The Rabbis and the Common Folk

The evolving relationship between the rabbinic sages and the Jews on the street.

Print this page Print this page

As Cohen writes, "a limited number of masters teaching a limited number of disciples in a limited number of disciple circles was not the vehicle for mass education" ("The Place of the Rabbi in Jewish Society" in The Galilee in Late Antiquity, ed. Lee Levine).

Rabbi Judah the Patriarch

During the time of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (around the beginning of the third century), rabbinic attitudes towards the common people began to change. Cohen notes that, unlike the earlier Tannaim, the cases that were brought before R. Judah had a much greater focus on general concerns and civil law, and less of a focus on matters of purity. Almost half of the cases deal with marital law, civil law, and kashrut; matters of purity reflect only one-eighth of the whole, and issues of tithes, priestly gifts, and idolatry are entirely absent.

Judah the Patriarch may have been instrumental in presenting rabbis to communities to serve as communal functionaries:

"The people of Simonias came before Rabbi [Judah the Patriarch] and asked, 'Give us one person who can preach, judge, teach, and perform all of our needs.' He sent them Levi b. Sisi" (Yerushalmi Yebamot 12:7, 3a).

Prior to R. Judah, there are no examples of this kind of appointment of rabbis. Considering the unreasonably high expectations of the Simonians, perhaps having a rabbi as a communal functionary was new to them, also; alternatively, they were like any other community in any other period.

The earlier Tannaim were largely rural people of means who sympathized with landholders; the general view of Tannaitic documents is that the rabbis supported themselves. In the time of Judah the Patriarch, the ranks of the rabbis expanded and included the poor. The move of the Patriarch from the village of Bet Shearim to the city of Sepphoris also initiated a transfer of the rabbinic movement to urban centers. These processes-- expanding the ranks of the rabbis and their gradual urbanization-- may have had a significant impact on the nature of the interactions between the rabbis and the common folk.

The Amoraic Period in the Land of Israel

Evidence from talmudic literature indicates that the more urbanized rabbis of the third and fourth centuries in Palestine had a much broader array of interactions with the common folk. The range of legal cases adjudicated by rabbis continued to expand, and stories of regular encounters between rabbis and non-rabbis abound.

Some Palestinian rabbis even encouraged non-rabbis to marry their daughters to rabbis. Entrance into the rabbinic class was fairly open, and many sources refer to rabbis who are from non-rabbinic families or who are converts.

Although most rabbis continued to have independent sources of support, during the third and fourth century, there seems to have been a greater reliance on support from wealthy donors as well as from common folk who would separate a tithe for the sages. Rabbi Abba b. Kahana commented on the verse "You shall tithe your produce" (Deuteronomy 14:22):

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.