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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Classical Rabbinic Period

Covering nearly a millennium (1st century–11th century), the rabbinic period is a lengthy and complex era, during which exegetical approaches and traditions developed that link up with inner‐biblical and early postbiblical interpretation at one end and with medieval interpretation at the other. Rabbinic tradition developed primarily in two centers: the land of Israel and Babylonia, with the latter gradually becoming more important and influential. In many ways the rabbinic approach to interpretation—comparison of texts, inference according to established procedures, and intense argument over approaches and outcomes—established the “ground rules” for most of subsequent Jewish exegesis until the modern era.

The Historical Background

The Roman empire ruthlessly put down two Jewish efforts at rebellion, in 70 and 135 CE . These events were not the sole cause of the increasing emphasis on study in Judaism, but the first put an end to Temple worship and the second crushed any hope of its restoration. Thereafter, Jewish religious practice was marked to an even greater extent by study of the Bible, and comment on it, as a major religious activity. There had been study before, of course; rabbinic tradition had been handed on. The concerns and universe of discourse of MMT, the halakhic letter from Qumran, indicate that such debates date back to the 2nd century BCE, even in detail and language. Hillel and Shammai and their schools (1st c. BCE to 1st c. CE) argued points of law during the late Second Temple period, up to the time of the Temple's destruction in 70. That date is a convenient marker for the start of the classical rabbinic era, which is conventionally divided into four periods, with overlapping beginnings and endings for each. Periods are subdivided into generations, with a “generation” generally indicating the passing of a school of teaching from master to student.

Some Tannaitic Rabbis

First generation
Gamaliel (sometimes called ‘the Elder’; late 1st century bce)
Shimeon ben Gamaliel (1st century CE)
Yohanan ben Zakkai (1st century CE)
Second generation
Elder
Gamaliel II (of Yavneh; son of R. Shimeon; born ca. 50 CE)
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (pupil of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai; 1st–2nd century)
Yehoshua ben Hananiah (pupil of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai; 1st–2nd century)
Younger
Akiva ben Yosef (ca. 40–135)
Ishma‘el (or Yishma‘el) ben Elisha (early 2nd century)
Third generation
Students of Akiva
Meir (2nd century)
Shimeon bar Yoḥai (2nd century)
Yose ben Ḥalafta (2nd century)
Yehudah bar Ilai (2nd century)
Shimeon ben Gamaliel II (2nd century)
Fourth generation
Judah ha‐Nasi (‘Rabbi’; ca. 135–220)
Eleazar bar Shimeon (2nd century; son of Shimeon bar Yohai)
Fifth generation
Gamaliel III (2nd century)

Rabbinic Periods

The early period, beginning from the followers of Hillel, is that of the tanna'im. A tanna' is one who “repeats” [traditions], i.e., a transmitter or tradent of oral teaching. This period began around 70 CE and extended into the early 3rd century. Prominent in the tannaitic period are Rabbis Gamaliel, Akiva, and Judah ha‐Nasi (the last being the rabbi credited with the redaction of the Mishnah; see below). There are five generations of tanna'im, beginning with the schools of Hillel and Shammai and extending to the era of Gamaliel III.

The second period is that of the 'amora'im. An 'amora' is a “speaker” or interpreter. This period, beginning in the 3rd century, lasted until about the 6th. The amoraic period was the talmudic era (see below). The Babylonian 'amora'im are divided into seven “generations” and the land of Israel 'amora'im into five.

The third, little‐known period is that of the savora'im. A savora' is an “expositor.” These rabbis were members of academies in Babylonia in the 6th century.

The fourth period, which at its end crosses over into medieval interpretation, is that of the ge'onim. A ga'on is the leader of one of the academies in Babylonia; ga'on means “pride” and is a short form of the title ro'sh yeshivat ga'on Ya'akov “head of the academy [that is] the pride of Jacob.” The geonic period extends from the mid‐6th century to the 11th century, and saw the first efforts at systematic legal commentary of the Talmud. The greatest among these Rabbis was Saadia ben Joseph Gaon (10th century), who began rabbinic study of philosophy and literature, as well as

Some Amoraic Rabbis

Land of Israel Babylonia
First generation
Elder
ḥiyya (2nd–3rd century)
Bar Kappara (3rd century)
Levi bar Sisi (3rd century)
Haninah bar Hama (2nd–3rd century)
Younger
Yannai (known as Rabbah, ‘the Great,’ or Sabba, ‘the Elder’; 3rd century) Rav (Abba Arikha, ‘the Tall’; died ca. 248)
Yehoshua ben Levi (of Lydda; 3rd century) Mar Shemuel (died ca. 254)
Second generation
Yohanan (ca. 240–279) Yehudah ben Yehezkel (d. 291)
Simeon ben Lakhish (d. ca. 275)
Third generation
Yosi bar Ḥanina Rabba bar Naḥmani (d. ca. 321)
Abbahu (ca. 300) Yosef (d. 333)
Eleazar ben Pedat (3rd century)
Ammi bar Natan (ca. 279)
Assi (3rd century)
Ze'era (3rd century)
Fourth generation
Ḥaggai Abbayei (ca. 278–338)
Yirmiyahu ben Abba (4th century) Rava (Abba ben Yosef bar Ḥama; 4th century)
Yonah (4th century)
Yosa
Aḥa
Fifth generation
Mana Papa (d. 376)
Yose bar Abin
Ḥizkiya
Sixth generation
Ashi (ca. 335–427)
Seventh generation
Yemar
Mar bar R. Ashi
study of the Bible (rather than only study of the Talmud).

The Texts of the Rabbinic Periods

The major works of the rabbinic period are of two types: those arranged topically, of which the main ones are the Mishnah and the Talmud; and those arranged around the biblical text, Midrash, including .the ten collections in the so‐called Midrash Rabbah. We will describe these works, noting their types and approximate dates of composition or compilation.

Works arranged topically. The Mishnah is a compilation of the written records of oral discussions of various laws. “Mishnah” means “oral instruction” (from Heb shanah, “repeat,”equivalent to Aramaic teni', from which tanna' is derived). It is divided into six “orders,” each of which has numerous subsections, called “tractates.” The orders are: Zera'im, “Seeds” (rules about agriculture); Mo'ed, “Appointed Times” (rules about Sabbaths and festivals); Nashim, “Women” (primarily marriage laws); Nezikin, “Damages” (rules about money and legal disputes); Kodoshim, “Holy Things” (Temple procedures); and Teharot, “Purities” (ritual impurities and purification). The Mishnah is believed to have been compiled in its final form by Rabbi Judah ha‐Nasi (“the Prince,” or more correctly, “the Patriarch,” the title of the head of the Jewish community in the land of Israel; he is known as “Rabbi”) around 200 CE, though it contains material from generations before Rabbi's time.

Other material from the same period, more or less, is contained in the Tosefta (“addition”), a collection of further rabbinic comments on most of the topics covered in the Mishnah. The structure of the Tosefta parallels that of the Mishnah, though it is composed of extra‐Mishnaic material.

The Talmud, the major work of Jewish rabbinical interpretation, exists in two forms: “Talmud Yerushalmi,” the Jerusalem Talmud (sometimes more accurately called the Talmud of the land of Israel or the Palestinian Talmud) and “Talmud Bavli,” the Babylonian Talmud. In references these are abbreviated y. and b. respectively. The Talmud consists of pericopes of the Mishnah, accompanied by a commentary called the Gemara (“learning”). The Talmuds were compiled during the 3rd through the 6th centuries CE, first in Israel (until 370), and later in Babylonia (6th century).

Works organized around the biblical text. The Midrash Rabbah (“Great Midrash”) is a collection of rabbinic comments on the biblical text, which in its final form (Venice, 1545) contains ten midrashim: the five books of the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, and the Five Scrolls, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther. Individual sections are referred to by their biblical title, for instance, Genesis Rabbah (or Bereshit Rabbah), Lamentations Rabbah, and so on. Despite their final publication in one volume, however, these works arose at widely different times, with Genesis Rabbah generally regarded as the earliest (ca. 5th century CE), followed by Leviticus Rabbah (slightly later). The latest are Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. To complicate matters further, some of these works are composite arrangements of works from different periods.

Halakhah and Aggadah. Cutting across the categories of separate works are the two main descriptive types of rabbinic comment: halakhah, or legal comment, and aggadah, or non‐legal comment. Halakhah (from halakh, “go, walk”) refers to the “way” of Torah; halakhah itself is concerned with explicating, applying, and in general making sense of the legal materials in the Bible. Aggadah is a much more amorphous category: it includes theology, lore, legend, sayings, prayer and praise—in fact, it seems to be a catch‐all for whatever is not halakhah.

Principles of Rabbinic Interpretation

Rabbinic interpretation is characterized by several methods, the principles and illustrations of which we will examine below. The Rabbis themselves proposed various descriptive lists of types of interpretation, of which the shortest and best‐known is attributed to Hillel (1st century BCE). Hillel found seven types of interpretation:

  • Kal vaḥomer: the deduction from a minor case to a major case.

  • Gezerah shavah: drawing an analogy between texts based on a word in common

  • Binyan 'av mikatuv 'eḥad: applying a principle derived from one verse

  • Binyan 'av mishenei ketuvim: applying a principle derived from two verses

  • Kelal uferat uferat ukelal: modification of a general principle derived from a particular principle; modification of a particular principle derived from a general principle

  • Kayotze' bo bemakom 'aḥer: principles derived from similar passages

  • Davar halamed me'inyano: deduction from context

Rabbinic method also included such ancient types as notarikon, where each consonant of a Hebrew word was taken as an abbreviation for a different word. The Rabbis, for example, parsed the first word of the Decalogue, 'anokhi, “I,” as an acronym of the (Aramaic) words 'ana' ketavit yehavit—“I [God] wrote it [and] gave it.” This method was employed by Babylonian and Assyrian scribes long before the rabbinic era.

The earliest texts containing rabbinic interpretation were edited after 200 CE, and the origins of the system that gave birth to these texts must be inferred from texts of earlier groups (see “Early Nonrabbinic Interpretation,” pp. 1835–44).

For two reasons we will concentrate on halakhah rather than aggadah. First, the Talmuds were much more explicitly consistent in their presentation of such texts, their methods are easier to understand, and consequently their development is also easier to trace. Second, these texts and methods are relatively unexplored in modern academic discourse. Nevertheless, more purely homiletical methods will also be described at the end of this essay.

Broadly speaking, rabbinic exegesis may be explained in three ways: historically, phenomenologically, and functionally. The historical approach looks at the development of interpretation. The functional approach seeks to understand the purposes of interpretation. Finally, the phenomenological approach studies methods of interpretation. This study combines all these perspectives.

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