In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Law in the Rabbinic Period

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Talmuds
  • The Authority of Rabbinic Law
  • Legal Studies
  • Halakhic Midrash
  • Greek and Roman Law
  • Rabbinic and Qumran Law
  • Rabbinic and Sasanian Law
  • Feminist and Gender Scholarship

Jewish Studies Law in the Rabbinic Period
Azzan Yadin-Israel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0002


Law generally refers to institutional rules and guidelines that regulate the actions of a community. However, there is lively debate among scholars whether such a definition applies to rabbinic law, at least in certain periods. No one denies that there are rabbinic texts that enjoin particular actions, and that these cover many areas of civil and religious legislation: family law, torts, festivals, sacrifice, purity and impurity, and so on. What is unclear is whether these texts enjoyed authoritative institutional support, and if so—when and over whom? This question is addressed in the section The Authority of Rabbinic Law, but since it remains contested within the field, for the purposes of this bibliography the term “rabbinic law” refers to the legal discussions embedded in the broader framework of classical rabbinic literature. Broadly speaking, there are two genres within rabbinic law: apodictic legal statements and exegesis of the legal sections of the Bible. The main representatives of the former are the Mishnah and the Tosefta; of the latter, the commentaries that cover the legal sections of the Pentateuch, alternately referred to as the halakhic midrashim and the tannaitic midrashim. There are extant halakhic midrashim to the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but none to Genesis, presumably due to the paucity of legal material therein. The present bibliography deals with the classical rabbinic period, whose onset can be dated to the year 70 CE. Though it is anachronistic to speak of a rabbinic movement at such an early date—no rabbinic institutions or texts can be dated to that period—the destruction of the Second Temple marks a turning point in the decline of priestly authority and the rise, slowly and gradually, of the rabbinic. Historically, the bibliography does not extend past the Babylonian Talmud (early 6TH century CE), even though rabbinic law continued to evolve from the time immediately after the redaction of the Talmud to the present day. Finally, it is worth noting that philological and redactional scholarship has been cited sparsely, and then primarily inasmuch as it pertains to legal issues. So, while a survey of classical rabbinic literature would surely cite, for example, Yaakov Nahum Epstein’s foundational work on the textual history of the Mishnah, his Mavo le-Nusach ha-Mishnah (Jerusalem, 1948), it does not deal with legal matters as such and has not been included in the present bibliography.

General Overviews

The following sources provide a wide survey of rabbinic literature, including helpful discussions of rabbinic law and of the broader literary corpora in which it is preserved. Though it covers all aspects of rabbinic literature, Strack and Stemberger 1996 is an indispensable tool for anyone interested in rabbinic law, offering an excellent overview of rabbinic literature and of important scholarship from the past century. Safrai 1987–2006 offers a collection of descriptive essays by (mostly Israeli) scholars. Urbach 1987 offers a thematic survey of rabbinic literature (Torah, the sages, etc.), while Fonrobert and Jaffee 2007 showcases contemporary scholarship, much of it by US scholars.

  • Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva, and Martin S. Jaffee, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    A more recent work, with contributions from many US scholars. Contains only one essay on legal matters (Shaye J. D. Cohen, “The Judaean Legal Tradition and the Halakhah of the Mishnah,” pp. 121–143), but offers excellent introductions to many areas of contemporary scholarship.

  • Safrai, Shmuel, ed. The Literature of the Sages. 2 vols. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1987–2006.

    A two-volume collection. The first part contains essays on Oral Torah, halakha, Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, and the so-called external tractates, the second on midrash and Targum, liturgy, piyyutim, mysticism, and more. Many of the essays focus on philological and source-critical issues, and the thematic studies (“Oral Torah,” etc.) are in need of updating.

  • Strack, H. L., and Günter Stemberger. Introduction to Talmud and Midrash. Translated by Markus Bockmuehl. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

    A reworked and updated version of Strack’s 1921 German work, which contains a series of brief but informative essays on key issues facing students of rabbinic literature, individual discussions of every rabbinic source, and helpful bibliographies. The excellence of the translation should also be noted.

  • Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated by Israel Abrahams. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1987.

    An attempt to systematize the vast literary production of the rabbis and abstract from it key religious and intellectual positions. Though not focusing on rabbinic law as such, Urbach touches on many important legal issues, such as the rabbinic doctrine of the mitzvot (commandments), the wages of sin, and the role of central rabbinic figures. An ambitious book, in the best sense of the word. Originally published as Hazal: Pirke emunot ve-de’ot in 1969.

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