Amoraim of Eretz Israel

Although most sages lived in Babylonia, there still was a sizable Torah community in Eretz Israel.The leading sage during the Third Century was Rabbi Jochanan, who died in 259 CE. His yeshiva, in Tiberias, was the last of the Great Sanhedrin’s 10 locations before it ended. The Talmud describes Rabbi Jochanan as having exceptional beauty, with only the lack of a beard keeping him from being counted among the most beautiful men who ever lived. Sadly, his personal life was very tragic — his 10 sons died in his lifetime — but rather than wallowing in self-pity, Rabbi Jochanan used his situation to comfort other bereaved parents. Rabbi Jochanan also laid the framework for the Jerusalem Talmud, Talmud Yerushalmi, but was unable to finish the work. It was continued by his disciples.

A contemporary of Rabbi Jochanan, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was better known as Resh Lakish. This remarkable personality began as a robber who was persuaded by Rabbi Jochanan to channel his energies into studying Torah. Eventually becoming Rabbi Jochanan's brother-in-law, Resh Lakish and Rabbi Jochanan disputed many points of law, and the halacha follows Rabbi Jochanan in all but three cases. Another prominent scholar in Eretz Israel was Rabbi Abahu, who resided in the Roman city of Caesarea. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Abahu's beauty was a reflection of the Patriarch Jacob. Greatly respected by the Roman authorities, Rabbi Abahu used his influence to help his people.

Christianity Begins to Dominate

In 323 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. As a result, Christianity, which had grown from humble beginnings, became the dominant religion of the world. Persecution of the Jews rapidly followed, as the new creed left no room for other belief systems, a contrast to the relatively benign tolerance of the formerly pagan empire. In particular, the Christians were incensed at the success of Judaism in attracting numerous converts from throughout the Roman Empire, continuing a trend that had begun in the times of the Tannaim. In 325 CE, at the Council of Nicea, the Christians laid down the basic tenets of their faith. Severing all connections with Judaism (such as fixing the date of Easter to coincide with Pesach), the Christians also incorporated many anti-Semitic doctrines into official Church dogma. Later, when the Roman Empire split into East and West, Eretz Israelfell under control of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. As that time, the Christians built churches in Eretz Israelin Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, all sites associated with the founding of their religion. They also constructed a church on Temple Mount.

The Jerusalem Talmud

Due to severe Christian persecution, much of Jewish life in Eretz Israelcame to a halt, and as a result the Talmud Yerushalmi was not completed. Dating from the middle of the Fourth Century, it is on just four sections of the Mishnah: Zeraim (which has no Babylonian Talmud except for Tractate Berachos), Moed, Nashim, and Nezikin. Small excerpts also exist on part of Tractate Niddah, in Taharos. Some opinions maintain that the Talmud Yerushalmi also once existed on the order of Kodashim but was lost. In any event, the Talmud Yerushalmi is considerably shorter than its Babylonian counterpart, and employs a terse, difficult Aramaic. As such, its study has never been as prized as that of the Babylonian Talmud, remaining the province of specialized scholars. (For example, the Yerushalmi was never on the curriculum of the great yeshivas throughout history.) In cases of disputes between the two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud is followed.

Fixing the Jewish Calendar

Traditionally, there was no set Jewish calendar as currently exists. Rather, as empowered by the Torah, the Great Sanhedrin calculated Rosh Chodesh and the holidays on a monthly basis. In that system, a combination of eyewitness sightings of the new moon and mathematical calculations were taken into account. Leap years were added as necessary to ensure that Pesach always occurred in the spring. At that time, incredibly precise calendar computations were only disclosed to selected scholars to ensure that the Sanhedrin retained control of the calendar. This act was deemed necessary to prevent fragmentation of the Jewish people, which would surely result if there were competing calendars. Due to Roman persecution, it became progressively difficult to maintain the old system.

However, Divine providence intervened, and as on numerous other occasions the Jewish people were given a brief respite when an important matter needed to be accomplished. A new Roman Emperor arose, Julian the Apostate, who was both anti-Christian and favorably inclined toward the Jews in Eretz Israel.Realizing that this peaceful time would not last, Hillel II, the last Nasi of the House of Hillel, convened the Great Sanhedrin in the year 359 CE (4119). These sages, the last to have semicha, created the fixed calendar in use today. They also publicized the previously secret method of calculation, so that everyone could realize the calendar’s veracity. According to the calendar, all holidays, days of Rosh Chodesh, and leap years were set until the Jewish year 6000, which Jewish tradition accepts as being the last date for the arrival of the Messiah and the concurrent reinstitution of the ancient calendar system. (It was not necessary to fix the day of the Sabbath, because that is Divinely set, unlike the festivals that were fixed by the Sanhedrin.) Shortly afterwards, Julian died, the persecutions resumed, and the Sanhedrin and semicha went out of existence.