The Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon: A Point of Departure for the Academic Study of the Mishnah

The most important early source for the history of the development of rabbinic literature is the Epistle (Iggeret) of R. Sherira Gaon. What prompted him to write this history? What periods does it cover, and what were his sources? Was he really the “father of the modern critical historical” study of rabbinic literature as many claim, or was he a creative traditionalist narrator defending the authority of the rabbinic tradition?


A street in Kairwan, Tunisia 1899. Library of Congress


The Critical-Historical Study of the Mishnah

The bedrock of rabbinic law is the Mishnah, which was produced in the Galilee around the year 200 CE. It later spawned two Talmuds, the Yerushalmi and Bavli. This corpus established rabbinic Judaism, which informs all denominations of Judaism. Thus, enlisting academic methods for understanding the Mishnah is a crucial task that helps us understand how we got to where we are today.

Currently, the dominant academic mode of Mishnah study could be described as Critical-Historical. When we speak of the critical-historical examination of Jewish texts, including the Mishnah, we usually do so in order to differentiate it from more traditional forms of study. Yet, the term “critical” need not imply a disparaging and fault-finding attitude towards the text. Instead, “critical” means the consciously analytical study of the text often undertaken from some distance, as in the phrase “critical thinking.” “Historical” in this context refers to the attempt to reconstruct the history of how the Mishnah came into being, which forces brought it into being, and what all this means for understanding the Mishnah’s structure, halakhot, and purpose.

Precedents for the Historical-Critical study of the Mishnah

One may have assumed that such historical-critical approaches to the Mishnah were solely the domain of modern academicians and not our earlier sages. However, this assumption would not be entirely correct. Already the amoraim (sages of the second talmudic period, from approximately 220 – 500 CE) were interested in the formation of the Mishnah and the identity of its tannaitic (sages of the first talmudic period, spanning the first two centuries of the Common Era) author or authors.[1]  Nevertheless, the amoraim did not treat these subjects in a comprehensive and organized fashion.

The agenda for the historical-critical study of the Mishnah became more established in the post-Talmudic period of the geonim, who were the heads of the academies in Sura and Pumbeditha from the very end of 6th century/beginning of 7th century through the early 11th century.

The Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon

In 986/7 CE R. Sherira Gaon (b. circa 906 CE-d.1006 CE) wrote the work that presaged the historical-critical study of early rabbinic literature, the Epistle (Letter) of R. Sherira Gaon. This letter was written in response to a request of the Rabbanite community of Kairwan, Tunisia.

The primary objective of the Epistle was to provide a response to challenges in Kairwan from a group of Jews known as the Karaites, who rejected rabbinic authority. The Epistle’s secondary objective was to establish the authority of the Babylonian academies as the inheritors of the most authentic rabbinic traditions. Communities like Kairwan had developed their own centers of rabbinic learning and were less dependent on the Babylonian academies for legal decisions and functionaries, causing them to reduce their financial support of the Babylonian academies accordingly. R. Sherira sought to convince these communities to rethink their position.

These two objectives find expression in the Epistle’s two major sections. The first section that deals with the antiquity and authenticity of the rabbinic literary tradition provides Kairwan Rabbanites with a response to Karaite claims against the authority of practices based on the literary sources of rabbinic Judaism—the Mishna and the Talmuds. The section that provides a chronology of the Sages attempts to show how Babylonian Jewish Sages were central to the development of the traditions followed by rabbinic Jews from antiquity until R. Sherira’a day.

The Kairwan Community’s Questions about the Mishnah

The Epistle’ starting point was a response to the following questions on Mishnah that concerned the Kairwan community:

  • Was the Mishnah an oral or written composition?
  • Was it composed at a single time or in stages?
  • Did it originate with the Men of the Great Assembly[2] or only with the later tannaim, the Sages whose names are mentioned most in the Mishnah?

The community also sought information about:

  •  Why there were disputes in the Mishnah?
  • What were the forces that led to the creation of the Mishnah?
  • What is the logic of the orders of the mishnaic tractates?
  • What is the essential purpose of the Mishnah?

Sherira Gaon’s Reponses

According to the version of the Epistle that is considered most authoritative,[3] R. Sherira told the Kairwan community that Rabbi Judah the Prince organized the Mishna as an oral composition. He also wrote that the Mishnah was not put together at one moment in time. Rather, the traditions – some as old as the earliest period of the Second Temple (sixth century BCE) – were passed down anonymously from generation to generation. Therefore, there was no need to record the names of the Sages in connection with these traditions since they were, with notable exceptions, undisputed.

Disputes developed only at moments of destruction and upheaval during the period of the Second Commonwealth, the worst being the Destruction of the Temple (70 CE), followed by the Bar Kokhba debacle (132-135 CE). At a moment of peace between the Romans and the Jews, R. Judah the Prince compiled the Mishnah in order to prevent the early traditions from being lost.

Regarding the composition of the mishnaic tractates, R. Sherira states that some of the mishnaic tractates existed prior to the Mishnah. However, R. Judah added material to these tractates and ultimately formulated the majority of the tractates with their chapters and individual mishnah units. R. Judah, however, did not arrange the tractates in any particular order. Rather each teacher of the Mishnah chose the tractate he wished to teach first and which he wished to teach later.[4]

Finally, R. Sherira posits that the Mishnah’s primary function is to serve as a code of Jewish law presenting normative halakhah.


Sherira Gaon’s Historical Method

In order to form a picture of how the Mishnah came into existence, R. Sherira collected statements scattered throughout the Talmud, reconstructed a history of the Mishnah, and identified the primary contributors to its development.  R. Sherira’s historical writing, however, is not “history for history’s sake.” Rather, it is directed against the Karaites’ claim that the rabbinic tradition, especially the Mishnah, was a recent human creation without the weight of history or divine authority behind it.

The Antiquity of Rabbinic Tradition

To answer the Karaites’ challenge against the authenticity and antiquity of the rabbinic tradition, R. Sherira cited the following Talmudic passage:

תנו רבנן: שמונים תלמידים היו לו להלל הזקן שלשים מהן ראוים שתשרה עליהן שכינה כמשה רבינו
Our Rabbis taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. Thirty of them deserved that the divine presence shall rest upon them as [upon] Moses our teacher.
שלשים מהן ראוים שתעמוד להן חמה כיהושע בן נון עשרים בינוניים
Thirty of them deserved that the sun shall stand [still] for them as [for] Joshua the son of Nun. Twenty were of an average character.
גדול שבכולן יונתן בן עוזיאל קטן שבכולן רבן יוחנן בן זכאי.
The greatest of them was Jonathan ben Uzziel; the least of them was R. Johanan ben Zakkai.
אמרו עליו על רבן יוחנן בן זכאי שלא הניח מקרא ומשנה גמרא הלכות ואגדות דקדוקי תורה ודקדוקי סופרים וקלין וחמורין וגזרות שוות ותקופות וגמטריאות ומשלות כובסים ומשלות שועלים שיחת שדים ושיחת דקלים ושיחת מלאכי השרת ודבר גדול ודבר קטן
It was said of R. Johanan ben Zakkai that he did not leave (unstudied) the Scriptures, the Mishnah, the Gemara, the Halachoth, the Aggadoth; the subtle points of the Torah and the minutiae of the Scribes; the inferences from minor to major and the [verbal] analogies; astronomy and geometry;  washer’s proverbs and fox fables; the language of the demons, the whisper of the palms, the language of the ministering angels and the great matter and the small matter.
דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה ודבר קטן הויות דאביי ורבא
The “great matter” is the manifestation of the [divine] chariot and the “small matter” is the arguments of Abaye and Raba (b. Baba Batra, 134a)

Sherira derives from this source that at the time of Hillel, before the destruction of the Temple, the rabbinic world already possessed the Written Torah (Scriptures), an existent Mishnah, Talmud, collections of decided law and non-halakhic teachings, and a host of other rabbinic traditions including what would later be called the “questions and answers of Abaye and Rava,” who were fourth generation amoraim. In short, the entire rabbinic tradition existed from ancient times, as proved by the content of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai’s (first century CE) repertoire.

The Evidence that there were no Disputes

Further, R. Sherira claims that there were no halakhic disputes in the original rabbinic tradition. R. Sherira documented this by citing the following passage in Mishnah Hagigah 2:2, which describes a dispute concerning whether the rite of laying one’s hands on the festival offering should take place on the festival itself:

יוסי בן יועזר אומר שלא לסמוך, יוסי בן יוחנן אומר לסמוך. יהושע בן פרחיה אומר שלא לסמוך, נתאי הארבלי אומר לסמוך. יהודה בן טבאי אומר שלא לסמוך, שמעון בן שטח אומר לסמוך. שמעיה אומר לסמוך. אבטליון אומר שלא לסמוך. הלל ומנחם לא נחלקו.
יצא מנחם, נכנס שמאי. שמאי אומר שלא לסמוך, הלל אומר לסמוך. הראשונים היו נשיאים, ושניים להם אבות בית דין
Jose ben Yoezer said not to lay on hands; Jose ben Johanan said to lay on hands. Joshua ben Perahiah said not to lay on hands; Nitai of Arbel said to lay on hands. Judah ben Tabai said not to lay on hands; Shimon ben Shetah said to lay on hands. Shemaiah said to lay on hands; Avtalion said not to lay on hands. Hillel and Menahem did not argue the matter. When Menahem departed, Shammai replaced him. Shammai said not to lay on hands; Hillel said to lay on hands. The first mentioned [in these disputes] were the president of the Sanhedrin; the second the were vice-presidents of the Sanhedrin.

This list of disputants starts with Jose ben Yoezer, whom rabbinic tradition places during the Maccabean period, marking his death around 160 BCE. According to R. Sherira this indicates that there were no earlier disputed laws in rabbinic tradition, and only at the time of Jose ben Yoezer did a dispute develop about this one issue.

Sherira notes that even during the time of Hillel and Shammai only three halakhic matters were subject to debate, as R. Huna taught, “Shammai and Hillel debated three issues” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 14b-15a).

Why Are there Disputes in the Mishnah?

According to the Karaites, the presence of disputes in the Mishnah is a clear sign that this work does not represent the Divine Will. If it did, how could there be debates and contradictions about what God wanted of His people? R. Sherira’s response again took the form of citing a Talmudic passage that on its face was a straightforward historical statement:

תניא אמר רבי יוסי מתחילה לא היו מרבין מחלוקת בישראל אלא בית דין של שבעים ואחד יושבין בלשכת הגזית ושני בתי דינין של עשרים ושלשה אחד יושב על פתח הר הבית ואחד יושב על פתח העזרה ושאר בתי דינין של עשרים ושלשה יושבין בכל עיירות ישראל…
It was taught: R. Jose said: At the outset they (the Courts) did not multiply dispute among Israel. Rather the Supreme Court of Seventy-One convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stones (in the Temple), and two Courts of Twenty-Three convened, one at the entrance to the Temple Mount, and one at the entrance to the Temple’s Courtyard Other Courts of twenty-three sat throughout the cities of Israel….
משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל שלא שמשו כל צרכן רבו מחלוקת בישראל ונעשית תורה כשתי תורות.
When the students of Shammai and Hillel increased,  who did not serve their masters as much as was required, they increased disputes in Israel and the (single) Torah seemed to become two Torahs….(b. Sanhedrin 88b)

According to R. Sherira, the source of halakhic dispute was the failure of the students of Shammai and Hillel to learn their masters’ inherited and undisputed teachings. In addition, the result of the events of the destruction of the Temple created an environment in which the natural and uninterrupted transmission of traditional learning could no longer take place. This is not stated explicitly in the Talmud’s text, rather it is R. Sherira’s reconstruction of the situation based on his understanding of the chronology of the generations of the Sages.

Sherira’s interpretation of this Talmudic statement made it clear that the Oral Tradition that the Karaites attacked was not originally filled with disputes and contradictions. Only new situations to which the principles of the Oral Tradition were applied were subject to debate, and even those debates were settled by the Supreme Court.


Modern Historical Methods in Comparison with R. Sherira Gaon’s Approach

Today, historians test the historical reliability of their data in two ways: by external and internal criticism. External criticism requires historians to determine whether the data they are using to reconstruct history is authentic by comparison to other documents from the same time period. If the data is a document, historians would initially consider it authentic if its language and writing style conforms to the language and writing style of the particular period under study. If, however, the document reports events its hypothetical author could not have known about, the historian would invalidate the document for the reconstruction of history.

Similarly, if the document’s author fails to report a major event about which he should have known, the historian becomes suspicious about the document’s worth as historical evidence. Finally, if the document is contradicted by other contemporaneous documents, the historian must decide which document is most accurate.  And historians are often skeptical of sources that cannot be verified by any outside source.

Further, contemporary historians want to know if a document was an original or a copy of a document reporting an event. If it was a copy, its historical value would decrease if one could detect changes in the copy that was not in the original. If a document is undated and does not include the name of its author, the historian would have to make a judgment about whether hints in the document about its origins are sufficient to grant the document historical value. All this constitutes external criticism.

Internal criticism takes place once a historian considers a source authentic. The fact that data may be authentic does not automatically make it useful for the reconstruction of history. Historians would want to know if the report the data provides is accurate. After all, even an eyewitness can incorrectly interpret an event he has seen. Modern historians would also ask, “Was the person reporting the event competent, honest, and unbiased?”; “How long after an event happened was it recorded?”; and “If there were multiple witnesses to the event, does the witness we are relying on agree with them?”[5]

Relying on the Face Value of the Sages’ Statements

Sherira assumes that the Talmud and other rabbinic literatures contain only authentic data, for if the Sages reported an event, they would have done so accurately. Further, who would suspect the Sages of dishonesty, incompetence, or bias? Even if an event was reported years after it occurred, the principle of the reliability of tradition was sufficient for R. Sherira to consider the report accurate.

The problem with R. Sherira’s approach is that many of his sources were not meant to be historical data but rather hagiographical praise of a Sage’s knowledge or character. It is true that R. Sherira used sources that report historical events. R. Sherira however did not subject these sources to any form of verification. Perhaps he had no further witnesses to the history of the events or rabbinic literature he writes about.[6] This would have left him unable to verify the accuracy of the reports he used. Perhaps, however, he considered the Sages the most reliable witnesses to the history of their own traditions, making any form of verification of their historical statements superfluous. Nevertheless, without outside witnesses to the accuracy of the Talmud’s historical assertions, we cannot be sure whether they present facts or idealized reconstructions of the past.

Internal Criticism: The Description of the Judicial System in Temple Times

One of the best examples of the problems generated by not verifying data using all available sources is R. Jose’s report about how the Jewish judicial system operated in Temple times. R. Sherira cites the Babylonian Talmud, but certainty about the historical usefulness of this report is reduced when we see the Tosefta describe the same court system somewhat differently.

תניא אמר רבי יוסי מתחילה לא היו מרבין מחלוקת בישראל אלא בית דין של שבעים ואחד יושבין בלשכת הגזית ושני בתי דינין של עשרים ושלשה אחד יושב על פתח הר הבית ואחד יושב על פתח העזרה ושאר בתי דינין של עשרים ושלשה יושבין בכל עיירות ישראל…

אמ’ ר’ יוסי כתחלה לא היתה מחלוקת בישראל אלא בית דין של שבעים ואחד היה בלשכת הגזית ושאר בתי דינין של עשרים ושלשה היו בעיירות שבארץ ישראל שני בתי דינין של שלשה שלשה היו בירושלם אחד בהר הבית ואחד בחיל.

It was taught: R. Jose said: At the outset they (the Courts) did not multiply dispute among Israel. Rather the Supreme Court of Seventy-One convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stones (in the Temple), and two Courts of Twenty-Three convened, one at the entrance to the Temple Mount, and one at the entrance to the Temple’s Courtyard….(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b) R Jose said: At the outset there was no argument in Israel. Rather, the Supreme Court of Seventy-One convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stone. Courts of Twenty-Three convened throughout the cities of the Land of Israel. There were two Courts of Twenty- Three located in Jerusalem, one on the Temple Mount and one within the Temple’s ramparts….(Tosefta, Lieberman edition, Hagigah 2:9)

External Criticism:  The Description of the Sanhedrin

Josephus’ historical works and the Gospels present further problems relating to the historicity of this rabbinic data concerning the Sanhedrin or synedrion (the Greek word meaning “a council,” “a meeting”). These sources, which unlike rabbinic literature, are contemporaneous with the events they describe, depict the Sanhedrin and Jewish judiciary in terms completely different from those of R. Jose. Either we have a contradiction of how the Sanhedrin operated, or perhaps the Sanhedrin and synedrion may not even be the same institution.

Where does all this conflicting data leave us? Were there several sanhedrins with different functions, or was the rabbinic description of the Sanhedrin and the judicial system surrounding it an idealized reconstruction of the past? Or does each of these texts have an agenda, and they are all untrustworthy? In short, what history can be done with any certainty when this data?

This example highlights some of the problems with R. Sherira’s historiography when evaluated according to contemporary academic norms. But perhaps a better question is to ask where R. Sherira Gaon’s methodology and writing met the best criteria of historiography in his time?” To that question we may answer “Yes”—his methods are typical of pre-modern historical writing.  Thus, we must not use modern criteria to criticize his historiography, nor should we accept his historical reconstruction as accurately describing the formation of the Mishna.

R. Sherira: A Starting Point for Exploring a Historical Hypotheses

Though R. Sherira may not qualify as a modern historian, the queries raised by the Kairwan community remain questions that modern studies of the Mishnah, Talmud, and other early rabbinic literature still try to answer. Though R. Sherira’s answers may not qualify as acceptable historiography according to today’s standards, it nevertheless remained the starting point for many subsequent scholarly studies of rabbinic literature.

Even into the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, well-known scholars of rabbinic literature like B. M. Lewin, J. N. Epstein, Abraham Weiss, and David Weiss-Halivni considered the Epistle a useful starting point for their historical hypotheses about the formation and history of rabbinic texts. In this respect, he is an early and important pioneer and seminal figure in the field of what was to become the modern critical-historical study of the Mishnah and Talmud.


Seder Tannaim v’Amoraim

The Epistle of R. Sherira is not the only Gaonmic work that describes the development of early rabbinic literature. Seder Tannaim v’Amoraim has some overlapping interests. It is divided into two sections: a chronology of the tannaim, amoraim, and post-amoraic sages called saboraim, including occasional snippets of biographical and other historical information, and a list of rules for determining normative halakhah in cases of dispute. Nothing is known of the work’s author, though Simchah Assaf, a 20th century expert on the gaonic era and its literature, dates it to 884-886 CE on the basis of internal evidence.[7]

Given its contents, Seder Tannaim v’Amoraim appears to be an early example of “Introduction to the Talmud” literature, especially in the section that provides the rules for deciding normative halahkah. Unlike R. Sherira’s Epistle it does not use the Talmud to document the chronology of the Sages it speaks of, but rather it asserts its historical facts, which do not always agree with those of other chronologies. It is likely that like R. Sherira the author of Seder Tannaim v’Amoraim had oral and written chronological sources at his disposal.

Seder Tannaim v’Amoraim does not have the same obvious polemical agendas as R. Sherira’s Epistle. On the surface this should make it a better historical source for the periods of the Mishnah and Talmud, yet the work is barely consulted. This is because it does not really provide history beyond a list of death dates and “reigns” of the Talmudic sages and little information about the development of early rabbinic literature. Therefore, the Epistle emerged as the most important gaonic source for the history of rabbinic literature because R. Sherira created such a a rich narrative of how the Mishnah and Talmud came into existence, and based his reconstruction on selections from the Talmud.



Prof. Rabbi Michael Chernick holds the Deutsch Family Chair in Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate in Rabbinics from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and his semicha from R. Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Chernick’s area of expertise is the Talmud. He focuses on early rabbinic legal interpretation of the Bible and is the author of A Great Voice That Did Not Cease.