How did we get from the revelation at Sinai to the halachah we have today?

In order to fully comprehend the evolution of Torah law over the generations, it’s crucial to understand the chain of Torah scholarship, which is traditionally divided into several eras. The eras are viewed not just as different generations, but as descensions in divine inspiration, as each successive era is further “removed” from the source of Jewish scholarship: the revelation at Sinai. Thus, the rabbis and scholars from each era treated the rabbis of the previous era with reverence and deep respect and would not go against the rabbis of a previous era.

Most of these eras have clear demarcations, often coinciding with great historical events and developments, while other eras are not as clearly defined. Let’s explore these eras of Jewish scholarship, beginning from where the Mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers leaves off:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly . . .

1. Anshei Knesset Hagedolah—The Men of the Great Assembly

Seeking to strengthen the spiritual state of the Jews at the onset of the Second Temple era, Ezra the Scribe, together with the leading sages and prophets of the time (4th century BCE), formed a panel of 120 rabbis. Among them were the last of the prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, as well as sages such as Nehemiah, Mordecai, Daniel and Simeon the Righteous.

As the age of prophecy was coming to an end and the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) was no longer the vernacular of the average Jew, the Men of the Great Assembly finalized and canonized the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), instituted the 18 blessings of the Amidah prayer that we pray three times a day, and enacted many laws and “guardrails” to help bolster the observance of the mitzvahs (such as muktzah, not handling items that are “set aside” on Shabbat).

With the passing of Simeon the Righteous, the last of the Men of the Great Assembly, in the Jewish year 3488 (273 BCE), the era of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah came to an end and the era of the Mishnah began.

2. The Sages of the Mishnah

The period following the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah lasted through the destruction of the Second Temple in 69 CE1 until around the year 3949 (189 CE), when Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, due to the deteriorating state of the Jewish people, redacted the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a compilation of the Oral Torah, which up until that point had not been formally written down.

The first two hundred years of the Mishnaic period is also referred to as the time of the Zugot (“Pairs”). During this period the spiritual leadership of the Jews was in the hands of five successions of "pairs" of rabbis who ruled a supreme court (the Sanhedrin). One served as the nasi ("prince," i.e., president) and the other as the av beit din ("father of beit din," i.e., chief justice). The first pair were Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, and the last pair were the sages Hillel (the Elder) and Shammai.

Although Hillel and Shammai (the last generation of the Zugot) themselves had few disagreements, their students had many. Thus, after this period the "House of Hillel" and the "House of Shammai" came to represent two distinct perspectives on Jewish law, and disagreements between the two schools of thought are found throughout the Mishnah.

For more on the Mishnah, see The Mishnah.

This period is referred to as the era of the Mishnah or the Mishnaic period, or by the name that the sages of this period are referred to—the Tannaim, meaning “instructors.”

3. The Rabbis of the Talmud

Shortly after Rabbi Yehudah’s death, attacks and persecutions against the Jews living in Israel intensified, and the migration of Jews to Babylonia increased. This migration included many of the leading sages of the time, including Rabbi Abba Aricha (better known as Rav), one of Rabbi Yehudah’s leading disciples. Other sages and students of Rabbi Yehudah, such as Rabbi Chiya and later Rabbi Yochanan bar Nafcha (who as a young boy attended Rabbi Yehudah’s lectures), remained in the Land of Israel. For a while there were major centers of learning, yeshivot, in both Babylonia and Israel.

Thus began the period known as the Talmud or Gemara.

The sages of the Talmudic period, known as Amoraim (“explainers”), continued to expound upon the teachings of the Tannaim, as well as develop their own new insights based on the rules of extrapolation.

When the Roman ruler Gallus attacked the Land of Israel in the year 4111/351 CE and instituted harsh decrees against the Jews, most of the remaining sages fled to Babylonia. The compilation of the Jerusalem Talmud, which had begun with the work of Rabbi Yochanan (d. c. 4050/290 CE), came to an abrupt halt and remained in its somewhat rudimentary form.

Around the year 4152/392 CE, Rav Ashi, together with his colleague Ravina I, undertook the editing of what was to become the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud). After Rav Ashi and Ravina I died, their colleagues and students who had helped redact the Talmud completed their monumental task. The death of Ravina II (son of Rav Huna and nephew of Ravina I) on the 13th of Kislev in the year 4236/475 CE (or, according to some, 4260/499 CE) is considered the end of the Talmudic era.

Although technically the Mishnah is also included in the Talmud, colloquially, people often use the term Talmud specifically for this era.

For more on the history and development of the Mishnah and Talmud, see What is the Talmud?

4. The Little-Known Rabanan Savorai

The Savoraim ("Reasoners") were the leading rabbis who lived from the end of the period of the Amoraim (around 500 CE) to the beginning of the Geonim (around 600 CE). This was more of a transitional period in which the Talmud had already more or less been finished, but still needed some explanation, organization and finishing touches.

This is the shortest of all “eras.”

5. The Geonim of Babylon

After the completion of the Talmud, the main concentration of the Jewish people remained in Babylonia.

The period of the Geonim, so named after the title of the heads of the great academies in Babylonia (Gaon, meaning “pride” or “splendor” [or in later usage, “genius”]), spanned about 450 years, starting from Rabbi Chanan of Ashkaya, who is considered the first Gaon, in 589, to Rabbi Hai Gaon (d. 1038), who is considered the last Gaon.

Although the Talmud was completed, it was not always clear what the final ruling was. So the Geonim wrote much responsa (shaalot uteshuvot) clarifying the final halachic rulings, as well as works that stated the halachah without the whole back and forth of the Talmud. Some, like Rabbi Saadia Gaon, wrote works on philosophy in a systematic way, culled from the concepts found scattered throughout the Bible and Talmud.

Although there were small Jewish communities outside of Babylonia, the great academies of Babylonia were viewed by all as the center of Jewish scholarship and halachic rulings, and these communities would turn to the Geonim whenever clarification of Jewish law was needed.

This period also produced the first siddurim, prayer books, upon which our contemporary prayer books are based.

Gradually, Jews began to migrate to places like Europe and northern Africa, and some of these communities managed to retain great rabbis of their own.

After the death of Rabbi Hai Gaon in 1038, there wasn’t anyone of his stature who was able to take his place (although the actual position was filled), and the Geonic period came to an end. As a result, Jews in faraway communities turned to their local rabbis for halachic guidance. The great academies of Babylon became shadows of their former selves and gradually disappeared. Since there was no longer one single place that was considered “the center,” new communities developed independently and diverse minhagim (customs) evolved.

6. The Rise of the Rishonim

The era after the Geonim is referred to as the Rishonim, which means “Early Ones,” in contrast to the later Torah authorities called Acharonim (“Later Ones”). Although this period of time was fraught with persecutions against the Jews, the Rishonim wrote many works and commentaries on all areas of Torah, from the Bible, Talmud and halachah to Jewish philosophy and mysticism.

At this point there were Jewish communities and centers of learning in many countries. Spain became one center, influencing communities such as those in North Africa, while Germany, Northern France and Italy became another. Variance in some customs, especially with regard to liturgy, developed.

This gave rise to the two main groupings of Jewish people that have lasted until this day: Ashkenazim, descendants of the Jews of the Rhineland, and Sephardim, who follow the ways of the historic community of Spain.

It was during this period that the great commentators of the Bible and Talmud, such as Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi,1040–1105) and the school of the Tosafot, flourished in Ashkenazic lands, while others, such as Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1135–1204) and Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Nachmonides, 1195–1270), lived in Sephardic countries.

For more on the Rishonim, see The Era of the Rishonim

7. The Era of the Acharonim

Although many use the Spanish expulsion in the year 1492 as the demarcation between the Rishonim (early ones) and Acharonim, not all are in agreement. Some place the date as early as the end of the Tosafot in the early 14th century, while others place it as late as the year 1563, which is when the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Caro, together with a gloss by Rabbi Moses Isserles that includes Ashkenazic customs) was printed.

Yet others, seeking to better organize the different periods, suggest a quasi-period starting from 1492 (the year of the Spanish expulsion) and ending in the year 1648, the year that marked the beginning of the Chelminski massacres and the devastation of many Jewish communities. Just two years prior, in the year 1646, the Code of Jewish Law was once again published, but this time together with the classic commentaries of Rabbi Shabtai (1621–1662), known as the Shach, and Rabbi Dovid haLevi Segal, known as the Turei Zahav or Taz.This reflected the consolidation of the Shulchan Aruch as the final word in Jewish law. In 1648, the false Messiah Shabtai Tzvi started claiming that he was the Messiah, which caused much tragedy and upheaval in the Jewish world.2

Interestingly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi remarked that all the rabbinic authors until (and including) the Shach and Taz wrote their works with divine inspiration.3

The period after this includes the founding of the Chassidic movement in the year 1734 led by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760).

See Acharonim for more about this era.

Although some may argue that we are still technically in the era of the Acharonim, most would agree that the Holocaust and its devastation marked the end of one period in Jewish scholarship and the beginning of another.

There is no generally accepted name to refer to our modern era, but we believe that this era is on the cusp of the final Redemption, the Messianic Era, may it be speedily in our days!