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Jewish Thought: Rabbinic Thought

Last Updated: Jan 8, 2024 4:13 PM

Rabbinic Thought

Rabbinic literature, in its broadest sense, is the entire spectrum of rabbinic writings throughout Jewish history. However, the term often refers specifically to literature from the Talmudic era, as opposed to medieval and modern rabbinic writing, and thus corresponds with the Hebrew term Sifrut Chazal (“Literature of our sages," where Hazal generally refers to the sages of the Talmudic era). This more specific sense of "Rabbinic literature,” referring to the Talmudim, Midrash, and related writings, but hardly ever to later texts—is how the term is generally intended when used in contemporary academic writing. The terms meforshim and parshanim (commentaries/commentators) almost always refer to later, post-Talmudic writers of rabbinic glosses on Biblical and Talmudic texts. Midrash (pl. Midrashim) is a Hebrew word referring to a method of reading details into, or out of, a biblical text. The term midrash also can refer to a compilation of Midrashic teachings, in the form of legal, exegetical, homiletical, or narrative writing, often configured as a commentary on the Bible or Mishnah. There are a large number of "classical" Midrashic works spanning a period from Mishnaic to Geonic times, often showing evidence of having been worked and reworked from earlier materials, and frequently coming to us in multiple variants.

Text source: Wikipedia (edited). Below: Yeshiva in Morocco. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ. License: public domain 

Image of a Yeshiva in Morocco

Rabbinic Literature

The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to "all Jewish thought and aspirations", serving also as "the guide for the daily life" of Jews. The term Talmud normally refers to the collection of writings named specifically the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), although there is also an earlier collection known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah (200 CE), a written compendium of the Oral Torah; and the Gemara (500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Tanakh. The term "Talmud" may refer to either the Gemara alone or the Mishnah and Gemara together. The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in the standard print, called the Vilna Shas, there are 2,711 double-sided folios. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the fifth century) on a variety of subjects, including halakha, Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and folklore, and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). Below: Babylonian Talmud, 1519-1523. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Daniel Bomberg. License:  public domain.

Image of a page from the Babylonian Talmud, 1519-1523


Talmud and Philosophy

Image of the Tree of life from Portae Lucis by Joseph Gikatilla, 1293 A.D.

Kabbalah (Hebrew: literally "reception”) is an esoteric method, discipline, and school of thought in Jewish mysticism. The definition of Kabbalah varies according to the tradition of those following it, from its origin in medieval Judaism to its later adaptations in Western esotericism (Christian Kabbalah and Hermetic Qabalah). Jewish Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between the unchanging, eternal God—the mysterious Ein Sof ("The Infinite")—and the mortal, finite universe (God's creation). It forms the foundation of mystical religious interpretations within Judaism. Jewish Kabbalists originally developed their own transmission of sacred texts within the realm of Jewish tradition and often use classical Jewish scriptures to explain and demonstrate its mystical teachings. These teachings are held by Kabbalists to define the inner meaning of both the Tanakh and traditional rabbinic literature and their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances. Traditional practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date world religions, forming the primordial blueprint for Creation's philosophies, religions, sciences, arts, and political systems. Historically, Kabbalah emerged from earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th- to 13th-century Spain and Southern France, and was reinterpreted during the Jewish mystical renaissance in 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. The Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah, was composed in the late 13th century. Isaac Luria (16th century) is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah; Lurianic Kabbalah was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century onwards. During the 20th century, academic interest in Kabbalistic texts led primarily by the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem inspired the development of historical research on Kabbalah in the field of Jewish Thought. Fundamentally, the nature of the divine prompted kabbalists to envision two aspects to God:(1) God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable, limitless divine simplicity beyond revelation, and (2) God in manifestation, the revealed persona of God through which he creates, sustains, and relates to humankind. Kabbalists speak of the first as Ein Sof. The Sephirot are the ten emanations and attributes of God with which he continually sustains the existence of the universe. The Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts elaborate on the emergence of the sephirot from a state of concealed potential in the Ein Sof until their manifestation in the mundane world. In particular, Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, describes how God emanated the myriad details of finite reality out of the absolute unity of Divine light via the ten sephirot, or vessels. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Tree of life from Portae Lucis by Joseph Gikatilla, 1293 A.D. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Josef Gikatilla. License: public domain.


Philo of Alexandria (c.  20 BCE – c.  50 CE), also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt. According to Josephus, Philo was largely inspired by Aristobulus of Alexandria and the Alexandrian school. The only event in Philo's life that can be decisively dated is his participation in the embassy to Rome in 40 CE; whereby he represented the Alexandrian Jews in a delegation to the Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Caligula) following civil strife between the Alexandrian Jewish and Greek communities. Philo represents the apex of Jewish-Hellenistic syncretism. His work attempts to combine Plato and Moses into one philosophical system. His ethics were strongly influenced by Pythagoreanism and Stoicism, preferring a morality of virtues without passions, such as lust, desire and anger, but with a "common human sympathy". Philo's deployment of allegory to harmonize Jewish scripture, mainly the Torah, with Greek philosophy was the first documented of its kind, and thereby often misunderstood. Many critics of Philo assumed his allegorical perspective would lend credibility to the notion of legend over historicity. Philo often advocated a literal understanding of the Torah and the historicity of such described events, while at other times favoring allegorical readings. Though never properly attributed, Philo's marriage of Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy provided a formula later picked up by other Midrash content from the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Philo bases his doctrines on the Hebrew Bible, which he considers as the source and standard not only of religious truth but of all truth. Truth was uttered sometimes directly and sometimes through the mouth of a prophet, and especially through Moses, whom Philo considers the real medium of revelation. Philo regards the Bible as the source not only of religious revelation, but also of philosophic truth; for he claimed that Greek philosophers' ideas had already been laid out in the Bible. Philo's allegorical interpretation of scripture allows him to grapple with morally disturbing events and impose a cohesive explanation of stories. Specifically, Philo interprets the characters of the Bible as aspects of the human being, and the stories of the Bible as episodes from universal human experience. For example, Adam represents the mind and Eve the senses. Additionally, Philo affirms a transcendent God without physical features or emotional qualities resembling those of human beings. In Philo, God exists beyond time and space and does not make special interventions into the world because he already encompasses the entire cosmos. Philo's notion is even more abstract than that of the monad of Pythagoras or the Good of Plato; only God's existence is certain, no appropriate predicates can be conceived. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Right: Philo of Alexandria. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: André Thévet  (1516–1592) License: public domain

Image of Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (c.  20 BCE – c.  50 CE)

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Flavius Josephus (Hebrew: Yōsēf ben Mattīṯyāhū) was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian and military leader who was born in Jerusalem—then part of Roman Judea—to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry. He initially fought against the Romans during the First Jewish–Roman War as head of Jewish forces in Galilee, until surrendering in 67 AD to Roman forces led by Vespasian after the six-week siege of Yodfat. Josephus claimed the Jewish Messianic prophecies that initiated the First Jewish–Roman War made reference to Vespasian becoming Emperor of Rome. In response, Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave and presumably interpreter. After Vespasian became Emperor in 69 AD, he granted Josephus his freedom, at which time Josephus assumed the emperor's family name of Flavius. Flavius Josephus fully defected to the Roman side and was granted Roman citizenship. He became an advisor and friend of Vespasian's son Titus, serving as his translator when Titus led the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Since the siege proved ineffective at stopping the Jewish revolt, the city's pillaging and the looting and destruction of Herod's Temple (Second Temple) soon followed. Josephus recorded the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70 AD), including the siege of Masada. His most important works were The Jewish War (c. 75) and Antiquities of the Jews: The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation; Antiquities of the Jews recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Greek and Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into first century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity. Josephus's works are the chief source next to the Bible for the history and antiquity of ancient Palestine, and provide a significant and independent extra-Biblical account of such figures as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, John the Baptist, James the Just, and possibly Jesus of Nazareth. In the wake of the suppression of the Jewish revolt, Josephus would have witnessed the marches of Titus's triumphant legions leading their Jewish captives, and carrying treasures from the despoiled Temple in Jerusalem. It was against this background that Josephus wrote the Jewish War, claiming to be countering anti-Judean accounts. He disputes the claim that the Jews served a defeated God and were naturally hostile to Roman civilization. Rather, he blames the Jewish war on what he calls “zealous fanatics" among the Jews, who led the masses away from their traditional aristocratic leaders (like himself), with disastrous results. Josephus also blames some of the Roman governors of Judea, representing them as corrupt and incompetent administrators. According to Josephus, the traditional Jew was, should be, and can be a loyal and peace-loving citizen. Jews can, and historically have, accepted Rome's hegemony precisely because their faith declares that God himself gives empires their power. Josephus also wrote an apologetic piece titled Against Apion; a two-volume defense of Judaism as a classical religion and philosophy, stressing its antiquity, as opposed to what Josephus claimed was the relatively more recent tradition of the Greeks. Josephusalso  addressed anti-Judaic allegations from the Greek writer Apion and myths accredited to Manetho. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Flavius Josephus. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Works Translated by William Whiston. License: public domain.

Flavius Josephus (c. 37 – c. 100 CE)

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