Rabbinic Images of Second Temple Diasporas and their Links with Judaea: History or Fantasy



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Rabbinic Images of Second Temple Diasporas and their Links with Judaea: History or Fantasy
Students of Second Temple Jewish History frequently encounter tensions between two supposedly distinct types of source material employed by modern historians in their weaving of a broad historical narrative. On the one hand we have the ‘reported’ general histories of Josephus, as well as the more chronologically focussed reports of specific events, such as those described in I and II Maccabees or in Philo’s historical works (Flaccus; Legatio). On the other hand we are confronted in those same narratives with the insertion of information gleaned from the various components of rabbinic literature. By all accounts the vast rabbinic corpus contains works edited anywhere from the 3rd century CE (Mishnah; Tosefta; Tannaitic Midrashim), through the 5th and 6th centuries (the two Talmuds; the classic Palestinian Amoraic Midrashim) and at times as late as the 12th century and as far removed from Palestine as the rabbinic grammatical schools of Western Europe.1 Numerous justifications are often cited for this seemingly carefree use of such late materials in the preparation of Second Temple histories. The following arguments are among the most popular: a) While preserved in works redacted much later, many rabbinic sources date back to earlier periods and thus may be considered no less authoritative than materials employed by Josephus.2 b) collective or communal memories need not be based on written texts to be proven reliable, but are frequently transmitted orally over a period of centuries.3 c) Inasmuch as the rabbis were to a certain degree the spiritual descendents of the Second Temple Pharisees,4 we can assume a continuity of transmission within certain well-defined social circles in Palestine, thereby providing us with materials dating far earlier than the final stage of literary redaction.5
Needless to say, these assumptions enjoy far from universal acceptance. While oral transmission may indeed preserve information from the past, studies in orality have shown conclusively that ‘the part of the past with no immediately discernible relevance to the present’ tends to simply fall away, or undergo radical revision.6 Moreover, the role of ‘history’ in the rabbinic mind was clearly subservient to another agenda, that of a moral and didactic nature, and thus the reshaping of any ‘factual’ material by the sages must be taken for granted.7
All this notwithstanding, rabbinic literature nevertheless preserved a significant number of Second Temple anecdotes that dovetail with what we know from Josephus, Philo and others, and in certain cases actually appear to add to that information.8 This last formulation obviously presupposes a hierarchy of historiographical information, i.e. we ‘know’ about things from Josephus, while the rabbis merely preserved bits and pieces of that knowledge as well. But two things nevertheless do emerge from this reality: it is conceivable that the sages were the recipients of earlier information, and while they may have preserved only those fragments of knowledge that play a role in their agenda, the similarity to Josephus’ versions found in some of their presentations – although edited hundreds of years after Josephus wrote – suggests at least a rabbinic capability for not completely and systematically changing the totality of their ‘historical’ heritage.
It is with this in mind that I propose to examine the rabbinic images of Second Temple Jewish diasporas, and their relations with the Land of Israel. The one qualification, or methodological word of caution, before taking up this examination, is the need to refrain from an indiscriminate reference to ‘rabbinic literature’ as one homogeneous corpus. In the following study I will stress at first the images that appear in early Palestinian texts, i.e. the Mishnah, Tosefta and Tannaitic midrashim. My point will be that these texts address the diaspora in a very specific manner, in line with an ideology that highlighted diasporic links to the Temple. But the Temple, and Jerusalem, served not only as geographical and religious foci, but at the same time as sources of legal authority (at least in rabbinic imagination). However, as we proceed into the later, talmudic period, and the emergence of competing geographic centers of rabbinic authority, this idyllic picture will begin to unravel, and consequently the rabbinic image of Palestine-diaspora relations will undergo a subtle but - to my mind - definite revision.
To begin, the rabbis were certainly aware of the fact that a major Jewish dispersion existed in Second Temple times. This awareness, and the ongoing phenomenon of Jewish dispersion down to their own days, obviously found expression in numerous – and variegated – rabbinic statements intended to vindicate God’s delay in regathering His people back to The Land.9 But beyond such general theodicy, the rabbis rarely take up the inner structures of specific Jewish diaspora communities, nor do they focus on the existence of an international Jewish community, so numerous and widespread that it might be capable of exerting pressure on the policies of the Roman Empire. Thus, we find nothing in rabbinic literature comparable to Philo’s statement that Petronius was fearful of carrying out Caligula’s command, being aware “of the vast number of people comprised in the nation, which needed to contain it…the whole habitable world…to draw all these myriads into war against him was surely very dangerous. Heaven forbid indeed that the Jews in every quarter should come by common agreement to the defence.”10
Nor should we expect to encounter in rabbinic literature any detailed description of the social structures, institutions and administrative authorities within a specific community, in the manner that Strabo (Jos. Ant. 14:117) or Philo (Flaccus 55,74) relate to aspects of the Jewish community in Alexandria,11 or similarly as Josephus relates to the status of the Jews of Antioch in Syria (Ant. 12:119-125; War 7:44). For the Second Temple period the rabbis also refrain from presenting detailed descriptions of clashes between Jews and gentiles in the various diaspora communities, although we hear about such events in a variety of cities (e.g. War 2:479; 7:47). Indeed, an examination of the many references to Alexandria in rabbinic literature makes it quite evident that the rabbis either did not know, or did not care, about the internal workings of that most illustrious community (save for the description of the Alexandrian synagogue and its destruction by Trajan 12 which of course post-dates the destruction of the Second Temple). Almost all the early rabbinic allusions to Second Temple Alexandria and its Jewish residents relate to one of two issues: Links with the Temple in Jerusalem, and the acceptance of rabbinic authority on the part of the Alexandrians. The only reference in the Mishnah to pre-70 Alexandrian Jews is in Hallah 4:10, where we hear that “the men of Alexandria brought their dough-offerings from Alexandria and they (i.e. the unnamed authorities at the Temple) would not accept them”. The following mishnah (4:11) presents a similar format, in which we hear of other diaspora communities who also wished to send offerings to the Temple, and their offerings were either refused or accepted: “ Ben Antigonus brought up firstlings from Babylon and they would not accept them…Ariston brought his first-fruits from Apameia and they accepted them from him, for they said: ‘He that owns [land] in Syria is as one that owns [land] in the outskirts of Jerusalem”.13 The two salient points in this Mishnah – and to my mind they are crucial for understanding much of rabbinic imagery on the diaspora – are the following: a) diaspora Jews recognize and wish to express their links to the sacred and geographic focal point of Jewish life; b) these same diaspora Jews must accept the decisions of a learned authority structure, which in the Mishnah exists in Jerusalem.
The only other Mishnah to refer to Alexandrian Jewry also makes both these points, although it relates to a post-Temple encounter: “If the offerings of two leppers were confused…this is what the men of Alexandria asked of R. Joshua. He said to them:…” (M. Negaim 14:13). The Alexandrians still express themselves in connection with the temple, but now must turn to a new type of authority – the rabbinic sage – for answers.
In similar fashion, almost all the other references to pre-70 Alexandrian Jews in Tannaitic literature are connected, one way or another, to the Temple.: “The members of the House of Garmu were experts in making Shew-bread but did not want to teach it [to others], the sages (!) sent and brought experts from Alexandria of Egypt who were similarly expert, but were not skilled at removing it from the oven…” [and so ultimately the House of Garmu were rehired – after their salary was doubled!].

The members of the House of Abtinas were experts in preparing the incense for producing smoke and they did not want to teach others how to do it. The sages sent and brought experts from Alexandria of Egypt…” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:5-6). Again, Alexandrians are linked here both to the Temple and to ‘sages’ (hakhamim). The one Alexandrian Jew known to us by name is of course the famous Nikanor, the donator of the gates to the temple that were miraculously tossed up from the depths of the sea, waiting for Nikanor as he arrived at Jaffa on his journey to Jerusalem.14


To be sure, there is one noteworthy tannaitic exception to this Temple-oriented presentation of Alexandrian Jews. It represents, in fact, precisely the other context in which early Palestinian sages might be interested in describing the internal affairs of 2nd Temple Alexandrian Jewry: the imagined reliance of diaspora Jewish communities on an ongoing religious and legal guidance issuing from a rabbinic authority structure situated in Jerusalem. The Tosefta (Ketubot 4:9, ed. Lieberman p. 68) reports the following:
“When the people of Alexandria would bethroth women, another [man]

would come and seize her from the marketplace. The case came before

the sages, who wished to declare their children bastards15. Hillel the

Elder said to then: ‘Bring me your mother’s marriage contract (ketuba)’

They produced it before him and in it was written: ‘When you enter my

house you shall be my wife’ (BT Bava Mezia 104a adds: and they did not

render their children bastards”).

The legal problem here seems to be based on the ancient rabbinic distinction between two phases in the marriage process – bethrothal and final marriage – and the question of the woman’s status in the interim period. It would appear that some sort of document was produced already at the first stage of this process, and Hillel solved the technical issue by claiming that the language of that document – whether originally intended or not – inferred that the woman is legally and formally considered married only at the final stage of marriage (equivalent to entering the huppa in later times). Consequently anything that transpired prior to that final stage would not create a situation of potential bastards. The origins of this legal status have been debated by scholars of Jewish law. While some suggest that the Alexandrian phenomenon is an intrinsically Jewish problem, inasmuch as the Mishnah is aware of a ketuba-like document issued at the first stage of bethrothal16, others have maintained that some sort of Greco-Egyptian legal reality is reflected here, 17 and yet others claim to have uncovered hints of Roman legal influence.18 Most fascinating, in this context, is the statement of the true Alexandrian, who seems to be acquainted with a reality that is indeed very reminiscent of the behaviour described in the Tosefta:


“Some consider that midway between the corruption of a maiden and adultery

stands the crime committed on the eve of marriage, when mutual agreements

have affianced the parties beyond all doubt, but before the marriage was

celebrated, another man, either by seduction or violence, has intercourse with

with the bride. But this too, to my thinking, is a form of adultery”.19
Inasmuch as the Tosefta does not elaborate on the identity of the ‘sages’ who wished to proclaim as bastards the offspring of the kidnapped women, it would be tempting to suggest that they might be alluding to Philo’s source, or at least to a local Alexandrian court that embraced the thinking expressed by Philo. In fact, the Tosefta elsewhere actually claims that the Alexandrians at some earlier stage had a Jewish court in their midst,20 and its existence played a role in recognizing the priestly pedigree of those claiming to be ‘kohanim’. Interestingly, it has been suggested that these rabbinic statements regarding the existence of such a court should be connected with traditions regarding the messengers coming from Jerusalem to inform diaspora communities of calendaral decisions. It is assumed, that those messengers would have naturally been sent to report to some sort of legal authority, i.e. a court. Be that as it may (and we will return to the problem of the calendar later) – one ‘fact’ is clear: While Philo seems to know something similar to the reality described in the Tosefta, he knows absolutely nothing about the intervention of Hillel, or of any Palestinian rabbinic authority for that matter, in the internal affairs of the Alexandrian community. For the Tannaitic source in Palestine this was the decisive factor in the very allusion to the workings of the Alexandrian diaspora; for Philo (who lived some decades after Hillel) – no such intervention ever happened.21
Tannatic references to another Second Temple diaspora community, that of Syria, make absolutely no reference to the internal structures of that community, nor do they allude to the tensions between Jews and Greeks in cities such as Antioch, although as mentioned these were at times no less tumultuous than those in Alexandria.22 The issue taken up most frequently by the Mishnah is the status of Syria in regards to the requirement - or permissibility - of sending various gifts or offerings to Jerusalem.23

In general, Syria is assigned something of a half-way status, between The Land and its sanctity on the one hand, and ‘hutz la-aretz’ (outside The Land) on the other. The Tosefta actually elaborates that ‘on three matters Syria is the equal of Eretz Israel and on three the equal of hutz-la-aretz’24, and this sets the tone for the majority of tannaitic allusions to Syria. There is, however, one factor enjoyed by the Syrian community that has no equivalent in rabbinic statements about Egypt: the messengers from Palestine arrived in Syria for the purpose of informing the local community about decisions effecting the regulation of the Jewish calendar. The assumption of the tannaim was that this authoritative control issuing from Jerusalem would also serve to assure the pedigree of priests in those portions of Syria that received the messengers.25 This rabbinic claim contrasts sharply with a statement by Josephus regarding the pedigree of priests in the diaspora: “Wherever there is a Jewish colony, there too (and not only in Judaea - I.G.) a strict account is kept by the priests of their marriages; I allude to the Jews in Egypt and Babylon and other parts of the world in which any of the priestly order are living in dispersion. A statement is drawn up by them and sent to Jerusalem, showing the names of the bride and her father and more recent ancestors, together with the names of the witnesses”.26 And so whereas Josephus projects the diaspora communities as perfectly capable of maintaining priestly lineage, careful only to inform the Jerusalem authorities of marriages, the rabbis would claim that a guarantee of priestly pedigree stretches only as far as those districts to which the messengers from Jerusalem arrive, with calenderal information from the authoritative ‘center’.


In many ways, the very awareness of the diaspora phenomenon in tannaitic traditions manifests itself through variety of events and/or persons whose significance is felt only at the Temple or in Second Temple Jerusalem. In certain cases particular diaspora communities are specified, while in others people ‘from abroad’ are mentioned. A brief summary of this imagery should suffice;
a. Shekalim: The custom of sending funds to the temple on a yearly basis from all of the Jewish diaspora is well attested in Greek and Latin sources. To be sure, these sources shed light almost exclusively on the Roman period, i.e. the last 130 years of Second Temple history27 . The Mishnah (Shekalim 3:4) and the Tosefta (Shekalim 2:3) not only are aware of the custom, but name both the countries from where funds arrived, and the chronological order of their arrival in Jerusalem: first from the Land of Israel, followed by Syria, Ammon and Moab (i.e. the Jewish portions of the trans-Jordan), and finally Babylonia, Media and those lands ‘far from Eretz Israel’. Notably absent from the list is all of Egypt and North Africa (Cyrene), as well as the vast area of Asia Minor, precisely that district where Jewish funds on their way to Jerusalem were confiscated in Cicero’s day.
b. Diaspora Jews as officials in Jerusalem; The Mishnah is cognizant of Babylonian (or Alexandrian) priests who served in the Temple (Menahot 11:8; cf. BT Menahot 100a). This clearly reflects the reality of the last century of Second Temple days, for it was only under Herod that foreigners were introduced into the Jerusalem hierarchy in a systematic way.28 To these priests we can add various other officials, such as the two judges mentioned in tannaitic sources , Nahum the Mede29 and Hanan the Egyptian.30 Yet another distinguished diaspora Jew in Jerusalem is the Babylonian Hillel, but here we will note a unique development. As we have seen, the tannaitic sources projected Hillel as the Jerusalemite guiding the Jews of the diaspora (Alexandria) in matters of halakha, clearly suggesting a Jerusalem-centered legal hierarchy. Later sources, to be cited presently, will totally reshape that relationship, reflecting radical clashes of ideology within the rabbinic world of Palestine and the diaspora.
c. Jewish Notables from the Diaspora: The outstanding example of this awareness on the part of the rabbis are the numerous allusions to members of the royal family of Adiabene in Jerusalem. However, whereas Josephus incorporated in totality the Adiabene story into his narrative, a lengthy tale (Ant. 20:17-96) taking place almost entirely outside of Judaea and with only a brief Jerusalem component (ibid. 49-53; 95-96), the tannaim are interested almost exclusively in the Jerusalem and Temple-oriented details: Queen Helena came to Israel to fulfil Nazirite vows (Mishnah Nazir 3:6); King Monbaz and Queen Helena donated gifts to the temple (Mishnah Yoma 3:10) and so on. But as in the case of Hillel, later sources - while apparently privy to major portions of traditions parallel to those presented by Josephus, will focus on totally different aspects of the episode. Midrash Gen. Rabbah (46:10) is far more interested in the question of circumcision that confronted the Adiabene princes who wished to convert, and BT Bava Batra 14a praises King Monobaz for dispersing the inheritance of his fathers ‘in years of scarcity’ which need not refer at all to events in Palestine.31 Imagining ‘good Jews’ (or converts) of the diaspora apparently undergoes an interesting transformation over the generations: Palestinian tannaim consider loyalty to the Jerusalem center to be the major criterion of Jewish fealty. For the amoraim of the talmudic era, good Jews are those willing to endanger their life to keep the commandments (circumcision), and in certain cases even willing to give up their earthly possessions to fulfill the ultimate mitzva of charity.
d. Synagogues in Jerusalem belonging to Diaspora Jews - The phenomenon of synagogues in Jerusalem organized, or possibly even owned by particular diaspora communities (“the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and of Asia” - Acts 6:9) was possibly confirmed in the winter of 1913-1914 through the discovery by R. Weill in excavations at the Ophel of the noted ‘Theodotus Inscription’, wherein the founder of the synagogue, Theodotus son of Vettenos, states that one of the functions of his synagogue was to receive those in need from outside the land.32 There is of course no proof to the frequent suggestion linking Theodotus’ synagogue with that of the Libertines mentioned in Acts, but the tannaim were also aware of this phenomenon, and the Tosefta (Megillah 2:17, ed. Lieberman p. 252) relates that “the synagogue of the Alexandians that was in Jerusalem’ was purchased by R. Eleazar b. Zadok.
e. Announcements regarding the Calendar: If there was one area considered by the rabbis to express the hegemony of Jerusalem authorities over the diaspora, this was the issue of the Jewish calendar. Two factors are involved here: the calculations or deliberations regarding the regulation of the months (29 or 30 days) and years (12 or 13 lunar months) of the Jewish yearly cycle, crucial for knowing when to celebrate the various festivals, and the maintenance of a regulated system charged with informing the various diaspora communities of decisions taken in Jerusalem. Tannaitic sources discuss both matters extensively. One source describes Rabban Gamaliel sitting on the steps just south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, dictating letters to the Jewish people at large, both in Israel and the diaspora: “To our brethren, sons of the Babylonian exile, and sons of the Median exile, and all the other exiles of Israel, may your peace be great. We hereby inform you...that I have added to this year thirty days".33 This source deals with the proclamation of a leap year, whereas announcements on the commencement of a New Month were deemed more urgent, hence the Mishnah’s description of the torches that would be lit at the peaks of mountains, beginning with the Mt. of Olives and down towards the Jordan valley, and from there to Syria and Babylonia. 34 Added to this was the practice of sending messengers, and we have already noted the Tosefta designating those areas in Syria reached by “the messenger of the month” ((Tosefta Pe’ah 4:6). What is striking about these calenderal sources is that they are exclusively rabbinic; Josephus, Philo and others writing in Greek know nothing about this particular image of the diaspora communities constantly awaiting ongoing instruction enabling them to organize the Jewish year.35
In light of all we have seen up to now, and the very specific rabbinic imagery of the diaspora and its links to Jerusalem in Second Temple times, we are certainly warranted in asking how much of this imagery in fact reflects the reality of Israel-diaspora relations in the Second Temple period. Methodologically, in any case, I find it uncomfortable to note how most modern historians, when producing chapters on this relationship, weave rabbinic and Greek sources into one seamless narrative, disregarding the totally different images provided by the two corpora of source material.

Indeed, while we would know precious little about the religious or legal dependence of diaspora communities on the Land of Israel during the Second Temple period were it not for rabbinic sources, we would similarly be ignorant about a variety of other links were it not for the Greek and epigraphic sources at our disposal. Thus, for example, the rabbis are totally oblivious to the mutual political roles that both Judaea and the diaspora play in each other’s lives. Herod, King of Judaea, apparently projected himself as the patron of diaspora Jewry in particular, and if, as we have already noted, he introduced diaspora elements into the Jerusalen aristocracy,36 he also seems to have cultivated the role of protector of Jewish rights in the diaspora, as indicated by his intercession on behalf of the Jews of Ionia. (Jos., Ant. 16:27-65). But the diasporan link to Herodian rule was a double-edged sword, and following Herod’s death we hear that a Judaean delegation inRome pleading for the cessation of Herodian rule in Judaea was joined there by eight thousand local Jews (Ant. 17:300). Even before the Roman conquest of Judaea we encounter Jews moving to the diaspora while continuing to fill major roles in the life of the Land. One of the most remarkable examples of these contacts is the crucial role played by Cleopatra’a military commander, Ananias, in convincing the Egyptian queen to refrain from annexing the weakened Hasmonean kingdom following the early setbacks of Alexander Jannaeus (Ant. 13:354). Ananias was none other than the grandson of the deposed high priest Onias III, and we might have expected that the priestly Jerusalem family, forced to flee to Egypt in the early stages of the Hasmonean uprising, would have evinced hostility towards the family that in effect had usurped the priestly role from its rightful owners. Cooperation between the Judaean priests and Egyptian Jewry repeated itself during Julius Caesar’s war with the Ptolemies (48 BCE); it was at the behest of the Jerusalem high priest Hyrcanus II that the Egyptian Jews were convinced to support Caesar.37 Links between Judaea and the diaspora at times produced more violent results: from the Epistle of Claudius38 we learn that Jews from Syria (= Palestine) were instrumental in fomenting disturbances in Alexandria39. A recurrence of this process took place in the immediate aftermath of the Great War against Rome, when Sicarii fled Judaea for Egypt and attemted to incite the local Jewish population (War 7:409-419). In sum, these links between Jews of Palestine and those of the diaspora apparently go to the essence of Jewish self-identity, and it is just as likely that they also effected Roman attitudes in their relations with this widespread community. I find it, therefore, untenable that a five-hundred page study of the Jewish diaspora in the Hellenistic-Roman period would find the issue of diaspora-Judaean relations worthy of barely five pages40. What is even more striking is that those few pages are totally unaware of any rabbinic sources on the issue41, save to note that some scholars use “later rabbinic sources quite uncritically”.42 If there is a point to all I have noted up to now, it is that rabbinic literature - at least the early strata of that corpus - had access to much of the material known to Josephus and others, but clearly utilized whatever information it had to support a very specific image of diaspora Judaism. Greek sources, for whatever reasons, eschewed that image43 and preferred to stress the somewhat more political and ethnic nature of the links between the ancient homeland and the ‘colonies’ of the diaspora.
I now propose to examine one more aspect of the rabbinic image of the Second Temple diaspora, clearly the result of later developments within the Jewish, and rabbinic, world. As I have stressed a number of times, there is a twofold tannaitic projection of the links connecting diaspora communities with The Land and Jerusalem:

On the one hand Jews throughout the world cling to a religious focal point defined in geographic terms: The Temple, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. At the same time, however, they are directed by an authoritative legal structure situated in that same center, and assumed by the sages to be made up primarily from among their rabbinic forerunners. The link of geography and spiritual authority, however, was destined to be challenged with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the emergence of a rabbinic fraternity basing its claim to authority more and more on its access to Torah, its knowledge and interpretation. This opened the way to a decentralizing process, and ultimately this rabbinic mobility would result in the establishment of a second rabbinic concentration, namely that of Babylonia. Babylonian sages would claim that inasmuch as the sole criterion for legal authority was knowledge of Torah, there was nothing to prevent the Babylonian community from assuming a position equal to that of the Palestinian rabbinic center, and indeed even to surpass that center. Palestinian sages understood precisely the nature of this challenge to their heretofore exclusive role, and the only weapon left for them to use in staving off this challenge was to stress that they nevertheless represent the traditional and ancient geographic center of Jewish authority, i.e. Eretz Israel. And thus, the dual bonds connecting diaspora with the ‘center’ were now separated, and one outcome would be a unique revision in imagining the historic nature of the diaspora-Palestine relationship.


If until now we have encountered an exclusive Palestinian claim to ancient Torah-knowledge and authority, the Talmud of Babylonia would begin to suggest a radically different picture of the ‘real’relationship. Diaspora would no longer be interpreted as the severing of Jews from their spiritual lifeline, but indeed just the opposite. Removal of the Judeans from Jerusalem and their transportation to Babylonia before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE enabled them to maintain their authentic character precisely as a diaspora phenomenon, removed from the subsequent vicissitudes (conquests, religious persecution etc.) that would afflict their brethren in the Land of Israel throughout the Second Temple period. And thus the true nature of Judaism would be preserved - even as the Temple stood - outside the Land, and it would be diaspora Jews that would constantly have to nourish and guide the Jews of Palestine! The following statement in the Babylonian Talmud in effect turns on its head almost everything we have noted in the first portion of this paper:
“In ancient times, when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra

came up from Babylon and established it. It was again forgotten and

Hillel the Babylonian came up and established it. Yet again it was

forgotten and R. Hiyya and his sons (3rd cent. CE) came up and

established it”.44

How ironic, then, that Hillel of the Babylonian Talmud plays a role totally in opposition to the one he filled in the tannaitic sources cited earlier. If in those sources he was the embodiment of a Jerusalem authority figure solving the problems of a less-learned (Alexandrian) diaspora, he has now evolved into a link in the great chain of diaspora Torah-tradition, a chain constantly pushed into service and saving the day in light of the ‘center’s recurring ignorance!


The Palestinian rabbis, of course, refused to roll over and play dead in light of this revisionism. Parallel traditions of the same story in the two Talmuds will serve to portray two vastly different images of center-diaspora relations, and the scene of the Second Temple would serve as the ultimate prop for both versions.
In a tradition appearing in its earliest version in the Tosefta ( Pisha 4:13, ed. Lieberman p. 165) we find the following legal discussion: “One time the 14th of Nisan coincided with the Sabbath. They asked Hillel the Elder: ‘Does the Passover sacrifice override [the prohibitions of] the Sabbath?”. Hillel proceeds to solve the problem by applying both legal logic and learning, as well as by citing a tradition of his masters to the effect that Passover indeed overrides the Sabbath. All sorts of side-issues are then dealt with, but in the end Hillel is rewarded by being appointed patriarch (Nasi).
Noteworthy in this early version is the fact that no mention whatsover is made of Hillel’s Babylonian roots (and the same is true in the case of the kidnapped Alexandrian women). Clearly the early storytellers had not been sensitized yet to the problematic of Palestine-Babylonian relations. This would not be the case in later centuries.
The same story was retold in both talmuds, but the battlelines had since been drawn and each community would now attach its own ideology to the retelling of the past.
The Palestinian Talmud records the story thus:
“Once the 14th [of Nisan] fell on the Sabbath and they did not know if the Passover sacrifice overrides the Sabbath or not. They said: There is a certain ‘Babylonian’ here, and Hillel is his name, who sShemayah and Abtalyon,45 perhaps he knows...

They asked him: Have you ever heard...46...He started to expound to them...47

They replied: We have already said - ‘can any good come from the Babylonian’?

(They then proceed to contradict each of the points he made in his arguments)...And even though [Hillel] sat and expounded to them all day, they did not accept the teaching from him until he told them: “May evil befall me (i.e. an oath), thus have I heard from Shemayah and Abtalyon...as soon as they heard this they stood up and appointed him Nasi. He then began to castigate them...”.48


The point in this Palestinian version is clear, for it reflects the one line of defence they could still employ in their debate with the upstart Babylonians: Learning and agile legal argumentation have nothing to do with the assertion of authority (although we know that you Babylonians have based your claim to independence from Palestine precisely on those traits). When all is said and done, everything reverts to tradition, and the only true repository of authentic tradition is here in the Land of Israel.
But two could play the game of reshaping - or inventing - ‘history’, and so the Babylonian Talmud provides the following version of the same story:
“On one occasion the 14th of Nisan fell on the Sabbath, and they forgot whether the Passover overrides the Sabbath. They said: Is there any one who knows...They were told: There is a certain man who came up from Babylonia, Hillel the Babylonian by name, who served the two greatest men of the time, and he knows...They summoned him and said: Do you know whether the Passover overrides the Sabbath? He replied:

[now there begins a long and learned legal discourse, using all the tools of Torah interpretation] ...They immediately set him at their head and appointed him Nasi, and he sat and lectured the whole day on the laws of Passover. He then began rebuking them with words: What caused you to require that I should come up from Babylonia to be a Nasi over you? Because you did not serve the two great men of the day...”.49


As a metaphor the story leaves little to the imagination: The Judaeans could not maintain their role as keepers of the Law, while at the same time there exists a diaspora community that has come to represent authentic Jewish learning. Indeed, in many ways they are the true descendents of Jerusalem, having been removed “twelve years before the destruction of Jerusalem...with their Torah and learning”.50
Needless to say, this is a totally new representation of the relationship between the diaspora and Palestine in Second Temple times. In essence the Second Temple period

had been rendered a battleground upon which much later rabbinic wars could be waged. If nothing else, awareness of this process illustrates the fluidity of rabbinic historical imagery. The conclusion, however, should serve to enhance our sensitivity in searching for earlier strata within the rabbinic corpus. Just as Josephus at times rewrote the historical sources before him, also permitting his own ideological convictions to shape his revision,51 so too did the rabbis. And yet revisionist tendencies notwithstanding, the rabbis may have been sensitive to certain diaspora-Palestine relationships that, for all sorts of reasons, were not destined to find their way into the ‘reported histories’ of the Second Temple Period.




1 A useful chart containing both the types and dates of the post-Tannaitic midrashim can be found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 11, p. 1511-1512.

2 An offshoot of this argument is the claim that even within rabbinic literature, attributed statements are frequently far older than the sages whose names are attached to them, with the latter serving merely as conduits within an ongoing chain of transmission; cf. E.E. Urbach, The Sages, Cambridge MA and London 1975, p. 3; Urbach’s suggestion, of course, posits the exact opposite of those who see rabbinic attribution as a late pseudo-epigraphic process, wherein much later redactors attach their opinions to the names of earlier sages; cf. W.S. Green, ‘What’s in a Name? - The Problematic of Rabbinic Biography’, in: Green, ed., Approaches to Ancient Judaism, Missoula 1978, pp. 77-96; Green’s article is the most commonly quoted article on the issue; for a list of other discussions see:

I. Gafni, Land, Center and Diaspora, Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity, Sheffield 1997, p. 15 n. 8. The most consistent critic of the various uses of Talmudic literature for historical research is

J. Neusner, and one of his primary arguments is the repudiation of reliability or proof of authenticity regarding the mass of rabbinic attributions. A recent discussion – from a purely literary perspective – of Neusner’s scepticism may be found in: A. Cohen, Rereading Talmud, Atlanta 1998, pp. 43-69


3 The literature on ‘oral history’ and ‘oral traditions’ is immense; the following are good introductions to the topic from a variety of approaches: D. Henige, Oral Historiography, 1982; P. Thomson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford 1988; J. Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, 1985

4 The simplistic equation of Rabbis and Pharisees is far from clear, and a copius bibliography on the problem exists; for a summary of the issue see: S.J.D. Cohen, ‘The Significance ofYavneh:

Pharisees, Rabbis, and the End of Jewish Sectarianism’, HUCA 55 (1984) pp. 36-42, and the bibliography cited on p. 36 n. 18.





5 For a recent bibliography on the use of rabbinic materials for historiography see: A.I. Baumgarten,

‘Rabbinic Literature as a Source for the History of Jewish Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period’,



Dead Sea Discoveries 2(1995), p. 14 n. 1. The question of the degree of historicity in rabbinic literature has also been taken up by the following: R. Kalmin, Sages, Stories, Authors and Editors in Rabbinic Babylonia, Atlanta 1994, pp. 1-17; idem, The Sage in Jewish Society of Late Antiquity, London and New York 1999, pp. 1-24; C. Hezcer, Function and Historical Significance of the Rabbinic Story in Yerushalmi Neziqin, Tuebingen 1993, pp. 382-420 (pp. 410-420 provide a useful bibliography); S.. Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings, Leiden 1994, pp. xxii-xxxix. While Baumgarten’s article deals primarily with sectarianism in the Second Temple Period and its reflections in rabbinic literature, it contains some excellent insights into the nature of historical endeavor in general, and the relationship between history as a written phenomenon and the nature of storytelling and oral chains of transmission.

6 See: W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, London and New York 1982, pp. 48-49; B. Lewis, History, Remembered, Recovered, Invented, Princeton 1975 (both cited by Baumgarten,[above n. 4], p. 31 n. 61 and p. 33 n. 63); P. Burke, History and Social Theory, Ithaca 1992, pp. 98-103.



7 M.D.Herr, ‘The Conception of History among the Sages’, Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 1977, pp. 129-142; I. Gafni, ‘Concepts of Periodization and Causality in Talmudic Literature’, Jewish History 10, 1996, pp. 21-38

8 See: S.J.D. Cohen, ‘Parallel Historical Tradition in Josephus and Rabbinic Literature’, Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Div. B vol. 1, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 7-14; Baumgarten, (above n. 4), p. 35. Baumgarten correctly stresses that the events preserved by the sages (e.g. the revelation to John Hyrcanus of the victory of his sons [T. Sotah 13:5 and Jos., Ant. 13:282-283]; circumstances surrounding the death of Alexander Jannaeus and the succession of Salome Alexandra [B. Kid. 66a and Jos., Ant. 14:25-28]) were “all preserved in isolation and not as part of a historical continuum”, but this does not diminish the historiographic potential of rabbinic literature, and in some ways may even serve to enhance it .

9 For this see: Gafni, Land etc. (above n. 2 ) pp. 19-40

10 Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 214-215

11 cf. E. Schuerer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. ed. G. Vermes et al., vol. 3:1, Edinburgh 1986, pp. 42-44;

12 PT Sukkah 5:1, 55a-b; BT Sukkah 51b

13 E.P. Sanders has questioned whether diaspora Jews were even interested in sending such food offerings to the Temple, cf. Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, London-Philadelphia1990, pp. 283-308; his negative answer represents part of a broader approach, wherein he claims that very little of diaspora religious practice was directed from Jerusalem-based authorities, rabbinic or other (see id., pp. 255-257; compare S. Safrai, ‘Relations between the Diaspora and the Land of Israel’, in: S. Safrai and M. Stern, eds., The Jewish People in the First Century, Philadelphia-Assen 1987, pp. 184-215.

14 Tosefta Kippurim 2:4; BT Yoma 38a; miracles notwithstanding, the discovery approximately 100 years ago of the burial cave on Mt. Scopus, containing an ossuary with a short bilingual inscription alluding to ‘the remains of Nikanor of Alexandria who made the doors” (Dittenberger, OGIS 2 (1905), # 519, p. 295f.) would tend to suggest at least some measure of historical value in the rabbinic report.

15 The children were born to another man, after their mother had been legally married to the first man, thus rendering the offspring mamzerim.

16 Cf. Mishnah Ketubot 5:1 and the opinion of R. Eleazar b. Azariah; A. Gulak,’Deed of Bethrothal and Oral Stipulations in Talmudic Law’ (Hebrew), Tarbiz 3 (1932) pp. 361-376,

reads into the mishnah the existence of such a bethrothal document, which in the end reverted into the marriage contract, thereby bringing to completion the marriage process.





17 Cf. E. Goodenough, The Jurisprudence of the Jewish Courts in Egypt, New Haven 1929, p. 93



18 B. Cohen, ‘Bethrothal in Jewish and Roman Law’, PAAJR 18 (1948-49), pp. 92-94;

for further literature on this tradition cf. Kasher (below, n. 20), p. 348 n. 14c



19 Philo, The Special Laws, 3:72

20 Tosefta Pe’ah 4:6 (ed. Lieberman p. 57); Tosefta Ketubot 3:1 (ed. Lieberman p. 62-3)



21 Thus I am a bit sceptical of the following conclusions proposed by Kasher: “The affair of the “kidnapped women from Alexandria” which the aged (sic) Hillel adjudicated likewise indicates the close ties between the two Jewish communities, and at the same time reflects the considerable influence on the Alexandria Jews exerted by the Hellenistic-Roman laws prevailing in Egypt”; A. Kasher, The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, Tuebingen 1985, p. 348. Kasher accepts precisely the image of Jerusalem-diaspora relations that Tannaitic literature wishes to impart, but which is notably absent from almost all non-rabbinic sources.

22 see in brief: Schuerer, III,i, pp. 13-15; there is a Mishnaic reference to Jewish-gentile realtions in Syria, but this refers to the permissibility or prohibition of Jews selling or renting land and houses in Syria to non-Jews. This law, however, does not necessarily pertain to Second Temple times, but is rather yet another form of comparing the status of the Land of Syria with that of Eretz Israel; cf. Mishnah Avodah Zara 1:8

23 e.g. Mishnah Hallah 4:11; Shebi’it 6:6

24 Tosefta Kelim Bava Kamma 1:5

25 Tosefta Pe’ah 4:6; Tosefta Ketubot 3:1

26 Against Apion 1:32-33

27 Mat. 17:24; Cicero, Pro Flacco 66-69; Jos., Ant. 14:110-113; id. 18:311-313; Philo, Legatio 216,

315; Jos., Ant. 12:9-10 refers to the dispute between the Jews and Samaritans in Ptolemaic Egypt regarding the sending of ‘sacrifices’ to Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim, but it is unclear whether this is somehow linked to the later custom of shekalim. Nehemiah 10:33-34 refers to a third of a shekel, but whether this became a custom throughout the Jewish world at such an early stage is highly doubtful.





28 cf. M. Stern, “Social and Political Realignments in Herodian Judaea”, in: The Jerusalem Cathedra, vol. 2, ed. L.I.Levine, Jerusalem-Detroit 1982, pp. 40-62

29 Mishnah Nazir 5:4; Tosefta Bava Batra 9:1

30 Mentioned together with Nahum, but in Amoraic sources: BT Ketubot 105a

31 This was correctly noted by L. Feldman in his edition of Josephus, LCL vol. 9, p. 417 n. e.

32 cf. T. Reinach, ‘L’inscription de Theodotos’, REJ 51 (1920) pp. 46-56; L.H. Vincent, Decouverte de la “Synagogue des Affranchis” a Jerusalem, RB 1921, pp. 247-277

33 Tosefta Sanhedrin 2:6 and parallels

34 Mishna Rosh Ha-Shana 2:4

35 The one obvious exception that does come to mind is the letter in 2 Macc. 1:18, purportedly coming from Jerusalem and instructing the Jews of Egypt about the celebration of Hannukah. The provenace of that letter, and indeed even its authenticity, have aroused such heated debate over the years, that any conclusion about implications for Jerusalem-diaspora relations would be speculative at best . Cf. E. Bickerman, “Ein juedischer Festbrief vom Jahre 124 v. Chr.”, ZNTW 32 (1933) pp. 233-254 (= Studies in Jewish and Christian History, vol. 2, Leiden 1980, pp. 136-158).

36 At least two priestly families, the Houses of Phiabi and Boethus, were apparently encouraged to leave Egypt and were introduced into the Jerusalem hierarchy by Herod;

37 Jos., Ant. 14:132; War 1:190

38 cf. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, vol. 2, p. 41 line 96

39 cf. the discussion on this text, and the interpretation of Claudius’ warning , ibid. p. 54

40 cf. J.M.G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE), Edinburgh 1996, pp. 418-423

41 the sole exception is a reference to an offering ”from a certain Nicanor from Egypt”, but unfortunately citing as a source BT Yoma 38a, rather than the reference in the Tosefta, dating at least 300 years earlier than the Babylonian Talmud (and unfortnately also with no mention of the epigraphical evidence for Nicanor “who made the gates”).

42 Barclay, p. 420 n. 34, justifies this apparent disdain for using rabbinic literature by quoting Sanders (above n. 13 ) against Safrai.

43 Inasmuch as various scholars have pointed to the Jewish-Hellenistic propensity - as early as the Septuagint - for identifying the diaspora phenomenon of the Jews in terms of ‘colonization’ (cf. e.g. J. Meleze-Modrzejewski, ‘How to be a Jew in Hellenistic Egypt?’ in: Diasporas in Antiquity, ed. S.J.D. Cohen and E.S. Frerichs, Atlanta 1993, pp. 68-80), one can readily understand that Greek-writing Jewish authors would have trouble projecting ‘colonies’ requiring an ongoing legal and spiritual instruction emanating from the ‘homeland’.

44 BT Sukkah 20a

45 The point here being: although he is a Babylonian, he was fortunate to have studied under local authorities, and so possibly he posesses an authoritative tradition.

46 the technical meaning of having ‘heard’ is: do you have a tradition on the issue.

47 the inference being: rather than producing a received tradition, he is employed legal reasoning of his own to solve the problem

48 PT Pesahim 6:1 33a

49 BT Pesahim 66a

50 Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 3; cf. Gafni, Land etc (above, n. 2) p. 56-57, 96-97

51 see: I. Gafni, “Josephus and I Maccabees”, in: Josephus, the Bible and History, ed. L.H. Feldman,

Detroit 1989, pp. 116-131




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