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

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Language

Jewish Studies Rabbinic Literature
Yair Furstenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0019


The literary activity of the rabbis of antiquity, the formers of what has come to be known as “Rabbinic Judaism,” spans from the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) to the Moslem conquest. Law and ritual, alongside Bible exegesis, homilies, and stories, are all woven together in a set of Hebrew and Aramaic texts, generally representing the teachings of a closely knit group of rabbinic figures of Palestine and Babylonia. This rabbinic literature, also known as Talmudic literature, served as an authoritative foundation for all aspects of Jewish life and self- identity in the following generations. Because of the lack of external historical witnesses to rabbinic activity throughout the period, the culture, religion, and history of this influential group can be described on the basis of these anonymous and collective works only. Consequently, the story of this movement (if the rabbis are justifiably to be collectively labeled thus) is first and foremost a story of textual evolution: the amalgamation of oral traditions, the crystallization of separate texts, and their mutual relationship and transmission. In speaking of rabbinic Judaism, one refers first and foremost to study practices, transmission, and exegesis among these scholarly circles. At the same time, by disassembling this collective literature to its individual components, scholars have managed to reveal major legal and religious developments that reflect rabbinic responses to the rabbis’ changing social, political, and cultural environment. Different contexts echoed throughout different branches of rabbinic literature: Second Temple Judaism in the earliest layers; Roman authority in 2nd-century Tannaitic literature; the challenge of Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries; and the infiltration of Persian culture into Babylonian academies. Following the inevitable move outward from text to context, this article starts with a survey of rabbinic literary corpora. Next, it presents reading strategies for uncovering the original background and functions of these texts, and characterizes the rabbinic study culture that shaped them. Finally, one emerges from textual insularity to evaluate the status of the rabbis within Jewish society of antiquity, and their position in relation to the broader cultural environment.

Reference Works

The following surveys are of two types. The first introduces rabbinic literature, from the Mishnah in the 2nd century to the late Midrashim in the early Middle Ages. Ben Eliyahu, et al. 2012 presents a very primary introduction intended for the uninitiated student. In contrast, the two volumes of Safrai (Safrai 1987–2006) are dedicated to detailed articles, which mainly present the authors’ point of view, on each of the works. Strack and Stemberger 1996 adopts a balanced approach and is based on a diverse and up-to-date bibliography. These last two works discuss in passing rabbinic study culture. The second group of surveys seeks to describe the rabbis and their compositions in a broader social context. Their historical context is analyzed in Goodman and Alexander 2010, and more systematically in the very comprehensive Katz 2006. Daily life, economics, and social institutions are discussed in Hezser 2010. Cultural issues characteristic of the current study of rabbinic literature are presented in Fonrobert and Jaffee 2007. Any search of a specific issue in this field should start with Rambi, the best database for articles in Judaic studies.

  • Ben Eliyahu, Eyal, Yehuda Cohn, and Fergus Millar. Handbook of Jewish Literature from Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Appendix to Goodman and Alexander 2010. Written for historians with no background in Talmudic literature, it offers a general survey of Jewish literature from the late antiquity: Talmudic and mystic literature, Targum and Hellenistic literature, historiography and apocalyptic literature. Includes very short descriptions of texts, editions, and translations.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521843901

    A collection of some important papers concerning rabbinic cultural encounters, and current scholarly topics such as the “other,” construction of the engendered body, and self. Touches upon major cultural issues but does not comprise a systematic introduction.

  • Goodman, Martin, and Philip S. Alexander, eds. Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Written for historians who are looking to use rabbinic literature. A selection of articles concerning major methodological questions necessary for the use of this literature for historical study. Includes a discussion of the Roman background of rabbinic activity, the material culture, and economic conditions. Proceedings of a conference held in March 2007 at the British Academy.

  • Hezser, Catherine, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199216437.001.0001

    A systematic survey of conditions and frameworks of Jewish daily life in Palestinian during the Roman era, including archeological data. The book provides basic background information on government and the court system, art and trade, and household activities. Religious institutions such as the synagogue are also described in this book.

  • Katz, Steven T., ed. The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. 4. The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Comprehensive historical and cultural surveys of Jews both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, divided into two time periods (66 CE–235 and 235 CE–638). Among other issues, the book discusses the rise of the rabbinic movement, the yeshiva institution, and the formation of both Talmuds. Other chapters relate to the rabbis’ approach to women, family, gentiles, and messianism.

  • Rambi: Index of Articles in Jewish Studies.

    This is the starting point for searching articles in all fields of Jewish studies. Its subject catalogue is very detailed, and allows for browsing articles on every topic from the past few decades. One can also search by title, author, and key words.

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

    A collection of articles on rabbinic literature. The Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmuds, and minor tractates are discussed in the first volume. The second volume deals with Aggadic Midrash, liturgy, epigraphy, and documents. The volumes were mainly written by Israeli scholars; while including important textual surveys, the essays do not supply contemporary approaches to the field.

  • Strack, Hermann L., and Günter Stemberger. Introduction to Talmud and Midrash. 2d ed. Translated by Markus Bockmuehl. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

    This classic work is the most helpful introduction to rabbinic literature, with comprehensive bibliography and consideration of all scholarly positions concerning each of the rabbinic works. Also includes later post-Talmudic works included in Midrashic literature. The ninth, fully revised German edition includes an updated bibliography: Stemberger, Günter, Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch, Munich: C. H. Beck, 2011.

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