Author Archives: Professor Isaiah Gafni

About Professor Isaiah Gafni

Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.

What About the Land?

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the rabbinic leadership, focused in the city of Yavne, reformulated Judaism to withstand exile and the loss of the Temple, which had been the central focus of Jewish life. The crushing defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-135) further demoralized and disbursed the Jewish people. The following article traces the evolving role that the Land of Israel played in the thought of the early leaders of the era of rabbis known as the Tannaim (1st century C.E. to 200 C.E.) in Yavne. Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
Land, Center, and Diaspora: Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity
(Sheffield Academic Press).

A systematic study of all rabbinic statements on “the Land,” its status, attributes, and require­ments, serves to temper significantly any sense of a monolithic, unchang­ing rabbinic approach to the issue. Indeed, a comprehensive analysis of these statements reveals, to begin with, that the degree to which these issues surrounding the Land were even taken up in statements attributed to the early Tannaim, up to and including the Bar Kokhba war, is minimal. 

A review of the hundreds of statements attributed to sages such as Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, R. Joshua, R. Eliezer, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and even R. Akiva, reveals a striking paucity of allusions to the character and supernatural attributes of the Land, and similarly there is minimal allusion to the Land’s centrality vis-à-vis the Diaspora and the consequently required commitment of Jews towards the Land.

Dual Homelands?

All this is striking precisely in light of the numerous statements attributed to these very same rabbis regarding the “commandments pertaining to the Land.” Indeed, the only statement by Yohanan b. Zakkai relating to the status of the Land and the nature of exile totally ignores any discussion of the attributes of the Land, and in fact seems to suggest almost the opposite:

Jewish Life in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

What Occupied Ancient Jews?

Jews living in Palestine in the early centuries of the Christian Era remained as they had been before the destruction of the Temple: an agrarian society. The process of urbanization of the Near East during the Roman and Byzantine periods only affected the Jewish population slightly. Although quite a few Jews resided in towns — Tiberias, Sepphoris, Ceasarea, Lydda — which were even accorded legal urban status by the Roman authorities, the great majority were still living in modest-sized settlements of about 2,000-5,000 people, which Jewish sources describe as “villages.” In the Byzantine period, most of these communities were to be found in the Galilee and on the Golan, but there were some in the Hebron area in the south, and a few along the coastal plain and in the Judean valley.

Thus, the Palestinian economy in talmudic times remained much the same as it had been in the Second Temple period, and could still be portrayed through the words of a second century BCE author:

“Their love for tilling the soil is truly great. The country is plentifully wooded with numerous olive trees and rich in cereals and vegetables, and also in vines and honey. Date palms and other fruit trees are beyond reckoning among them. And for cattle of all kinds there is pasture in abundance” (Letter of Aristeas, 112).

The large number of presses found by archaeologists almost everywhere confirms the existence of flourishing wine and oil industries (the latter being used for cooking, for illumination and for skin lubrication). Fishing was an important industry in the northern part of the country. Crafts, however, were primarily an urban occupation. Jerusalem was apparently well known for the number and quality of its artisans. As more and more Jews moved to the coast they began to engage in regional commerce. During this time many Jews in the north traded with port towns in Lebanon and Syria […]

Palestine under Persian, Byzantine and Arab Rule

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

The early decades of the seventh century C.E. comprised one of the most eventful periods in the history of the Land of Israel. Within 24 years, between 614 and 638, the country changed hands three times. The four-centuries long conflict between Rome and Persia was to come to an end in a final collision of the Byzantine and Sassanid armies. Both these powers had attained great victories and suffered terrible defeats, and as they continued to enfeeble each other, they gave way to the rise of a new power, the Islamic forces, which would drive them both out of the region. 

The two monotheistic religions claiming Palestine as their holy land were joined by a third faith, newly born and extraordinarily vigorous. The Muslim conquest was destined to shape the character of the entire Middle East for the following thirteen centuries, down to this very day.

The Precarious Balance Between Persia and Rome

The events in Palestine during those years should be seen within the wider context of the relations between the powers in the Orient. Several centuries of struggle had created a sort of equilibrium; the Persians ruled east of the Euphrates, Rome ruled to its west, and the “buffer states”–Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine—constituted the battlefield for their frequent wars.

muslims in israelThis precarious balance persisted till the early sixth century when the sovereigns of these two empires, threatened by other enemies, began a correspondence that was meant to secure the frontier between them. The Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Persian Khosrow II Parviz (the “Victorious”) finally signed an “eternal” peace accord which was to last for ten years. In 602 a soldier’s mutiny overthrew the Byzantine monarch and placed a junior officer named Phocas on the throne.

Khosrow seized this opportunity to renew the war, leading the Persian armies into Byzantine territories in the Near East. In 613 his soldiers completed the conquest of Syria and captured Damascus. As the Persian armies were advancing, Jewish communities were rising in revolt against local Byzantine rulers and hailing Persians as liberators.

Jews in Babylon

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

Long after the ancient city of Babylon and the kingdom of Babylonia had ceased to exist, the Jews continued to use the name “Babel” to designate Mesopotamia, the “land of the two rivers.” Indeed, the Babylonian diaspora did not resemble any other. Its antiquity and the fact that it remained the only large Jewish community outside the Roman Empire made it a world apart. Since Mesopotamian Jewry was never embraced by the seductive and highly assimilative influence of the Greco-Roman civilization, it could develop its own original forms of social life and autonomous institutions.


Abraham Slept Here

The roots of the Babylonian community were very ancient, dating as far back as the end of the biblical period and the deportations from the Land of Israel, which both preceded and followed the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.). As it grew and prospered, the community tended to emphasize its antiquity.

babylonian mosaicBy the time it had produced its own version of the Talmud, it manifested a kind of “local patriotism.” Was not Abraham the Father of the Nation born “beyond the river” (Euphrates)? Were not the Euphrates and the Tigris the two rivers which flowed out of Eden according to Genesis (2:14)? The Jews of Babylonia, therefore, considered themselves the aristocracy of the Jewish people. Even the land of Mesopotamia acquired an aura of sanctity in their eyes, second to the land of Israel, of course, but holier than all other countries.

Seleucid and Parthian Rule

The history of this community during the first millennium of its existence remains obscure. Following the Hellenistic conquest of the East, the Jews of Babylonia, like their brethren in Palestine, came under Seleucid rule. From the second century B.C.E. until the third century C.E., they were subjects of the Arsacid Parthians. The Parthian kingdom, a loose federation of feudal principalities, was a convenient structure for them as long as they gave their support in times of war, the rulers kept out of the internal affairs of the ethnic groups under their domination.

Herod the Great

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

In the process of the consolidation of Roman rule in Palestine, the ostentatious and cruel reign of Herod was in every respect a period of transition. It enabled the transformation from the rule of the Hasmonean vassal kings to the imposition (following the short reign of Archelaus, Herod’s son) of direct Roman administration and the creation of the province Judea.

King Herod the GreatThe Herodian monarchy accomplished a political and social revolu­tion which was no less dramatic than the great changes effected by the Hasmoneans. A descendant of an Idumean family which had converted to Judaism only two generations earlier, Herod was forced to seek supporters among social groups which were not associated with the Hasmonean dynasty. [“Idumea” was the Greek name for the region extending from the Northern Negev to the coastal plain.]

For this reason, he recalled from the diaspora several distinguished priestly families such as the Phabi, Kathros, and Boethus. These men had not taken part in the upheavals during Herod’s struggle for power, and, coming from the Hellenistic diaspora, they were nurtured, ­like Herod himself, on Greco‑Roman culture. The king was obviously  attempting to replace the Hasmonean aristocracy with one of his own, relying upon the Jewish communities in the Parthian East and the Roman West. It was therefore not surprising that, during hisreign, a great Babylonian scholar suchas Hillel the Elder rose to prominence among the Pharisees of Jerusalem.

Herod had two important attributes: absolute loyalty to Rome, and political prowess, which he exercised with extraordinary brutality by extirpating all signs of opposition, even within his own family. He did nothesitate to execute several of his own sons whom he suspected of plotting against him, as well as his favorite wife, the Hasmonean Mariamne (or Miriam). This earned him the saying attributed to Augustus: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”