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The Nuanced Attitudes of the Rabbis Towards the Study of Jewish History, Intro

February 22, 2013

There is an almost apologetic tone in Naphtali Maskil L’eison‘s (1) introduction to, what he touted, as his newly edited and annotated edition of a classic work of Jewish history Seder Hadorot (2)

In this introduction, the noted Rabbi and Maskil points out that the study of Jewish history is not merely to derive enjoyment from the reading of a ‘good story’ or to satiate one’s curiosity, but rather they are essential to every student and Rabbi. He points out how many have faltered in their studies by placing Talmudic personalities in the wrong era, confusing one tanna or ammora for another etc. In addition, the lessons to be learned from such study are many and important “How God punishes those who treated us wickedly and rewarded those who treated us kindly”  increase faith in God and their importance cannot be emphasized enough. He continues in this vein for some time.

Perhaps, he did this to assuage a ‘traditional’ Jewish fear of such literature. Some claim that the Jews never labored much to write down their own history (this is undoubtedly true for the Karaite sect, whose own leaders admit that they never granted much effort to the recording of their own history, resulting in modern Historians attempting to reconstruct a movement whose origins are mired in obscurity, see Rise of the Karaite Sect by Dr. Zvi Cahn, Chapter 1).

That the Jews did not bother to record their own history is a curious claim for the ‘People of the Book’. Some may even call this claim a ridiculous one for several reasons: an inordinate amount of space in Scripture is devoted to the happenings of the Jews- down to minute details about names and numbers of the members of various clans. These facts are recorded and often repeated in painstaking detail (and I am not even referring to the books that are mentioned in the Bible itself but were lost, as well as apocrypha, psuedipigrapha etc).

Some claim that this is partially true-especially from the closure of the ‘Scriptual era’ until the rise of the Graeco-Roman one, i.e. it was only under the influence of the Greeks (who arguably invented this discipline) that the Jews finally ‘got into the act’ as well. It was thanks to the Greeks that we now have the historical recordings of the Hellenized Jew, Josephus. If this is indeed true, it took many years of Graeco-Roman influence for a personage like Josephus to arise among the Jews and do to his people what Herodotus to his own.

As in many things, there seems to be something in both sides of the argument.

Yes, it is curious that in the several centuries since the events described in scriptures took place, nobody bothered to record Jewish history. Yet that too is only partially true as Jesus ben Sirach, (whose own book seems to be a matter of contention and debate in the Babylonian Talmud, see here) for instance, devotes the last chapter of his popular book to listing all the Jewish greats who lived up until his own time.

His successors: the Hasmoneans received painstaking documentation. In the several Books of Maccabees (certainly the first two), the first of which was written by a contemporary in Biblical Hebrew- according to many scholars (one would assume an individual without an overly fond attitude towards the Hellenists and the culture that they imported into Judea…)

When we fast-forward to to the Andalusian (Spanish) Golden Age, we may detect a lack of enthusiasm towards this discipline on the part of Maimonides (some might even say hostility, though curiously the latter mandates the daily study of Tanakh, basing himself on what seems to be merely proper advice in BT Kiddushin 30a from R. Joshua B Hanania) (3).

This attitude may further be evidenced in the Sephardic reaction (particularly of R. Joseph Karo and the Safed Kabbalistic circles) to the work of Azariah De Rossi, especially his historical work Maor Einyai’im which was outright banned (though the reasoning given was that it accorded dishonor to the Rabbis of the Talmud, by challenging the latter’s system of chronology ).

During the European Enlightenment, this dichotomy between what I will call the ‘historists’ and the ‘a-historists’ or ‘anti-historists’ take on new and different (arguably more urgent) forms. The Maskilim of Eastern Europe strongly encouraged the study of Jewish history. The study of Tanakh (Scriptures) had already been almost abandoned among Ashkenazic Jews, in favor of intensive Talmudic study (See author of Peri Megadim and the Ashkenazi sage known as the Hakham Sevi who lament this state-of -affairs and praise Sephardim for studying Tanakh and Dikduk [Hebrew Grammar], disciplines that were largely abandoned among most Ashkenazi circles at that point) (4).

The Wissenschaft des Judentums and Haskalah‘s renewed stress on the aforementioned studies produced reactionary violent response which went as far as to outright forbid the study of even Tanakh. (although the’ abandonment’ of Tanakh may have already come about as a much earlier reaction to Sadduccees, who believed in its authority alone). (5)

It seems that Ashkenazic writers of Jewish history, such as the author of Seder Hadorot, David Gans, et-al (this seems less evident in the writings of De Rossi and Joseph Hakohen of Genoa for instance) were walking a tightrope between maintaining fealty to Rabbinic tradition and basing themselves heavily on ‘outside’ and ‘foreign’ material. This was risky business as the latter material often stood in conflict with the Rabbinic one (a classic example would be the aforementioned De Rossi’s issue with Rabbinic calculations and the resultant scandal and ban).

This is clearly evident in the writings of Rabbi Yehiel Heilprin, author of Seder Hadorot, especially in his own introduction, where he takes great pains to point out how important the study of Jewish history is in order to understand Talmud (the who’s who of Talmudic figures) and essentially be a better Jew.

In Heilprin’s and his contemporary’s worldview, the study of Jewish history is a very important means towards a noble end. This same attitude is even more evident (for obvious reasons, see here) in later works of this genre, such as the writings of Rabbi Isaac Rabinowich in his six-volume Dorot Harishonim. It continues to this day (see for instance the introductions to Seder Hadorot Hakatzar by R. Shelomo Benizri; Atlas Ets Hayyim, authored by the recently deceased Refael Heilprin (a direct descendant of R. Yehiel and Rabbi Shelomo Rottenberg in his multi-volume Toldos Am Olam).

The Hirschian ‘Neo-Orthodox’ stance on the subject is (arguably) best articulated in an articled penned by the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab where the latter states unequivocally that “History must be truthful otherwise it does not deserve its name…. What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity” see here for excerpts.

In Jewish Germany, the study of Jewish history (as part of wissenschaft) was a matter of identity and religion. Heinrich Graetz devoted the better part of his career to researching and then recording the Judische Geschichte.

His treatment may be judged by today’s (relatively) objective standards to have been something less than objective. Much of his writings are his own often less-than-charitable musings and therefore an editorialized, jaundiced take on Jewish history.

The latter also had a history with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a history the latter would probably have preferred be forgotten. Graetz himself shows a thinly veiled contempt for the venerable Rabbi-his former teacher, and his Talmudic studies (“who busies himself with the miniutate of the laws of an oxe who gored a cow”), though he did retain a fondness for the man himself. (6)

To be continued.


1. On this very eclectic family, see also here.

2. To read his edition online, go here

3. It is interesting to note the crucial word that makes all the difference when this is cited in Maimonides’ Code.

Spot the one crucial difference in choice of word:

וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן
מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה–ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.
משנה תורה להרמב”ם*
הלכות תלמוד תורה א’ יג


אמר רב ספרא משום ר’ יהושע בן חנניא: מאי דכתיב (דברים ו, ז) “ושננתם לבניך”? אל תקרי “ושננתם” אלא “ושלשתם” – לעולם ישלש אדם שנותיו: שליש במקרא שליש במשנה שליש בתלמוד. מי יודע כמה חיי? לא צריכא אלא ליומי
קידושין ל’ א

(4). In contemporary Religious Zionist circles, the study of Tanakh is often strongly stressed, see here. There are yearly conferences on Tanakh at the Flagship Institution of Religious Zionism, Yeshivat Har Etzion.

(5). for instance:

תנו רבנן, רבו שאמרו רבו שלמדו חכמה, ולא רבו שלמדו מקרא ומשנה, דברי רבי מאיר, רבי יהודה אומר, כל שרוב חכמתו הימנו… תנו רבנן העוסקים במקרא מדה ואינה מדה, במשנה מדה ונוטלין עליה שכר, גמרא אין לך מדה גדולה מזה… אמרו אחיכם אלו בעלי מקרא, שנאיכם אלו בעלי משנה… (בבא מציעא לג א

See also Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 79b, where this appears in slightly different version in the name of R. Shimon bar Yohai. See also JT Horayot 19a

Although in a different place in the Jerusalem Talmud, it appears that EY Jews did stress the study of Tanakh very strongly:
לא כן אמר רבי פנחס בשם רבי הושעיה ארבע מאות וששים בתי כנסיות היו בירושלים, וכל אחת ואחת היה לה בית ספר ובית תלמוד, בית ספר למקרא ובית תלמוד למשנה… (כתובות סז ב)

see more here

(6) Another disciple of Hirsch who later went on to write extensively on Jewish (specifically Sephardic) history was Rabbi Meyer Kayserling.

  1. Interesting. I can’t wait for the next installment…

  2. Nate permalink

    An interesting read, look forward to more.

    I would think study of Torah and Nakh and grammar would be very important, and can’t wrap my head around any de-emphasis of it (though I can see how study of Talmud would be considered important to day to day life).

    As for chronology, the differences between the traditional dating of the Persian period (i.e. in Seder Olam) and Persian records for their own kings are an area I have run into difficulties with.

    I am reminded of the tradition of Ahashverosh and Ester being the parents of Daryavesh (the last Persian king before Aleksander according to traditional chronology), which would make Daryavesh about 10 years old when he searched for the decree of Koresh, and decreed the completion of the Second Temple in his 2nd year.

    It is impossible for there to be such a young king, or to do such important things at a young age? Probably not. But the whole thing doesn’t fit with any of the Persian kings known as Darius, who all seem to have been well into adulthood when they began to rule (either being known to have been warriors in the military, or satraps over provinces before they became kings).

    • Thanks Nate,
      As I mentioned in the article, the de-emphasis of any and all disciplines other than Talmud was more than a reactionary move. It precedes the rise of the Haskala movement. This, as mentioned, was extremely common in places (e.g. Poland) where the casuistic approach to Talmud (a.k.a. pilpul) became immensely popular.

      The difficulties with the ‘traditional’ order of Chronology is an old one, but nobody, up until De Rossi, seems to have dared to address it. De Rossi understood that the Talmud is not a history (or science, or medical etc.) book; he understood, as a deeply observant Jew, that the Rabbis were utilizing the information that was at their disposal and they weren’t always careful to record these sorts of things with exact accuracy. This was not well received in certain circles.

      That Darius was the son of Esther is found in Talmudic and Midrashic sources as well. Persian records make no mention of this, since, as you well know, Esther is not mentioned even once there. Whether it is possible that Darius ruled at age 10? Absolutely!. I am sure you are aware of Monarchs who ascended the throne at even younger ages (how old was Yehoash for instance?). Thoughts to ponder. Thanks for the comment!

      • Nate permalink

        That is true, Yoel. Yehoash ben-Ahazyahu was 7 years old when he became king of Yehudah (Melakhim B’ 11:12), and Yoshiyyahu ben-Amon was 8 years old when he became king of Yehudah (Melakhim B’ 22:1). According to some traditions Shelomo ben-David was a little older, 12 years old, when he became king of Yisra’el.

        According to the tradition that Shelomo was 12 when he became king, he would have been around 15/16 (in his 4th year) when he began to build the First Temple. The Tanakh doesn’t appear to say how old Yehoash was when he initiated repairs to the Temple, though it does state that in his 23rd year (around 30 years old) the repairs had still not been made (Melakhim B’ 12:7). How many years before that he initiated the rebuilding I could not find. Yoshiyyahu was 26 (in his 18th year) when he initiated repairs to the Temple.

        So while there does not seem to be an example in the Tanakh of someone as young as 10 initiating the building or rebuilding of a Temple (for their own people or for another people), someone so young becoming king is well attested in the Tanakh and elsewhere, and one probably wouldn’t have to strain very hard to come up with an explanation of why or how a 10 year old Persian king might initiate the completion of the Jewish Temple (especially when based on the notion that they were the son of Ester).

        But according to Persian and Greek sources all three Darius’ were adults when they became king of Persia.

        Darius son of Hystaspes seems to have been around 28 years old when he became king of Persia. He had previously been in the military of Cambyses, and possibly even the military at the tail end of the reign of Cyrus.

        Darius son of Artaxerxes I is said to have been satrap of Hyrcania prior to becoming king of Persia.

        Darius son of Artaxerxes IV seems to have been well into his 40s when he became king of Persia, and was apparently a distinguished warrior prior to that.

        According to the tradition(s) that Daryavesh was the son of Ahashverosh and Ester, which typically gives Ahashverosh a reign of 13-15 years, Daryavesh could not be very old, as Ahashverosh first took Ester in his 7th year (Ester 2:16).

        Of course, according to their own records there were many more Persian kings over a much larger period than traditional chronology, and a 10 year old Daryavesh is probably the least of the discrepencies between their own records and the traditional reckoning. But it was an example fresh on my mind with Purim having just passed.

        The Persian period, which seems to be central to the above dating differences, is a fascinating period. A descendant of the previous kings of Yehudah was permitted to begin completing the building of the Temple, and then is never mentioned again, not even 4 years later at the Temple’s completion. I have seen a number of people note how powerful and borderline independent the province of Yehud/Yehudah must have been at times during the Persian period based on having their own coinage and other things. Yet for all the supposed stability it seems to be one of the most poorly recorded periods. Or if records were made, they were poorly (or not at all) preserved in the ensuing centuries.

        When you say, “As I mentioned in the article, the de-emphasis of any and all disciplines other than Talmud was more than a reactionary move,” isn’t this sort of like placing Tanakh or study of Tanakh in the same or similar category as non-Jewish subjects or studies? If so, I really cannot even begin to wrap my head around that.

  3. Another excellent post. Thanks for keeping us informed!

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  1. Attitudes of the Rabbis Towards the Study of Jewish History, Part I | Yomin D'min Alma יוֹמִין דְּמִן עָלְמָא

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