Reviewed by Jay Levinson
The Sages: Volume III --- The Galilean Period
The theme of this book is superficially biographic insights into the Torah giants who lived during the period beginning in the 2nd century CE, when the center of learning moved from Yavneh to Usha in the Galilee. The analysis of each Tanna is keen with numerous insights, but the strength of the book is that it places Jewish leaders and the Talmud into its historical context. The personages in the Talmud did not live in a vacuum; they had to live abd cope with the world around them.
The Oral Law was given at Mount Sinai, but much of what is written in the Gemara is a reflection of later times. The goal of this book is the Talmud as Torah, not historical reconstruction, but history is nevertheless a critical element in understanding the Sages. There are conflicting biographic anecdotes and details. There is no attempt to arrive at objective "truth." Rather, the material is all "true." It builds our understanding of the people involved.
An example is Rabbi Akiva. One source claims that he taught the next generation of rabbis. Another source relates that he ordained some of them. The important fact is that both traditions tell us that Rabbi Akiva, together with Yehudah ben Baba, insured the unbroken rabbinic chain from Yavneh to Usha.
Lau confronts one common misconception very clearly. The Talmud was not composed by scholars sitting around a table and conversing. It is the compilation of centuries, and it must be understood in that manner. There were obviously scholars who lived generations apart and never met each other, even though one quotes another as if they were contemporaries. Their lives were under different circumstances.
Yavneh had been established as the center of Jewish learning after the Destruction of the Second Temple. History tells us that although Jerusalem was destroyed, Jews were tolerated even in areas close to the city, even with a walk of two hours or so. This can be seen in recent excavations of a Jewish settlement some four or five kilometers from the Old City.
The Bar Kochba Revolt changed history. The tenor of Roman attitudes changed. Hadrian, the Roman Caesar at the time, forbade circumcision. Jews were banished from many areas of Palestina. The rabbis who had made Yavneh famous were forced to flee to the north, to the Galilee. Theirs was an effort to save Torah. They relocated to Usha. As one reads the biographies of these Tanna'im, one must keep this in mind.
Rabbi Yose ben ?alafta, one of the founders of the Usha generation, was brought up in Zippori, a city that remained loyal to Rome during the Bar Kochba Revolt. This is an example of the interface between history and the rabbinic world. Zippori was able to maintain a stable economy, and Yose ben ?alafta was well-to-do. He eventually became the rabbinic authority of the city and fought to counter the negative Roman cultural influences that had taken root amongst the Jewish citizenry. He was extremely loyal both to the teachings of his rabbis and to local traditions. Jews in the Galilee were longtime residents and had their own customs; the Jews of Yavneh were newcomer refugees with no local traditions.
A story in Shabbat 121a describes the interaction of Jews and non-Jews in Zippori. A fire broke out in the home of a Jew on Shabbat, and the non-Jewish fire department wanted to extinguish it. Instead, rain miraculously prevented desecration of the Sabbath and put out the fire. That spirit of cooperation was part of the background of Yose ben ?alafta. This is how he could have a conversation and exchange with a Roman matron Genesis Rabba 66). His was practicality and worldliness.
With this background --- exposure to Roman culture and steadfast observance of tradition --- we can understand how he ruled that in the Land of Israel we can rent a house to a non-Jew. Only outside the Land of Israel can we sell him a house.
This is just of example of Binyamin Lau's approach. He is meticulous in reviewing sources. His knowledge of classical texts is impressive. And, his analysis of Talmudic figures in their historical context is refreshing.
This book is recommended without reservation.
from the January 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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