Friday, September 12, 2014

3rd Century PhD Level Jewish Scholars of Law in Palestine and Babylonia: The Amoraim

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                    

The 10 Commandments were not the only laws given to Moses.  These of course were given to him on 2 tablets, written in the stone.  He was also given an Oral Law on the Sinai mountain together with the Written Law, according to our tradition.  So from early times in Israel there have existed a tradition of interpretation and analysis of the Written Law which was handed down orally from generation to generation.

During the 2nd Temple period from 538 to 515 BCE when the temple was being rebuilt and major reconstructions were carried out, the ancient oral tradition was upheld by the Pharisees who were more lenient and supported by the majority of the people.  The Sadducees, who clung to the letter of the written law and the Essenes, who were close to the Pharisees but had their own specific beliefs and customs didn't recognize it.  They had their own traditions regarding the interpretation of the Written Law.  When these sects disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisaic view won national acceptance.  The Oral Law was studied in the many academies.  The manner of instruction differed.  In some places it was taught as a commentary on the relevant section of the Written Law.  In others, it was studied in a systematic and topical arrangement.  Each teacher gave his own interpretation and the Sanhedrin was sometimes called upon to decide between conflicting opinions.  The majority view was accepted in practice, but rejected views continued to be taught theoretically.
In time, people recorded privately parts of the Oral Law they were afraid might be forgotten.  A complete outline, called the Mishnah,  which incorporated earlier versions, was compiled and became the basis for study.  The discussion was just oral and only recorded several centuries later as the Talmud or Gemara.

After the redaction of the Talmud, study was around the written text, still known as the Oral Law because  its roots were in the oral tradition.  During the Gaonic Period of 6th to 11th centuries, the Karaites rejected the Oral Law and denied the validity of the Talmud.

These biblical scholars who were able to make legal decisions like  judges were recorded in the Talmud and were the Amoraim.  There were originally  lecturers who spoke about the view of previous scholars or interpreted them for the masses; biblical commentators like Rashi who lived from 1040 to 1105, only the Amoraim were the original academics living in Palestine from the 200's to 500's.   (Palestine was a newly coined term for Israel and Judea, changed by the Romans in 135 CE)

Later, the Amora himself explained the Mishnah and its application to practical issues. The Mishnah was the legal codification containing the core of the Oral Law.  It was compiled by Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi on the basis of previous collections and arranged logically.  It is divided into 6 Orders dealing primarily with the religious
1.  laws pertaining to agriculture
2. laws of the Sabbath, festivals,
3. laws of marriage and divorce,
4. laws  of civil and criminal  legislation,
5.  laws regulating ritual slaughter, sacrifices and consecrated objects
6. laws of ceremonial purity

Every order is subdivided into tractates so each deals with a specific topic.  Every tractate is divided into chapters, and these contain smaller paragraph divisions called mishnayyot.

 Sometimes he started laws which were accepted as equal in authority to earlier legislation.  They taught in the period after the end of the Mishnah, their work being comprised in the Gemara.

There were 2 basic types of amoraic scholars;  (1) those distinguished for erudition (extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books)  and (2) those noted for logical acumen (keeness of perception, discernment, discrimination, especially in practical matters).  The amoraic method was original and needed extensive preparation.  Specific training was a prerequisite to being accepted into the academy.  After entering, the student had to gain thorough experience in halakhic discussion before he was able to make legal decisions.

Many amoraim were well known for their aggadah or Haggadah, that part of Oral Law distinct from Halakha, that is that which doesn't deal with the laws uncumbent upon the Jew in his daily activities.  From this follows the positive definition in that the aggadah is primarily the sequel to those parts of the bible which include stories and chronicles, sayings of the wise and moral  instructions, and the admonitions and consolation of the prophets.  It is limited to an explanation of why they were given and what they teach.  Aggadah complements halakhah.  .  Their influence came from the originality, literary construction, and effective delivery of their ideas.  The amoraim, of whom over 3,000 are known by name, were honored by the people and their judicial decisions were authoritative.  They were not paid for their teaching but earned their living independently.

There was constant contact between Palestinian and Babylonian sages during this period from the 3rd to 6th centuries.  For external reasons, the influence of those in Palestine declined rapidly after the end of the 4th century.  That's why the Babylonian Talmud was more popular.  They were 2 great compilations, distinguished respectively in which are collected the records of academic discussion and of judicial administration of Jewish Law by generations of scholars and jurists in many academies and in more than one country during several centuries after 200 CE when the Mishnah was finished.

"In these centuries, in which Israel's national language became superseded by the Aramaic, the literature of Tradition arose, in which Aramaic was predominant by the side of Hebrew; it was a species of bilingual literature, expressing the double idioms of the circles in which it originated. In the academies —which, on the destruction of Jerusalem, became the true foci of Jewish intellectual life—

The Hebrew language, in its new form (Mishnaic Hebrew), became the language of instruction and of religious debate. With but few exceptions, all literary material, written and oral, of the tannaitic age, whether of a halakic or non-halakic description, was handed down in Hebrew. Hence the whole tannaitic literature is strongly distinguished from the post-tannaitic by this Hebrew garb. The Hebrew language was also the language of prayer, both of the authorized ritual prayers and of private devotion, as handed down in the cases of individual sages and pious men. According to a tannaitic Halakah (Tosef. Ḥag., beginning; compare Bab. Suk. 42a), every father was bound to teach his child Hebrew as soon as it began to speak. It is no doubt true that there was a knowledge of Hebrew in non-scholarly circles of the Jewish people besides that of the Aramaic vernacular; indeed, attempts were not lacking to depose Aramaic altogether as the language of daily intercourse, and to restore Hebrew in its stead. In the house of the patriarch Judah I., the female house-servant spoke Hebrew (Meg. 18a). The same Judah is reported to have said that in the land of Israel the use of the Syriac (Aramaic) language was unjustifiable; people should speak either Hebrew or Greek (Soṭah 49b; B. Ḳ. 83a). This remained of course only a pious wish, exactly as that deliverance of Joseph, the Babylonian amora in the fourth century, who said that in Babylon the Aramaic language should no longer be used, but instead the Hebrew or the Persian (ib.)."

The Pope disagreed with Netanyahu recently on this, insisting it was Aramaic that everyone spoke.  Not the academics, for sure.  

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia

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