The Talmud

I. THE EXILES: 135–565

WITHIN Islam and Christendom a remarkable people maintained through every adversity its own unique culture, consoled and inspired by its own creed, living by its own laws and morality, producing its own poets, scientists, scholars, and philosophers, and serving as the living carriers of fertile seeds between two hostile worlds.

The rebellion of Bar Cocheba (132-5) was not the last effort of the Jews to regain for Judea the freedom that Pompey and Titus had destroyed. Under Antoninus Pius (138-61) they tried again, and failed. Their holy city was forbidden them except on the bitter anniversary of its destruction, when they were allowed, for a consideration, to come and mourn by the walls of their shattered Temple. In Palestine, where 985 towns had been wiped out, and 580,000 men and women had been slain, in Bar Cocheba’s revolt, the Jewish population had sunk to half its former volume, and to such an abyss of poverty that cultural life was almost wholly dead. Nevertheless, within a generation after Bar Cocheba, the Beth Din or Jewish National Council—a court of seventy-one rabbinical scholars and legists—was established in Tiberias, synagogues and schools were opened, and hope rose again.

The triumph of Christianity brought new difficulties. Before his conversion Constantine had placed the religion of the Jews on a footing of legal equality with those of his other subjects. After his conversion the Jews were oppressed with new restrictions and exactions, and Christians were forbidden to associate with them.1 Constantius banished the rabbis (337), and made the marriage of a Jew with a Christian woman a capital crime.2 Julian’s brother Gallus taxed the Jews so heavily that many of them sold their children to meet his demands. In 352 they rebelled again, and were again suppressed; Sepphoris was razed to the ground, Tiberias and other cities were partly destroyed, thousands of Jews were killed, thousands were enslaved. The condition of the Palestinian Jews now (359) sank so low, and their communication with other Jewish communities was so difficult, that their patriarch Hillel II resigned their right to determine for all Jews the dates of the Jewish festivals, and issued, for the independent computation of these dates, a calendar that remains in use among the Jews of the world to this day.

From these afflictions the Jews were saved for a moment by the accession of Julian. He reduced their taxes, revoked discriminatory laws, lauded Hebrew charity, and acknowledged Yahveh as “a great god.” He asked Jewish leaders why they had abandoned animal sacrifice; when they replied that their law did not permit this except in the Temple at Jerusalem, he ordered that the Temple should be rebuilt with state funds.3 Jerusalem was again opened to the Jews; they flocked to it from every quarter of Palestine, from every province of the Empire; men, women, and children gave their labor to the rebuilding, their savings and jewelry to the furnishing, of the new Temple;4 we can imagine the happiness of a people that for three centuries had prayed for this day (361). But as the foundations were being dug, flames burst from the ground, and burnt several workmen to death.5 The work was patiently resumed, but a repetition of the phenomenon—probably due to the explosion of natural gas—interrupted and discouraged the enterprise. The Christians rejoiced at what seemed a divine prohibition; the Jews marveled and mourned. Then came Julian’s sudden death; state funds were withdrawn; the old restrictive laws were re-enacted and made more severe; and the Jews, again excluded from Jerusalem, returned to their villages, their poverty, and their prayers. Soon thereafter Jerome reported the Jewish population of Palestine as “but a tenth part of their previous multitude.”6 In 425 Theodosius II abolished the Palestinian patriarchate. Greek Christian churches replaced the synagogues and schools; and after a brief outburst in 614, Palestine surrendered its leadership of the Jewish world.

The Jews could hardly be blamed if they hoped to fare better in less Christian lands. Some moved east into Mesopotamia and Persia, and reinvigorated that Babylonian Jewry which had never ceased since the Captivity of 597 B.C. In Persia too the Jews were excluded from state office; but as all Persians except the nobility were likewise excluded, there was less offense in the restriction.7 And there were several persecutions of Jews in Persia. But taxation was less severe, the government was normally co-operative, and the exilarch, or head of the Jewish community, was recognized and honored by the Persian kings. The soil of Iraq was then irrigated and fertile; the Jews there became prosperous farmers as well as clever traders. Some, including famous scholars, grew rich by brewing beer.8 The Jewish communities in Persia multiplied rapidly, for Persian law permitted, and the Jews practiced, polygamy, for reasons that we have seen under Mohammedan law. The good rabbis Rab and Nahman, when traveling, were accustomed to advertise in each city for temporary wives, to give local youth an exemplar of matrimonial, as against a promiscuous, life.9 In Nehardea, Sura, and Pumbeditha schools of higher education rose, whose scholarship and rabbinical decisions were honored throughout the Dispersion.

Meanwhile the dispersion of the Jews continued through all the Mediterranean lands. Some went to join old Jewish communities in Syria and Asia Minor. Some went to Constantinople despite the hostility of Greek emperors and patriarchs. Some turned south from Palestine into Arabia, dwelt in peace and religious freedom with their Arab fellow-Semites, occupied whole regions like Khaibar, almost equaled the Arabs in Yathrib (Medina), made many converts, and prepared the Arab mind for the Judaism of the Koran. Some crossed the Red Sea into Abyssinia, and multiplied so rapidly there that in 315 they were reputed to be half the population.10 Jews controlled half the shipping of Alexandria, and their prosperity in that excitable city fed the flames of religious animosity.

Jewish communities developed in all the North African cities, and in Sicily and Sardinia. In Italy they were numerous; and though occasionally harassed by the Christian population, they were for the most part protected by pagan emperors, Christian emperors, Theodoric, and the Popes. In Spain there had been Jewish settlements before Caesar, and they had developed there without molestation under the pagan Empire; they prospered under the Arian Visigoths, but suffered disheartening persecutions after King Recared (586-601) adopted the Nicene Creed. We hear of no persecution of Jews in Gaul until the severe enactments of the third and fourth Councils of Orléans (538, 541), a generation after the conquest of Arian Visigothic Gaul by the orthodox Christian Clovis. About 560 the Christians of Orléans burned down a synagogue. The Jews petitioned Gunthram, King of the Franks, to rebuild it at public cost, as Theodoric in like case had done. Gunthram refused. “O King glorious for wonderful wisdom!” exclaimed Bishop Gregory of Tours.11

From such tribulations the Jews of the Dispersion always recovered. Patiently they rebuilt their synagogues and their lives; toiled, traded, lent money, prayed and hoped, increased and multiplied. Each settlement was required to maintain at communal expense at least one elementary and one secondary school, both of them usually in the synagogue. Scholars were advised not to live in any town that lacked such schools. The language of worship and instruction was Hebrew; the language of daily speech was Aramaic in the East, Greek in Egypt and Eastern Europe; elsewhere the Jews adopted the language of the surrounding population. The central theme of Jewish education was religion; secular culture was now almost ignored. Dispersed Jewry could maintain itself, in body and soul, only through the Law; and religion was the study and observance of the Law. The faith of their fathers became more precious to the Jews the more it was attacked; and the Talmud and the synagogue were the indispensable support and refuge of an oppressed and bewildered people whose life rested on hope, and their hope on faith in their God.

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