The Rise of the Rabbis

For the Public
Thursday, October 21, 2021
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM EDT

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The rabbis featured in the Babylonian Talmud are typically imagined as constituting a centralized movement centered around a few large institutions (yeshivot), and serving as the official expositors of proper Jewish behavior among the Jews of the time.

In recent years, scholars have begun to challenge this portrait, arguing instead that the rabbis’ activities were decentralized, deinstitutionalized, heterogenous, and local in nature. Formal academies and the centralization of the movement happened later, when post-talmudic attitudes were retrojected onto the talmudic past.

This talk explores the social and cultural worlds of the rabbis of the Talmud and how they emerged as the dominant stream of Jewish practice and tradition.

About the “Canon in Context” Series

Stepping back and squinting at the major works of the Jewish legal canon dotted across history, many of them appear…puzzling. Centuries of tradition treat the Mishnah, Talmud, and other texts as settled law and as contributions to rabbinic thought. But in their own times, they were outliers. Each one diverged remarkably in form and content from the Jewish writings of their time and place. So how did they get that way, and how did they become canon?

This series explores the historical context of halakhic compilations and codes: who composed them, what were they trying to achieve, and why did they choose the format and the topics they chose? Set aside what you think you know, and encounter these texts in the worlds of their creation.


About the image above: "The Book of Ruth and the Book of Ecclesiastes with Joseph Kara's commentary," ca. 1322, held in the British Library.


Simcha Gross

University of Pennsylvania

Simcha Gross is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and studies Jews over the first millennium of the common era in their Roman, Persian, and Islamic contexts. His first book, Babylonian Jews and Sasanian Imperialism in Late Antiquity, will be published by Cambridge University Press. He is currently a member at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

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We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Klatt Family and the Harry Stern Family Foundation.