The Sages

Character, Context & Creativity

Volume 3: The Galilean Period

Translated by Ilana Kurshan

By Rabbi Binyamin Lau

Maggid Books, 2013, 387 pages


In three very well-written, comprehensive, informative, and engrossing volumes, Binyamin Lau, a highly respected Orthodox rabbi with a PhD, introduces his readers to the history of rabbinic Judaism, and the philosophy and ideology of its leaders with fascinating anecdotes and explanations of their sayings. He details the changes that occurred in Judaism due to new developments, and much more. Lau reports sayings and anecdotes about the ancient sages and analyzes them in an interesting and reasonable fashion. He doesn’t consider them as legends that are worthless or as truthful reports. Instead he accepts the scholarly view that much in the reports is legendary, but we are able to learn a lot from them about the culture and history of the times as well as the ideas that concerned the sages and common people.


In his first volume of this series, among many other subjects, Rabbi Lau discusses the origin of the Oral Law. There is a tradition that God commanded the Oral Law at Sinai. Some Jews take the statement literally. Others understand that it says that the spirit of the Oral Law derives from the Written Torah. Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau takes the latter approach and shows by countless examples that the Oral Law must keep developing. We “do not have an exact date for the beginning of the Oral Law…it seems that the beginning of this period must be placed somewhere between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (about 450 BCE) and the ascent of Alexander of Macedonia (333 BCE).” Lau describes the struggles accompanying the onset of the Oral Law. The Sadducees and Pharisees were in conflict. “The Sadducees attempted to maintain the ancient regime.” “Their goal was to arrest the steadily increasing trend of Torah study in the tradition of Ezra” who introduced many innovations into Judaism, but they were innovations that needed further change. The “Pharisees forged a new path, paying attention to questions of community, economics, foreign policy and security.” The Oral Law emerged from these worldly concerns, and the Pharisees grew into rabbinic Judaism when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.


In his second volume, Rabbi Lau tells how in 70 CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai realized that further changes must be made in Judaism as a result of the Roman destruction of Israel and the ending of sacrifices that had been a central element in Judaism and the critical element of all of the holidays. Ben Zakkai with the help of some but not all of the surviving sages settled in the city of Yavneh and stressed the role of study as a replacement for sacrifices and the synagogue for the Temple. They also for the first time emphasized the need for religious unity. While in the past, Jews followed whatever opinion satisfied them, ben Zakkai and his colleagues, interested in innovations, ruled that the conservative teachings of the school of Shammai were not the law, but instead the more innovative and people-oriented decisions of Hillel’s school, and they enacted new laws. But they had opposition. Then as now, there were sages who insisted on maintaining the ancient practices.


In this volume, we read about Judaism from 138 CE to 220, from the restoration of the nation after the destruction of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome to the codification of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the first code of Jewish law. The Bar Kokhba war resulted in many deaths, multiple destructions of cities and homes, and a Roman decree forbidding many Jewish practices. As after the temple destruction, Judaism had to change. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel became the patriarch, the national leader of Jews in Israel, a time when Israel was also populated by Romans and Christians. There were rabbis who refused to accept ben Gamliel’s leadership and the patriarch had to deal strongly with them. He also had rabbinical antagonists in Babylon who insisted that they had a right to their own leadership, and he had to fight to unite the people in both nations. He developed new laws because of the new times.


This third volume, like the former ones, has many fascinating details. We read that not all the Jews participated in the revolt against Rome in 67-70 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135 and, therefore, there were cities in Israel that were not molested by Rome. In fact several rabbis had very cordial relations with Romans and even lauded them. Jewish leadership moved from Yavneh to Usha because Usha and its rabbi had excellent relations with Rome. As in the first two volumes we see how some rabbis tried to maintain the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, the more ancient practices, but how the majority succeeded in introducing innovations. We read interesting stories such as about the son of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, a religious leader of his generation, abandoning the religious views of his father, how the great sage Rabbi Meir did not know the customs in Galilee and was mocked by its inhabitants, how we no longer know the real name of Rabbi Meir or his ancestry, how the Jews adopted Roman and Greek practices, how a highly respected rabbi insisted that converts to Judaism were not full Jews and was excommunicated because of this view, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya who abandoned Judaism, Beruria the wife of Rabbi Meir who knew more Torah than many sages, the terrible legend about her and her suicide, the idea that people are punished or rewarded for their deeds after death did not enter Judaism until around the first century BCE, and much more.


Anyone who wants to know about the beginning of rabbinic Judaism, upon which modern Judaism is based, should read this excellent series.