Monday, November 17, 2014

History: Introduction – Torah Learning Before the Period of the Rishonim

Rav Leibowitz

Note: This post has been incorporated into a pamphlet on the Early Rishonim.  It can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.  

Since Sinai, the transmission, interpretation, and safeguarding of the Torah was in the hands of the Beis Din ha-Gadol, also known as the Sanhedrin.  Moshe Rabbenu was the first to preside over the Sanhedrin, and after him this role was passed on to his student Yehoshua, and so it continued through the generations.  With the destruction of the first Beis Ha-Mikdash, the Sanhedrin continued to maintain Torah leadership, and it was still active even after the destruction of the second Beis Ha-Mikdash.[1]  

With the destruction of the second Beis Ha-Mikdash at the hands of the Romans in the year 70 C.E., Jews fled the land of Israel and moved again to Bavel.  During this time the center of Jewish learning was still Israel, and centered around the Taanaim.  Their Torah scholarship was codified into the Mishna by R. Yehudah haNasi around the year 200 C.E.
 
A mere decade or two later, Rav – a student of R. Yehudah haNasi – left the land of Israel and settled in Bavel.  This spawned a tremendous period of growth for the Jewish community in Bavel.  The subsequent period of Torah scholarship, led by the Amoraim (200 C.E. – 500), saw Bavel as major center of Jewish learning.  This Babylonian tradition of Torah leadership was continued by the Geonim, who led the Bavel Yeshivos in Sura and Pumbedisa, and flourished for close to half a century (600 – 1000). 

Yet during this time, a host of reasons drove small groups of Jews to venture from the Jewish center in Bavel and establish Jewish communities in other regions.  These regions included many Mediterranean port cities in Europe and the Maghreb and Egyptian coasts of North Africa.  Responsa of the Geonim record a flow of letter between these outlying communities and the Bavel Yeshivos.  In these letters the outlying communities - apparently bereft of significant scholars and Torah centers - sent letters containing Halachik inquiries, Talmud questions, as well as other questions relating to issues of faith and hashkafa.

In the 10th century a major shift began.  Full fledged Torah centers began to emerge in a number of African and European cities.  An old Rabbinic history book, Sefer ha-Kabbalah, tells the tale of a fateful ship that set sail in the 10th century from Italy.  On the boat were a number of distinguished Rabbis, seeking funds for the Bavel Yeshivos.  The boat was hijacked, and four great Rabbis were taken captive.  The Rabbis were ransomed by three coastal communities: (1) Cordoba, Spain (2) Karouian, North Africa (3) and Alexandria, Egypt.  According to this tradition, the redeemed Rabbis remained in these cities and established learning centers.  This event led to increased growth of Torah study outside of Bavel, and paved the way for the period of the Rishonim.





[1] Jews mostly lived in Israel during the time period of Jewish monarchy.   But they began to arrive in Bavel as a result of the Assyrians conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  The next major migration to Bavel came over a hundred years later when Yehoyachin, King of Yehuda, was exiled to Bavel.  Another wave followed after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash.  A few decades later, Jews – led in part by Ezra and Nechemiah - returned to Israel to rebuild Yerushalayim.  Yet, many Jews and Torah scholars remained in Bavel.  

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