TH6317 The Interpretation of the History of Israel

Rabbinic Midrash


Read the Paper Guide on “Editing.”

Edit for structure by April 18.


Major sources


Normally I emphasize primary sources, but for an overview of the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, which continues to this day, a secondary source is the best use of time. It is not easy to jump into reading primary sources of rabbinic literature. Cohen will give an important overview of the historical situation in the early period of Rabbinic Judaism. He doesn’t directly address our course themes, but look for some implicit positions on some persistent course questions:

  1. What is the explanation and response to the destructions (plural) of the temples? The exile and diaspora from Jerusalem by the Babylonians/Romans?
  2. Notice any traces of the Davidic covenant?
  3. What is the most central moment in the history of Israel? How does it continue?

Focus on a few significant terms and concepts:

Further reading:

Lawrence H. Schiffman, “Mishnah: The New Scripture,” In From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Hoboken: Ktav, 1991, pp. 177-200.

Passover Haggadah

Our main interest in the Passover Haggadah will be as a retelling of the story of the exodus from Egypt in contemporary Judaism. Passover is not celebrated in synagogues but in homes around a dinner table. The commandments and instructions in Exodus are certainly fundamental, but interpreted and supplemented with the Talmud and centuries of tradition. There is no one fixed liturgy for the festival. Many contemporary variants foreground the world today as part of the commandment that Jews in every generation should of themselves as the generation brought out of Egypt.

First, read this brief introduction to the Passover Haggadah on (LINK)

Then read through one of the most widely used versions in modern times, the Maxwell House Haggadah (1964 edition). If it seems strange that a liturgical text would be produced by a food company and distributed in grocery stores, note that many of the laws and customs of Passover involve foods that must or may not be eaten. (PDF)

  1. What meanings and emphases come out of the complete celebration that would not be prominent from only reading Exodus?

Supplement: passages with context providing the four questions (HTML)

The Rededication of the Temple

We already read three accounts of Judah Maccabee and the rededication of the temple after it was defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus) The version of the story in the Talmud is remarkably short and almost unrecognizable from the other sources. Recall that the books of Maccabees are not in the Jewish Bible. This is the complete story in the official documents of Rabbinic Judaism:

What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. [What is the reason?] When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was [sufficient oil] there to light [the candelabrum] for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit from it eight days. The next year [the Sages] instituted those days and made them holidays with [recitation of] hallel and thanksgiving. (b. Shabbat 21b)

This brief acknowledgement of the thing being commemorated is no more than an aside in a long discussion of how lights should be kindled, with what kinds of wicks, and where and when the lights should be placed, and what use may be gained from the light produced.

Further reading: