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4 - The writings of the rabbis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Edward Kessler
Affiliation:
Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge
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Summary

Scholars disagree about when the ‘rabbinic period’ in Jewish history really began. Perhaps it started as early as the fifth century bce, with the return to Jerusalem of Nehemiah and Ezra, or as late as the second century during the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty. What is certain is that the rabbinic way of life was a new stage in the development of Judaism. In contrast to the Hasmoneans who concentrated on national issues such as the removal of foreigners (be they Romans or Greeks) from Jewish soil, and the Sadducees who were Temple centred, the rabbis emphasised Torah and halakhah (Jewish law).

The progenitors of the rabbis were the Pharisees, and the success of the Pharisees, and later the rabbis, enabled Judaism to survive without a homeland and without a Temple. Indeed, unlike other Jewish groups it was the rabbis' ability to respond to the catastrophe in 70 ce that enabled them, eventually, to dominate Jewish life. The rabbis replaced sacrifice and pilgrimage to the Temple with study of the Scripture, faith, prayer and deeds, eliminating the need for a sanctuary in Jerusalem and making Judaism a religion capable of fulfilment anywhere. All succeeding Judaism is ultimately derived from the rabbinic movement of the first centuries.

One result of their endeavours is the title given by Muslims to Jews (and Christians), ‘the people of the Book’ (Ahl al-Kitab), although Jews are more likely to describe themselves as ‘people of the books’, for there are many sacred books.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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