Steven Katz on Jewish Life in the Late Roman Empire

Professor Stephen Katz’ lecture from March 2001

Jewish Life in the Late Roman Empire

“This is the first time in a synagogue setting I’ve had the chance to talk about Jewish life in the late Roman Empire,” Steve Katz told us in March. “Most of the time Jewish learning stops at the year 70 CE and then goes right into rabbinic material.”

And yet, as he elaborated, key events happened during the years between 200 and 600 CE, roughly between the Bar Kochba rebellion and the rise of Islam, had a profound influence.

In the classical period, the Jews were a military power. In fact, there is a long tradition of Jews being a military power and even hiring out as mercenaries, such as on Elephantine Island in the Nile River. We fought Rome in two great revolts.

Yet, after 135, with the state no longer there for us, we lost political and military power. After the defeat of Bar Kochba in 135, thousands of Jews were killed and taken into slavery. In the ancient world, slavery was a form of reparations. People were taken and sold and the belief was that the victors had the right to either kill those whom they defeated or sell them for a profit.

After 135, Jews went to Babylonia, to Egypt, to Iran, to Iraq and west to Italy. Katz noted that the only real Romans are the Jews, who were there for 2200 years. There were Jews who remained in Israel, but they were banned from living in Jerusalem from 70 onward. Jerusalem was turned into a Roman city devoted to the worship of Jupiter. Yet Jews continued to live in the land, particularly in the Galilee. If there were, perhaps as many as 2.5 million Jews living there in the first century, there were700,000 or 800,000 by the beginning of the second century, two thirds in the Galilee. It became a center of Jewish life. Most Jews were poor, living off the land. 95% were involved in the production of food.

During this period Rome increased its military presence in Israel. At the same time, there were synagogues and new institutions grew up. To have a thriving community, you have to have institutions. Those that had served were no longer available. In the Temple period, the primary institution was the Temple. Now, a new institution came to exist called the Patriarchate.

The Patriarch-the Most Important Jew in the World

The Patriarchate was an official institution, created by the Roman empire, which felt it was valuable to have a single place to go for Jewish matters, foreign policy and taxation.

The Patriarch became the most important Jew in the world as well as the person who negotiated with the Romans, with the elites and with the Jews of the diaspora who sent taxes to support him. The Patriarch was in direct contact, for example, with the Jews of Babylonia; and it was in this period that the sense of Jews as an international people began to take hold. Rabbi Judah Ha Nasi (Judah the Prince) was the most famous Patriarch.

The Patriarch was on good terms with the emperors and considered one of the four major officials in the empire who were not Romans. From the 2nd century on, the Patriarch was the focal point of Jewish life.

Originally, the Patriarch was to be of the family of Hillel, and the position is associated with great erudition. What is interesting, Katz noted, is how the Patriarch increasingly becomes a Roman cultural institution. As time went on, the Patriarchs became more skilled in Hellenistic Greek, and less in Jewish learning.

Smicha-the Authority to Change

Another institution which was created in the 2nd century was the reinstitution of the custom of Smicha. It’s an ancient custom in the Jewish world, beginning in the period of the second Temple. Implicit in Smicha is the belief that the scholar is not just a scholar, but carries some kind of authority from on high. It involves physical touching and conveys a kind of power from one generation to the next.

The rabbis felt so strongly that this was the only legitimate form of Torah authority that they went to enormous lengths to preserve the custom. We know that in the Hadrianic persecution that led to the Bar Kochba revolt, a key practice which the Romans were trying to get the Jews to stop was Smicha, which they saw as charasmatic and a threat to their authority.

On Yom Kippur we read about the ten martyrs who were killed by Hadrian (an historical collage-they weren’t really all killed at the same time)-sages who took their lives in their hands to pass on the custom so the chain would not be broken. We read about the chain going from the elders to the men of the Great Assembly, to the Pharisees. This is the chain of Smicha, by tradition. Many of these people were disciples of Akiba, who was a great nationalist and supporter of Bar Kochba, who passed this tradition on to his students.

Because of this tradition, the rabbis felt that they had the legitimate authority to make changes in a post temple universe. Our Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, is based on their decisions. In the middle ages, the custom was stopped; and one of the things that is responsible for the great conservatism for over a thousand years of the middle ages was that no rabbi in that era thought he had the authority to make change. All they could do was preserve. The institution of Smicha which we have today, on the other hand, was reinstituted in Sfat in the 16th century. The rabbis there and then thought that they were living in the Messianic era and that therefore, they could begin it once again.

The Sanhedrin-Internal Autonomy

The rabbis also reconstructed the institution of the Sanhedrin, which means court of assembly. Usually thought to have ceased in 70, the Sanhedrin actually went through a variety of permutations. The Sanhedrin before Hillel was different than after he lived and worked, for example. And after the 2nd century it was reconstituted once again. This was important as it meant the Jews were in touch with their legal authorities.

If you ask why the Jews survived, said Katz, one answer is that we had the internal autonomy of our own courts. We never turned to Roman courts to settle litigation and that kept the community whole.

Messianism and Militarism De-emphasized

The rabbis of the 2nd century played down messianism. We find teachings from this period that reflect messianic skepticism, such as the maxim that if you are planting a tree and someone says the Messiah is coming, finish planting the tree and then go and look. When Akiba proclaimed Bar Kochba to be the Messiah, Akiba’s own colleagues said to him that grass would grow out of his nose before the Messiah comes, a quote which is also recorded..

They also played down militarism. We see this in the choice of books that were canonized in the Bible. The Book of Esther is in the Bible and the Book of the Maccabees is not. When we examine the stories, we find that in Esther, the Purim story, the Jewish people were at risk and God came and saved us. On Chanukah, however, the Maccabean story, we rise up and fight. The rabbis were afraid that if the Maccabean story was in the Bible it would encourage young people to revolt. Not only did the sages leave out the Maccabean books, the part they emphasized about the Chanukah story was the miracle of the oil. Choosing the books of the Bible was one of the most important decisions the rabbis made, as the books became the template for Jewish morality.

As an aside, Katz noted, the most controversial of books is the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim, read after the Seder and at the end of Kol Nidre. Akiba said all books are holy. On the other hand, noted Katz, this book probably didn’t belong in the Bible. Shir HaShirim sets out the idea that God and Israel are lovers. It is symbolized in the cherubs over the ark. When God and Israel love each other, the cherubs are in a loving embrace. When they are angry at each other, their backsides are turned to each other.

Secular Learning Introduced

Another element the rabbis introduced in this period, relevant to our own time, is the subject of secular learning. There is the idea that very pious people study only Jewish things. This was already an issue in the Greek world. By the end of the period, the rabbis had a negative view of Greeks, but by the second or third century, they praised the study of foreign wisdom.

Today, there is a deep conflict in the Jewish community over secular education. There is a formidable group in Israel, 15% of the population, that has turned its back on secular education and denies it as legitimate. That’s how the Haredi are being pauperized, noted Katz, and are becoming unable to deal with the modern world economy.

The rabbis did not outlaw secular study and Jews studied Greek wisdom, even naming children with Greek names. At Be’it Sh’an, an ancient city and archeological site today, there are pictures of Medusa and Hercules and Leda and the Swan. There are synagogue floors with Apollo pictured in the middle and decorations based on the signs of the horoscope. In other words, the Jews were very much a part of the world in which they lived.

In addition, the Jews created other forms of knowledge. Not only were the books of the Bible canonized, but various Targumim (translations), of the Hebrew Bible, for example, to Aramaic, were created. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Jews were still producing these translations. If translations are needed, it signifies that most Jews were no longer fluent in Hebrew. Otherwise the translations wouldn’t be needed. Today, for example, in our secular age, we have more Bible translations than in the past 2000 years. When someone creates a translation, they give expression to what they understand the Bible to be. In the most famous Targumim, we also see the influence of Greek and Latin thought.

Mishnah-Wrestling with the Text

The final rabbinic creation Katz talked about was the Mishnah. He pointed out how the history of Judaism is a history of wrestling with the biblical text. We can see the process as a series of concentric circles. At the center are the five books. Then we have the prophets, which are not independent books, but commentaries on the first five. The prophetic books are called inner biblical commentaries by scholars. Then there is another ring called the writings, which includes Proverbs, Psalms and the megillot.

Yet the process doesn’t stop there as the Bible is a living book. However, it only remains alive if we continue to interpret and try to make sense of it. Take, for example, the question of what constitutes a marriage, an issue which changes as various cultures have various customs. Today, for example, as Catholics read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus, they find justification for not having divorce. We ourselves are monogamists, even through there was polygamy among the patriarchs. In Separdic cultures, there are patterns of having three or four wives, through the beginning of the 20th century.

So we discover that the Bible has general rules that cry out for interpretation. For example, the Bible says not to work on the Sabbath, but it doesn’t define work. And it says not to murder, but it doesn’t define murder clearly, there are cases where killing is allowed. Clearly, the Torah must be interpreted in every generation in order for it to remain viable.

One example of interpretation and creation that Katz pointed to was the custom of reading the Mahzor from beginning to end on Yom Kippur. We take it for granted, he noted, but we should know that the whole custom is an invention. It was an invention of the rabbis faced with reinterpreting Yom Kippur after the destruction of the Temple. Previously, the Yom Kippur tradition had been about sacrifice. Now the rabbis asked themselves what to do since they didn’t have either the Temple or the Cohanim, who represented purity. The Yom Kippur service was the result.

A similar process happened involving Pesach and the invention of the Pesach Seder. We don’t have a sacrifice, instead we have a little lamb chop on a plate.

The larger issue, noted Katz, is that this reinvention was something the rabbis felt they had the authority to do. They understood the meaning and the structure. The fact is that this custom of interpretation went through the neviim, the men of the great assembly, and Ezra Nehemiah in the 4th century BCE. But all the activity between Ezra Nehemiah to the Pharisees comes when the Temple is there and the center of life and when there is the possibility of sacrifice and a king and a state. The rabbis were faced with the question of how to keep Judaism alive without those external forms or structures.

So they created the Mishnah, which means second law. It was put together by Yehudah Ha Nasi around 200 CE. Until the end of the 2nd century, the tradition was oral, yet believed to be legitimate because there was a belief that God had given the Torah to Moses to interpret. Yet this “belief” shouldn’t be taken too literally. What was really “given” was the authority to do the interpretation.

There is a famous story, where Moses travels through time to the academy of Rabbi Akivah. Moses is bewildered by the conversation and falls asleep as it is over his head. Then someone says “I know this, because it’s Torah as given to Moses.” Moses wakes up and is satisfied. The rabbis put this story in the Gemorrah, which shows that they knew that what they were conveying was a sense of legitimacy. (Katz also noted that this is why he explained smicha before Mishnah.)

Continuous Legitimacy Key to Unity and Survival

This sense of legitimacy was crucial. Every other ancient people that was conquered by the Greeks or Romans disappeared once they had no state or no temples. We didn’t have a state, we didn’t all speak the same language or have the same customs and we were dispersed in far flung areas such as Babylonia and Egypt. How could the Jews survive when everyone else disappeared? The answer is because the Mishnah created a universe of common language and discourse, a “home” that we could all live in, and the fundamental bond of Jewish life as the practical explication of the Torah.

When Judah Ha Nasi took the dramatic step of taking all the discussions, all the rules of the sabbath, of divorce and other areas of life and putting it into print, it was a dramatic step.

The Mishnah meant that the Jews everywhere would be one people. They would do the same things involving marriage, for example. There are three ways to get married-by gift, by deed, or by contract and the tractate on marriage defines all three. The gift is the ring, the contract is the ketubah, and the deed is the consummation. There are also three ways to get divorced-by death, rabbinical court, and annulment. What this means is that when Jews marry in Paris, they have a “kosher” marriage, and their offspring are eligible to be married by Jews in Rome.

Other pieces of information in the Mishnah included currency definitions, so that people living with different currencies would have an idea of equivalent values.

Minority Opinion Preserved for the Future
Living Tradition Incorporates Change

The Mishnah is an extraordinary document in that, in 523 discussions, only 6 fail to bring the minority opinion into the text. This notion of minority opinions in a law code is unprecedented. The inclusion signifies an awareness that conditions might change. By including the minority opinions in the text, legitimacy is conferred upon those opinions when and if they are needed.

It is a device that also creates a kind of “living” document. When the Mishnah was written down, it was extraordinary in that it came out of a tradition in which the tradition itself was not to write anything down. The belief was that, if anything was written down, it would begin to have the same authority as the Torah. Yet oral tradition has a tenuous life. It can be destroyed in a generation. the destruction of the Temple and the diasporah meant that times had changed. They circulated the same text all over the world, conveying a sense of identity among a far flung people.

Of course, the Mishnah itself was subject to discussion. In Israel, the recording of this discussion became known as the Palestinian Talmud, in Babylonia, the Babylonian Talmud. Since Babylonia was the primary area of Jewish life, this Talmud became primary and all subsequent Jewish life was based upon it.

As Katz summed up Friday night, he relisted the areas he’d covered: the institution of the Patriarchate-Jewish leadership officially sponsored by the Roman empire; Smicha-the laying of the hands and subsequent continuity of rabbinical authority; the canonization of the Bible including what would be included and therefore authoritiative for Jews as well as the political and other issues that affected that choice; the Targumim, Biblical translations; and the Mishnah, the great respository of rabbinic law, codified in 200 under the Patriarch Judah Ha Nasi.

2nd and 3rd Centuries
Time of Turmoil and Oppression

The late 2nd and early 3rd century marked a turning point in Jewish history. The Roman empire was in turmoil, and, since chaos tends to be bad for minorities, it was not a good time for the Jews. In the 100 years or so between 192 and the coming to power of the Emperor Diocletian. there were 25 Roman Emperors, only two of which transitions happened by peaceful means.

In this turmoil, Jews were pressed into all kinds of service including forced labor on roads and other public projects; and military service. For Jews, conscription into the imperial armies was something that hadn’t happened before. The Jews had a military presence, but not in the Roman armies. Since the Jews had fought against Rome, in fact, they were not conscripted. In ddition, they were given special privileges. They didn’t have to take the oath to the emperor, which the military did.

In addition to conscription, there were new taxes levied. Four are mentioned in the historical records. The rabbis were concerned about the impoverishment this could cause.

From the year 70, the Jews were singled out by imperial states and others as a source of income. The tax that had been contributed to the Temple was turned into a special tax transferred to the Roman treasury. A special branch of that treasury was set up that dealt with the fiscus Judaicus, the Roman tax on the Jews. Between the first and third centuries, the Roman currency declined 95%. This inflation impacted on the Jews. At the end of the 2nd century, the taxes were increased on the Jews. This was the beginning of singling out Jews as sources of income down through the ages. It was to become a major factor under Islamic and Christian rulers. Under Richard the Lionhearted, for example, the Jews in London paid more in taxes than everyone else in London and there were only one hundred Jews in that city. Another effect was that this economic situation increased the practice of money lending for interest. At first, the rabbis did not like this practice, which would reach a peak of performance in the middle ages. In addition to the original biblical prohibition against usery, it also meant a growing difference between the rich and the poor. And it only exacerbated the growing breakdown in harmony between the classes and between the rabbis.

Babylonia becomes Center of Jewish Life

By the middle of the 3rd century, the political chaos in Israel sets off not only social dislocations, but the sages themselves begin to migrate. Sages need leisure, a means of support and schools.

The Palestinian rabbinical yeshivot were finding it harder and harder to survive. Sages were either moving to Babylonia entirely or spending long periods of time there. By comparison, we might see European intellectuals today coming to America. Gradually, the center of gravity of Jewish learning shifted from Israel to Babylonia entirely.

Over the years, as Jewish study continued to evolve, two Talmuds developed. Although one might expect the Jerusalem Talmud (actually developed in the north as Jews were not allowed to live in Jerusalem) to be the most respected considering its name; the sages in Israel were not of the caliber of those in Babylonia. Thus the Babylonian Talmud became the authoritative document.

For 800 years or so, until the last academy closed in the eleventh century, the center of Jewish life would remain in Babylonia. In this time, a new paradigm became part of Jewish reality. The paradigm said that Jerusalem is our hope but Babylonia is our reality. We may see a parallel in our own relationship to Israel, with all the attendant quandaries of allegiance and relationships.

Christianity on the Rise

It also created a Jewish weakness that the church eventually would be able to exploit. The early church was under Roman pressure since the Roman government did not see it as legitimate or legal. This was the stage when the Romans crucified Christians and threw them to the lions. In this initial period, the Jewish community was still strong, even after the Bar Kochba defeat of 70. After 70, there were still 800,000 Jews in Israel; and there were estimates of millions of Jews throughout the Roman empire. Some estimates put the number of Jews throughout the empire, in fact, as high as 10 percent, almost 4 million Jews. The Jews had more rights than almost anyone else in the empire, a special status that did not give them all the rights of Roman citizens, but more rights than others. In Alexandria they had more rights than the Egyptians. In Rome, the Jews were always and affluent and influential community attached to the imperial court.

But by the 3rd century, the Christians had grown and persecution had ceased. At the same time, the number of Jews declined as the Jews moved out of the empire to Babylonia and eastward. Now, the social political demographic of church and synagogue shifts.

Jews and Christians Grow Apart

There was a growth in anti-Jewish literature among Christian authors. The very fact that this tradition has a name, Adversis Judais, shows that it was a common literature. From the 2nd century on, every great Christian father writes an anti-Jewish treatise. In this literature Jews are looked on as a religion of persecution. Jews are not only blind, but deicidal. They willingly know, but ignore the truth. They are the spawn of darkness that fights against the light. This literature is enormously powerful among Jews and pagans.

The writings paint the Jews as persecutors. In the New Testament, we find the tradition that the Jews killed the prophets who are sent to redeem them. This culminates in the killing of Jesus, who was sent to free them from the law. How perverse, the storyline goes-the Jews kill Jesus and go on keeping the law.

In return, the Jews created blessings to force the Christians out of their lives. “Let all the malefactors be out”, part of the Shmoneh Esray, is a remnant of this.

So by the beginning of the 3rd century, the church began to move in all kinds of ways against the Jewish people. Even before the conversion of Constantine, the church councils were passing anti-Jewish legislation wherever they had a foothold or political power. The objective was to isolate Jews from the mainstream, and therefore to suppress the Jews and Judaism. The most famous example of this came in the 4th century in Spain and the struggle continues throughout the 4th century.

The Conversion of Constantine Weds Church and State

At this point something important happens when Constantine comes to power. Constantine’s mother was religious and enthusiastic. In 318, he was fighting a decisive battle, when, supposedly, he saw a cross in the sky with flaming letters spelling out “In this you will conquer.”
In other words, the message was that the church was his support. Although we know this story from Christian historians, and have no objective reports, the irrefutable fact is that the Roman Empire becomes Christian. Christianity becomes a legal tradition.
This would not have been as dramatic if it became just one more legitimate religion, so that, for example, there would have been paganism, Christianity and Judaism. The significance instead is that it began a process of wedding together the church and the state. Therefore there is no event more significant event for the Jewish people in the history of the world.

In previous instances, there was not a state religion that was, by definition, the inversion of Judaism and therefore inherently and radically anti-Jewish. Now there was a state religion which by its nature was hostile to Judaism and to Jews. For the first time there was state authority supporting anti-Jewish efforts.

This is the decisive turn that leads all the way down to Hitler. The important fact about Hitler is not that he is anti-semitic. The important fact is that he gains power. Anti-semitism without political power is inconsequential. But when it gets together with the state terrible circumstances result. For a Christian in Rome, who has politics on their side, being against the Jews is not a personal statement; rather it is the will of God, who destroyed the Temple and said that the Jews were condemned to wander.

While the events set in motion during this time were to have great impact, the actual reign of Constantine was relatively benign. When he dies and his son Constantius begins a 24 year reign, many new types of anti-Jewish legislation is introduced.

From Insiders to Outsiders

The period of 330-337 CE is a period in which Jews changed from legal legitimate insiders, members of the state who could hold office, be judges, and play any economic role; to isolated outsiders who were out of politics, forbidden to serve in city councils, forbidden to have certain relations with Christians, excluded from social intercourse. Jews could no longer circumcise their slaves.

Constantius’ declarations introduce a new kind of language never before seen in Roman law. It’s not that the idea of persecution was new. Hadrian and Trajan had persecuted Jews. We read of the Hadrianic persecutions in the Mahzor; of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiba in the amphitheater of Casarea where he was flayed to death or the persecution of Simon Bar Yochai. Up until this time, however, we did not have the idea that Jews were savages or abominable. Now we have a whole new rhetoric which starts to define the legislative circumstance.

When Constantius dies the empire had been Christian for 36 years and it looked like it would continue to be Christian. Constantius, however, didn’t have any children and the empire passed to his nephew Julian.

Julian Allows Jews to Rebuild

Julian was a cultured Greek with a Greek classical education and a neoplatinist orientation. When he became emperor he calculated that the empire would not be helped by being linked to Christianity. In fact, he said that Christianity and Rome were not a good fit. Christianity, he said is about other worldly salvation and all men being equal. This is not in keeping with the interests of the Roman state.

He set out to eliminate the link and decriminalize the Roman Empire, and for this he is known to Christians as Julian the apostate. He set out to take several steps:

First, he would ally with the Jews and he would give back the land of Israel and Jerusalem to the Jews. In 362 he came to the middle east and met with the Jews in Antioch. We have several of his letters which say, if you support me, I’ll give you control of Israel and Jerusalem. He did this for two reasons.

The first had to do with gaining Jewish loyalty. He was planning an invatin of the neoPersian empire. He hoped that by giving the Jews the land of Israel, Jews would support him as a fifth column from the inside.

The second reason had to do with a prophecy. Jesus prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed. There was a story that when Jesus was crucified, the shroud in the Temple tore, showing that the old dispensation of Judaism was no longer in effect. When Jesus came to earth to free people from the law, and the Jews don’t take him up on the offer, God is displeased, the story goes, and the Temple will be dismembered. The prophecy says there will not be one stone left, and that seemed to be true. In fact, the Jews were barred from Jerusalem.

So by giving back Jerusalem to the Jews and letting them rebuild the Temple, Julian would falsify the claim and the state would not be Christian.

Although the usual belief is that after 70, the Jews were out of Jerusalem, this was one of two times in the classical period when the Jews regained control of the city. During the time of Bar Kochba, between 132 and 135, Jews had control; and now in 363 they began to rebuild.

Fate Intervenes

At this point, fate plays two cruel tricks. First, Julian goes off to fight in the Persian Empire and is killed in 363. Yet he had already given money to the Jews to rebuild the Temple and an attempt was made to begin, starting with a synagogue as the beginning of the reconstruction. But as the engineers began their rebuilding excavation, they set off fires in the Temple. Today’s archeologists suggest that gasses had built up over the centuries and when a spark ignited the gasses, there was an explosion. To the Christian historians, however, this was a sign that God had sent blazing judgement on the Jews and the project was stopped to await further support.

Unfortunately, when Julian died the dream dies with him. He was succeeded by Jovian who had no interest in decoupling church from state and the course of anti-Jewish work continued. Jovian didn’t last long, only for a year. He was succeeded by Theodocius who was great and wise enough to understand that the policies of Julian were a signal. Not everyone was happy with the closeness to Christianity. He went very slowly and didn’t push anti-Jewish policies. Unfortunately, under his successors, such legislation was pursued.

The Rabbinic Discussion Continues

Meanwhile the Jews took the Mishnah, which was the common property of Jews all over the world, and they continued the discussion. (Gemorrah, in fact, means “completion”). In times which were good, the messianic elements of that discussion were subdued, when times were less good, there was more discussion of the messiah. The two great centers making Judaism relevant to the times were in the Galilee and Babylonia.

In the Siddur, around 320, they created a new Yom Kippur, as well as practices, such as musaf, that recall the sacrificial practice but that are practical without the Temple. Other practices included the Amidah and Sabbath practices. They sought linkages, such as “you established Shabbat and look with favor on the temple service and all its offerings, they who delight in Shabbat” which links Shabbat to the Temple and which still exists in our prayerbook. The Siddur, a creation of time, reflects that we live our lives moving through time.

The rabbis, because they felt themselves powerful and legitimate, were not locked into a pre-rabbinic Judaism. They could make this dramatic change.

From Sacrifices to Words

In the history of religions, no other people has successfully gone from a religion of sacrifice to a literary religion. Usually, when the sacrifice stops, the religion stops. For example, the Mayans couldn’t exist without sacrifice and even Christianity included communion, a blood ritual. The doctrine of transubstantiation is not symbolic-the wafer and the wine literally become the blood and body of Jesus. The fact that Christians retained the power of blood, in fact, was negative for the Jews as it leant credence to the idea that the Jews killed Christian children.

Judaism, on the other hand, became a religion of symbols and words. In Judaism, words had power-words could even move heaven.

The Rise of the Synagogue
and Rabbinic Authority, The Growth of the Church

As synagogues sprang up all over Israel and the Diasporah in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Church became more powerful as it began to take over practices of the state. Certain present day liturgical practices date to this period. For example, the saying of Shma was outlawed by Justinian, Theogocius, Constantius and others as it denied the trinity. Spies would be sent to synagogues to make sure the words weren’t said, but the spies would leave early. Therefore, the Shma became part of Musaf, where it is somewhat out of place in terms of time of day. In another example, the kiddushah includes references to angels as well as a phrase about God dealing compassionately with his people. In most references, the angels don’t like to praise people. This is a rabbinic insertion, aimed at helping people cope with the unfortunate reality they faced on a daily basis.

The Shma, in fact, can be considered the first Mishnah. The Torah does not indicate any kind of organized prayer service (although there is private prayer by Jacob, Moses, and others). With the sacrifices and the Temple it wasn’t needed. We also see the development of the Haggadah in this period as the non-biblical practice of Jewish tfilah becomes the central practice of Jewish life. From this time, collective prayer would become a way of observing special occasions.

What the rabbis were doing was saying that they had the authenticity to create this mechanism for Jewish survival. The Mishnah itself can be seen as this claim of authority for legitimating change in response to historical events. As they did so, they felt that they were acting in continuity with what had gone before. They also made choices. For example, they did not bring the sacrificial practice itself into the synagogue.


Questions asked of Katz

Q: What substituted for sacrifice between the first and second temples?
R: We surmise that it was the saying of psalms as they accompanied the Levitical practice.

Q: How come the Jews didn’t have to worship Roman Gods?

A: Before the conversion of Constantine, Jews had the legal right to practice. There are also references to the Jews as a race of philosophers in Roman writings. Judaism was not seen as a threat, unlike Christianity which was seen as an upstart, with no legitimate claims and, in addition, mocked the claims of the Roman state. The Christians tried to argue that they were Jews and entitled to the same exemption, but that claim was rejected.

Q: Has there been prayer inflation over the years?

A: Prayers have been added, sermons have been added. Originally rabbis only spoke on Yom Kippur about tshuvah and on Pesach about kashruth. Musaf and songs have been added. There was no sense of mystical practice, such as duchening.

Q: What about assimilation during this period.

A: In the Hellenistic period, Jews left to become Hellenes. Now they begin to leave to become Christians. Jews were not allowed to proselytize or to penalize those who became Christians. Many tried to disinherit children, but the courts did not let them. From this time onward, assimilation dropped away. In a society based on religious terms, with status totally defined by which religious community someone was in, there was only the possibility of being on the inside or the outside.

Q: Why didn’t the rabbis just teach? Why have prayer?

A: Not all people are intellectuals. Prayer has a different capacity than scholarship. It includes emotional elements and personal petition. Prayer and education are complementary.