The Sages

Character, Context & Creativity

Volume 4: From the Mishna to the Talmud

Translated by Ilana Kurshan

By Rabbi Binyamin Lau

Maggid Books, 2015, 319 pages


One of the best series of books that I enjoy reading is the very well-written, comprehensive, informative, and engrossing four volumes by Binyamin Lau, a highly respected Orthodox rabbi with a PhD. His books show that the Oral Law was not revealed to the Israelites by God, but were human inventions, and the books introduce readers to the history, growth, and changes in the Oral Torah and in Rabbinic Judaism.

In his first volume of his series, among many other subjects, Rabbi Lau discusses the origin of the Oral Law. He writes that 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. He speaks about the Sadducees and Pharisees. “The Sadducees attempted to maintain the ancient regime.” They opposed the interpretations in the Oral Law that differed from the plain meaning of the Torah text. “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. Therefore, 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. This was a period that emphasized the need for religious unity. While in the past, Jews followed whatever opinion satisfied them, ben Zakkai and his colleagues ruled that the conservative teachings of the past, which included the teachings of the school of Shammai, were not the law, but instead the more innovative and people-oriented decisions of Hillel’s school, the new Oral Law, was the law of Judaism. But they had opposition. Then as before and as now, there were sages who insisted on maintaining the ancient practices.

In the third volume, Lau tells about Judaism from 138 CE to 220, from the restoration of the nation after the destruction of the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE against Rome to the codification of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the first code of Jewish law. As after the temple destruction, Judaism had to change to meet the new challenges. 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 also developed new laws because of the new times.

In the fourth volume, Lau relates the history of the Jews until the death of the famed Rabbi Yohanan in 279 CE, how the sages experienced a halakhic revolution with the shift from a pluralist to a normative approach to Jewish law. This was a time when the Mishna of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi became the cornerstone of Jewish law and other collections of Mishna were ruled to be not halakha. This was done under the authority of Rabbi Yohanan over the objection of Rav and others. Lau gives readers fascinating information about the elders of Judaism during the generations after Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, about Babylonian sages such as Samuel, “a true renaissance man” who taught “The law of the land is the law,” and Rav who cursed Samuel, the world and teachings of Rabbi Yohanan who was responsible for the development of the Talmud of the land of Israel, the differences between the teachings of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael, how leading sages such as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi felt that leaders were more important to Judaism than the sages, the view that practices of the pious is not obligatory on other Jews, how the Romans who controlled Israel at that time treated Jews, and how the decline of the Roman empire effected Jews and their religion, and much more.

Anyone who wants to know about the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism and the advance of the Oral Law that grew from but differed from the written Torah, upon which modern Judaism is based, should read this excellent series.