What follows is a guide to the basics of rabbinic literature for beginners as well as an insightful guide to the meaning of rabbinic literature for those who are already students. The insight is due to the research and writing of Mark Washofsky. What I seek to do here is put it in a format that will help beginners and more advanced students alike.
They say Rabbi Akiba started his studies when he was forty. I am forty one and I have no doubt I will never be a master of rabbinic literature. After all, Akiba had a lot less to read when be began his mid-life education. And rabbinic literature is a vast field of study that makes Biblical studies seem easy and narrow in scope.
I have been reading Mark Washofsky’s Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice and loving it (though when I review it in upcoming days, I will take strong issue with his stance on Messianic Judaism). Though I may never master rabbinic studies, I have studied enough to be familiar with issues. Studying with my mentor in such matters, Carl Kinbar, the Provost at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (mjti.com), has brought me many leagues from my starting place in understanding Talmud and rabbinic writings.
That is why reading the introduction to Washofsky’s guide to Reform Jewish practice made me smile. Washofsky is a professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union and the chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa Committee. In other words, he is a master of rabbinic studies, someone whose vast reading of the primary sources and modern critical commentary makes him far more able to write with authority than I ever could.
And so I had to smile when I read Washofsky’s brief introduction to rabbinic literature and said, “This is profound because it is simple and yet insightful, concise and yet voluminous in perception.”
What is rabbinic literature? The term applies most clearly to the writings of the first six centuries of the Common Era, especially the Mishnah, Talmud, and the early Midrashim. Yet it also applies to later writings, with deference always given to the more ancient literature. The medieval commentators on the Bible and the Talmud, the medieval Midrashim, the work of thinkers like Maimonides and Joseph Karo, and the Responsa even of modern times, all count as rabbinic literature. In fact, when looking at more modern rabbinic writing and asking, “Is this rabbinic literature?” seems a little to me like asking, “Is this modern novel a classic?” Time will tell. The belief that the Jewish conversation about how to live the Torah never ends means some things written in the future will even be considered rabbinic literature.
How important is the role of the rabbis in Judaism? I believe Mark Washofsky captures this perfectly when he says:
Judaism, as we know and understand it today, is a rabbinic creation. Jewish religion, in virtually every form we encounter it, the the product of a circles of thinkers and scholars called “the Rabbis” or “the Sages,” who flourished during the first five centuries of the Common Era, which we therefore designate as “the Rabbinic period.”
I would extend that period to the first six centuries based on theories I have read about the date of later material in the Talmud.
The point here is that there is no Judaism without the rabbis. Washofsky eloquently describes how the rabbis took the agricultural, sacrificial, and purity rite religion of the Hebrew prophets and translated it into modern life in the aspects of religious life we would recognize: prayer, Sabbath, festivals, home life, ritual life, etc.
For Christian readers, I should point out something similar could be said about Christianity. There is no primitive Christianity really. Each community has to decide how to live out Biblical commands: how to have communion, how to baptize, how to congregate, etc.
What are the earliest forms of rabbinic literature like? The earliest rabbinic literature comes from the first two centuries of the Common Era. Washofsky defines these two genres aptly:
Mishnah – It means repetition and it is a concise statement of Jewish practice (halakha) that does not seek support in Biblical verses or in a precedent from earlier sages. It simply states the ruling, though minority opinions are often included, in case later rabbinic courts decide the minority opinion was correct. There were various collections of mishnayot (plural of mishnah), but one in particular became authoritative, the collection gathered by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (called simply Rabbi). This work is what people refer to as “the Mishnah,” though other sayings by these early sages (called the Tannaim) are also preserved in later rabbinic works.
Midrash – It means searching or investigation and it is a commentary that derives Jewish practice (halakha) from an analysis of the text, says Washofsky. So, where Mishnah states without proof the halakha, midrash goes to some trouble to demonstrate it from the text. Midrash also includes stories, many of them stories beyond anything found in the Biblical text. The extra-Biblical stories serve a purpose — to demonstrate in narrative points about halakha and wisdom. The stories are called aggadah (the same root as haggadah as in the Passover liturgy) and the more direct analyses of the text searching out principles for Jewish practice are called halakha. The core works of midrash come from the first four centuries but other important midrashim come from the medieval period.
What is the Mishnah like? The Mishnah is a collection of mishnayot (plural of mishnah) by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (simply Rabbi) from about 200 C.E. Washofsky notes that this was not the only collection (oral or written) of mishnayot, but that it “soon supplanted” all others. It has six sections (orders) divided into subsections (tractates) arranged topically, though the arrangement is subject to free association so that topics overlap. Washofsky notes that Rabbi was very selective in choosing what to include and the majority of mishnayot were omitted. Nonetheless, even the supremely concise Mishnah includes minority opinions so that later rabbinic courts could use the minority opinion if there was a reason to (Mishnah Eduyot 1:5). The sages of the period leading up to the Mishnah are called the tannaim.
What is Talmud? It means study, but like the words midrash and mishnah, it eventually became a proper noun referring to two specific works: the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud and (more importantly) the Babylonian Talmud. Washofsky notes that the Talmuds appear to be commentaries on the Mishnah, but that is deceiving. The Talmuds discuss the mishnayot not included in the Mishnah (called baraitot or, singular, baraita). The discussions of the rabbis in the Talmuds also include numerous topics not found in the Mishnah, so that Washofsky calls the final product “an encyclopedia of the rabbinic mind.” Science, medicine, and other topics are discussed as they were known in the time of these rabbis of the Talmudic era (the amoraim). There are numerous stories about Biblical figures and rabbinic figures (aggadah).
What is the nature of the Talmud? The Talmuds represent the firm belief that for every issue “there are at least two sides for every interesting question.” Indeed, readers of the Talmud quickly get the idea that the purpose is not to find answers but to demonstrate the complexity of every question to note that there is no simple answer for any question. Talmudic material is dialectic, the record of dispute and debate. Washofsky notes that the best word is conversation rather than a record of answers. Nonetheless, Washofsky laments the fact that the Talmuds were eventually taken wrongly to be authoritative statements of halakha. Texts whose original intent was to “help the reader think through a problem or a question as the talmudic editors would” became an authoritative statement so that all future halakha had to be derived from the Bible and the Talmud.
Washofsky’s conclusion is that Judaism can only speak of “tentative conclusions” and that the job for anyone writing about halakhic matters is to “persuade” the rabbinic community of a position:
To engage in halakha, therefore, is to take one’s part in the discourse of generations, to add one’s own voice to the chorus of conversation and argument that has for nearly two millennia been the form and substance of Jewish law.