ABSTRACT: Polemics between Sages and Priests Towards the End of the Days of the Second Temple

Moreshet Israel, 8 (2011), pp. 37-53  Meir Bar-Ilan


The aim of this paper is to analyze some 50 Halachot in the Tannaitic literature that all have the same formulaic phrasing: “all + verb in plural (sometimes including the dative)”. For example, “Everyone is obliged to blow the Shofar”, “Everybody is fit to slaughter”, and so on. The discussion comes in four stages.

In the first stage a literary theory is analyzed according to which the meaning of the use of formulaic phrasing is that the interpretation of one clear Halacha should be taken as a standard rule for interpreting other, more obscure Halachot. The discussion of the Halachot of the Tannaim includes the higher criticism of the text and offers an explanation of how the text was at times corrupted due to its being orally transmitted.

In the second stage a social theory is analyzed, according to which the social stratification that is reflected in the Halachot of the Tannaim was: Priests, Levites, Israelites, proselytes, freed slaves, and so on. The Tannaim were of the opinion that their social structure originated with those who came from Babylon (in the 5th century BCE). By using the phrase “everyone”, the Tannaim intended to blur the existent social stratification by decreeing equal religious obligations on “the whole community”, high ranked priests and illegal bastards alike.

In the third stage a social-halachic theory is presented according to which the Halachot intended for “everyone” were polemic: anti-priestly ideas, since the sages nibbled away at the privileges that the priests had taken for themselves. These privileges had been given to the priests either explicitly in the Torah or by an unwritten tradition. The rules of the Tannaim exemplified a kind of “democracy” and “reform” (with a reservation concerning the anachronism).

At the end a halachic-historical theory is offered according to which the Halachot for the “whole community” are, essentially, the great enterprise of the Tannaim, since none of these Halachot are compatible either with the Biblical text or with the sectarian Halachot. These Halachot, that in a few cases are given at the beginning of a tractate of Mishna, should be considered as an initiative principle according to which many rabbinic Halachot have been made.