History and Sources

What was the genesis of rabbinical Judaism?

It may be helpful to think of rabbinical Judaism as evolving in a long history of classes of religious scholars. The earliest were the Soferim, or Scribes, scholars of the Second Temple period (400-200 B.C.E.) who emerged with Ezra’s attempts to restore Torah to the center of Jewish life. From 200 B.C.E.-30 C.E., the period of the Five Pairs of Teachers (or Zugot) ended with Hillel and Shammai. A school called the Tanna’im (“Repeaters,” 30-200) lay the foundations of the Mishnah. That would become the first major written systematization of oral Torah. They also initiated a branch of oral Torah commentary called the Tosefta (“additions”), collections of statements of Tanna’im not found in the Mishnah (called beraitot, meaning “outside”) arranged according to Mishnaic order. From 200-500, the Amora’im (“spokesmen, interpreters”) communicated lessons of the great rabbis to pupils and later scholars who taught in Babylon (Iraq) in rabbinical academies established after the Babylonian Exile. Their work eventually comprised the Gemara (“completion”) of the Jerusalem Talmud, completed around 390. From 500 to about 589 a class called the Savora’im (“reflectors”) completed the writing of the Babylonian Talmud but left no independent work.

The Geonim (“eminences,” heads of the academies of Sura and Pumbedita in Iraq) dominated Jewish scholarship from about 589 to 1000, providing their answers to queries on the Torah from all over the diaspora in a body of literature called Responsa (“responses”). From 1000 to 1400, the Meforshim and Poseqim elaborated on the practical implications of halakhah (rules and regulations); and the Tosafists (“those who added on”) produced collections of comments on Talmud arranged according to the order of the Talmud’s sections or tractates. They based their writings on comments of earlier authorities, especially the twelfth- to fourteenth-century school of Rashi in Germany and France. This ongoing layering of tradition turns out to be the complex and multifaceted foundation of what we know as Rabbinical Judaism.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App