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Chapters on Jewish Literature eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 120 pages of information about Chapters on Jewish Literature.

This book was called the Mishnah (from the verb shana, “to repeat” or “to learn").  The Mishnah was not the work of one man or of one age.  So long was it in growing, that its birth dates from long before the destruction of the Temple.  But the men most closely associated with the compilation of the Mishnah were the Tannaim (from the root tana, which has the same meaning as shana).  There were about one hundred and twenty of these Tannaim between the years 70 and 200 C.E., and they may be conveniently arranged in four generations.  From each generation one typical representative will here be selected.

    THE TANNAIM

    First Generation, 70 to 100 C.E. 
    JOCHANAN, the son of Zakkai

    Second Generation, 100 to 130 C.E. 
    AKIBA

    Third Generation, 130 to 160 C.E. 
    MEIR

    Fourth Generation, 160 to 200 C.E. 
    JUDAH THE PRINCE

The Tannaim were the possessors of what was perhaps the greatest principle that dominated a literature until the close of the eighteenth century.  They maintained that literature and life were co-extensive.  It was said of Jochanan, the son of Zakkai, that he never walked a single step without thinking of God.  Learning the Torah, that is, the Law, the authorized Word of God, and its Prophetical and Rabbinical developments, was man’s supreme duty.  “If thou hast learned much Torah, ascribe not any merit to thyself, for therefor wast thou created.”  Man was created to learn; literature was the aim of life.  We have already seen what kind of literature.  Jochanan once said to his five favorite disciples:  “Go forth and consider which is the good way to which a man should cleave.”  He received various answers, but he most approved of this response:  “A good heart is the way.”  Literature is life if it be a heart-literature—­this may be regarded as the final justification of the union effected in the Mishnah between learning and righteousness.

Akiba, who may be taken to represent the second generation of Tannaim, differed in character from Jochanan.  Jochanan had been a member of the peace party in the years 66 to 70; Akiba was a patriot, and took a personal part in the later struggle against Rome, which was organized by the heroic Bar Cochba in the years 131 to 135.  Akiba set his face against frivolity, and pronounced silence a fence about wisdom.  But his disposition was resolute rather than severe.  Of him the most romantic of love stories is told.  He was a herdsman, and fell in love with his master’s daughter, who endured poverty as his devoted wife, and was glorified in her husband’s fame.  But whatever contrast there may have been in the two characters, Akiba, like Jochanan, believed that a literature was worthless unless it expressed itself in the life of the scholar.  He and his school held in low esteem the man who, though learned, led an evil life, but they took as their ideal the man

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