempt her to discredit her criticism. Tragically, she was thought to have committed suicide after submitting to the advances of her husband's disciple.

Beruryah's public involvement in rabbinic affairs and instruction was clearly an exception to the prevailing propensities and expectations of that society. Contemporary study reveals the ambivalence towards women within this era of rabbinism. Mishnah's framers regarded women alternatively in some circumstances as possessors of legal rights and duties, and in others as chattels subservient to men. Mainly in matters pertaining to sexual and reproductive function, Mishnah treated wives, levirate widows and minors as property. Divorcees and widows in Mishnaic law controlled their own sexuality and property. However, critical analysis of the evidence confirms that women were deemed non-entities in almost all public social circumstances, and were denied access to most forms of intellectual and political pursuits and achievements.

Textual production and advances. The Mishnah, published after the turn of the third century, stood as the single most authoritative compilation of the early rabbinic estate. It was a composite of the religious statements of rabbis from prior to the destruction of the Temple to the time of its publication. Mishnah appears to be a legal code. More precisely it is a study book of legal statements, disputes, lists, and anecdotes detailing the views of hundreds of named rabbinic authorities, and containing accompanying anonymous statements, assumed by some to stem from Hellenistic or ancient Israelite times, on various practical and theoretical subjects of concern to the early rabbis. It is a unique compilation in style and content whose influence extends far beyond its time and place.

Recent critical analysis has delineated the specifics of Mishnaic literary form and diction, the contributions of rabbinic masters of each of four generations, and the theological assumptions and creative contributions of each tractate as coherent expressions of rabbinic world views. A rabbi of the Mishnaic period is called a Tanna (pl. Tanna'im, teacher), to distinguish him from a rabbi of the later Talmudic era, designated an Amora (pl. Amora'im).

Tosefta is the companion document and a systematic appendix to Mishnah. Though the date of its publication is not certain, analysis has shown it to be a composite, in part Mishnah-commentary, in part supplementary to Mishnah, and in part a repository of independent rabbinic teachings.

The collections of rabbinic scriptural interpretations, the books of Midrash, frequently cite the authorities of the Mishnaic age, thus ostensibly serving as a major source of data for the period. Current advances in the study of major works of rabbinic midrash have better described the composite nature of that literature and confirmed the post-mishnaic date of some of those collections. Contemporary research on Sifra (a midrash on the book of Leviticus), Sifre to Numbers and to Deuteronomy, Mekhilta to Exodus, Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah has shown that early midrash compilations rest on distinctive conceptual foundations meant to articulate coherent theological postures and to justify social and political contexts to communities of Jews of late antiquity of the time of their redaction.

The post-mishnaic rabbinic collective literature in the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of the land of Israel are both dependent for their organizational structure, content and authority, on the development, publication and dominance of Mishnah in the prior age. The Talmuds contain a fair amount of baraita-traditions, thought to be from mishnaic times, often concerning or attributed to the rabbis of the mishnaic period.

Recent scholarship has tended to critically limit the value of discrete traditions within Mishnah and other early rabbinic texts as sources of evidence for the historical reconstruction of the period, emphasizing the distorting influence of the tendenz of the documents' editors and their complex redactional histories. Apart from highlighting these problems and pitfalls for using the early texts, great advances have been made in the past two decades in understanding the underlying rabbinic religious system the documents as a whole express. The previously prevailing view that treated the evidence of rabbinic literature as disconnected and anecdotal has been superseded by recent more critically integrative and analytically sophisticated assessment of the evidence within its cultural context, illustrated best by the work of Jacob Neusner and his students.

Revision of Theology. The most consequential advance for the history of Judaism during this era within rabbinism is the establishment of a Torah dominated theology. Rabbinic claims to authority rested on their asserted association with the revelation at Mount Sinai through the concept of the dual Torah. This ideology postulated that Moses received as divine revelation both the written Torah (i.e. the Pentateuch) and a concomitant oral Torah. The latter was memorized and passed from teacher to student for generations and constitutes the substance of the rabbinic teachings finally set down in writing in Mishnah. The rabbis did not specify all those elements of their teachings which go back to Sinai, nor did they claim to present the divinely revealed ipsissima verba of such traditions. The sages of the early age also did not adequately account for the nature of Mishnah, replete with its disputed rules and statements and direct attributions to late antique authorities, in light of their implicit claim that it represented the revealed instruction of a millennium earlier.

The theological underpinnings of the rabbinic system relied more for their potency on the authority of the personality of the rabbi who represented an embodiment of the Torah, and accordingly of divine revelation, than on a tight internal deductive philosophical logic.

The basic theological postulates and practices of the rabbinic system sustained the centrality of the concept and symbol of Torah. The rabbis asserted that the study of Torah was the central ritual act of Judaism, equivalent to all other obligatory actions combined. Accompanying doctrine urging restraint against the abuses of power was present within the system's assertions, for instance, that Torah had to be studied for its own sake, not as a tool for political or economic gain.

The rabbis began in this era to transform or "rabbinize" Israelite heritage based on their values and priorities. They re-examined Israelite myth affixing a rabbinic veneer to its narrative. In their complex recasting of traditions, the sages imputed rabbinic traits to the heroes of ancient Israel, from the patriarchs, to Moses (called Rabbenu, our rabbi) and David and other major figures, who, like the later masters, studied Torah and kept the commandments. Rabbinic literary expressions depicted God himself as supreme rabbi with personality traits closely akin to the sages.

The rabbinic Judaism of this period enunciated a stable religious system, defiant of the vicissitudes of historical change. Within rabbinic Torah-centric theology, apocalyptic attitudes played a peripheral role. Depiction of and retreat from evil as a main form of expressing a social basis of intensified passive-aggressive, retreat-engagement with political challenge was basically uncharacteristic to the mainstream of rabbinic conceptualization. Instead rabbis institutionalized a view of messianism promising salvation without emphasizing immediate deliverance. Rabbinic limitations on and utilizations of the messianic idea vary in later ages usually intensifying subsequent to periods of persecution.

Revision of Ritual. Within Judaism of the Mishnaic period the process of the "rabbinization" of Israelite festivals engendered revision of numerous rituals and restatement of the mythic basis for cyclical celebrations. Passover was formerly a Springtime festival of rebirth with connections to the biblical accounts of the exodus from Egypt and was centered around the ritual offering and consumption of the Paschal lamb. The rabbis established the Seder, a structured fellowship meal, as the primary festive ritual and mandated the recitation of a Haggadah, rabbinic expositions of scriptural passages combined with liturgical recitations and songs and the manipulation of special foods and objects. This mode of celebration down-played references to the preceding cultic forms of celebration, and focused instead on the Israelite narrative roots, as subjects for rabbinic exposition.

Shavuot (Pentecost) also took on new meaning as a celebration of the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai, in contrast to its prior central purpose as a feast of the first fruits brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. In later times the revision of the pilgrimage festivals lead to such additional changes as the establishment of Simhat Torah (the festival of rejoicing for the Torah) on the last day of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Rabbinic scribal values made Torah-study the central ritual, as noted. In the synagogue the scroll itself was utilized as a symbol and object in worship. It was housed in a prominent niche in synagogues and used for the periodic readings throughout the year. In this era the Jews employed a cycle for reading the Torah on Sabbaths in public on a triennial basis, as well as readings on Mondays and Thursdays, fast days and new moons and a special sequence of readings for the festivals.

Earliest inscriptions in synagogues, such as the Theodotus inscription (first century C.E.) refer to the "purposes of reciting the Law and studying the commandments." However, the equivocal implications of limited material evidence of synagogues from the first two centuries C.E. make it difficult to ascertain whether the rabbis as a group had significant influence in the institutions or even to what degree synagogues predominated as central religious structures. Evidence from subsequent periods in Israel and the Diaspora (4th to 6th centuries C.E.) suggests that later rabbis did not play a dominant role in the construction or administration of these assembly halls.

Whatever their role in public synagogues may have been, rabbis did undertake to institutionalize the rituals of prayer during the Mishnaic era. The two major liturgies were the Shema`, a litany of earlier scribal origins, and the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings (the Amidah), a priestly and patriarchal liturgy, incorporated into rabbinic ritual at Yavneh.

The Shema` consisted of biblical verses which emphasized the theological themes such as the unity of God, the need to love God, to keep the commandments, and references to reward and punishment, alongside of supporting rabbinic liturgy which made reference to the classical mythic themes of creation and redemption and emphasized the virtues of Torah-study.

By contrast, the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings made overt entreaty for the messianic redemption, the restoration of Davidic kingship, condemnation of the heretics, for independent legal authority and for the rebuilding of the Temple, and included the priestly benediction.

The ultimate regularization of these liturgies and their forms and the integration of the components of prayer into composite services resulted from historical and social processes of conflict between factions supporting patriarchal and priestly authority within the community and groups representing the ascent of rabbinic influence.

One perspective on the stages of conflict and compromise, resulting in the conflation of interests and texts is compressed and dramatically recounted in the narrative of the deposition of Gamaliel II (b. Ber. 27b-28a, y. Ber. 4:1), mentioned above. In that account the rabbis unseated the patriarch after a dispute over a liturgical issue, the obligation to recite the Prayer in the evening. Major shifts in the control of the academy ensued and the Patriarch ultimately was forced to accept a diminished role in the governance of the community.

Establishment of rabbinic culture and continuity with subsequent forms of Judaism. By the close of the Mishnaic period rabbinic myth, ritual and social patterns pervaded the Jewish populations of Israel and Babylonia and constituted a dominant cultural force. Subsequently, in the middle ages Jewish intellectuals developed a philosophical rabbinism under the influence of classical traditions, originally preserved within Islamic culture.

Other Jewish thinkers developed mystical forms of rabbinic expression which became widespread within the popular culture of the Jews. Although competing forms of non-rabbinic Judaism arose regularly (such as Karaism in the early middle ages), the Judaic system which took initial shape in the Mishnaic era dominated until the modern age. Modern Orthodox Judaism perpetuates forms of Torah-centered rabbinism. Even those new Judaic systems which developed after the enlightenment and reformation of Judaism in early nineteenth century Europe, maintained some continuities with the rabbinic heritage. Reform Judaism rejected rabbinism, but developed its own form of rabbinate. And modern Zionism, as complex as it was, drew heavily on previous Judaic symbolic expression. The flag of the state of Israel, for example, according to a principal interpretation, recalls in its design the stripes of the tallit, the sages' prayer shawl, of antecedent ages going back through the mishnaic period and the chief rabbinate of the State of Israel derives its authority from the Judaic world views of the dual Torah which took shape in the formative mishnaic era.


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              1983      Judaism in Society: The Evidence of the Yerushalmi. Chicago: University of Chicago.

              1986      Judaism: the Classical Statement. The Evidence of the Bavli. Chicago: University of Chicago

              1986a    Judaism and Scripture: The Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah. Chicago: University of Chicago

Scholem, G. G.

              1961      Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken.

Wegner, J. R.

              1988      Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah. New York: Oxford University Press

Zahavy, T.

              1977      The Traditions of Eleazar Ben Azariah. Missoula: Scholars Press

              1987      The Mishnaic Law of Blessings and Prayers: Tractate Berakhot. Atlanta: Scholars Press