Rabbinic Judaism

Ancient Jewish Sects >> Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism – Yahadut Rabanit (יהדות רבנית) – grew out of Pharisaic Judaism and has been considered the mainstream form of Judaism since the codification of the Talmud Bavli. With the redaction of the “Oral Law” and the Talmud Bavli becoming the authoritative interpretation of the Tanakh, Rabbinic Judaism became the dominant form of Judaism in the Diaspora. Rabbinic Judaism encouraged the practice of Judaism when the sacrifices and other practices in Eretz Yisrael were no longer possible.

When the Romans were attempting to breach the walls of Yerushalayim, Yohanan ben Zaccai abandoned Yerushalayim even though the Beit HaMikdash still stood. He foresaw the fall of Yerushalayim and had himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin in order to speak to the Romans (Gittin 56a).1

When he reached the Romans he said, Peace to you, O king, peace to you, O king. He [Vespasian] said: Your life is forfeit on two counts, one because I am not a king and you call me king, and again, if I am a king, why did you not come to me before now? He replied: As for your saying that you are not a king, in truth you are a king, since if you were not a king Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hand, as it is written, And Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one. ‘Mighty one’ [is an epithet] applied only to a king, as it is written, And their mighty one shall be of themselves etc.; and Lebanon refers to the Sanctuary, as it says, This goodly mountain and Lebanon. As for your question, why if you are a king, I did not come to you till now, the answer is that the biryoni among us did not let me.

He said to him; If there is a jar of honey round which a serpent is wound, would they not break the jar to get rid of the serpent? He could give no answer. R. Joseph, or as some say R. Akiba, applied to him the verse, [God] turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish. He ought to have said to him: We take a pair of tongs and grip the snake and kill it, and leave the jar intact.

At this point a messenger came to him from Rome saying, Up, for the Emperor is dead, and the notables of Rome have decided to make you head [of the State]. He had just finished putting on one boot. When he tried to put on the other he could not. He tried to take off the first but it would not come off. He said: What is the meaning of this? R. Johanan said to him: Do not worry: the good news has done it, as it says, Good tidings make the bone fat. What is the remedy? Let someone whom you dislike come and pass before you, as it is written, A broken spirit dries up the bones. He did so, and the boot went on. He said to him: Seeing that you are so wise, why did you not come to me till now? He said: Have I not told you? — He retorted: I too have told you.

He said; I am now going, and will send someone to take my place. You can, however, make a request of me and I will grant it. He said to him: Give me Jabneh and its Wise Men, and the family chain of Rabban Gamaliel, and physicians to heal R. Zadok. (Gittin 56a-56b).2

There can be no historical proof of this tale but the narrative in the Talmud shows the shift in the religious and political life of the Yehudim following the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash. This narrative about the founding of Yavneh in fact represents the birth of Rabbinic Judaism. A way that focused on Torah and halakhah (Jewish law) rather than the Beit HaMikdash worship.1

Rabbinic Judaism, as opposed to Karaite Judaism, is based upon the belief that Moshe received from God not only the Written Torah but also an Oral Torah. This Oral Torah (or Oral Law) was given as additional oral explanations of the revelation at Har Sinai.

According to Rabbinic Judaism tradition has the binding force of law. The revelation to Moshe consisted of both the Written Law and the Oral Law along with the implied exposition by the sages of Yisrael.3

Levi b. Hama says further in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: What is the meaning of the verse [Exodus 24:12]: And I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written that you may teach them? ‘Tables of stone’: these are the ten commandments; ‘the law’: this is the Torah; ‘the commandment’: this is the Mishnah; ‘which I have written’: these are the Prophets and the Writings; ‘that you may teach them’: this is the Gemara. It teaches [us] that all these things were given to Moses on Sinai. (Berachot 5a)4

The validity of the Oral Law was challenged by the Sadducees. Josephus records that the Sadducees held that the only obligatory observances are those in the Written Law. After the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash by the Romans the Sadducees disappeared and the body of tradition continued to grow. New rites were introduced as replacement for rituals that had been performed in the Beit HaMikdash.3

[Avraham] then said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, This is very well for the time when the Temple will be standing, but in the time when there will be no Temple what will befall them? He replied to him: I have already fixed for them the order of the sacrifices. Whenever they will read the section dealing with them, I will reckon it as if they were bringing me an offering, and forgive all their iniquities. (Megilah 31b)5

Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the Oral Law as divine authority and follows the Rabbinic procedures used to interpret the Tanakh. Even though not all sects within Rabbinic Judaism view the Oral Law as being binding halakhah, each sect does define itself as coming from the tradition of an Oral Law. Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah showing a direct connection between the Written Law and the explanations in the Oral Law. In addition, Rabbi Yosef Caro produced the Shulkhan Arukh which has become the “most comprehensive compendium of Jewish law and tradition to this day.”3

Rabbinic Judaism, in its classical writings produced from the first through the seventh century of the Common Era, sets forth a theological system that is orderly and reliable. Responding to the generative dialectics of monotheism, Rabbinic Judaism systematically reveals the justice of the one and only God of all creation. Appealing to the truths of Scripture, the Rabbinic sages constructed a coherent theology, cogent structure, and logical system to reveal the justice of God. These writings identify what Judaism knows as the logos of God—the theology fully manifest in the Torah. (Jacob Neusner)6


1Alieza Salzberg. “Judaism after the Temple: Coping with destruction and building for the future.” myjewishlearning.com. MyJewishLearning, n.d.
2I. Epstein. “Tractate Gittin.”
3American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. “Tradition.” jewishvirtuallibrary.com. Jewish Virtual Library, 2008.
4I. Epstein. “Tractate Berachot.”
5I. Epstein. “Tractate Megilah.”
6Jacob Neusner. “Rabbinic Judaism: The Theological System.” brill.com. Brill, 2003.