Biblical Studies Rabbinic Judaism
by
Rivka Ulmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0103

Introduction

The origins of rabbinic Judaism are found in the many Judaisms that coexisted during the Second Temple period in the land of Israel, when biblical and co-biblical texts were edited and interpreted. Classical rabbinic Judaism flourished from the 1st century CE to the closure of the Babylonian Talmud, c. 600 CE, in Babylonia. Among the different Judaisms in antiquity, rabbinic Judaism held that at Mount Sinai God revealed the Torah to Moses in two media, the Written and the Oral Torah. The rabbis claimed they possessed the memorized or Oral Torah. Classical rabbinic Judaism is separated into different strata: tannaitic (until 200 CE), amoraic (200–500 CE), and saboraic (500 CE–7th century). The first stage of formative rabbinic Judaism is represented by the Mishnah, a law code that came to closure c. 200 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans and the suppression of the Bar Kokhba uprising of 132–135 CE. Rabbinic Judaism interpreted the Torah, often in opposition to the priestly tradition, which was committed to the written tradition and the sacrificial cult of the Temple. However, at the end of the formative period, rabbinic Judaism synthesized the interpretive, messianic, and priestly traditions. Rabbinic Judaism produced many different texts, ranging from the Mishnah and Tosefta to Midrashic texts and the two Talmuds. Rabbinic Judaism continued to flourish in the Middle Ages in the diaspora. Today it represents “normative” Judaism, the Jewish religious expression of a substantial portion of the worldwide Jewish community.

Introductory Works

Presently, the most comprehensive academic introduction, including bibliographies, is Stemberger 1996. Neusner 1994 emphasizes the study of rabbinic texts, whereas Safrai, et al. 2006 focuses on the development of academic approaches to rabbinic texts in the authors’ review of the entire corpus. The religious concepts of rabbinic Judaism are introduced and analyzed in Urbach 1987. Since rabbinic literature does not offer systematic definitions of its terms, it is notoriously difficult for the novice to read rabbinic texts; however, synthesizing rabbinic thought is attempted in Schechter 1993, first published in 1909, which utilizes a conceptual approach. A survey of interpretations in the Jewish Aramaic Bible translations, and their often close relationship to rabbinic interpretations, was accomplished by Bowker 2009. Introductions to different modes of expression of rabbinic thought, such as Talmud, commentary, and prayer, were combined in one volume, Holtz 1984.

  • Bowker, John. The Targums and Rabbinic Literature: An Introduction to Jewish Interpretations of Scripture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    The Aramaic Targums consist of interpretive translations of the Hebrew Bible that originated in synagogue teaching, where an interpretation of the biblical text had to be given orally for the benefit of non-Hebrew-speaking congregations. The Targums share many interpretations with rabbinic literature.

  • Holtz, Barry W. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. New York: Summit, 1984.

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    This collection contains essays that introduce the Talmud, Midrash, Bible commentaries, and prayer. This book is useful for the initial understanding of the different expressions of rabbinic literature and other genres, such as Jewish philosophy, that were influenced by rabbinic thought.

  • Neusner, Jacob. Introduction to Rabbinic Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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    Jacob Neusner presents an extensive introduction to rabbinic literature. A general introduction is followed by a presentation of different rabbinic texts, referred to as “documents.” He introduces the Judaism represented by rabbinic Judaism and defines rabbinic literature and its principal parts. Texts presented include the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds, as well as the different types of Midrash.

  • Safrai, Shmuel, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson. The Literature of the Sages. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987–2006.

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    A monumental work containing descriptions of all major rabbinic works and the methodologies applied to them. Informs the reader about the contents of each work, as well as its genre and its role within the canon. The book presents established methods of reading and researching rabbinic texts.

  • Schechter, Solomon. Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1993.

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    This book assembles the major concepts of rabbinic thought and offers a synthesis of rabbinic teachings based on multiple sources.

  • Stemberger, Günter. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. 2d ed. Translated and edited by Markus Bockmuehl. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.

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    The book is divided into three sections: general introduction, Talmudic literature, and Midrashim. The novice will find hermeneutic rules, abbreviated historical facts, and lists of Rabbis. The book contains a meticulous bibliography, including references to books, articles, and text editions, as well as Hebrew manuscripts.

  • Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

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    A groundbreaking work that systematically interprets rabbinic literature by focusing upon its major concepts, such as the belief in one God, the presence of God in the world (shekhinah), the celestial retinue, and the acceptance of the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”

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