Thursday, July 19, 2012

Halachic Eras

Addressed to someone who seems to think that the Rishonim are “a movement”:

> there must have been something brewing prior to that time that eventually compelled them... not as individuals but as a movement. After all... isn't that how we think of them... as a movement? Otherwise we

No, why would you think that?  We refer to the Dark Ages as a historical period, not as a movement.  There wasn't a pan-European revival of  obscurantism as a positive value.  But philosophical and scientific  discovery were repressed by historical factors beyond their own fields of endeavour - overcrowding which made it harder to earn a living, followed by plagues which, by emptying out land, made it easier to acquire land and live off of that, but by the same token, it was hard to till all that  land oneself, feudalism didn't lend itself to a society of patronage of the arts and sciences, etc.

> would not refer to them in a group like that. We would refer to them as individuals such as when we refer to the Vilna Gaon vs the Baal Shem Tov and their respective followers.

We do refer to them as individuals.  But as a group, they're a historical era, like the Dark Ages or The Renaissance.
(warning, history lecture coming on: )
Do you really not know how we divide halachic eras?  We have an overarching principle of "yeridat hadorot" - that the farther we get from the Sinaitic Revelation, the less access we have to authentic Oral Law tradition.   Sometimes, throughout history, there are catastrophic events that wipe out most of a generation's intellectual leaders; the next generations,  not having had the time to absorb everything from the earlier generations, are then classed as a lesser era.  Alternatively, during an era of general hardship, a work may be composed which gains universal acclaim, which too can mark the end of an era.
Within a given era, people are assumed to have roughly the same level of halachic authority.  Some individuals may be greater than others, but not sufficiently as to say this individual's word is final within the era.
So the general halachic eras are, as far as I know,
1) Tannaim (from the era of political-intellectual parties during the Hellenistic period until the codification of the Mishnah in 200)
I don't know what historical event might have made 200 a dividing line, I suspect it was simply the universal acceptance of the Mishnah as the starting point for all future rabbinic discussions, giving  a structure to legal thought.
2) Amoraim (from the close of the Mishnah to the close of the Gemara, c. 200-500 CE - interesting how that era-closer coincides with the rise of  Islam) characterized by textual criticism, intellectual rigor and halachic creativity, story-telling, etc. - the period of creation of most of our fundamental texts, the Gemara, most of the Midrashim, etc.  The usual method here seems to be a) establish the correct text of the Mishnah, b) establish that the rule known from Tradition is correct, by comparing it with lots of hypothetical alternatives that make less sense.
3a) Geonim (500-1000), a period of traditionalism, their teshuvot are characterized by laconic answers, without much reasoning.  Their legal texts are likewise summaries of the Talmud, e.g. the Halachot Gedolot,  c. 800.  Many believe that these brief responses reflect the Geonim having the last known traces of authentic Sinaitic traditions, so they could say "this is the answer" without having to prove it from a bunch of alternative ideas.
The next cataclysm, the Crusades, seems to have marked the  boundary between the Geonim and Rishonim.  E.g. the H"G and the Rif are both summaries of the Talmud, but the Rif inserts more interpretive  material, which marks him as the beginning of the Rishonim. [N.B.: there isn't really a difference in halachic authority between Geonim and Rishonim, nor is there an authoritative code that demarcates a boundary.  However, there is the historic dislocation and a shift in interpretive style.  So the next period should be 3b, not 4. See comments for discussion.]
3b) Rishonim (1000-1550): again a period of creativity and explanation  of earlier ideas.  Lots of different rishonim had different agendas, e.g. the Tosfos' agenda, according to RRW and his teachers such as Agus and Grinstein at YU, was to promote the Bavli as the primary study text - while the Yerushalmi and oral tradition were more relevant as psak texts for daily life among the Jews of Christendom.  So Tosfos (as a movement with an agenda) demonstrated time and again how Ashkenazic practice, while differing from the Bavli's ideal, fulfills the same  underlying goals.  E.g., covering the challah on Shabbat/Yom Tov reflecting the change in foodways between Greco-Roman Judaea and Franco- German Europe, in Ch. Arvei Pesachim.  Or the worldwide change in parchment production of the early Middle Ages, being justified against the Bavli in Megillah.  Meanwhile, the Rashba was making stabs at  probability theory, in trying to understand and explain the rules of sfek sfeka - when do we add probabilities, when do we multiply them, how does rov quantify as probabilistic, etc.  The early 19th C. author of Shev Shmaitsa also gropes in that direction, shortly before Bayes systematized probability theory.
We talk about them collectively, because they collectively explain the  Gemara, the main text of Jewish law.  They collectively are the major commentators on Tanach and Talmud, so their ideas on understanding the texts have to be our starting point in understanding them.
4) Acharonim (1550-present?)  I'd guess the global upheavals affected this transition, but it is mostly marked by the publication of the Beis Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch (with Mapah).  If there was a transition era, it might run from the Tur (late 1300s) through the Mapah (1560s). Well, what upheavals?  The Black Death of 1348-1350, which killed 1/3 of Europe.  The Renaissance of the 1400s-1500s, with new wealth generated by fewer people working the same land of Europe, and the shift from  feudalism to patronage.  The end of Byzantine Rome and the rise of the Ottomans in 1455.  Printing in 1450.  Availability of printed Talmuds and printed Rabbinic Bibles starting c. 1521.  And, of course, the end of Jewish Spain - the expulsions, the conversos, the Christianos Nuevos, the re-converted back to real Judaism, the exile all over the Mediterranean basin, the Inquisition (what a show).
The Shulchan Aruch (1565,1578), the Zohar (1558), and the teaching of  the Ari in the early 1570s all happened within a decade or two.  As a marker of a shift in Jewish intellectual history, it's hard to beat that period.
And the Acharonim largely explain the Rishonim, and try to reconcile them to find a final psak, or compare their ideas one to another to decided which is more convincing, or introduce Kabbalah into the
Read the books of R' Zechariah Fendel for discussions of the various eras and major figures in each era.

> The point is... why are we referring to them in such a large grouping? We must recognize that they were doing something different than the previous grouping and different yet again from our current grouping.

Yes, they had a lesser level of connection to Sinai than the Geonim,  and a greater one than the Acharonim.

> On a side note: I think our own era is not well defined as yet because how can we be the last (Acharonim)? Is someone suggesting that the Messiah is in the offing? Then when he arrives, if it is not in my lifetime, won't those folks that come after me be the last?

Some have proposed a 5th era, tentatively called the Tachtonim (those underneath), marked by the dislocations and death of 1870-1960 -  a unified Germany that led to Nazism, the Shoah itself, the mass migration to America between 1880 and 1924, the expulsions of the Jewish communities in almost all the Muslim countries, the founding and continued existence of the State of Israel, etc.  Certainly death and dislocation have caused a rupture in the Tradition.  I don't see a singular text yet that is accepted by klal Yisrael - maybe a combined edition of Igros Moshe and Yabia Omer?  This postwar era certainly is characterized by  indexing and codification, as well as a revival of Kabbalah among the  Ashkenazim, who had largely suppressed it after 1820 to undermine the Sabbatean movement.

11 comments:

Micha Berger said...

The mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, an unattributed mishnah can be presumed to be the opinion of his rebbe, Rav Meir. And the style of the mishnah is that of R' Meir's rebbe, Rabbi Aqiva. The Mishnah project started with Rabbi Aqiva. The tannaitic era started wrapping up in a generation when a plague killed most of the students (if it was a plague) and the Hadrianic Persecutions. Perhaps it's just a measure of how bad things were that it took three generations to complete!

On the other hand, I do not see any halachic era demarcation between the geonim and the rishonim. Yes, lifestyles were very different -- there was a change of historical era. And composition style differed. But rishonim show no deference to the opinions of geonim. I can't really call the 10th cent a change of halachic era; the people who lived through it didn't consider the shift a major drop in the curve of yeridas hadoros.

Anonymous said...

1. Who is RRW?

2. You're forgetting about the Savoraim (Rabbanan Savorai lived between Amoraim and Geonim).

3. Why does the fact that there could be some generations after you bother your perception of us as achronim? Every single category you mentioned had several generations. So in our "era" yes the messiah will come and everything until then is under the aegis of Achronim.

4. I once heard from Dr. Leiman (IIRC) that the dividing line between Rishonim and Achronim was simply the invention of the printing press (and the widespread seforim after that).

thanbo said...

1) R' Rich Wolpoe, former co-worker, taught for a while at ITJ, now a mashgiach.

2) I didn't forget them, they're a stratum of editors of the Talmud, but they worked very hard to erase themselves from history, so they didn't really leave a visibly different style of halachic discourse. There's no historical shift, no textual boundary.

3) Because the Shoah and the State changed everything for us, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc. Changed our whole outlook towards Torah - see R Haym Soloveitchik's "Rupture and Reconstruction" article. For all that some factions pretend that they're recreating prewar Europe, we all know that's a self-delusion or a sham, and that things are changing still as the prewar gedolim die out.

4) That's kinda Eurocentric. After the 1500s, the Islamic countries didn't have Jewish printing, until the mid 1800s in Palestine. There was Jewish printing in Spain/Portugal before the Expulsion.

Micha Berger said...

Along the lines of #4... R' Treibitz reads into the story of the 4 Captives that it is really about how the scattering of Jewish communities caused the need to write down Torah sheBe'al Peh. Tosafos show that the Mishnah, while composed by Rebbe, was kept Oral throughout the period of the amora'im. He takes this further and says that nothing was actually copied in writing with any regularity until the 10th century.

That's why the story dwells on Rav Chushiel Gaon (Rabbeinu Chananel's father) reaching Kairuan (at the time a major Torah center), hearing the LOR give class in Tosefta, and teaching them Talmud Bavli. Whereupon the local rabbis realize there was greatness in their midst, and defer to him.

Anyway, I still don't think there is a textual boundary at the end of the geonim, and that separating geonim from rishonim as separate halachic eras confuses the topic of what kind of eras one is trying to demarcate.

thanbo said...

Maybe Geonim is lashon sagi nahor? (euphemistic) Look at, e.g., Rambam's attitude towards the later geonim, that they were pretty much worthless. So perhaps the geonim are a sort of interregnum between the close of the Talmud and the rise of the Rishonim? One would think geonim (the way we use it today) are okrei harim (innovators), but maybe their gaonus was more the sealed cistern variety, that preserves oral texts without change until the time is ripe for innovation?

So while they may not have had a lot of special halachic authority, they are clearly a separate era, in terms of halachic style (preservation not innovation), in terms of being between major historic cataclysms - the rise of Islam and the Crusades, if not in terms of having a special authority. They're clearly different from the Amoraim/Savoraim before, and the Rishonim afterwards.

thanbo said...

If you want a text that marks the beginning of the Rishonim, how about the Rif? As the beginning of innovative interpretation of the Talmud? Or Rashi on the Gemara? Marking out a period when people no longer spoke Aramaic natively, and needed basic background to understand the Talmud. Maybe both, since one is Eastern and the other Western.

Micha Berger said...

There were two piece to my argument:

1- The more minor one is that there is no demarkation line. No sefer that everyone used as the new yardstick for normative practice. No one said "from now on, if you want to differ from the Rif" or "from Rashi" -- "you now have to justify it using people of the Rif's or Rashi's era." Thus, there is no dividing text.

2- Rishonim treated the opinions of geonim as equal, not superior, to their own. You open discussing nisqatnu hadoros and halachic authority, so we should really only be counting eras that have differences in authority.

Geonim to rishonim was a severe change in where Jews lived, in culture and in learning and writing styles. In the period of Geonim, the primary text style is the teshuvah, with the code (eg Halakhos Gedolos) far in the background. With rishonim, codes (Rif, to use your example) and peirushim (eg Rashi) come to the fore.

From a history-of-halakhah perspective, they are definitely distinct.

But there isn't a halachic authority gap between geonim and rishonim. (I think that's the consequence of not having produced a new baseline halachic guide.) So your project as you define it in the opening really shouldn't count them as separate eras.

thanbo said...

OK, I see your point.

thanbo said...

I added a Nota Bene. Does that make it clearer?

Micha Berger said...

I like 3a and 3b.

I was thinking about your "Maybe Geonim is lashon sagi nahor? (euphemistic)" I'm too frum to take that suggestion seriously. But if we run a little further with R' Treibitz's bold suggestion that the Mishnah and Talmud(s) were not put onto paper yet during the geonic period, that it was all still oral...

This would explain why there are so few writings left from the geonim, and the majority of what we do have are written answers to specific people's questions. They simply didn't have a free hand to publish, "that which is oral you ought not put into writing" was not yet considered overwhelmed by the need to fight communal forgetfulness.

And unlike the Mishnah and Talmud, no one turned their thoughts into formalized sets of orally transmitted material.

So, their impact was reduced simply because they left a small footprint on future generations. The rishonim had little to read from the geonim, whereas they had the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi and Bavli open in front of them.

Mr. Cohen said...

Your link to Rabbi Rich Wolpoe's blog is broken.

If you link to my web site for divrei Torah, then I wil link to this blog.

My web site for divrei Torah is:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/