The Early Tannaim

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A new series by R. Aryeh Leibowitz of Yeshivat Sha’alvim

Part I: Introduction and The Early Tannaim

The period of the Tannaim can be broken up into two distinct periods. The first is the period of the second Beis HaMikdash. This period begins after the successful tenure of the Anshei Keneses HaGedola and extends until the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. During this period, the Beis Din HaGadol, also known during this period as the Sanhedrin, continues in its role as the “foundation of the Oral Law” (Rambam, Mamrim 1:1); the center of its activity is the Beis HaMikdash complex on the Temple Mount.

The second period begins after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash and extends until the redaction of the Mishna by R. Yehuda HaNasi. During this period, several factors led to a diminishing of the Beis Din HaGadol’s influence. Therefore, the individual Tannaim, to a degree, assume a more central role in teaching, safeguarding, and further developing the Oral Law during this period. The center of Rabbinic activity at the beginning of the period continues to be in central Eretz Yisrael, but it shifts north after the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. The period ends with the main concentration of Tannaitic activity in the Galil.

 
The Tannaim of the Second Beis HaMikdash

After the Anshei Keneses HaGedola, the Beis Din HaGadol returned to its regular number of members and functioning. The Beis Din HaGadol after Anshei Keneses HaGedola was led by Shimon HaTzadik, one of the last members of the Anshei Keneses HaGedola (Avos 1:2). Around this time, the ruling Persians in Eretz Yisrael were conquered by the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great.[1]Shimon HaTzadik also served as the Kohen Gadol. When Alexander the Great came to Yerushalyim, he was greeted by Shimon HaTzadik, who made a profound impression on the emperor (Yuma 69a). Afterwards, … Continue reading It was also around this time that the Beis Din HaGadol began to be called the Sanhedrin.[2]The name Sanhedrin likely has its root in Greek, where the word means: a place of assembly. The Bartenura (Sotah 9:11) writes that it is a notrikon acronym for ששונאים הדרת פנים … Continue reading

After Shimon HaTzadik, the Beis Din HaGadol was led by Antigonus of Socho.[3]Mikdash Chonyo: When Shimon was dying, he appointed his younger son Chonyo to succeed him as Kohen Gadol. A bitter struggle emerged between Chonyo and his older brother Shimi, and Chonyo was forced … Continue reading It was at this time that the heretical group, the Tzedukim (Sadducees) emerged. Their founder, Tzadok, was a student of Antigonus who rebelled and founded the heretical sect.[4]See Rashi Avos 1:3 how Tzadok’s misinterpretation of a teaching of Antigonus contributed to his departure from Rabbinic Judaism. The new sect gained many adherents amongst the upper-class Hellenized Jews. At this time, the traditional Rabbinic community became known as the Perushim (Pharisees), a term that means those who separate, for they refused to embrace Hellenistic culture.[5]At this time, there were a number of different groups in Israel vying for power. Besides the Rabbinic community and the heretical Tzedukim, there was also an entire Hellenized community, the … Continue reading

 
Galus Yavan (The Greek Exile)

Alexander conquered the region in 330 BCE and added it to his Macedonian-Greek Empire. After Alexander’s death, his family members, confidants/advisors, provincial governors, and former generals (all known as the Diadochi) fought over his vast empire. Eventually, it was carved up into smaller empires. At first, Eretz Yisrael was part of the Ptolemaic Empire, a Hellenistic state in Egypt founded by Ptolemy I, a former confidant and officer of Alexander, in Egypt.[6]Ptolemy I named himself “Pharoah,” and turned Egypt into a Hellenistic state, with Alexandria serving as a major Greek cultural center. It was King Ptolemy II, son and successor of the Empire’s founder, that had the Torah translated into Greek. It was also at this time that the community of Alexandria developed, along with their famous synagogue mentioned in Sukkah 51b.

Around 200 BCE, Eretz Yisrael passed into the hands of the Syrian Greeks. This occurred when Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic state founded by a former general of Alexander, won a decisive war against the Ptolemaic Empire.[7]The Seleucids were based in the Mesopotamian region, but their power extended to Syria. During this time, Hellenism made major inroads into Jewish life. Even the Kohanim serving in the Beis HaMikdash were ensnared by Greek culture. Tragically, corruption struck the Beis HaMikdash and the position of Kohen Gadol began to be sold, at times even to non-kohanim. Jewish revolts and sectarian infighting led the Seleucid king, Antiochus, to attack Yerushalayim and outlaw Torah observance. This empowered the Hellenists, who took control of the Beis HaMikdash and even erected idols within. Eventually, the Jews loyal to Torah revolted under the leadership of Mattisyahu and the Maccabees. In 164 BCE, the Chanukah victory occurred. The Maccabees cleansed the Beis HaMikdash of idolatry and the miracle of the oil flask occurred. Nonetheless, many years of fighting continued between the Greeks and the Jews. The Beis HaMikdash even fell again into Greek hands, but eventually the Maccabees regained control. Twenty-two years after the Chanukah miracle, the Maccabees achieved political autonomy over Eretz Yisrael and established the Chashmonai (Hasmonean) Dynasty. This was the first time that autonomy was achieved during the entire period of the second Beis Hamikdash. For the next eighty years, the Chashmonai dynasty ruled Eretz Yisrael. But for most of the period, the Chashmonai kings were weak, and served as vassals to the Seleucids, with the Jews enjoying limited religious autonomy. Eventually, the region was conquered by Rome.

(To be continued…)

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Shimon HaTzadik also served as the Kohen Gadol. When Alexander the Great came to Yerushalyim, he was greeted by Shimon HaTzadik, who made a profound impression on the emperor (Yuma 69a). Afterwards, Alexander requested that the Jews place a statue of him in the Beis HaMikdash. Shimon offered instead that each child born that year would be named Alexander in honor of the emperor.
2The name Sanhedrin likely has its root in Greek, where the word means: a place of assembly. The Bartenura (Sotah 9:11) writes that it is a notrikon acronym for ששונאים הדרת פנים בדין.
3Mikdash Chonyo: When Shimon was dying, he appointed his younger son Chonyo to succeed him as Kohen Gadol. A bitter struggle emerged between Chonyo and his older brother Shimi, and Chonyo was forced to flee to Alexandria, Egypt. There he constructed a competing “Beis HaMikdash” and directed the offering of sacrifices. The Tannaim (Menachos 109) debate if the service performed in Mikdash Chonyo was considered idolatry or simply errant service of God. Either way, the consensus is that Mikdash Chonyo was successful at keeping the Alexandrian Jewish community connected to their roots. The Rambam (Perush HaMishna, Menachos) adds that it even inspired gentile Egyptians to serve the Jewish God. Nonetheless, the entire institution of Mikdash Chonyo was a transgression, and every sacrifice brought there while the Beis HaMikdash stood in Yerushalyim was considered a prohibition of שחוטי חוץ, which carries a punishment of כרת. Mikdash Chonyo operated for hundreds of years.
4See Rashi Avos 1:3 how Tzadok’s misinterpretation of a teaching of Antigonus contributed to his departure from Rabbinic Judaism.
5At this time, there were a number of different groups in Israel vying for power. Besides the Rabbinic community and the heretical Tzedukim, there was also an entire Hellenized community, the Misyavnim, and the Shomranim (Samaritans).
6Ptolemy I named himself “Pharoah,” and turned Egypt into a Hellenistic state, with Alexandria serving as a major Greek cultural center.
7The Seleucids were based in the Mesopotamian region, but their power extended to Syria.

About Aryeh Leibowitz

Rabbi Leibowitz is a Ram at Yeshivat Sha'alvim and serves as the Assistant Dean of the Overseas Program.

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