By Jay Levinson
The Sages --- Volume 1: The Second Temple Period
by Rabbi Binyamin Lau (Translated by Michael Prawer)
Jerusalem: Maggid Books / Koren Publishers, 2010
ISBN: 978 159 264 245 8
This volume, translated from Hebrew, is an excellent study of the Second Temple period focusing on rabbinic figures of the time. Benjamin Lau has the unique approach of placing leaders in the historical and social context of their time using a judiciously chosen selection of academic sources to maintain proper religious perspective.
The era of the Men of the Great Assembly (450-300 BCE) is an example. It was an perod of unrest in which power was centered amongst corrupt Cohanim. In the Ethics of the Fathers the Cohanim are noticeably absent from the list of Torah transmission from generation to generation. The period saw the growth of Hellenism in the Land of Israel and the weakening of Jewish tradition. Curiously, the only name of prominence that is recalled is that of Shimon HaTzadik. The explanation postulated by Lau is that that the Great Assembly worked as a team in which individuals did not outshine their brethren. Their contributions to history were to aid in the transformation from prophecy to rabbinic sages and to strengthen the enactments of Ezra in moving Torah from the exclusive domain of the Temple and the priests to the common person.
Shimon HaTzadik stands out as a figure who confronted the blasphemy of both Samaritans and Hellenists, while also restoring honesty and honour to the priesthood.
The era of the Pairs ending in about 50 BCE saw the battle against the increasing threat of Hellenist philosophy and the resultant emergence of the Hasmonean dynasty. The priesthood again declined, counter-balanced by the increase in rabbinic authority. Judaism split, with the Sadducees trying to revert to the centrality of Temple worship, the Essenes favouring segregation if not isolation, and the Pharisees representing the path of Jewish life that we have inherited. Antiochus Epiphanes tried to unify Palestina by enforcing the dictates of Hellenism, allowing the sale of the priesthood to Jason, who followed the directives of the Greek ruler. One major lesson to be learnt it is that the ploy did not work. Menelaus eventually put in a higher bid for the priesthood, and Jason was deposed. Even at lower levels the priests were corrupt, abandoning Temple service for Greek athletics. It is against this background that the first of the Pairs arose.
Yose ben Yoezer is known for his edicts that sought to separate Jew from Hellenist. “Let your house be a gathering place for sages” is another way of saying that one should stress rabbinic teaching rather than Greek philosophy. His counterpart, Yosi ben Yochanan, expressed himself differently, “Let your house be open wide,” but the message was similar. One cannot build a fortress of Torah and ignore the greater world. One must break down the walls of separation and influence others against Hellenism. This is just one small example of how the author places rabbinic says into an historical context.
Hillel and Shammai merit special consideration. As Lau explains, “…Hillel’s rulings were based on the rule of logical deduction, whereas Shamai preserved the ancient tradition, transmitted from person to person, with no innovations or upheavals. This different in Weltanschauung les at the root of disputes between the two schools (which turned into bitter fighting after the passing of the two leaders.
Lau addresses another aspect of the greatness of Hillel. The story of Hillel laying in the snow-covered roof of a beit midrash, unable to afford the tuition to sit inside. Although we usually interpret this story as an example of devotion to Torah, the author has a different explanation. He uses this as the catalyst to show that learning had been a privilege of the rich. Through this incident Hillel served as the model to show that Torah learning should be open to all. The schools of Hillel were so large, because Jews were accepted regardless of wealth.
This book brings profound understanding to a period of critical transitions in Jewish life. The era began with the end of prophecy and terminated with the destruction of the Second Temple. As Lau shows, it is not enough to learn Mishna after Mishna. Each must be placed in the historical context of the person who said it, so that the person learning can gain a better understanding. This book makes of major contribution in that direction. This reviewer looks forward to Volume II.
from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine