Traditional temple

Five Hundred Years of Post-Temple Jewish Community Life in Palestine

Political scientist Shlomo Avineri argue that the resilience of the democratic tradition in modern Israel stems from centuries of communal self-reliance experienced by Diaspora Jews. He writes that due to the absence of a state and sovereignty, communities were ruled by their own members. I think it is important to add that this description also applies to the centuries of communal autonomy post-Temple of the Jews in the Holy Land.

Although Passover is over this year, it is still worth pointing out that the Passover Haggadah is a time capsule that describes the beginning of a long period of Jewish autonomy in Palestine. The clues lie in the identity of the nine sages mentioned in the Haggadah.

Five of them, rabbis Tarfon, Elazar ben Azariah, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Yehoshua ben Hananiah and Akiva, spend a night together at Akiva’s house discussing the departure from Egypt. Additional sages mentioned in the Haggadah are: Shimon ben Zoma (died before being ordained), Rabbi Yehudah (Yehudah bar Ilai, which provides an acronym for the ten plagues), Rabbi Yose the Galilean, and Rabban Gamliel. Gamliel is credited with saying that anyone who does not explain the three symbols of the Seder—the Passover offering, matzah, and bitter herbs—has failed in his duty. This Gamliel, Gamliel II, is the second of six Gamliel who were prominent Jewish leaders in Judea/Palestine from the first to the fifth century CE. The honorary Rabban was awarded to those who served at the head of the Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin (from the Greek synhedron, for assembly) was a Jewish legislative and judicial court that existed during the Second Temple period. While the existence of the Sanhedrin came to an end after the destruction of the Temple, a Sanhedrin (also called Patriarchate), headed by rabbinical sages and having some political and judicial relevance, was reconstituted in Yavne and places in Galilee. This tribunal deliberated on matters of Jewish law, established the Jewish calendar, and was the central body of authority for Jewish life. He was in charge of communicating with the imperial authorities. At the end of the first century CE, for example, four of the mentioned sages – Gamliel II, Akiva, Elazar ben Azariah and Yehoshua ben Hananiah – traveled to Rome to lobby on behalf of the Jews of Palestine.

Gamliel II and Elazar ben Azariah served terms as President (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin. Elazar ben Azariah assumed the post after Gamliel II was deposed by the Sanhedrin, for what was considered imperious behavior. Gamliel was later reinstated. (Not unlike contemporary politics!)

The nine sages were contemporary. They were nine of the 120 Tannaim whose views are widely recorded in Mishnaic writings of the first and second centuries CE. The date of the meeting of the five sages described in the Haggadah must fall between the first two (of four) Jewish revolts against Roman rule in Palestine. (A fifth major uprising, of Diaspora Jews against the Romans, the War of Kitos, broke out in the years 115-117 CE in Egypt, Cyprus and Cyrenaica.)

The first Jewish revolt took place from 66 to 73 CE and ended with the fall of Masada. The details are well known from the writings of Josephus. It is common to describe the dispersion of the Jews and the 2000 years of wandering that followed until the failure of this revolt. Still, significant numbers of Jews remained and thrived in the land for at least 600 years after the fall of Masada. Estimates suggest that after this first revolt, the Jewish population of Palestine was two to two and a half million, about half of the world total. Ironically, the same war that led to the destruction of the Temple and the end of Temple worship also contributed to the ascendancy of Rabbinic Judaism and the writing of the Talmud and Midrash.

Ironically, the same war that led to the destruction of the Temple and the end of Temple worship also contributed to the ascendancy of Rabbinic Judaism and the writing of the Talmud and Midrash.

The second rebellion against the Romans, the Bar Kochva Revolt, began in 132 CE and ended with the fall of Betar Fortress in 136 CE. Until the discovery in 1960 of the correspondence between Bar Kochva and his subordinates, the main source of information on this conflict was provided by the Roman historian Cassius Dio. A significant number of Jews continued to live in Palestine (the name given by the Romans after the Bar Kochva rebellion) for a considerable time thereafter. The reconstituted Sanhedrin was not discontinued until 358 CE (its last function helped establish the Jewish calendar), and the Romans recognized a Jewish patriarch in Palestine until 425 CE.

The intensity of post-Temple Jewish life in the Holy Land, particularly in the Galilee, is evident from the number of archaeological sites and ruins of synagogues brought to light at sites such as Bar-am, Beit She’arim , Beit Alpha and Tzippori (the Roman Sepphoris Church). In “Twenty Centuries of Jewish Life in the Holy Land”, published in 1975 by the Israel Economist and edited by Dan Bahat, the remains of at least 80 synagogues, dating from the first to the sixth century AD, are mentioned. While many are concentrated in the Galilee, remains of synagogues from this period have been found throughout the Holy Land, including east of the Jordan River.

There were two additional uprisings by Jews in Palestine against Roman rule. In either case, the rebels attempted to take advantage of Roman preoccupation with unrest elsewhere. The Gallus Revolt, directed against Constantine Gallus, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), took place from 351 to 352 CE. The focal points were at Tzippori and Tiberius, but there is evidence that it extended as far south as Lod (Lydda). The chief Roman commander, Ursicinus, suppressed the revolt, killing thousands of rebels.

The last Jewish effort to gain autonomy in Palestine before modern times, the revolt against Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, broke out in 614 CE amid a wider conflict between Heraclius and the Sassanids ( Persians). Twenty thousand to 26,000 Jewish men, recruited from a Jewish population estimated at between 150,000 and 400,000, fought in this campaign. There were heavy casualties on both sides. Initial Jewish successes, including a Jewish takeover of Jerusalem, were shattered in 617 CE when the Sassanids reneged on their support for the Jews.

Each of the four revolts failed, and each loss resulted in a further reduction in the number of Jews living in the Holy Land. After the revolt against Heraclius, the Jews of Palestine no longer occupy a central position in the Jewish world.

The origins of the Passover Haggadah are uncertain, but most of the version widely used today is thought to have been compiled during the late Talmudic period (500-600 CE). The Haggadah reminds us that communal autonomy characterized the Jewish community of Palestine for more than half a millennium after the destruction of the Second Temple – an important point at a time when the historical connection between the Land of Israel and the people Jewish is widely denied.


Jacob SivakFellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired Professor of the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences at the University of Waterloo.