Three Stages in the Development of Early Rabbinic Prayer
Three Stages in the Development of Early Rabbinic Prayer
by Tzvee Zahavy
Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies
University of Minnesota
A. The difficulties of using the evidence of Mishnah and Tosefta tractate Berakhot for an account of the history of early Jewish prayer
We face a variety of snares when we come to study traditional religious texts, such as the tractates Berakhot in Mishnah (M.) and Tosefta (T.). Since these are the first segments of authoritative rabbinic documents which were brought to their final form in Israel in the early part of the third century they are distant from us in space, time and culture. Ostensibly these legal and anecdotal statements represent valuable sets of data pertaining to some dimensions of the historical and intellectual life of the Jews of Israel of the first through third centuries. They appear to inform us of what some leading rabbis of that time thought about the world in which they lived, their philosophical concepts, their ideas and concerns on a variety of subjects.
But these are not simple texts. Rabbis of the third century edited them with great care to exclude the materials they found objectionable and to include only those very few teachings which for theological or political reasons they wished to propound. They did not tell us outright what if any comprehensive social or philosophical viewpoints underlie these texts. I do hope in this essay and in future studies to intuit and reconstruct some semblance of the rabbinic outlooks, even some dimensions of the ethics and metaphysics of the Judaic leadership that taught their disciples that in these documents were elements of the oral Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The tractates of Berakhot in M. and T. dwell mainly on the subjects of prayer and blessings, and of mealtime commensality. As far as we know, some followers of the rabbis adhered to these rules. Some did not. They cared enough about the rules to dispute, debate, to catalogue and canonize them. Non-rabbinic Jews probably rejected or neglected most of the religious practices described in these short collections.
The rules deal with rituals, words and actions understood and accepted by a defined collective. What made these mannerisms and poetic declarations matter to the Jews of the rabbinic persuasion was their place within the political and social realities and relationships, amidst the complex struggle for leadership, dominance and control of the religious institutions and structures of an important religious community in Israel in that era.
Before I return to the historical motives of the rabbis, let me sketch out some of the basic background of this formative epoch. The age of early rabbinism spans three generations from the first through the third centuries C.E.. Our texts contain declarations ascribed to rabbis of three generations prior to the age of the authoritative publication of the texts. A salient feature of the literary character of rabbinic teachings is the preservation of regulations in the traditional attributive form of discourse, in the name of a rabbi: "Rabbi X says" [followed by a ruling] or [a ruling followed by] "the words of Rabbi Y."
The rabbis named in Mishnah and Tosefta Berakhot lived in three somewhat disjointed periods in Jewish history. The latest, the Ushan masters, flourished mainly in the Lower Galilee in the middle to late second century after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebels in 135, and before the seat of rabbinic learning moved a short distance south to Bet Shearim at the end of the second century. That war severs many of their ties to the preceding generation, the Yavnean rabbis. In their centers on the coastal plain and elsewhere, these earlier masters thrived in a period of great turbulence from the traumatic destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70, the late first century, to the time of the equally disruptive Bar Kokhba war. The texts in Berakhot attribute several traditions to even earlier masters, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, who were active in the early to middle first century in Jerusalem while the Temple was still standing.
The problem, to reiterate, is that because of the paucity of preserved teachings of each of these groups of masters, scattered selectively throughout the chapters of M. and T. in the process of redaction, I must proceed in stages to regain a historical perspective on the emergence of rabbinism.
Accordingly, I separate these strands of traditions attributed to masters of three generations and reassemble, reorganize and analyze them to get a better perspective on the contours of the gradual but distinct history and development of early Jewish prayer in the generations prior to the final closure of the Mishnaic corpus.
Let me make a few observations on my critical procedures. Wherever there is a warrant, I raise the issue of the authenticity of the attributions. In a few cases there is reason to question the attribution of a ruling to a given master, as for instance where a ruling on a matter of concern to a later authority is anachronistically attributed to an earlier master. But, in the overwhelming majority of cases the attributions stand on their face value. I assume that the assigned rulings reflect the views of the rabbi to whom they are attributed, or, at the very least to his school of immediate disciples or contemporaries. I give special attention to those ideas in earlier materials which are developed or refined further in traditions ascribed to masters in later generations. For that form of attestation provides an additional argument for the earlier existence and authenticity of the attribution of a teaching.
These are some elements in my approach to using rabbinic evidence. Let me briefly describe now the main topics of the tractate. At the time of the formation of M. in the early third century, three major components made up the rabbinic system of blessings and prayers: the recitation in the morning and evening of the Shema` with its blessings before and after; the recitation three times each day of the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings; the recitation of blessings before and after eating a meal.
Each of these elements of the system has a distinct history. Evidence reveals that the formal ritual of reciting the Shema` goes back to the period before 70 C.E. during the time the Temple was standing in Jerusalem. From the data we observe that the institution of the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings may be traced back to Yavnean times, the turbulent period between the wars of 70 and 135. Based on our sources we infer further that the structured system of blessings before and after the meal developed most dramatically in the late second century in the time of the Ushan masters. I shall hope to show that class and professional interests motivated the concern of those groups within rabbinism who sponsored these diverse religious practices.
By the time of the third century I find in the tractate Berakhot itself as a whole statement a more fully articulated theory and theology. M.'s ultimate framers enunciated in the substantive selection and organization of early rabbinic rules for liturgical recitations, their own clear, structured early rabbinic definition of a system of prayer and blessings, and theology of practical value for the individual Jew and of hope for the Jewish people.
B. The Formative age: Berakhot before 70
Before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, scholars posit that three major social forces influenced the nascent formation of rabbinic Judaism: the priestly and aristocratic class, members of the scribal profession, and individuals within the class of householders who owned land and made substantive contributions to the economy of Judea and later to the Galilee and the Coastal Plain.
Neusner has argued that the early third century rabbinic compilations, Mishnah and Tosefta, including tractate Berakhot, derives from an amalgam of the interests of these three forces. Neusner says, "There are these two social groups, not categorically symmetrical with one another, the priestly caste and the scribal profession, for whom the Mishnah makes self-evident statements. . . We must notice that the Mishnah, for its part, speaks for the program of topics important to the priests. It takes up the persona of the scribes, speaking through their voice and in their manner."
Neusner rounds out this picture of the social components which speak through Mishnah with a third group, the class of householders, the audience for the document, the real and potential adherents at large of the religious system of the rabbis. This group he calls, "the basic productive unit of society, around which other economic activity is perceived to function."
Mishnah in Neusner's view, turns out to be a cogent system uniting together the concerns and styles of discourse of its three constituents: scribes, priests and householders. The work of the ultimate redactor is so effective that "the Mishnah coalesces." Not surprisingly, one of its main themes is the problem of mixtures. Having artificially combined the disparate views of competing social groups into one statement, the framers of Mishnah return repeatedly to their "prevailing motif" says Neusner, "the joining together of categories which are distinct."
Thus, the rabbinic philosophers who framed Mishnah created in that book an artificial world where opposing forces come together as parts of a whole. These intellectuals shared with us little about what they deemed important about the real issues of village social structures or national politics. They instead gave us a stylized book which alternates between anonymous statements of unanimous assent and attributed rules cast within disputes or debates.
One "proof" that Mishnah's redactor's successfully camouflaged the social conflict between its constituent groups from its readers is evident in the very way Neusner himself chooses to describe the contributions of various factions to the composite. He speaks plainly, without any hint that he has chosen euphemisms, of "The Gift of the Scribes," "The Gift of the Priests," and "The Gift of the Householders." Apparently Mishnah's seamless synthesis remains intact even under modern critical scrutiny and the centuries of internecine struggle which produced the cultural components of the system of Mishnah recede into the deep background of its ultimately successful interweaving of traditional laws, anecdotes, and interpretations originally spawned by varied and conflicting historical and social contexts.
Unfortunately then these texts provide us with exceedingly limited direct evidence about the origins and early development of Jewish prayer. The only explicitly attributed materials of any significance in the tractate for reconstructing the history of rabbinism before 70, when the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, are the few lemmas ascribed to the Houses of Hillel and Shammai. These rules address but few liturgical subjects: the recitation of the Shema`, and the recitation of "blessings" on Sabbaths and festivals.
On this basis, the establishment of the recitation of the Shema` as a popular scribal rite may be traced to the time of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, wisdom fellowships commonly thought of as the immediate precursors of some rabbinic associations of the late first century and thereafter. Diverse evidence of rabbinic traditions such as M. Ber. 1:3, associate rules and practices for reciting the Shema` with the Houses and so supports this supposition.
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. The scriptural verses of the Shema` appear in the earliest phylacteries found at Qumran. Of course, some of the values promoted by the Shema` may be located further back in Israelite history in the wisdom movements of the Hellenistic age. For centuries Israelite sages and scribes commonly emphasized Torah and commandments as primary motifs of religious life.
Both the inclusions and exclusions of the contents of the standard text of the rabbinic liturgy clearly help us 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 which surround it. Such ideas and institutions as the Temple, the priesthood, Jerusalem, Davidic lineage, all prominent motifs in the Amidah, the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings, are of no concern to the framers of the Shema`.
Conspicuously, the Houses do not debate the rules for the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings. I believe this glaring omission, along with other positive warrants, strongly suggest that this liturgy becomes institutionalized within rabbinism no earlier than the end of the first century. On this I shall have more to say below.
Most of the remaining traditions attributed to the Houses in our tractates of M. and T. not surprisingly relate in some way to rituals and blessings of the meal, or of the Sabbath, or to purity laws. Extensive recent research has shown that these topics dominate the interests of the rabbi‑pharisees of the era before 70.
Let me look more closely at the early references to the Shema`. M. 1:3A-F suggests that the accepted and proper ritual for the recitation of the Shema` is patterned on a Hillelite conception. Apparently, the entire first chapter of Mishnah Berakhot is based on an understanding attributed to the Hillelites. They said that the Shema` must be recited twice each day, morning and evening.
The recitation of the Shema`, according to the rule ascribed to the Hillelites, formed a main component of the rabbinic daily liturgy. Later Yavnean rabbis accepted the Hillelite opinion of the nature of the ritual and explicitly built their conception of prayer around it. They went so far as to promulgate a tradition to ridicule those who accepted the competing Shammaite view of the nature of the liturgy. M. Ber. 1:4 reports that Tarfon, who followed the Shammaite mode of practice, placed his life in jeopardy. He is portrayed as stating that he emulated the convention prescribed for the ritual by the Shammaites and thereby placed himself in danger of attack by bandits. The rabbis accordingly told him, "Fittingly, you have yourself to blame [for what might have befallen you]. For you violated the words of the House of Hillel (M. 1:3H)."
A second pericope attributed to the Houses deals with the number of blessings recited in the Sabbath liturgy. In T. 3:13 the Houses dispute the number of blessings which one recites in the prayer of the New Year's day which coincides with the Sabbath and the procedure for reciting the prayer for the Festival which coincides with the Sabbath. The opinions are that one recites ten, nine, eight or seven blessings depending on the circumstance and authority. Noticeably, none of the alternatives suggests a liturgy of eighteen blessings.
One may question whether these disputes in T. are of any historical value, or are artificial and anachronistic units. On the one hand, a gloss to the unit, attributed to Rabbi, signifies that these pericopae may have been formulated at a late date. On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that there were special prayers recited on the Sabbaths, Festivals, and New Year's days during Temple times, even if a more formalized requirement of regular daily recitation was widely instituted only after 70 C.E. At most then, these disputes in Tosefta reflect an early interest of the Houses in the regulation of liturgies for the special days of the year and they were revised at the time of the redaction of T. to reflect the practices of this later period.
The bulk of the Houses' materials in Berakhot, concentrated in chapter eight of M. and its corresponding units in T., present rules for the Sabbath and Festival dinner and other regulations which may apply to any dinner. The order of blessings a person must recite for the Prayer of Sanctification for the Sabbath day, and over the wine which one drinks at that occasion, is the subject of the first unit.
Next, the Houses dispute the order of blessings for the Prayer of Division which was recited at the meal at the conclusion of the Sabbath. These disputes presuppose that blessings were recited on periodic occasions, to sanctify the Sabbath at its start, and to divide it from the remainder of the week, at its conclusion.
Traditions ascribed to rabbis of later generations take for granted that a Jew must recite blessings before eating any foods. Surprisingly, only one early rule takes for granted that a person had to recite blessings before eating any fare at a meal. Two other units supply rules for the Prayer of Division service, which one could recite even apart from the meal. Another dispute concerning a ritual practice at the meal deals with the use of spiced oil, a custom which was not developed any further in rules ascribed to subsequent generations.
As I just suggested, the references to blessings recited at a meal should not be construed as evidence of an early first century practice of reciting blessings before consuming any foodstuff. The only food blessing mentioned in Berakhot ascribed to an authority who flourished before Ushan times is the blessing over wine debated in the Houses disputes in M. Berakhot chapter eight. A later Yavnean master, Tarfon, speaks of a blessing over water in M. 6:8, although this likely refers to a blessing recited after drinking. The absence of sustained ascription to early rabbis of rules on these subjects supports the view that the concept and practice of a full-fledged system of food blessings, recited before eating, was institutionalized at the earliest by the Ushan rabbis, a century later.
A few traditions ascribed to pre-70 authorities do make reference to the blessings recited after a meal, not necessarily to the Sabbath meal. Two of these deal with the special circumstances following the meal: what one does if he forgot to recite the meal blessing after eating, and what one does to recite the meal blessing over one cup of wine which he obtained after the meal.
Three other pre-70 units speak to concerns of purity at the meal: how one is to keep clean his table and the utensils of his meal, the cup or the napkin, or how one avoids rendering unclean scraps of food left over from the meal. Questions like these relating to rules of purity are less relevant in later generations once the whole system of ritual cleanness loses its pertinence after the destruction of the Temple.
One final Houses-unit transmits to us a fragment of a tradition pertaining to the meal. This lemma, M. 6:5, attributes a cryptic gloss to the Shammaites ("Not even a stew"). Even in its full context, its meaning is difficult to ascertain and its import for our understanding of the overall character of this stratum of traditions relating to the meal and to blessings and prayers is therefore accordingly limited.
To sum up, the sayings associated with the Houses in Berakhot attributed to the Houses reveal their interest in expected pharisaic-rabbinic concerns. They take up rules for the fellowship dinner and for the Sabbath meal in particular, and rules for ritual purity at the table. The Sabbath Prayers of Sanctification and Division are associated with these masters, as is the blessing one recites over wine and the blessings recited after the conclusion of the meal.
The regular recitation of the Shema` is closely associated with the Houses in the first century. Finally, there is a possible association of the Houses with liturgies for Sabbaths, festivals, and the New Year, though I suggested the connection of these rituals with the early masters may be anachronistic.
Several rules and subjects first mentioned here at this earliest stratum of the law are further developed and expanded in later periods as we shall see in greater detail below. At Yavneh, the rabbis develop formulary recitations for inaugurating and concluding the Sabbath and festivals, for liturgical insertions into the prayers recited at those times. At Usha, the rabbis created a full-fledged system of blessings to be recited by the Jew before eating or drinking any foods or liquids. Such complex innovations of later authorities are built on simple prior notions associated with earlier masters such as the pre-70 convention that one recites a blessing before partaking the wine at the dinner.
While I have described the Jewish masters of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as "Pharisee-rabbis," their main concerns stem from a scribal agendum: the use of standardized prayers and blessings in the village, the household at the table, and in the everyday life of the Jew. I now propose to show how such seemingly modest innovations in the first century serve as the firm basis for the more lavish articulation of rabbinic ritual in the subsequent generations.
C. The Age of Internal Conflicts, Self-definition and Transition: Berakhot at Yavneh
The Yavneans were less notable as systematizers of religious practices than would be their Ushan successors. They had to be more creative as innovators of new and modified religious institutions to come to grips with the demise of the Temple and its rites and with military and economic threats to their very existence. Yet they refused to completely submit to the limitations of external domination within the Roman Empire.
In the midst of their turmoil, Yavneans built the recitation of the Shema` into a regular daily liturgy. They evolved through conflict and its resolution a requirement to recite daily the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings. Yavneans began to modify and institutionalize the formerly pharisaic fellowship meal into a rabbinic ritual. But for all that they did achieve, they remained preoccupied with maintaining their cultural independence and social vitality against the tremendous pressures of the forces around them. The Ushans in the subsequent period of relative calm, ultimately undertook to create a system out of the powerful but disjointed components of rabbinic life left to them by their more charismatic Yavnean teachers.
Direct and unambiguous accounts tell us that in the time of Yavnean sages major rifts occurred within rabbinism over liturgical issues. The Talmud reports that the rabbis overthrew the Patriarch Gamaliel II because of a dispute over the obligation to recite the Evening Prayer. Eleazar ben Azariah replaced him as an interim Patriarch, the rabbinic "academy" was opened to a broader constituency. Reforms of many different issues were enacted "On that day," that is on the occasion of the rebellion against Patriarchal domination and the shift in power that ensued.
The Deposition narrative merits close scrutiny because, as I said, it 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 Amidah at night.
Goldenberg questions whether we should dismiss the ostensible issue of liturgical reform as merely an excuse for the turmoil depicted in the narrative. He notes the, "Striking triviality of the dispute over the evening prayer." 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 performance of the Amidah-ritual 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 by patriarchal and priestly politicians to the authority of the scribal factions within rabbinism.
To be fair, Goldenberg`s conclusion alludes to political struggle, but does not associate such conflict with the legislation of liturgical reform:
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.
Goldenberg fails to perceive that the promulgation of public prayers, the stated issue of the conflict he discusses, is a primary and effective means of exercising influence, dominance and control over a community of the faithful.
A review of the two versions of this deposition-narrative with reference to some of their substantive variants will help to better illustrate my view. In the version of the narrative in Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1, the action begins in the Beit Va`ad (Gathering Hall) and continues in the Yeshivah. In the main action of the story, Eleazar b. Azariah, a priest descended from a scribe, and himself an aristocrat, takes the place of Gamaliel after he is overthrown.
Eleazar, despite his aristocratic pedigree, elsewhere in rabbinic traditions upholds a value of the scribal agendum, avowing that he understands why the exodus must be mentioned at night. Eleazar thereby accepted and promoted practices of the scribes. His statement, takes on a dual application. The rabbis applied it as justification for both the mention of the exodus in the evening Shema` and inserted the same tradition in the Seder to warrant the retelling of the Exodus in the evening, and accordingly to justify the Seder ritual itself.
The deposition-narrative emphasizes that Eleazar served as the interim Patriarch as the scribes seized control from the Patriarchal aristocracy. He was described as a priest who supported the ideals of the scribes, a pragmatic political figure. Aqiva, 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.
The Bavli-editor in another version of the deposition narrative makes several additions at Berakhot 27b-28a. First he locates all the action in the rabbinized study hall. He depicts a guard of shield bearers supporting the Patriarch. In Bavli, the reform of the patriarchal court is effectuated by packing the membership of the house of study, by "adding benches." The deposition in Bavli's version was followed by a reconciliation wherein Gamaliel reclaims the patriarchate, bowing to the new realities and the change in the balance of power in the leadership of rabbinic Israelite society. As part of this process the patriarch visits the scribe's house and suffers debasing humiliation, to counterbalance Gamaliel's earlier humiliation of Joshua. Once the deal has been cut to restore Gamaliel, Eleazar is informed in priestly metaphor that he must yield his position back to the legitimate heir.
The deposition-narrative compresses into stylized rabbinic form an account of events which probably stretched over a longer period of social unrest and instability within rabbinic society itself. Without doubt, the underlying struggle for dominance within the nascent rabbinic community may be understood ultimately in light of all the political, social and economic consequences of the conflict. Regardless we must not lose sight of the overt facts represented by the traditions in our possession. The leadership of ancient Israel fought bitterly over liturgy because of its powerful potential impact within the community of the faithful. Numerous sources indicate historical tension in the development of the Amidah. I cannot agree therefore with Goldenberg that the liturgical issue central to the narrative was just a trivial excuse for a broader conflict.
I argue that liturgical development closely mirrors political and social growth of rabbinism throughout its formative years in several discernable stages. During the initial transition after the destruction of the Temple, from about 70-90 C.E., the priests promulgated the Amidah to reinforce their authority and the Scribes promoted the Shema`. At this time it would have been natural for the scribes to claim the Shema` was once part of the Temple Service, as we shall see.
In the second phase of development, from about 90-155 C.E., the patriarchate sponsored the Amidah 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.
The rabbis in succeeding years further consolidated the compromise. This lead in the era from about 155-220 C.E. to the shaping of the composite rabbinic service that survives down to the present day. The leadership within Rabbinism amalgamated Shema` and Amidah into a compound liturgy with varied rules and prescribed mannerisms.
Some specific results of this process of internal conflict include were lasting liturgical innovations such as the revision of the Shema` to include the theme of Kingship. As a permanent social outcome of the era the Priests in this era were relegated to figurehead status in rabbinic communities. Politically, the Patriarch continued to observe the conventional boundaries of his authority established after the deposition, and was excluded from internal rabbinic affairs.
In effect the scribal faction came to dominate the local communities of rabbinic Jews in the aftermath of the major crises of the internal rabbinic power struggle. This historical evolution fully divorced Rabbinic ritual from national political power structures.
Let me review some of the evidence of how in a short span of sixty-five years, between the end of first war in 70 C.E. and the defeat in the second rebellion in 135 C.E., the rabbis transformed and constricted many aspects of Judaism. Whereas at the outset of this era Jewish religious life was centered around special meals in the home and the national cultic procedures of the Temple, by the close of this era it had changed. The rabbinic system of religious practices limited its practical regulatory focus to the major aspects of the life of the late antique Jew, in his town or village and its related personal experiences.
Naturally, the dominant concerns of the rabbis at Yavneh such as they were, reflected some primary issues of late antique religion and society in general within an imperialist Roman setting. A primary issue at the outset of the Yavnean age was, in a word, local survival. The rabbinic leadership struggled to assert some authority against the forces of foreign political domination. Rabbinic Jews, as many other subservient subordinate populations were essentially powerless and accordingly indigent. Day after day the people had to struggle against the elemental forces of nature for rudimentary sustenance.
The rabbis turned their attention where they could. They espoused that through their knowledge and religious virtuosity a Jew could help fend off the powers of nature, protect himself from the harm of the elements and of the unknown, of sickness, and of the dangers which lurked throughout the world inside of the village.
The rabbis in the age of Yavneh afforded the Jews ways and means to control the immediate vicissitudes of nature. Through their teachings and practices, through the rabbinic Torah, and mainly through prayer, the masters of this time postulated that they could for instance bring rain, or stop the rain. They could avert the dangers of the natural world or the likelihood of attack by bandits or other potential human enemies. They offered the people to cure their diseases, or at least to foretell the outcome of sicknesses. In the Yavnean period after the fall of the Temple, the rabbi who employed prayer and engaged in the study of Torah evolved by the necessity of the context in which he thrived into the local holy man par excellence of Judaic life.
As the rabbis took over control of more of the religious life of the Jews they saw to the transfer of the locus of holiness from its former center, the Temple in Jerusalem, to the domain of the rabbis, their places of congregation, to the study hall where the rabbis taught their disciples the Torah. An isolated ruling in M. Berakhot 4:2 clearly reflects this major shift in religious authority from the Temple to the Study Hall and from priestly rituals of sacrifice to rabbinic practices of prayer:
A. R. Nehuniah b. Haqanah used to recite a short prayer when he entered the study hall and when he exited.
B. They said to him, "What is the nature of this prayer?
C. He said to them, "When I enter I pray that I will cause no offense and when I exit I give thanks for my portion."
Nehuniah's prayer asks for protection lest the student or teacher make an error in studying, misinterpret the tradition and thereby improperly unleash the forces of the holy. In the view of this Yavnean tradition, the study hall was the primary precinct of the sacred. One employed special prayers to defend himself from any spiritual or physical danger he might face as he would enter and exit this location.
A related source reports that the rabbis of the time also relied on prayer to protect and preserve them from more explicit tangible dangers they faced when they entered the study hall to congregate. To the governing Roman forces, a congregation of religious leaders was a potentially seditious mob and could have constituted an overt threat to the authority of Roman rule. When the rabbis called together crowds of followers, they were monitored by guards to restrain the temptation to activism. A pericope in T. 2:13 shows how prayer was associated with the kind of power that afforded religious leaders the ability to strengthen social solidarity and mount a challenge against external control:
E. Said R. Meir, "One time we were sitting in the House of Study before R. Aqiba and we were reciting the Shema` to ourselves [i.e. not out loud]
F. "because of a quaesitor [a Roman guard] who was standing at the doorway."
G. They said to him, "[An example from] a time of danger is no proof [that such a practice is proper]."
Other traditions ascribed to Yavneans reflect the tenor of the imperial situation of these late antique times in Judaic circles. The attitude to prayers conveyed in the materials reflects a fundamental concern with the need for protection against both danger from natural forces and threats from within society itself. Some of the materials explain quite directly how via rabbinic practices one may protect himself. According to the explicit ruling in M. 4:4, a person recites a short prayer in a place of danger to protect himself from physical harm.
B. R. Joshua says, "One who goes through a dangerous place should pray a short prayer, [an abstract of eighteen].
C. "And he should say, `God save your people Israel. In all their crises let their needs come before you. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who hears our prayers and supplications.'"
A tradition in M. 9:4 proposes that prayers serve to protect man from the dangers of the wilderness beyond the civilization of the village, and a concise liturgy serves to express one's thanks for returning safely to home after a dangerous journey abroad.
A. One who enters a town recites two prayers, one upon his arrival and one upon his departure.
B. B. Azzai says, "[He recites] four [prayers], two upon his arrival and two upon his departure.
C. "He gives thanks for the past, and cries out for the future."
For the rabbinic Jew of the village, brief prayers protected a person from less ominous, hazards. In their towns the heat and vapors of a bathhouse could cleanse and even cure, but could also when out of control, cause injury or death. According to T. 6:16 a visit to this place merited the recitation of special formulae.
Within the range of rabbinic circles variation existed in the type and intensity of sanctity and power ascribed to the holy rabbis. When a great virtuoso in prayer, according to one tradition, was engaged in recitation he was protected from harm. Prayer prevented Haninah ben Dosa from the injury of a potentially lethal bite of a poisonous lizard. A story narrates how Ben Dosa was protected and the lizard died after biting him. "Woe to the person who was bitten by the lizard. And woe to the lizard which bit Ben Dosa," Tosefta 3:20 reports.
Haninah also had the power through prayer to peer into the future. His recitations served as a kind of omen for the destiny of a sick person, as M. 5:5 indicates. By virtue of his prayer for the sick, Haninah could tell, "Who would live and who would die."
For the Yavneans then, prayer had the power to protect the individual in the village. Through prayer a master might also gain the power of precognition of the future and a better perception of a person's present state.
Out of this understanding of the power of prayer in the life of the Jew, the Yavnean rabbis began to transform the practice of reciting prayers into a regular daily institution. Evidence suggests, as we saw, that Jews were reciting the Shema` even before the Temple was destroyed. Yavnean masters further ritualized this practice.
Formalization of the most prominent rabbinic liturgy of prayer, the liturgy of eighteen blessings, took hold as we argued earlier in the era of Yavneh. We see this process articulated indirectly in our sources in M. and T. Berakhot, as I shall show later.
Several late rabbinic traditions in the Talmud make this point more explicit. Consider the following [T. Babli Meg. 17b]:
A. When did the Prayer [of Eighteen Blessings originate]?
B. It was taught: Simeon of Paqoli established the order of the [Prayer of] Eighteen Blessings before R. Gamaliel at Yavneh.
C. [The Talmud continues with an apparently contradictory tradition:] Said R. Yohanan, and it was also stated as a Tannaitic teaching:
D. It was taught: One hundred and twenty elders, and among them [were] several prophets, ordained the order of the [Prayer of] Eighteen Blessings.
The Talmud subsequently harmonizes the two conflicting traditions [Babli Meg. 18a]:
A. If "One hundred and twenty elders, and among them [were] several prophets, ordained the order of the Eighteen Blessings," why then did Simeon of Paqoli have to establish [the order of the Prayer also]?
B. [Because the Jews] forgot the [blessings of the Prayer] and he came and established them again.
This tradition and other evidence indicates that the later Talmudic authorities believed that Yavnean rabbis sought to institute the regular standardized liturgy of the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings. I earlier surmised that this came about after serious struggle and conflict between rabbinic factions.
In the evidence of Mishnah we find several signs that some rabbis of the period resisted the formalization and institutionalization of prayer, claiming that regularization, qeba`, diminished the power of the liturgy. R. Eliezer says in M. 4:4, "One who fixes [the formulae of] his prayer, his prayer is not supplication."
This brief remark reflects the fluidity, the instability and the effervescence of the time. While some authorities sought to establish the best means to formalize prayer as a daily ritual, to further various motivates, others resisted, seeking to maintain the more impromptu character of prayer.
Yavnean masters such as Gamaliel, Joshua and Aqiba, developed rules and practices for the recitation of new prayers as we see for instance in M. 4:4-5. Rabbis of this era also further extended the existing practice of reciting the Shema` as a regular liturgy twice daily. Yavneans ruled in M. 1:2 on the proper times for the recitation of the Shema`.
In the context of their rules for the standardization of this liturgy, the Yavnean attitude towards prayer was that the proper recitation of the Shema` affords protection to an individual and, the converse of this claim, one who recites the wrong way, risks exposing himself to danger. Tarfon faced danger when he followed the Shammaite ritual for the recitation of the Shema` in the passage at M. 1:3G‑H.
The Yavnean sources clearly indicate that the recitation of both prayers and the Shema` in accord with the directives of the rabbis will protect a villager from danger and from harm. Needless to say, the rabbis maintained that power of the words of the prayers derived from God, the ultimate source of protection. God was the source of immediate safety and the fountain of final redemption, for the Jew of the towns and for no more than that. After all, the religious leaders of this age witnessed the defeat of their people in two tragic wars fought by those who strove to gain freedom from Roman rule, under the banner of leaders who believed they could hasten the coming of the age of the messiah and a national salvation of the Jewish people.
The texts do make a link between the recitation of the Shema` and the quest for redemption in several Yavnean traditions in Berakhot. but the connection remains vague at best. In M. 1:5, the rabbis direct that the exodus from Egypt be mentioned in the Shema`. This suggestion of the bond between the liturgy and ultimate redemption is carried forward in T. 1:10-15, linking the recitation of the Shema` with the messianic age.
I have argued that the Yavnean masters were preoccupied with the dangers lurking around the village, and accordingly with providing the Jews of the time with the means to withstand them. Their rules regarding the recitation of the liturgy pay little attention to the internal state of mind of the person who recites the liturgy. The Yavnean rules for reciting the Shema`, for instance, mainly focus on external aspects of the recitation.
In this era of transition under Roman domination the rabbis sought to establish some stability and shelter in their local communities by means of prayer and ritual. Not surprisingly Yavnean rulings provide us with no coherent attitudes towards public prayer, merely several isolated, independent rules.
Two of these rules are preserved in the name of the Ushan tradent Judah, who is associated with a particular Ushan attitude towards public prayer. The later Ushans legislated more openly and confidently on all aspects of public prayer, as we shall discuss below. Judah's traditions about the practices of the Yavneans primarily serve to express his own Ushan interests. Hence this further limits their value for reconstructing the development of rules for prayer at Yavneh.
One of these traditions at T. 3:5 about Aqiba, claims that he prayed differently in public and in private, underlining the virtuosity of Aqiba in prayer. In M. 4:7, Eleazar ben Azariah says that the Additional Service on festivals and new moons is only to be recited with the congregation of the village. While we presume that this means the liturgy may only be said in a public setting, references to the congregation of the village elsewhere in our tractate or in rabbinic literature in general has been suppressed. As a result this isolated tradition is of limited value to us in reconstructing a broader picture of the dynamics of the development of the phenomena of public Jewish prayer in this period.
The same may be said of the institution of the synagogue. One of the few explicit references to the synagogue in our early material, M. 7:3, alludes to the practices of reciting prayer in the synagogue. The call to prayer is fixed in the synagogue, Aqiba says, regardless of how many people are there. Lacking a fuller context of several traditions on the same subject, this pericope is of restricted value in the reconstruction of the history of the Yavnean ideas and practices relating to prayer and the synagogue.
To recapitulate, Yavneans emphasized that prayer can protect the Jews. They instituted regular daily prayers. They did not completely formulate a system of regular public prayer. Their views on the matter and rules for the synagogue are either lacking or suppressed.
Finally, I see several secondary trends in the development of liturgical ritual in this era. Yavnean materials rule that some rituals, formerly associated solely with the table fellowship, may be integrated into the regular recitation of prayers. So for example, the Prayer of Division, the recitation of formulae for the close of the Sabbath, or the Prayer of Sanctification, blessings for the inauguration of the Sabbath, may be recited as part of the regular prayer liturgy.
Yavneans propose that another short liturgy, the prayer for rain, which may have been previously recited as a separate rite, may also be integrated into the regular recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen.
On the basis of these examples, we may conclude that once Yavneans more firmly established the daily recitation of prayer as a recurring ritual, it dominated the liturgical life of the Jews and began to absorb into it other, formerly independent practices.
The Yavnean traditions convey a sense of the late antique quality of rabbinic notions of prayer in this period under imperial domination. The rabbis of this era emphasized the prayer can protect a person from the dangers around him, be they natural danger, or the dangers inside or outside the village. In this period the rabbis acknowledged the power of the recitation of formal prayers. At Yavneh we find accordingly, the beginnings of the formalization of regular daily liturgies of new prayers, and most prominently, the establishment of the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen blessings as a routine religious obligation.
As rabbinic ritual matured the fellowship meal became an occasion of note for recitation of prayers and blessings. Yet from the traditions taken as a whole, it appears that the Yavneans placed the fellowship meal at the periphery of their concerns, it never became a dominant issue of religious life.
Linked to Yavneans are a few questions on the subject: how many individuals comprise a minimum for a collective meal, and what formula of invitation does one use to call the group together to recite the blessings after the meal (M. 7:3).
Yavnean names are associated with only a few rules regarding the blessings for foods and other rules for the meal. A Yavnean is associated with a ruling regarding the traditional blessing over wine. Ben Zoma explains in T. 4:12, one of M.'s rules about the recitation of the blessing over the wine which one drinks during the meal. This wine-blessing is associated in a tradition concerning the recitation of the blessing (M. 8:1), with the earlier masters of the first century, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai. A Yavnean master merely carries forward a previously articulated issue.
Another tradition about wine ascribed to Yavneans discusses the nature of the substance itself. If one tastes it before one dilutes it to its normal strength for drinking, must he recite a blessing?
Yavneans are also associated with concerns for recitation of blessings after a meal. Indeed one issue is what foods make up a meal as we see in M. 6:8:
A. "If one ate figs or grapes or pomegranates [as the main dish of his meal] he recites over them [after eating] three blessings," the words of Rabban Gamaliel.
B. And sages say, "[He recites] one blessing [embodying three]."
C. R. Aqiba says, "Even if one ate cooked vegetables and that was [the main dish of] his meal, he recites over it [after eating] three blessings."
D. One who drinks water to quench his thirst says, "For all was created at his word."
E. R. Tarfon says [he recites], "Creator of [many] souls and their needs."
The sense from this tradition and other material ascribed to masters of this age taken together, is that Yavneans are interested in the blessings one recites at the conclusion of the meal (see T. 1:7). But they have no strong systematic conception of a formal fellowship meal. Their laws, and Aqiba's in regarding vegetables in particular, apply more to the setting of the average villager, rather than to a patrician or member of the upper-class, to the basic subsistence consumption of a society on the edge of survival, not to the concerns of national leadership.
If the Yavneans addressed themselves to the concerns of those who were overwhelmed by their struggle to survive, to deal with the aspects of daily life that buffet their existence, as we suspect, that explains why they did not have the motivation or the luxury to develop a detailed etiquette for the comfortable institution of the formal fellowship meal.
The Yavneans could not fully articulate some of the institutions within their group because they had directed their rulings to the villager whose energies went to fend off the daily pressures of external imperial rulership. Several sources like T. 2:6, on different subjects tend to indicate that Yavneans gave priority to external political events over religious obligations. We are told by Meir, in T. 2:13, that one may in fact alter the performance of a ritual in order to avoid severe persecution, to survive against countervailing pressures.
While this may have been a practical response to external political and social domination, at least one short lemma in our tractate indicates that other attitudes might have been prevalent among the Yavnean masters. One should give his soul for the commandments, Ben Azzai remarks at T. 6:7.
In sum, the repertoire of Yavnean traditions provide us with strong evidence of some of the concerns of the era. These second century masters are preoccupied with survival in an imperial world, with a struggle against the elements of nature and the forces of political dominance. In their rules concerning prayers we saw repeated concerns for protection for the villager from local danger and from harm.
There emerged in this era some tendencies to formalize and regularize prayer. But, on the whole, the institution appears to have remained fluid and effervescent, reflecting the conflicting internal forces within rabbinic life of the era and the external pressures faced by followers of the rabbis.
Finally, in their rules concerning the fellowship meal and blessings for foods the Yavneans also do not far advance the formalization of these practices. One view has Rabbis at Yavneh consider even cooked vegetables, even dates, as substance enough to constitute the main food for a collective meal.
As I now shall discuss, from the rulings ascribed to the masters of the next generation at Usha, a different picture emerges. The rabbis of that age take a dissimilar approach to defining the meal. Under more flexible historical conditions, they develop an apparently original fully-developed system of blessings to be recited before one eats any foods. They systematize the life of the rabbinic Jew through rigorously delineating and applying a scheme of ritual, especially of prayers, to daily life.
D. The Age of Standardization and Systematization: Mishnah and Tosefta Berakhot at Usha
The period following the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba revolt brought relative political and social stability to the Jewish centers of learning, then located mainly in Usha in the Lower Galilee. Unlike the previous two generations from 70 to 135 marked by wars and rebellions, this period returned rabbinic social and cultural life to a more serene routine with few major disruptions for the an entire generation and for several more to follow.
One of the fruits of peace and stability was the significant stabilization and restraint of the intellectual and social life of rabbinism at Usha resulting in part in rabbinic work on the organization, systematization, and development of the Jewish laws which emerged out of the turbulence of the prior two generations.
At Usha the rabbinic masters gathered, arranged and canonized their own teachings, and the received instruction from the masters of the past. They systematically assembled in formulaic compilations those rules and regulations, stories and anecdotes which best expressed their understanding of themselves and of the world. The canonical tractates of Mishnah and Tosefta emerged in the generation which followed the Ushan era, as a direct result of their contributions towards the organization of rabbinic knowledge.
Just as their work reveals an intense interest in the structure and organization of ideas and traditions of past teachers, their desire to systematize is reflected directly in those materials which they themselves authored. From the numerous rules attributed to Ushans one gets an even more unmistakable impression that this period was a time of structuring, building and organizing within rabbinic society at large.
Let me illustrate this with a few remarks in the Ushan materials related to prayer and correlative rituals which manifest the idea of rank and hierarchy within the social order.
A tradition attributed to Meir, a leading Ushan, best conveys the temper of the process of the transformation of rabbinic traditions on prayer from a corpus and scattered rabbinic rules into a system of liturgical regulations:
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]. One recites the Shema` and recites blessings before and after it. One eats his bread and recites blessings before and after it. And one recites the Prayer of Eighteen blessings three times a day. And one performs all the other commandments and recites blessings over them [T. 6:24F‑G]."
In the view of this Ushan master, all of a person's prayers, meals and other religious obligations comprise parts of a larger system.
The recitation of variations of liturgical formulae, the blessings, associated with each religious event, connects these disparate phenomena together. Within this conception the many rabbinic practices of prayer and blessings form part of a distinctive and coherent religious system of liturgy.
Further examination of the materials in our texts attributed to the Ushan masters, illustrates how they reflect contention within Jewish life in the late second century for control over the community of the faithful through two major realms of religious activity: public prayer and table fellowship.
The struggle for political and social dominance over communal activity, such as liturgical practice, may be evident in a pericope attributed to an Ushan rabbi which deals with the proper recitation of the Shema`. The text reads:
Rabbi Simeon b. Gamaliel says, "Not all who wish to take the name [i.e. recite the Shema` and its blessings] may do so [M. 2:8]."
This statement implies that those who wish to invoke God's name in prayer may do so only in accord with the regulations of the rabbis who alone sanction the recitation of prayers in Judaic life. Another tradition underlines an additional social ramification of liturgical recitations:
From a man's blessings one can tell whether he is a boor or a disciple of the sages [T. 1:6].
According to this brief unattributed lemma on liturgical formulae, reciting the correct or incorrect words signifies one's social status, i.e. that one belongs within one defined group or another. An Ushan lemma makes another closely related point. One must recite each day three blessings which reinforce the social distinctions of the group: Blessed art Thou O Lord our God who did not make me . . . a Gentile, a boor, or a woman (T. 6:18). Through blessings then one may express some of the basic rabbinic notions of social stratification and division.
Several of the Ushan regulations governing the recitation of the Shema` and of the Prayer of Eighteen communicate directly or obliquely how these rabbis sought to establish their dominance in their fraternity within the study hall, the unquestioned domain of the sages, and over the synagogue, the popular province of the common folk, and in this way to control public prayer.
Aside from the more direct social aspects, Ushans showed further interest in the regulation of other particulars of the liturgy. They extend the regulations of the time for the Shema` enunciated earlier by the Houses and developed at Yavneh. Simeon, for instance points out an anomaly in the rules governing the times of the recitation of the Shema`, "Sometimes one recites [the Shema`] twice in one night (T. 1:1G)."
Judah, tells a story about two Yavnean masters who recited the Shema` late in the morning in T. 1:2. Interestingly in Judah's story the rabbis are portrayed reciting the Shema`, "On the road." While in several traditions we find Ushan regulations for the time of recitation, they ordinarily evince little concern with rules regarding the place of recitation. One can recite on the road, or in any location for that matter [which is not unclean]. The overt implication of several Ushan rulings is that one need not enter a specific place, e.g. a synagogue, in order to recite one's prayers.
Previously I discussed the friction and compromise among Yavneans leading to the acceptance of a requirement of reciting the Prayer of Eighteen three times each day. Ushans, according to the data, then established the more specific timetable for the daily recitation of this liturgy. Judah glosses the primary Mishnaic pericope on this subject in M 4:1, "The morning prayer [may be recited] until midday. R. Judah says, `Until the fourth hour, etc.'" This unit most likely was formulated in the time it was glossed, at Usha. Other evidence at T. 3:12 suggests that the masters of Usha sought to regulate the form of the prayers.
The Ushans introduced several new conceptions in their formulation of the requirements for the performance of the rituals in expanding and further regulating the existing religious practices of prayer. Analogy between prayer and Temple law was one such idea developed at Usha, as I outlined above. Another primary Ushan interest was the role of a person's intentions while reciting prayer.
Because it is difficult to directly define in a few words the nature of the concentration needed to properly perform this ritual, the rabbinic prescription specifies how, during the recitation, one must alter his relationship to the external distractions of the world around him, so that, he may properly direct his internal consciousness.
Judah in T. 2:2 said that one who recites the Shema` must have the proper frame of mind. Judah and Meir debated in M. 2:1-2 the definition of the frame of mind that one must have for reciting the Shema`. They agreed that one must limit his social discourse during the recitation. But they disagreed over the means of doing this.
Judah and Meir disagree concerning the propriety of extending or returning a greeting while reciting the Shema`. According to both rabbis one may vary his level of concentration during one's recitation. Meir (D‑E) says that between paragraphs one may relax his concentration and extend a normal greeting out of respect as in ordinary discourse. But while in the midst of reciting a paragraph, one may not lapse into an ordinary state of mind to extend or respond to a greeting except if he fears the consequences of ignoring some important person close by.
Judah is more lenient. While reciting a paragraph one may certainly extend a greeting to a person of authority whom he fears and one may respond even to a person deserving respect. Between sections of the Shema`, one may carry on nearly the ordinary exchange of greetings. He may greet a person he respects and answer the greeting of any ordinary person.
Both rabbis agree that one's concentration on the recitation of the Shema` establishes a state of mind which requires a person to modify his relation to the other people nearby. Their dispute concerns the intensity of this change in ordinary social interaction necessary during the heightened consciousness of the recitation of the Shema`.
In a more subtle way, another tradition reflects Judah's concern with the need for a person to direct his intention during the performance of a ritual. Those who attend a funeral may or may not participate in the recitation of the Shema`. It all depends on the extent of their involvement in the rites of the funeral. Onlookers who are not directly engaged in the procedures of the funeral, may be able to concentrate and hence may recite. Participants involved directly in the funeral are presumed by T. 2:11 to be too distracted to properly recite the Shema`.
Another Ushan, Abba Saul, provides a scriptural basis from Psalms 10:17 for the general requirement that one must concentrate for the recitation of the Prayer. The only prayer that God hears, says this master at T. 3:4, is one which is recited by an individual who concentrates.
Related to the concept of intention is the idea of meditation, that is of "silent recitation" of prayer. This notion is associated with Ushans at M. 3:4. Judah's gloss in M. links this unit with the Ushan era. T. 2:13 more directly links this notion to Yose. Meditation is a subtle process. It is quite a daring idea to think that one may concentrate on a text without reciting it in order to fulfill the requirement of the religious obligation to pray.
So the traditions attributed to Ushans indicate two ways in which the masters of this era regulated the actual performance of the rituals of prayers. They controlled the timetable for recitation and they legislated regarding the kind of intention or concentration needed for an individual's recitation of the prayers.
In other ways too the rabbis of this period sought exercise their supervision of the institutions of the recitation of prayers in private or informally, and formally, in public. As cited above, one Ushan unit makes the simple point that all recitations of blessings and prayers must be sanctioned by the rabbis: "Rabban Simeon B. Gamaliel says, `Not all who wish to take the name may do so (M. 2:8).'" Certain rules in particular were directed towards the regulation of more formal gatherings for public prayer. In T. 1:9 Judah indicates how the participants in the public service must recite the blessings which followed the Shema` liturgy along with the leaders of the service.
In another unit, T. 3:5, Judah conveys an anecdote about the way in which Aqiba would restrain himself to conform to the conventions of public prayer. The message of that pericope is that Aqiba, virtuoso of the rabbis, conformed to the rules of conduct for public prayer by not bowing overly much. The ordinary rabbinic Jew then surely must follow the regulations of the rabbis for ceremonial public prayer.
In M. 4:7, Judah proposes a compromise between the views of Eleazar b. Azariah and sages on the public recitation of the Additional Service. The basic notion that an individual may indeed recite on behalf of the congregation or group, is implied elsewhere in sources associated with Judah (T. 2:12). He says that one who was unclean by virtue of a rabbinic decree may not recite the liturgy. He thereby limits the role of such an individual in the public recitation of prayer.
Even within the systematic treatment of Ushan legislation, several major issue remain vague. From our data we cannot tell whether at Usha the recitation of the Shema` was to be practiced as a public liturgical ritual of the community, or a private rite of individuals, or both.
One rule refers to the recitation of the Shema` in the synagogue. The rule itself is anonymous and its reference to the Shema` is only implicit from the context of the rule: "One who entered the synagogue and found that they had recited half [of the Shema`] and he completed it with them. . .(T. 2:3)." But in general the Ushan regulations in M. do not take into account any distinction between the public or private recitation of the Shema`, as we see at M. 2:3. Such issues cannot be resolved based on the limited sources we have.
Ushans contributed to the tightening formalization of the literal content of prayer. One unit attributes to Yose an interest in the formulation of the liturgy: "Even one who did not mention the covenant in the blessing of the land [i.e. the third blessing in the grace after meals], they make him repeat [the recitation] (T. 3:9)."
In their rulings for the food and meal blessings Ushan masters maintain a similar scope of activity and interest. Through their rulings the Ushans solidify and extend rabbinic dominance over two major areas of the life of their community: the institution of collective public prayer, as shown, and the practice of commensality, that is, the collective fellowship meal.
In addition to the many rules they promulgated for reciting liturgies and prayers, the Ushans created an intricate system of blessings to be recited before eating any foods. The rabbis justified the idea of requiring preliminary food blessings in a creative anonymous rabbinic tradition as follows:
One may not taste anything until he recites a blessing. For it says, "The Earth and all therein is the Lord's (Psalms 24:1)." One who derives benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing has committed a sacrilege. [It is as if he ate sanctified Temple produce.] Unless he fulfills all the obligations [required by the rabbis which] permit him [to derive benefit from food, i.e. unless he recites all the proper rabbinic blessings] [T. 4:1].
The analogy of food blessings with Temple taboo served as a strong polemical basis for the legitimacy of these rituals. Through the blessings-system the rabbis could regulate the consumption of foods and thereby the institutions of the commensual meal or the table fellowship, much as the priests in the Temple could exercise their dominance over the production and distribution of foods in a past era when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing. So to foster this analogy the rabbis promulgated their bold dictum: one who eats any foods without following the rules of the rabbis commits a sin as severe as the ancient transgression of sacrilege against the priest and their Temple property.
Accordingly, by requiring all Jews to recite the rabbinic blessings before eating, to follow the rabbinic rules of commensality, rabbis could directly govern a main affair of the daily life of every Jew.
The first Ushan unit of the tractate more subtly illustrates this connection. In T. 1:1, Meir parallels the time for reciting the Shema` with the time for eating the Sabbath fellowship meal. Recall also that the earlier Yavneans in M. 1:1 had explicitly compared the timetable for the Shema` with the schedule of the Temple.
Other Ushan statements regarding the system of food blessings express a basic categorization of the natural world and of the edible produce of the second century Israelite context [M. 6:1], reminiscent of the systematic priestly taxonomies of an earlier age.
The regulation of membership in the table fellowship, control of the institution of the meal, is an ongoing Ushan concern. In M. 7:2 Judah rules on the minimum one must eat to be included in the quorum for the recitation of the blessings after eating the meal.
The Ushan conception is that the fellowship dinner is a formal full‑course affair, not a meal of just vegetables or dates. In this context advice on table etiquette is appropriate. Simply by propounding rules of etiquette, the rabbis could not fully regulate, guide, or control a complex institution like the collective meal. Much more is involved in governing this complex institution. The Pharisaic leaders, for instance, regulated the table fellowship of their era by promulgating purity laws for foods and agricultural taboos, especially the laws of tithes for produce.
The rabbis of Usha did not reaffirm these rules as a means of directing the obligations of the collective meal in their era. There was no Temple, no active priesthood. So there was no gain in extending the rules of purity and uncleanness to the Jews of the second century and no way to justify the system of agricultural offerings and tithes.
Accordingly, the Ushan rabbis exercised control over the fellowship meal of their time by establishing a system of blessings to be recited before and after eating foods both at the formal dinner, and by extension, even outside of the formal structures of the fellowship meal. As noted earlier, these authorities proclaimed that the whole world and all of its contents were sacred. To eat from the fruit of the land was a sacrilege unless one performed the proper religious actions. For the rabbinic Jew of the late second century, the rituals that permitted a person to consume the foods of the earth were not the sacrifices of animals at the Temple, or the offerings of meal, or the separation from one's produce the gifts for the priests and levites. The Jew had to recite the proper formal blessing before eating, and then he could proceed to benefit from the produce of the land.
The rabbis provided little additional justification to gain support for their innovations. The few Biblical precedents for such ideas or practices are limited to at best remote hints of the practice of reciting blessings at a meal, such as in Deut. 8:10, "And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord . . ."
The Temple, the locus of holiness in the world of the Jew in Israel, had been destroyed more than a generation earlier. The Yavneans learned through tragedy and trauma that the Temple would not be rebuilt in their times. The rabbis at Usha knew in their own historical experiences only of a life of piety without a centralized place of holiness. Out of necessity, they refined and developed the Pharisaic and early rabbinic notion that holiness could be centered around the household and sacrality focused at the table of the ordinary villager.
Liturgy thus understood had some undeniably "rabbinic" facets. By the late second century, the rabbis were, more than anything else, a group of sages whose major concern was the study and formulation of their traditions. Accordingly one of their major preoccupations was the mastery and recitation of the traditions which later became the basis for the canonical documents of M. and T., highly formulaic documents made up of short lemmas in formalized diction. The recitation of blessings comprised of brief, fixed formulae to express their conceptions of religious order and meaning at the formal setting of the dinner was definitely a ritual which reflected elements of the basic character of rabbinic culture.
Admittedly the primary notion that one recites a blessing over a food was not an original conception of the Ushan masters. As shown above, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai in their first century rules speak of the blessings over wine and refer to the recitation of other formulae (viz. chapter eight of M.). Rules concerning the recitation of the blessings after the meal were ascribed to Yavneans. Indeed, the Yavneans are said to have developed the formal daily prayer liturgy comprised of eighteen formulaic blessings.
But in the era when rabbinism was centered at Usha the rabbis developed their complex system of blessings to be recited by the Jew before eating any food. As we have shown, this deceptively simple taxonomy of foods and their blessings of M. 6:1 enunciates the essence of the rabbinic scheme of blessings and makes a powerful statement. To eat of any food, the sancta of the earth, one must first carry out his religious obligation, recitation of the formula of the appropriate rabbinic blessing.
Within the development of this system of religious practice at Usha, there emerged the dominant system of blessings expressed in the pericopae of Mishnah Berakhot. Alternative expanded categories and formulae were also proposed by rabbis of the era, as indicated by rulings attributed to Judah, Meir and Yose in Tosefta 4:4-5.
The establishment of a system of different blessings for various foods, and of the requirement to recite these blessings before eating any food gave rise to a complex set of real and potential questions. For instance, when one ate more than one kind of food at the same meal, did he recite a blessing over each food? Did he recite a blessing over one food before he recited a blessing over another food? In other words, was there a hierarchy or rules for precedence within the system of food blessings? If so, by what criteria did one establish the rank and order of importance of foods?
Ushan units respond to these issues. Judah suggests that one may seek guidance regarding the issue of priority from a familiar source, Scripture. The seven types of foods mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 take precedence over other foods (M. 6:4). An alternative means of establishing hierarchy among foods based on the quality of the food, is suggested elsewhere.
Within the framework of the meal, the consensus opinion is that one does not need to recite a blessing over each food one eats. One recites a blessing over the primary food of the meal, usually bread, and other foods are exempt. Certain special foods, like salted relishes or desert cakes, are exceptions to this practice. One needs to recite a separate set of blessings for these items.
The complexity of the rules creates a whole host of problems for the rabbis to solve. The nature of the principles makes it essential for the rabbis to establish a detailed set of governing priorities to guide the implementation of the system of blessings in the everyday life of the rabbinic Jew. Through this system of blessings the rabbis are able to guide and to govern the institution of the table fellowship, and to regulate the consumption of all foods.
This naturally engenders the circumstances in which the rabbi plays a central and indispensable role. He must be consulted to solve any new enigmas generated by the principles which govern the system of rules for reciting the food blessings. No one else has the expertise to make the decisions. So, by means of this system of blessings, the rabbis made themselves essential to the daily life of the Jew.
In the final analysis I have contended that one of the great contributions of the masters of the Ushan period was their successful systematization of rules and regulations for disparate phenomena, for the basic rituals and concepts of rabbinic Judaism. The Ushans took the scattered traditions of a group of charismatic holy men [the Yavneans] and transformed the independent rules of individual teachers into a systematic tradition, a Torah. The Ushans believed that all religious obligations were parts of the same Torah, and all governed under the authority of the rabbis.
Meir accounted for this succinctly, as illustrated above (T. 6:24-5): Each day a person recites one hundred blessings. The Shema`, the mealtime blessings, the recitation of the prayers are indeed, in Meir's view, all part of the same system as those basic scriptural obligations of the adult male Israelite, i.e. wearing tefillin, and fringes, and placing a mezuzah on his doorpost.
Such thoughts leave open issues of precedence within the system. Consider the impact of the Shema` and its blessings on the theology of early rabbinic Judaism. The ritual of the recitation of the Shema` expressed a powerful basic underlying theological message. Scriptural obligations of the each Jew [such as the use of tefillin, mezuzah and sisit] are equal parts of the same system as the rabbinic practices incumbent on the individual and practiced in fellowship with other Jews [the recitation of the Shema`, the recitation of other blessings and prayers, the meals in the home]. Are they equal or is one practice and symbol more crucial than another?
Once the Ushans had established the notion of a system of religious obligations for the Jew, the inevitable issue to be raised is the question of priorities. When there is a clash between two commandments, which one takes precedence? Some examples are of this process of clarification of priorities are to be found in traditions ascribed to Ushans. One matter at T. 2:6 is do scribes stop writing their sacred scrolls in order to recite the Shema` and the prayer? Another concern at T. 5:1-4 is what takes priority, prayer in the study hall or the Sabbath eve meal?
Furthermore, may one who is unclean by virtue of a rabbinic form of uncleanness still fulfill the obligations established on the authority of the rabbis? May he still recite the blessings of the meal and of the Shema`? A related question: do social responsibilities take precedence over the requirements of religious obligations? Must the processes of public administration be halted for the recitation of the Shema` and the Prayer (T. 2:6)? Ushan rulings close and settle some issues, leave other open ended and allow for multiple responses to some. These options established at Usha pave the way for the fuller Talmudic analysis of generations to come.
To close this review of the Ushan contributions, consider the precepts for several miscellaneous practices associated with them. One must recite blessings for unusual natural events, and when visiting national shrines or other special places, and for good or bad fortune. Through rules such as these requiring the recitation of blessings at various occasions, the rabbis consolidate even popular, personal, occasional prayers into their system of worship and religious practice.
In sum, the data in Berakhot demonstrates that Usha was a period in which the rabbis advanced their control over their followers through regulation of religious practice. They are credited with rulings concerning the control of the time of prayer. Their materials show interests in governing the intention of individual during his recitation of prayer. They make statements which indicate their concern with the public recitation of prayer.
In all of these traditions we find little to indicate that Ushans legislated rules for the synagogue. A conclusion one may draw from this lack of evidence is that rabbis did not have influence over synagogue practice. It may be that the synagogue was yet to be sufficiently institutionalized in Israel by the end of the second century. Or it may be that rabbis could simply not manage and direct the ritual processes of that institution. By contrast, they did seek to direct the institution of the common dinner.
We do find that they issued rulings concerning blessings recited at fellowship meals. Other rules effectively attempt to link a person's status within the rabbinic group with his virtuosity in rabbinic religious practice and his mastery of rabbinic thought.
Above all, the Ushans saw all religious obligations, based on both rabbinic and scriptural authority, as parts of a larger system. One might say that at Usha we find the beginnings of the idea of a "halakhah" or integrated system of laws which governs all of life's activities. The creativity of the Ushans in this regard undoubtedly paved the way for the formation of the canon of the Mishnah in the next generation and thereby for the genesis of the Talmuds of the generations thereafter and the forms of Judaism associated with those corpora.
This study follows many of the methods established in Jacob Neusner's studies of Mishnah and Tosefta and epitomized in Judaism: The Evidence of Mishnah, Chicago, 1981. I share many of the presuppositions of that work. However, on many specifics I seek angles of vision divergent from Neusner's. At times I take a more credulous approach to attributions of the texts. In some cases a seek a more reductive explanation for opinions and prescriptions.
See my book The Mishnaic Law of Blessings and Prayers: Tractate Berakhot, Brown Judaic Studies: Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1987, for a systematic explanation of each pericope in M. and T. Berakhot.
I review the Mishnah-redactor's perspective of the components of a system of rabbinic prayer by which he shaped the whole of the tractate in the process of the compilation of M. Berakhot in my study The Mishnaic Law of Blessings and Prayers: Tractate Berakhot, Atlanta, 1987, pp 2-17.
See Jacob Neusner, Judaism: the Evidence of the Mishnah, Chicago, 1981, especially pages 232-256.
Op. Cit., p. 233.
Pp. 241 ff.
Pp. 248 ff.
Pp. 250 ff.
See Y. Yadin, Tefillin from Qumran, Jerusalem, 1969.
The Nash Papyrus, c. 150 B.C.E., from Fayyum, contains the decalogue and the first two verses of the Shema`.
See James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, Atlanta, 1981, pp. 27 ff. for a discussion of some aspects of the sage as a member of a professional class. Crenshaw briefly reflects on the exodus motif in the Wisdom of Solomon. Also see his prolegomenon to Studies in Old Testament Wisdom, New York, 1977, where he deals with the importance of the theme of creation in the wisdom circles. I. Elbogen claims that the Shema` and its benedictions constituted the earliest form of the "synagogue service." See Studien zur Geschichte des judischen Gottesdienstes, Berlin, 1907, pp. 38-44.
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`.
Jacob Neusner, Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70 C.E., Vols. I‑III, Leiden, 1972.
Cf. M. 8:1 and T. 5:25.
M. 8:5 and T. 5:30.
M. 8:5 and T. 5:30.
M. 8:2 and T. 5:26, M. 8:3 and T. 5:27, M. 8:4 and T. 5:28.
B. Ber. 27b-28a, y. Ber. 4:1.
See J. N. Epstein, Prolegomena ad Literas Tannaiticus, Jerusalem, 1957 ,pp. 422-25. Epstein is skeptical about whether to give credence to those sources associating many of the decisions with "that day."
Robert Goldenberg, "The Deposition of Rabban Gamaliel II," in Persons and Institutions in Early Rabbinic Judaism, Missoula, 1977, p. 37.
Goldenberg, p. 38
M. Ber. 1:5.
In a touch of irony, M. Ber. 1:1, cited above, 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.
In Bavli's version of the deposition narrative the anonymous student responsible for the destabilization of the status quo to begin with is Simeon b. Yohai, the mystic apocalyptic -- a force of instability in any society.
M. Ber. 4:3 for example, gives us a dispute between Gamaliel and Joshua over the formalization of the Amidah. T. Ber. 3:12 makes an explicit comparison between the Amidah and the rituals of the Jerusalem Temple.
On the spirit of the age in general see, P. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, London, 1971. A more intense examination of the imperial setting is to be found in Richard Horsely, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine, San Francisco, 1987.
Additional Yavnean traditions emphasizing the centrality of prayer are found in T. Ber. 3:3-4.
There is a further hint of the protective powers of the recitation of the Shema` in T. 1:4. One might see the reference in that pericope to the `destroyers' as an indication of a potential source of harm. But this is far from certain since the term is obscure.
See M. 2:3. The tradition concerning Gamaliel's wedding, M. 2:5, is an exception.
M. 5:2, T. 3:10, T. 3:11.
See M. 5:2 above, T. 3:9.
Naturally, it could also be that the conceptions developed at Usha and fostered by the redactors of M. and T. so dominated in the selection of prior rulings for inclusion in M. and T., even to preclude the mention of Yavnean apperceptions of modes of practicing commensality. Whatever the reason, only the most basic issues of the fellowship meal are associated with Yavnean names.
M. 7:5D, T. 4:3A‑E.
M. 6:8, T. 4:15.
On the basis of relevant literary and material evidence one must conclude that the rabbis ordinarily were not the dominant figures in the governance of the synagogues in Israel in the first through third centuries. In face of this the rabbis attempted to maintain their authority over prayer by promulgating their dicta they sought to weaken the authority of others forces governing the hierarchy of the synagogues.
This is a sharp contrast to the conception of the meal underlying the story in which Aqiba and the rabbis are portrayed eating dates in Jericho (T. 4:15).
T. 4:14. Other anonymous units on the formal etiquette of the dinner may be associated with the Ushan stratum of traditions, including T. 4:8‑9, T. 5:5‑6, M. 6:6‑7.
See J. Neusner, Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70 C.E., vol. 3, Leiden, 1972.
On the basis of Judah's gloss we may associate that entire tradition with the Ushan period.
See T. 4:15, Judah's version of the dispute between Gamaliel and sages.
See T. 4:14, T. 5:12.
See M. 3:4, and T. 2:13.
See M. 9:1‑2, T. 6:2A‑C, T. 6:6C‑D.