The Rabbis and the Common Folk

The evolving relationship between the rabbinic sages and the Jews on the street.

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It is commonly assumed that the average Jew on the street from biblical times onward followed rabbinic law. While rabbinic literature (and other ancient sources) report that "average Jews" were expected to observe rules concerning the Sabbath, dietary laws, and laws concerning sexual contact, it is not clear how widely general observance conformed to rabbinic rules. A careful study of rabbinic literature which distinguishes between tannaitic sources (through the second century CE) and amoraic sources (from the third through sixth centuries CE), and between Palestinian and Babylonian sources, reveals different pictures of how rabbis and non-rabbis interacted.

The Limits of Rabbinic Legal Authority

The Tannaim, the rabbis during the first two centuries of the Common Era, were acknowledged legal experts, but only in a small range of topics. An important study by scholar Shaye Cohen analyzed the range of legal cases described in tannaitic documents where rabbis responded to a case or made a ruling.

He found that the largest group of cases prior to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (around the year 200 C.E.) dealt with purity laws and that two-thirds of the cases dealt with matters of purity, marital law, oaths, idolatry, and tithes. Only about one eighth of the cases dealt with civil law, the Sabbath and festivals, or kashrut. Rabbis were seen as experts in areas that were probably peripheral to the observance of most Jews; the common folk did not seek rabbinic authority for resolving questions that may have been of broader concern.

painting of rabbiThe Tannaim themselves were probably not concerned about this state of affairs. Tannaim expressed disdain for the common folk whom they called ammei ha'aretz, the people of the land. The Tosefta (Berakhot 6:18) refers to a rabbinic blessing praising God for having "not made me an outsider (bur)," explaining that an outsider, that is, one who does not adopt a rabbinic lifestyle, cannot really fear sin. The Mishnah (Avot 3:14) expresses disdain in claiming that "sitting in the assemblies of ammei ha'aretz drives one out of the world."

The early rabbinic response to the ammei ha'aretz was separation, not education. In general, the Tannaim chose to teach their traditions orally, which necessarily limited the audience to those who would study with a master. Indeed, most of the learning occurred in small disciple circles. This was, at least partially, an effort to control the flow of information:

"The [subject of] forbidden sexual relations may not be explained in the presence of three, nor the work of creation [speculations about cosmology] in the presence of two, nor the chariot [mystical lore] in the presence of one, unless he is a sage and already understands out of his own knowledge" (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1).

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.