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
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 CE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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!