Manifestations Of Tanaitic Opposition To Christianity

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Collected by: Menachem Grossman

Manifestations of Tanaitic Opposition to Christianity

Every year, Jews who use the traditional Haggadah at their seder come across the following story:

It happened that Rabbi Eliezer [ben Hyrqanos] and Rabbi Yehoshua [ben Khanania] and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining [at the seder] in Bnei Brak, and were discussing the exodus from Egypt during the course of that entire night; until their students came to them and said: Our teachers, the time has come to say the morning Shma prayer [kriat shma shel shakharit].[1]

A similar gathering occurred in the city of Lod:

It happened that Rabban Gamliel and [other] sages were reclining [at the seder] in the house of Baithos ben Zonin, in Lod, and were occupied with the laws of Passover all night, until the cocks crow.[2]

At this seder, Rabban Gamliel undoubtedly reiterated the words quoted in the Haggaddah:

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Whoever does not make mention of these three things on Passover does not discharge his duty, and these are they: the Passover sacrificial lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. The Passover offering is [sacrificed] because the Omnipresent passed over the houses of our fathers in Egypt, as it is said, then ye shall say: it is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for that he passed over the houses of the Israelites. The unleavened bread is [eaten] because our fathers were redeemed from Egypt, as it is said, and they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt. The bitter herb is [eaten] because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers in Egypt, as it is said, and they made their lives bitter. [3]

Given that the Bnei Brak seder occurred when Rabbi Akiva was already a recognized leader, the gathering took place some time between 100 and 138 C.E. The parallel seder in Lod belongs to the same period, and may have even occurred in the same year.[4]

Five intriguing questions arise:

1. What led five prominent tanaim to converge for the seder in Bnei Brak, rather than celebrating Passover in their own communities? Rabbi Eliezers presence, in particular, is surprising, as he had been on record as opposing the absence of husbands/fathers from their families on holidays.[5]

2. Assuming that a matter of great importance mandated such a meeting, why did it take place specifically on Passover?

3. Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer were Rabbi Akivas teachers. Why did they travel to Bnei Brak, rather than convening the meeting in their own yeshivot and inviting Rabbi Akiva there?

4. Why were the Rabbis students also in Bnei Brak?

5. Why was Rabban Gamliel absent from the Bnei Brak meeting?

To reach answers to these questions, it is necessary to explore the historic circumstances under which the Bnei Brak and Lod gatherings took place, and to understand the personalities and positions of the six rabbis mentioned in the passages quoted above.

The six rabbis were tanaim (scholars) of the second and third generations of the Mishnaic period.[6] Although the exact dates when these specific tanaim lived are not known, they were active during the years 70-138. This period was characterized by two threats to Jews and Judaism: conquest and domination by Rome, which had led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and the rise of Christianity. As spiritual leaders and prominent members of their communities, the tanaim often found themselves battling on both fronts.[7] The details and complexities of their relationship with the Roman authorities, including trips to Rome by some of these tanaim, attempts to revoke Roman edicts which opposed religion (as subversive to Roman culture and deification of the Emperors), and actions within the Jewish community to minimize Roman cultural influence[8], , are beyond the purview of the present paper. However, their battle against the propagation of Christian ideas has a direct bearing on the questions raised earlier.

The Minim Early Christians

Jews who adopted various forms of Christianity were known as minim. There were four types of minim during the Mishnaic period:[9]

i. Evyonim, type 1. Their daily routines completely resembled those of other Jews, but they believed in Jesus as a prophet and messiah. They did not attribute divinity to Jesus, nor did they claim that he had been born of a virgin. In their view, he was the son of John and Mary, and had attained greatness due to personal powers. These evyonim rejected Paul and his epistles, and therefore also opposed his abolition of Torah commandments.

ii. Evyonim, type 2. They were similar to type 1, with the addition that they believed that Mary was a virgin.

iii. Notzrim (Nazarenes). Like the evyonim, the notzrim continued to fulfill the Torahs commandments, but they believed that Jesuss parents were a virgin and the Holy Spirit, and that he was therefore the son of God. Because, contending that they were different, they did not attempt to mingle with mainstream Jews, they did not constitute a major threat to Judaism.

iv. Judaeo-Christians, also known as gnostics. This group was considered the most dangerous, because despite their difference, they insisted that they were an inseparable part of the Jewish people.

Tanaitic Opposition to the Minim

A central tenet of early Christianity was that the covenant (brit) between God and his Chosen People had been abrogated, and, instead, God had now chosen Jesus and his followers. According to believers, the proof of this contention was the destruction of the Second Temple.

A certain min once said to Rabban Gamliel: You are a people with whom its God has performed khalitza[10], for it is said in Scripture with their flocks and with their herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they shall not find him; He hath drawn off [the shoe] from them.[11]

Jewish sages, of course, vehemently opposed this idea. They viewed the Temples destruction as a tragedy, for which God had His reasons, but not as removal of His favor.

And I will hide My face in that day. Raba said: Although I hide My face from them, I shall speak to them in a dream. Rabbi Joseph: said: His hand is stretched over us, as it is said: And I have covered thee in the shadow of My hand.. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Khanania was [once] at the court of Caesar. A certain unbeliever showed him [by gestures]: A people whose Lord has turned His face from them. He showed him [in reply]: His hand is stretched over us. Said Caesar to Rabbi Yehoshua: What did he show thee? [Rabbi Yehoshua answered:] A people whose Lord has turned His face from them. And I showed him: His hand is stretched over us.[12]

Rabban Gamliel of Yavne

Rabban Gamliel was a most remarkable leader, serving for several decades following the destruction of the second Temple.[13] When Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai successfully beseeched the Romans to permit Jewish scholars to re-establish themselves in Yavne, the scholars to which he referred were those of Rabban Gamliel.[14] His major goal was to preserve national unity, by making Yavne the national spiritual center and insisting on the primacy of the halakhic authority of the Sanhedrin that he headed there, codifying halakhot (usually according to views of Beit Hillel), establishing uniform prayers, and traveling extensively to communities throughout the country.[15] Although, by all accounts, Rabban Gamliel was thorough and tactful in his efforts, his insistence on his central authority inevitably led to conflict. A dispute with Rabbi Yehoshua resulted in Rabban Gamliels removal from presidency of the Sanhedrin and replacement by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria. After Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua reconciled, an arrangement was reached, whereby Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Elazar alternated as heads of the yeshiva in Yavne, with the former preaching two weeks out of three and the latter preaching one.[16]

To emphasize (and daily remind Jews of) the dangers of minim, Rabban Gamliel and his colleagues added birkat haminim (prayer against heretics) to the shmone esrai prayer.[17]

And for slanderers let there be no hope, and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily. May You speedily uproot, smash, cast down and humble the wanton sinners speedily in our days. Blessed are you Hashem, who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.[18]

His insistence that the reasons for the central features of the seder be spoken aloud was also connected to the fight against Christianity. This is described by Professor Herskovics: [19]

This was Rabban Gamliel of Yavne, whose responsibilities included preserving the unity of Israel, in all senses of the word, and to know who belong to the camp of the Jews and Judaism and who are numbered among the enemy. And as is known the first of those who hated us were the minim, the Jewish Christians, whom, at first, it was difficult to define, because they often vacillated [in their practices]. The common denominator [of the minim] was that they believed that Jesus is the Messiah and, simultaneously, claimed that they were the real Jews; thus, it was not without provocation that, during the time of Rabban Gamliel of Yavne, the birkat haminim was instituted. And whoever reads the New Testament will quickly understand the defensive war led by Rabban Gamliel, the President of Israel. The New Testament [20] describes the Last Supper of that man and his emissaries/apostles, which occurred on seder night, with the following details: When they ate, he took bread ( = matza, according to the sources[21]), blessed it, gave it to his apostles and said: take it, eat it, it is my body. And he took the grail, informed them, and gave it to them, saying: all of you should drink this wine, which is my blood from the new testament, which will be spilled for the sake of many, for atonement for their sins. And according to John, he said: This is the lamb of God.[22]

It is clear that this seder became sanctified in the eyes of believers, and every year they too organized their own seders, eating matza, drinking wine, and eating the flesh of the Pesakh sacrifice these seders taking place even before the destruction of the Temple.[23] But their intention [in having these Seders] was as far from ours as east is from west! They did everything to commemorate him his flesh, his blood, and his self-sacrifice, but we sanctify that night according to what is written and has been handed down in the Torah of Moses.

And after all the above, we are not surprised to read the marvelous declaration of the President of Israel, who regularly said, every single year and at every desirable opportunity, in his war against the new sect, that any Jews who do not emphasize, in their homes, to those at their table or to pupils, the real reason for eating the Pesakh sacrifice, matza, and bitter herbs (the herbs surely being interpreted by the Christians as commemorating Jesuss suffering and crucifixion), have not fulfilled their obligation to their pure faith, which was being threatened by those who distorted it, under the guise of being true believers. For outwardly, it was still difficult to differentiate between them and traditional Jews. and it was easy for them to mislead the mass of simple people. Therefore, it is possible that Rabban Gamliel was not actually speaking simply about fulfillment of the commandments concerning the Pesakh sacrifice, matza and bitter herbs, but rather, his intention was that whoever does not speak out and explain the reasons for these practices has not fulfilled his obligation, the obligation of a Jew at a perilous time [when the faith is threatened]. (emphases in original.)

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrqanos

A tana of the second generation and brother-in-law of Rabban Gamliel, he was considered the greatest of the students of Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai.[24] Rabbi Yokhanan compared his memory to a hermetically sealed cistern which does not lose a single drop, and opined that he was greater that all of Israels other sages combined.[25] He not only remembered all he had been taught, but steadfastly adhered to it, remarking: and I never said anything that I had not heard from my rabbi.[26]

Unfortunately, he was apparently very unbending in his views. The Talmud tells the tragic story of his dispute with his colleagues in Lod over an issue known as Akhnais stove. Rabbi Eliezer held the minority opinion, but, believing himself correct (and buttressed by a series of miracles which implied divine support of his position), he refused to bow to the majority. His colleagues, fearful that national disunity would result, made the agonizing decision to ostracize him. The painful task of informing him fell to Rabbi Akiva[27].

It is possible that his rigidity was related to his fear that Christian dogmas would infiltrate Judaism. One doctrine was original sin, the idea that all of mankind is tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve (eating of the Tree of Knowledge), and that salvation could come only through belief in Jesus.[28] Rabbi Eliezer insisted that one is punished only for ones own sins, and that penitence is always possible.[29] He also gave several halakhic opinions which emphasized the centrality of the Land of Israel and the bond between the People of Israel and God.[30]

Rabbi Yehoshua (ben Khanania)

A second-generation tana, and pupil of Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai, and, together with Rabbi Eliezer, smuggled Rabbi Yokhanan out of Jerusalem just before the Temples destruction[31]. One of Rabbi Akivas teachers.[32] He participated in, and won, public debates with minim, often in the presence of Roman emperors.[33]

He was very protective of the primacy of Jewish law and its sages, and warned against introducing laws that are too stringent[34]. This stemmed from his opposition to any changes in halakha, an opposition which by definition included Christian innovations.[35]

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria

A member of the third generation of tanaim, he served with Rabban Gamliel as co-head of the yeshiva and Sanhedrin in Yavne (see above). He was famous both for the breadth of his knowledge [36]and the charm and elegance of his sermons[37].

Professor Herskovics points out:[38]

The most severe response of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria to the tricks of the new Christians is clear in the following statement: And this also said Rabbi Shesheth in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria: To disregard the Appointed Seasons is like practising idolatry, because it is written, Thou shalt make thee no molten gods, and next to it [is the ordinance of the Festivals] The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep, etc. [39]

Idolatry is punishable by death. Rabbi Elazar invoked it because one aspect of the Christianity of his time was revocation of Jewish festivals (Appointed Seasons).

Rabbi Tarfon

Rabbi Tarfon was a tana of the second generation, and was alive before the destruction of the Temple (he served as a kohen in the Temple).[40] Spiritual leader of the Lod community, he was a gifted teacher who advocated Socratic methods and any ways of stimulating pupils to develop their minds.[41] Although Rabbi Akiva was his pupil, he was one of Rabbi Akivas greatest admirers[42].

The period in which Rabbi Tarfon lived and worked was fraught with dangers and it was not for nothing that Rabbi Tarfon said: I will risk my children; if I encounter scrolls and books of the Sadduccees [or other heretics], I will burn them and all of their allusions, because even if a man is being chased by a murderer or a snake who wishes to bite him, he may enter a house of idolatry, but he may not enter their [minims] houses, because they are acquainted with the truth yet deny it[43]. The minim were acquainted with the Jewish doctrine of monotheism, but insert other elements into it. If the minim are Gnostics, they espouse dualism, and if they are Christians, they believe in Jesus the Son, thus negating the most basic tenet of Judaism.[44]

Rabbi Akiva (ben Yosef)

A brilliant scholar, Rabbi Akiva (third generation) was considered the greatest of the tanaim. Among his teachers were Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tarfon.[45] His public and blatant opposition to Roman edicts forbidding Torah learning and Jewish practices (for which he was jailed, tortured and executed) was legendary.[46]

Not surprisingly, he also fought vigorously against the minim. He opposed all ideas which implied that God might have a material aspect (substance)[47] and objected to the notion of original sin[48]. He emphasized that, despite the destruction of the Temple, the Jews remained beloved of God and tied to him by covenant.

Beloved are Israel in that they were called children of the All-present. [It was a mark of] superabundant love [that] it was made known to them that they were called children of the All-present, as it is said: Ye are children of the Lord your God. [49]

Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Akivas student, added that this love applies even when Gods children have sinned.[50] Like his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva insisted on the inviolability of the chain of Jewish tradition and opposed innovation by those outside this chain[51].

A humane and kind-hearted person, Rabbi Akiva took an interesting stance regarding survival under extreme circumstances.

Now how does Rabbi Yokhanan interpret,that thy brother may live with thee? He utilises it for that which was taught: If two are travelling on a journey [far from civilisation], and one has a pitcher of water, if both drink, they will [both] die, but if one only drinks, he can reach civilization. The son of Patura taught: It is better that both should drink and die, rather than that one should behold his companion's death. Until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: that thy brother may live with thee: -- thy life takes precedence over his life.[52]

Professor Herskovics opines that this was in reaction, and in stark contrast, to sentimentalist Christian doctrine endorsing life-threatening ideas such as turning the other cheek and loving ones enemies.[53] Similarly, despite Rabbi Akivas high regard for womens rights and his own devotion to his wife marriage, he favored divorce even for minor reasons such as a wifes ceasing to be attractive to her husband.[54] This too may have partially been a reaction to the early Christian position that marriages cannot be dissolved.


On page 2 of this paper, questions were raised. What led five prominent tanaim, and their students, to converge for the seder in Bnei Brak, rather than celebrating Passover in their own communities? Why did it take place specifically on Passover? Why was Rabban Gamliel absent from the Bnei Brak meeting? Answers can now be deduced.

In all likelihood, the gathering had two purposes: restoring peace between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, and discussing ways of combating the doctrines propagated by minim. The scholares converged in Bnei Brak because Rabbi Akiva was the leader of this battle[55]. Rabbi Eliezers presence signaled the gravity and importance of the occasion.[56] It was specifically planned for Passover, to emphasize traditional ritual, in contrast to seders conducted by minim, which reflected the events of the Last Supper.[57]

Rabban Gamliel may have believed that the Romans were spying on him on a regular basis. To deflect suspicion about the importance of the Bnei Brak gathering, he did well to absent himself. He was also surely confident that he would be well-represented by his brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer.[58]


Herskovics, M. (1978). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut [Tanaim who fought Christianity]. Or Hamizrach 26 (2-3), pp. 229-245.

Herskovics, M. (1979a). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 28 (1), pp. 62-78.

Herskovics, M. (1979b). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 28 (2), pp. 193-205.

Herskovics, M. (1980). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 28 (3), pp. 332-349.

Herskovics, M. (1981). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 29 (3-4), pp. 404-413.

Herskovics, M. (1981). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 30 (1), pp. 72-86.

[1] The passages origin is in the Braita Vayikra.

[2] Tosefta Pesakhim, 10. 

[3] Talmud Bavli Pesakhim 116b.

[4] Herskovics, M. (1977). Hakeness bivnei brak [The gathering in Bnei Brak]. Or Hamizrach 26(1), pp. 71-91.

[5] Talmud Bavli Succah 27b.

[6] Margaliot, M. (Ed.) (no date given). Encyclopedia LeKhakhmei Hatalmud Vehageonim. Tel Aviv: Tchechik

There were five generations of tanaim (with some degree of overlap, of course), as follows: First generation (approximately 40-80 C.E. ) Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai and contemporaries; Second generation (approximately 80-110 C.E. ) Rabban Gamliel of Yavne and contemporaries; Third generation (approximately 110-80 C.E. ) Rabbi Akiva and contemporaries; Fourth generation (approximately 135-170 ) Rabbi Meir and contemporaries; Fifth generation (approximately 170-200 C.E. ) Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and contemporaries. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi complied the Mishna, which records the work of all five generations.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alon, G. (cited by Herskovics [1977], who omitted the date). Toldot Hayehudim Beretz Yisrael, Bitkufat Hamishna Vehatalmud, part I, pp. 185-188.

[10] Khalitza is a form of divorce. The ritual includes removal of a shoe.

[11] Talmud Bavli Yevamoth 112b.

[12] Talmud Bavli Khaggiga 5b.

[13] Margaliot.

[14] Talmud Bavli Gittin 56b.

[15] Margaliot, op. cit.

[16] Talmud Bavli Berakhot 27b 28a.

[17] The original shmone esrai prayer had 18 blessings, the origin of its name. Birkat haminim is actually a nineteenth blessing.

[18] Sherman, N. (Translator ) (1984). The Complete ArtScroll Siddur. NY: Mesora. p. 107.

[19] Herskovics (1977) op. cit.

[20] New Testament: Matthew, 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-23; Luje 22:19-20; First Corinthians 11:23-25; John 1:29-36.

[21] New Testament: Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:6.

[22] New Testament: John I, 29:36.

[23] (This is part of a footnote which appeared with the quote from Herskovics.) That they [the Jewish Christians] at first observed the Torahs commandments is explicit in one of the Gospels (Matthew 5:17-19), who puts the following sentences in Jesuss mouth: Do not think that I have come to contradict the Torah or the words of the prophets. I have come not to contradict but to fulfill Amen, I say to you. Until the heavens and earth pass from existence, not one yod or part of a letter of the Torah shall pass from existence, until all shall come about. Each person, whoever he shall be, who will transgress one of these small commandments and will teach people to do as he does, he will be called small in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever will fulfill and teach the commandments, he will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

[24] Herskovics (1977), op. cit.

[25] Mishna Avot 2:8.

[26] Talmud Bavli Sukkah 28a.

[27] Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 29b.

[28] Herskovics, M. (1978). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut [Tanaim who fought Christianity]. Or Hamizrach 26 (2-3), pp. 229-245.

[29] Mishna Avot 2:10.

[30] Herskovics (1978), op. cit.

[31] Talmud Bavli Gittin 56a.

[32] Margaliot.

[33] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 152b; Khaggiga 5b; Sanhedrin 90b; and others.

[34] Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 60b.

[35] Herskovics, M. (1979a). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 28 (1), pp. 62-78.

[36] Avot Derabbi Natan, 18:1

[37] Talmud Bavli Khaggiga 3b.

[38] Herskovics, M. (1979b). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 28 (2), pp. 193-205.

[39] Talmud Bavli Makkoth 23a.

[40] Margaliot, op. cit.

[41] Mekhilta Beshalakh, 2:5; Tosefta Berakhot 4:17.

[42] Tosefta Mikraot, 1.

[43] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 116a.

[44] Herskovics, M. (1981). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 29 (3-4), pp. 404-413.

[45] Margaliot.

[46] Talmud Bavli Berakhot 61b.

[47] Herskovics, M. (1981). Tanaim shlakhamu negged hanatzrut (hemshekh) [Tanaim who fought Christianity (continued)]. Or Hamizrach 29 (3-4), pp. 404-413.

[48] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 55.

[49] Mishna Avot 3:17.

[50] Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 36a.

[51] Talmud Bavli Eruvin 54b.

[52] Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 62a.

[53] Herskovics (1981), op. cit.

[54] Talmud Bavli Gittin 90a.

[55] Herskovics (1981). op. cit.

[56] Herskovics (1977), op. cit.

[57] Ibid.

[58] ibid.

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