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The Origins of Rabbinic Judaism
An Overview

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © September 15, 2019

Here is the short answer as Moses speaks with HaShem:

Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me.
If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people's elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You.
I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone -- Numbers 11:14-17.

Who fills this role of leadership today for the vast majority of our people? Who has done this work since 410 BCE? The Pharisees/Rabbis. No other modern claimants even existed back then. Judaism is "Rabbinic Judaism."
Rashi, one of the greatest scholars and sages of Israel clarifies:
Assemble for Me: This is a response to [Moses'] complaint, that you said, "Alone I cannot…." Where were the first group of elders? Had they not sat with them [with Moses and Aaron] even in Egypt, as it says, "Go and gather the elders of Israel" (Exodus 3:16) ? But they died in the fire at Tab’erah (verses 1-3). They deserved this already at Sinai, as it is written, "They perceived God" (Exodus 24:11), behaving irreverently, like someone munching his bread while speaking to the king, and this is the meaning of "they ate and drank" (ibid.). However, God did not want to give cause for mourning at the giving of the Torah, so he punished them here. — [Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alothecha 16].

whom you know to be…: [ie] Those whom you know, that they were appointed as officers over them in Egypt [to oversee] the rigorous labor, and they had mercy on them, and were beaten on their account, as it says, "the officers of the children of Israel were beaten" (Exodus 5:14). Now they shall be chosen in their greatness, just as they had suffered in their [Israel's] distress. — [Sifrei Beha'alothecha 1:42: 16].

and you shall take them: Take them with words: "How fortunate you are that you have been appointed leaders over the children of the Omnipresent!" - [Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:16].

and they shall stand there with you: so that the Israelites should see and treat them with esteem and honor, saying,"How beloved are these who have entered with Moses to hear the speech from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed is He. — [Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:16].

Since the very beginning HaShem has anointed elders to guide, judge, and protect His Elect Nation. While the term "rabbi," nor for that matter the term "Judaism," was not used until later, these verses record the establishment of "rabbinic" authority under the teachings of Moses and the Covenant entrusted to his hands. As time passed the Israelites encountered myriad experiences, some good, some not so good. Each of these required the leaders of that generation to use prayerful wisdom to guide the community. Their decisions had to always be harmonious with Torah and applicable to the needs of their generations. Because of this flexibility we continue to exist as a people.

We wont attempt to cover the entire expanse of Jewish history here, but as time progressed this authority was pasted onto the Judges and then to the Kings:

I Samuel 8:1 And it was, when Samuel had grown old, that he appointed his sons judges for Israel....
8:4-7 And all the elders of Israel gathered, and came to Samuel, to Ramah.
And they said to him, "Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now, set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations."
And the thing was displeasing in the eyes of Samuel, when they said, "Give us a king to judge us," and Samuel prayed to the Lord.
And the Lord said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people, according to all that they will say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from reigning over them."
Notice that while this decision to set up a monarchy (under Saul) was not the will of HaShem, He granted the power to decide to the Elders of Israel. The elders hold great responsibly in their hands. This is the arrangement established by HaShem. Then He continued with the people of Israel, using their choices, to eventually bring in Kings David and Solomon and through the line of David the Messiah will eventual arise, may that time be soon and in our generation!

Hence we have:

King Ahaz (II Kings 16:1) – under whose reign Hoshea ruled as the last king of Israel (the northern kingdom).
King Hezekiah (II Kings 18:1) – under whose reign the Assyrian Empire conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom [called Israel] in 722 BCE, leaving only the southern kingdom of Judah.
In brief, the Ten Northern Houses of Israel disappeared from history due to spiritual adultery (II Kings 17:18). The Southern Kingdom of Judah was chosen by HaShem to maintain the eternal Covenant. Eventually similar failings by Judah caused it to fall as well but Judah was never 'divorced' by HaShem, they were merely chastised, "...there was none left but the tribe of Judah only" (II Kings 17:18). "And I saw, because of all that backsliding Israel [ie the northern kingdom] had committed adultery, I sent her away, and I gave her her bill of divorcement, yet treacherous Judah [ie the southern kingdom], her sister, did not fear, and she too went and played the harlot (Jeremiah 3:8). This experience was another culling of the people by HaShem. It demonstrated the importance of loyalty and obedience to His Torah and established that HaShem is sovereign in the affairs of humanity. He builds up or removes governments as He desires (Daniel 4:17). HaShem chose in favor of Judah and secured their continued existence as His Elect (Malachi 3:6). From then on the Covenant and Promise passed only through Judah (and Benjamin).

HaShem will not forget the people of the Ten Houses forever however. Once Messiah is ruling, the Ten Houses will be restored under the authority of Judah (and 'the Lion of the House of Judah') and Israel will again be unified under the rule of Melech HaMashiach ben David (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 3:6-18; Hosea 1-3; Amos 9:8-10; Obadia 15-21; Micah 2:12-13; 5:3-15; Zechariah 8:13; 9 & 10; Ezekiel 34-37) -- Source: My A Time Line of Eretz Israel, from 3761 B.C.E. To 1948

After Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, the age of the divinely inspired Kings ended and the age of the prophets began. They called both kingdoms to teshuvah (repentance) but their warnings went unheeded. Soon the northern kingdom of Israel fell and was "divorced" and the Southern kingdom went into the Babylonian exile. The last anointed member of the school of the Prophets was Navi Malachi (d. 312 BCE). He was a member of the Great Assembly (or Anshei Knesset Hagdolah) during the beginning of the second Jewish commonwealth period (which is dated from the last third of the sixth century BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE).

We now need to back up a bit and briefly consider the events beginning in 332 BCE, when the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great. Due to this historic event Alexander's mighty empire was divided and the Seleucid Kingdom was formed. During this period the Hellenistic philosophy deceived many Jews and produced profound divisions among our people. Those who embraced Hellenism produced the Septuagint while the traditional Jews rejected it in favor of the traditional Masoretic Text. The increasing influence of Greek philosophy and culture on Judaism, especially among the Diaspora Jews, was profoundly negative. Throughout this period of compromise traditional Jews continued to hold to the Traditions of our Fathers. Chief among traditional Jews during this period was Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly.

Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly became the authoritative leaders of the people between 410 and 310 BCE, which was the period between the destruction of the first Temple through the early decades of the Second. It came to an end as the forces of Alexander the Great invaded.

Under the authority of the Great Assembly a group of Jewish elders stepped forward, expanding the Sanhedrin from 70 to 120 members. These leaders focussed on strengthening Judaism and empowering our people in the absence of of kingly and prophetic authority. Among their members were the last of the prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. The Anshei Knesset Hagdolah also included sages like Mordechai (of the Purim story), Yehoshua, (the High Priest), Nehemiah (the chief architect of rebuilding of Jerusalem), and Shimon Ha Tzaddik (another great High Priest).

The main work of these sages was to restore the people's knowledge and emunah in the Written and Oral Traditions dating back to Har Sinai. As it says in the Mishna:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and conveyed to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly ... Shimon Ha Tzaddik was one of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say, "The world stands on three things: on the Torah; on the service of God, and upon acts of loving-kindness..." (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:1)

The Great Assembly established the cannon of the Tanach ("Tanach" is a Hebrew acronym signifying the Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Scriptures): TNK

The other vital accomplishment of the Great Assembly was their emphasis on strengthening prayer. Due to the enslavement and persecution many Jews had forgotten how to commune with HaShem. He seemed distant and unapproachable. The Great Assembly began the development of the process of rote prayer that was finalized during the 2nd century CE by the rabbis as the siddur or prayer book. Prior to this time there was no need for formalized Jewish prayer liturgy because G-d's Presence was more clearly manifest, more present and tangible to the people. Because of the sacrifices performed at the Mishkan and later at the First Temple the methods of communion with Holy One were clear to all.

Following the destruction of the First Temple there was a time of great uncertain. The prophets and the Men of the Great Assembly sought to assist the people in maintaining their Jewishness. When the Second Temple was rebuilt the sacrifices resumed, but most of the Jews had not returned to the land of Israel. These Jews still had no ability to connect with G-d via the Temple system. Even those who had access to the Second Temple found that their connection with HaShem was not as strong as during the earlier periods due to the generally sinfulness of the people. When the Second Temple fell in 70 CE the Pharisees (who came to be known as the Rabbis), the leaders of the people under the authority of the Great Assembly, ruled that established ritualized prayers, performed according to the ancient Temple schedules, would preserve our worship until the Third Temple is rebuilt. The morning prayer is designed to correspond to the Shacharit Service in the Temple; the afternoon prayer corresponds to the Mincha Service; and the evening prayer, Ma'ariv, corresponds to the nightly duties (when no sacrifices were made at night).

The centerpiece of our rote prayers is the Shmonei Esrai ("the Eighteen Blessings"), also known as the Amida ("the Standing prayer"). This Rabbinic prayer, with its blessings, leads religious Jews into proper gratitude and informed supplications three times each day, morning, afternoon and evening.

By 66 CE the Romans had pushed the Jews into open rebellion against the occupation. Through a series of battles, harsh Roman decrees and Jewish resistance Jerusalem and its Temple were finally destroyed in 70 CE. Most of the Hellenized Jews joined one of the growing number of cults or abandoned Judaism all together and embraced the dominant Pagan Greek culture. It fell to the Pharisees to preserve traditional Judaism during those dark times. With the destruction of the Temple the other the existing sects of Judaism ceased to exist, these being mainly the Sadducees, which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, and the Zealots who ceased to exist with the fall of Masada in 73 CE. Only the Pharisees survived these disasters.

Judaism had always been a sacrificial system ruled by sacrifices, which had to performed at the Temple. Without the Temple how could the Jewish worship system survive? This was the challenge the Pharisees faced. These can be categorized as followed:

After the destruction of the Temple a leading Pharisee named Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was appointed the first Nasi (meaning Patriarch, Prince or President) of the Jewish people. Rabbi Yochanan had been smuggled out of the burning Temple in a wooden coffin under pretext that he had died in the fighting and was being taken to the burial site. Once free he became one of the leading architects of what today is termed "Rabbinic Judaism," a term that replaced the title "Pharisaical Judaism," although consisted of the same Jewish authority and principles.

Rabbi Yochanan reestablished the Sanhedrin at Javneh under Pharisee/Rabbinic control. This body established new interpretations and policies to deal with the loss of the Temple (and hence Temple sacrifices) and the rapidly changing conditions faced by Jews worldwide. Had they not done this Judaism would have ceased to exist, The rabbis ruled for instance that instead of giving the Torah established tithes to the priests and making sacrifices and offerings at the Temple, which was impossible in the absence of the Temple, the Jews were to give money to holy charities, study in local shuls and to recite the Tehillim (The Book of Psalms). We continue the essential methods they established to this day and will continue them until the coming of HaMashiach and the realization of the Olam Haba (the World to Come).

With the loss of Jerusalem the survival of Pharisaic or Rabbinic Judaism is generally attributed to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the founder of the Yeshiva (religious school) at Yavne in the Central District of Israel. Rabbinic Judaism was now clearly the sole authority of Judaism and the Covenant upon which it stands. Of course, humans being humans some attempts to displace Rabbinic authority with various replacement theologies was unavoidable.

The first real challenge to Rabbinic authority, other than the initial Roman persecutions, came from the "Way Sect" that arose from the teachings of the Jewish reformer Yeshua ben Miriam. This initially Jewish heresy soon divorced itself from Judaism and in the third century was co-opted by Roman emperor Constantine as the foundation of his Roman Universalism (known as Christianity). We need not concern ourselves with this replacement theology group here.

Several other groups arose, each claiming to be the "true form of Judaism" or proclaiming their leader to be the Messiah. Such groups, like the cult of Simon bar Kokhba, generally arose, made some noise, and then drifted away into the history books.

Among the groups that continue in conflict with the Rabbinate we should briefly consider Karaism. Due mainly to the internet, many people today are looking to Karaism as a replacement to Rabbinic Judaism.

The origins of Karaism are somewhat debated, however we know they did not exist during or before the Great Assembly, nor are there any references to them during the time of Rabbi Yochanan nor during the period of the establishment of "Rabbinic Judaism." It is correct that as the Rabbis were establishing the authority of the Talmud during the first and second centuries CE there was some opposition among our people. It is also true that some Jews charged that the Talmud, which intends to clarify the Torah, actually replaced it with human reasoning. Rabbinic Jews generally reject this idea. Karaism holds this Talmud denying belief, but there is no evidence of a group at that time giving birth to their movement by that name or lineage.

Rabbi Judah Halevi, an 11th-century Rabbinic Jewish philosopher wrote a defense for Judaism entitled Kuzari. In it he places the origins of Karaism in the first and second centuries BCE, during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus ("King Jannai"), king of Judaea from 103 to 76 BCE (Halevi, Judah., "Sefer Ha Kuzari". Retrieved 5 November 2015). This gives evidence of Karaism in the 11th century but not necessarily in the 1st and 2nd as he is not dealing here with Karaism but with their rejection of the Talmud. They were not the first to do so. This is the case with most who write on the subject. A shared belief does not establish the existence of a movement to a set time period. Such references could just as easily be applied to the Essenes and other sects.

Some scholars such as Oesterley and Box suggested that Karaism was formed as a reaction to the rise of Islam (See Oesterley, W. O. E. & Box, G. H. (1920). A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Medieval Judaism, Burt Franklin: New York). They believed, and I concur, that Karaism most likely arose in response to Muslim antisemitism and persecution. By disassociating themselves from Rabbinic Judaism the Karaites hoped to escape persecution. It is known that early Islam recognized Rabbinic Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but charged that it detracted from its belief by deferring to rabbinical authority. By rejecting that authority the Karaites escaped the wrath of the new religious zealots under whose authority they lived.

Based on my studies I believe the origin of Karaism dates to the 9th century CE with Anan ben David (circa 715 – 795 or 811). His followers were initially known as Ananites. This sect rejected the Talmud and Rabbinic authority. Regardless of this view, according to some disputed accounts, Anan ben David was accepted by the rabbis of the Geonim (the Babylonian Jewish colleges). He was appointed exilarch by his followers which called forth accusations of heresy from the Rabbinate, especially when his followers ascribed the Davidic lineage to him. They came close to pronouncing him Messiah but stopped short, at least publicly This claim hinted at their messianic intentions and threatened Rabbinic authority. Many rabbis considered him to be a heretic from early on. The Muslims considered the proclamation of his authority as exilarch to be treason and he was sentenced to death, however he was spared thanks to the intercession of Abu Hanifa, the founder of the madhhab or school of fiqh (i.e. Muslim jurisprudence) known as the Hanafi. He and his followers moved to Jerusalem and continued to spread the Ananite belief system. Now centered in Jerusalem the sect continued to grow and absorbed several other groups and adopted ideas from some of the older groups like Sadducees, seeking to established a nonexistent connection with biblical antiquity.

The sect reached its zenith between 900 and 1100 CE as Karaism became established throughout the Muslim world. At one point it is estimated that nearly 40% of Jews were Karaites. Because they rejected Rabbinic authorities the Muslim authorities often dealt more favorably with them than with the Rabbinic Jews. This lead many Rabbinic Jews to convert to the new religion as a way to avoid persecution while remaining ostensibly Jewish. The Rabbinate not surprisingly condemned Karaism as a replacement theology devoid of biblical authority. Rabbi Saadia Gaon was among the more outspoken Rabbinic authorities He warned his followers about Karaism as avodah zarah (false worship). As the sect continued to grow the Russian Empire also generally gave favor to Karaism over the Rabbinate due their hatred of Rabbinic Jews. During these years Karaism considered itself separate from the Rabbinate and the Rabbinate rejected the Karaites.

Today the vast majority of Jews are Rabbinic and Karaism exists as an unaffiliated largely internet based sect. Are they Jews? This is a difficult question to answer. There are many things to consider. Traditional Judaism is Rabbinic. Under Rabbinic law one is Jewish if one satisfies one of two conditions:

Karaism accepts as Jewish:

If a Karaite is born of an halachichally Jewish mother, even if she is a Karaite, the person is Jewish. But how can we know if the Karaite mother is halachichally Jewish? Was she born of a Jewish mother or a Gentile mother and a Jewish father? If so, the mother is not actually Jewish by Rabbinic standards. Likewise with converts to Karaism. Since Rabbinic courts do not accept as legitimate Karaite courts nor people who simply decide to be Jewish (which some Karaite teachers accept as sufficient), it is very difficult to accept as Jewish one who converts through the Karaite system. The same issues exist for Karaites. Will they accept as Jewish a person born of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father? Will they accept a Rabbinic convert based on their connection with the rabbis? Its complicated on both sides.

My Conclusion:

HaShem knows His own. As a traditional rabbi I see no evidence for the existence of Karaism before the 9th century CE. Rabbinic Judaism can be tranced back directly to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rabbis can not definitively say who has a Jewish neshama (soul) and who does not, and we are not mandated to do so. Our mandate does however dictate that we defend our traditions and our congregations from avodah zarah and deceptive replacement theologies. Therefore while I can not say with complete certainty that Karaites or anyone else "is not Jewish," for purposes of rabbinic authority, I can not accept them as Jewish for religious purposes. The Covenant established with us through Moshe Rabbeinu resides with the Rabbinate. Non-Jews who wish to take part in the Sinai Covenant may convert under rabbinic authority or they may abide with us in peace as Noahidim. I mean no disrespect to the other religions and sects, but we defend our Tradition with the Truth of Torah and Rabbinic rulings.

Resources considered:,,, JewishVirtual Library,, Wikipedia, Pirkei Avot,, Sefer Ha Kuzari, in Exile

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