#112 Jewish History in Six Chapters (3)

This third instalment of David’s overview series of Jewish History explores the years between 500 and 1000 CE, known as the period of the Geonim.

In this talk, David discusses:

· The geonim, including who they were and the significance of their spiritual authority 
· The political leadership of the Reish Galuta
· The great academies of Sura and Pumbedita and their rivalries
· The decrees of Justinian
· The first attempted forced conversions
· Persecutions in Spain
· Wars between Byzantine and Sassanid Empires
· The Himyarite Kingdom
· The rise of Islam
· The conquest of Spain by the Moors in 711
· Umayyad Caliphate in Spain
· The slow shift from Babylonia – in two basic directions
· Nehemiah ben Hushiel
· Anan Ben David and the start of the Karaite movement
· The Khazars
· Charlemagne & Louis the Pious
· Amram Gaon and the beginnings of the siddur
· Hiwi of Balkh
· The decline and revival of Sura
· Saadya Gaon – the ultimate Gaon
· Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon – the close of the Geonic period and the decline of Babylonian Jewry
· Chisdai Ibn Shaprut and Shmuel HaNagid – symbols of the Golden Age of Spain
· The rise of Hebrew grammar
· Rabbeinu Gershom – the father of Ashkenazi Jewry.

He explains how this period in Jewish History sees the laying of the foundations for modern Jewish life and the gradual shift in the centre of Jewish life from Babylonia to Europe. He also examines the geo-political context of this period and the influence of broader historical developments.

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#111 Jewish History in Six Chapters (2)

This Jewish History lecture is the second talk from David Solomon’s six-part overview series. The lecture examines the first five hundred years of the common era (0 to the year 500 or 3760 to 4260 in the traditional Hebraic calendar), known in Jewish History as The Talmudic Period.

This period covers the destruction of the Temple by the Romans; the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt which destroyed any serious hope of independent Jewish Statehood; the transition to Babylonia as the centre of the Jewish world; and the formation of the Talmud – the most influential Jewish document after the Bible.

The Talmudic Period is divisible into two distinct sub-periods:

  • The Tannaitic, and
  • The Amoraic.

In exploring the Tannaitic Period, David discusses the history of the first century, leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple, as well as:

  • The census revolt
  • The founding of Tiberias
  • Helena of Ediebene
  • Greek-speaking Jewish tensions
  • Caligula’s idol and the delegation of Philo of Alexandria
  • The Great Revolt of 66CE
  • Zealots, sicarii, and others
  • The Kohanim and the Idumeans
  • The arrival of Vespasian and Titus
  • Agrippa II and Berenice
  • Tiberias Julius Alexander (nephew of Philo of Alexandria)
  • The establishment of Yavneh
  • The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple
  • The last stand at Masada
  • The influence of Yavneh and the rise of Rabbi Akiva
  • The second Jewish revolt
  • The third revolt led by Bar Kochba and supported by the elderly sage Rabbi Akiva, ending in the tragedy at Beitar
  • The renaissance of the rabbis
  • The students of Rabbi Akiva
  • The end of the Tannaitic Period with the compilation and editing of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi.

David then explores the Amoraic Period beginning with the career of Abba Arikha (Rav) and the transition of the centrality of Jewish life to Babylonia, which included:

  • The academy of the Sidra
  • The establishment of the Mishna as the central curriculum of study
  • Sura, Nahardea, and Pumbedita.

David discusses the creation of the Gemara, an analytic exploration of the Mishna, and:

  • The importance of the Braitta and the Tosefta
  • The Palestinian Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi)
  • Rav Ashi, Ravina, and the sealing of the Babylonian Talmud.

He also examines anti-Jewish persecutions in Babylonia at the end of the Talmudic Period and the independent state of Mehoza.

As always, David puts these elements of Jewish History into a broader framework of world history, looking at:

  • The rise of Christianity
  • The division of Rome
  • The adoption of Christianity by Constantine
  • Julian the Apostate
  • The fall of Western Rome and the rise of Byzantium
  • The Persian Empire
  • Zoroastrian religion
  • Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and other major ideas.

This is an edited lecture of a live talk given in 2020 for Chabad South Africa and Daminyan Shule in Melbourne. It is the second part of David’s six-part overview series of Jewish History.

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#95 Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud (2)

Part two of David’s Zoom series, Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud, mixes Jewish history with textual learning and fascinating storytelling.

The talk continues the story begun in the previous episode regarding Rav Kahana, a third-century sage who fled Babylonian authorities to find refuge in the Land of Israel following a violent confrontation in a rabbinical court.

In this lecture, David describes the next chapter for Rav Kahana following his arrival at the prestigious yeshiva of Tiberius. Through a series of unfortunate actions and misunderstandings, Rav Kahana finds himself once again at the centre of dramatic events involving pride, regret, and death.

As David unravels this extraordinary story, he explores:

  • key Talmudic figures and their contribution to Jewish life, history, learning, and continuity
  • the relationships and tensions between some of the great Jewish figures and academies of the time
  • the political and hierarchical structures of these rabbinical academies
  • the power of the sages and consequences of unsettling them
  • how concepts of right and wrong do not always resonate through centuries
  • the unexpectedly mystical nature of elements of the Talmud.

This lecture places in context the historical situation of the Jewish communities in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. It also reminds us of the importance of Torah scholarship in relation to the shape and influence of different parts of the Jewish world.

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#94 Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud (1)

In this Zoom lecture series, David explores several fascinating episodes described in the Talmud.

This first lecture in the series discusses an unusual Talmudic incident involving disloyalty, self-righteousness, contempt, justice, death, restitution, escape, and consequences.

As with many stories from the Talmud, this incident is set during a time known as the Amoraic period – between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE – when the centre of Jewish life was based in Babylonia. It concerns an investigation of a concept in halacha, Jewish law, known as mesirah – an action in which a Jewish person hands over another Jewish person or their property to a non-Jewish authority.

In the story, a rabbinical court (beth din) summons a man poised to inform on his neighbour to the Babylonian government. This man’s disdain for the authority of the beth din results in unexpected and grave consequences.

David examines the details and text of this remarkable event as well as the context and significance of the Talmudic figures involved. He also:

  • explains the relevance of the legal issue in its historical context
  • draws parallels between these historical incidents and recent issues of Jewish law
  • explores variations in definitions of right and wrong, justice and injustice 
  • describes and contextualises the figures described in the passage
  • reminds us of the details and relevance of the historical setting in which the incident is set.

The Talmudic passage discussed in this lecture can be found towards the end of Tractate Bava Kamma, page 117a.

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#36 Chazal in the Age of Empires: An Overview of the Talmudic Period (part 3)

The period of the 3rd to 5th centuries (CE) saw a different type of world emerging from one that had, for centuries, been controlled by two empires: Rome and Parthia. In this podcast episode, David explores the new Jewish reality and the revolutionary innovations that resulted. In particular, he examines the extraordinary project of the Talmud, its remarkable later contributors, and allows us to understand the significance of these developments within the context of Jewish and world history.

Rabbi Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy. From Diaspora Museum, Tel Avi. Image used under Creative Commons licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

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#31 The Geonic Period: Jewish History of the 6th to 10th Centuries (part 1)

During the 6th and 7th centuries, Jewish populations were centred in territories ruled by the Sassanian, Byzantine and the Western Roman empires. In this podcast episode, David Solomon examines how Jewish life unfolded during these two centuries. He explores the changing fortunes of the renowned Jewish academies of Sura and Pumbedita; the role and status of the Jewish exilarch over generations; the brief existence of a semi-independent Jewish State in Jerusalem; and the rise and fall of Jewish communal safety throughout the generations.

Image: Reproduction of the Madaba Map, a 6th century AD floor mosaic in the early Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba containing the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Creative Commons (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/carolemage/15010441404).

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