Texts Marking Time

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

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The demarcation between the period of Rishonim and Aharonim is generally associated with the publication of the Shulhan Arukh of R. Yosef Caro (1565). By the end of the 16th century, the Shulhan Arukhhad gained universal acceptance as the starting place for subsequent halakhic decision, and theAharonim wrote supercommentaries upon it.


The use of the literary periodization has three main benefits:

1) Considering how Jews have been divided by language and geography, the fact that there has been a (fairly) normative legal and religious discourse for Jews throughout the Diaspora is extremely significant. Only these shared elements of a common culture allow one to speak of "Jewish history."

2) The use of this periodization has also been helpful when describing the contours of legal and intellectual development within Judaism. While Jewish theologians see the progress of generations as a decline, historians have identified the subtle and important ways in which each period can be seen to mark important shifts in religious development. The shift from the Biblical to the Tannaitic period saw a decline in prophetic experience as a source for religious practice. The advent of printing, which roughly coincides with the shift from the Rishonim to the Aharonim, can be seen as leading to a change from creative participation in the Talmudic process to commentary upon the Talmud.

3) One last benefit of this approach is that this periodization is Judaism's own. Jewish texts recognize an internal periodization; the Talmud uses different terminology to refer to Tannaim and Amoraim. As opposed to imposing an external periodization based on which imperial power had authority over the most Jews (for example, the Persian period, the Roman period, the Byzantine period), employing an internal, organic model may reflect the ethos of the people themselves.


Nevertheless, the utilization of a literary periodization also creates difficulties. This is true not only for political or social history, but even when describing Jewish literary history. First, it is problematic to talk about the religious development of Judaism using categories and collections that are themselves controversial. The Bible is essentially an anthology of writings spanning well over a thousand years. When does the Biblical period end? The setting of the book of Daniel is the sixth century BCE, but most scholars date it to the Hasmonean revolt (167 BCE), well after the last events described in the Bible.       

Second, how much of the Jewish people do certain literary works reflect? For example, the citizens living in the northern kingdom of Israel may have piously worshipped at the local shrine of Bet El, although the author of the Book of Kings called it idolatrous, undermining the centrality of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. The lives of these Jews are not reflected in the Bible. Similarly, the Mishnah became the bedrock of later Rabbinic tradition, but when it was written, it probably reflected the interests of a small class of Jewish scholars.

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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.