Texts Marking Time

Jewish historiography frequently uses the history of texts as the periodization for Jewish history.

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Jewish history traditionally has been associated with the history of textual transmission. In other words, the story of the Jewish people is often told in conjunction with the history of Jewish texts.

This approach over the centuries has become so prevalent that in many histories, the accepted periodization of Jewish texts is utilized as the historical template for Jewish history itself. Historians divide Jewish history into the periods of the Bible, the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah), Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara), Saboraim (the editors of the Talmud), Geonim (Babylonian leaders of the eighth through tenth centuries), Rishonim (the earlier commentators on the Talmud), and Aharonim (the later commentators to the present).

The Textual Eras

While there is no exact literary or chronological barrier that separates each era, we can roughly sketch each period. The Biblical period generally refers to the history of the Jewish people that is narrated in the Bible itself, from the beginning of Israelite history (circa 18th century BCE) through the restoration period in the fifth century BCE.

The next significant literary period is the Tannaitic period (70 CE-220 CE). Following the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisaic leadership reorganized itself as the Rabbinic movement in Yavneh, collecting and discussing the legal materials that were eventually included in works like the Mishnah and Tosefta. In the Amoraic period, the Palestinian and Babylonian rabbinic academies flourished. Their deliberations upon the Mishnah were finally collected and edited in the fifth century, creating the Talmud.

old book with watchThe anonymous Saboraim added to and further edited the text during the next century. Almost nothing is known about this period, and what distinguishes this period from the earlier Amoraic and later Geonic periods is still unclear. The Geonim, the heads of the Babylonian academies, expanded the authority of the Talmud during the eighth through the tenth centuries. While most of the Geonim were involved in the writing of halakhic (legal) responsa and takkanot (decrees for various communities), they also created new rabbinic genres such as the halakhic code, the biblical and Talmudic commentaries, and even Jewish philosophy. By the end of the Geonic period, generally associated with the death of Hai Gaon (1038), the authority of the Talmud had been established in most Jewish communities throughout the world.

The Rishonim adapted the Talmudic tradition to the various social and economic circumstances that were locally prevalent. Talmudic and Biblical commentary as well as legal codes reached their literary apex. The most famous Rishonimwere undoubtedly Maimonides, known for his works on halakhah and philosophy, and Rashi, known for his magisterial commentaries on the Bible and Talmud.

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Rabbi Frederick Klein is Director of Community Chaplaincy at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and is the Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.