When Did Jews Start Observing Torah?
When did the laws of the Torah come to govern day-to-day Jewish life? Even if the Torah—or any parts of it—had been composed in an early period, this does not necessarily imply that it was widely known nor that its laws were regarded as legally binding at that time. In other words, just because a small cadre of literati put these laws into writing does not by extension mean that the common people—the farmers, the craftsmen, and the homemakers—all knew of this Torah, regarded it as authoritative, and put its rules into actual practice.
Torah Observance in the Bible
A survey of the all the books of the Bible outside the Pentateuch reveals that Israelite society at large is never portrayed as keeping the laws of the Torah.
The Israelites are never said to refrain from eating pork or shellfish, from eating or possessing leaven on Passover, or from wearing mixtures of linen and wool. No one is ever said to observe Yom Kippur, to wear fringes on their clothing, to inscribe anything on their doorposts (as in Deut 6:9; 11:20), to tie anything as a “sign” on their arm or place anything as a “remembrance” between their eyes (as in Exod 13:9; cf. Exod 13:16; Deut 6:8; 11:18). And Israelites are never said to observe a seven-day week ending in a Sabbath characterized by prohibited activities.
In fact, certain Torah commandments—such as the Passover offering and residing in booths on Sukkot—are explicitly said to have not been observed by the people of Israel over the course of many centuries (2 Kgs 23:22; 2 Chr 30:26; Neh 8:17).
It is for these reasons that biblical scholars have long recognized that the laws of the Torah as we know them were not yet widely regarded as authoritative during the preexilic period within which most of the biblical narratives are set.
Ezra Establishes the Torah as Judah’s Law: The 19th Century Model
In attempting to solve the problem of Judaism’s beginnings, biblical scholars in the modern age viewed Ezra as the primary catalyst for the promulgation of the Torah among the populace of ancient Judea. According to the biblical account (Ezra 7:1–26), Ezra, a priest and a scribe, comes to Jerusalem from Babylon in the seventh regnal year of the Persian king Artaxerxes. The purpose of Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem is described as follows:
עזרא ז:י כִּי עֶזְרָא הֵכִין לְבָבוֹ לִדְרוֹשׁ אֶת תּוֹרַת י־הוה וְלַעֲשֹׂת וּלְלַמֵּד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט.
Ezra 7:10 For Ezra had set his heart to inquire into the instruction of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statute and ordinance.
The author of this narrative then cites a copy of an Aramaic letter that Artaxerxes is purported to have given to Ezra, which included the following royal injunction:
ז:כה וְאַנְתְּ עֶזְרָא כְּחָכְמַת אֱלָהָךְ דִּי בִידָךְ מֶנִּי שָׁפְטִין וְדַיָּנִין דִּי לֶהֱוֹן (דאנין) דָּאיְנִין לְכָל עַמָּה דִּי בַּעֲבַר נַהֲרָה לְכָל יָדְעֵי דָּתֵי אֱלָהָךְ וְדִי לָא יָדַע תְּהוֹדְעוּן. ז:כו וְכָל דִּי לָא לֶהֱוֵא עָבֵד דָּתָא דִי אֱלָהָךְ וְדָתָא דִּי מַלְכָּא אָסְפַּרְנָא דִּינָה לֶהֱוֵא מִתְעֲבֵד מִנֵּהּ הֵן לְמוֹת הֵן (לשרשו) לִשְׁרֹשִׁי הֵן לַעֲנָשׁ נִכְסִין וְלֶאֱסוּרִין.
Ezra 7:25 And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws [decrees?] of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them. 7:26 All who will not obey the law [decree?] of your God and the law [decree?] of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death, or for banishment, or for confiscation of their goods, or for imprisonment.”
After his arrival, Ezra gathers a mass assembly in a central square of Jerusalem where, standing on a wooden platform, he reads aloud from a Torah scroll and teaches the divine laws in detail (Nehemiah 8:1–18).
For 19th-century scholars, these stories suggested that the Torah came to be regarded as binding law by the populace of Judea during the Persian period (539–332 B.C.E.), probably around the middle of the fifth century B.C.E., when Ezra’s mission is thought to have taken place. This paradigm reigned for over a century, and most scholars of early Judaism tended to date the widespread adoption of the Torah as authoritative law among rank-and-file Judeans to the time of Ezra, whom they viewed as a historical fifth century figure.
Difficulties with Using Ezra-Nehemiah as Evidence
This model has two major problems. First, we must consider what kind of historical information is justifiably derived from the Ezra accounts. While biblical narratives provide valuable, direct historical evidence about the beliefs and ideologies of the biblical writers themselves, they are not the best source of information about social history. The evidence they provide about what the masses of ordinary people were actually doing is only indirect and thus difficult to assess.
There can be little doubt that these narratives are all aimed at staking the normative claim that the Mosaic Torah is something that should be accepted by all Judeans as binding. This seems to be a central motive for why these narratives were put into writing in the first place. These are idealized portraits of earlier times, aimed at communicating an unambiguously ideological agenda.
In other words, these are stories; they are not histories. If anyone wishes to stake the claim that these stories reflect some kind of historical reality, the burden of proof lies squarely on his or her shoulders to demonstrate that such is likely to be the case.
Second, even if we were to accept the narratives relayed in Ezra-Nehemiah at face value and assume, without compelling evidence, that they necessarily represent some historical reality, the stories themselves never stake the claim that Ezra’s promulgation of the Mosaic Torah had any lasting effects upon the Judean masses.
Although the people are said to have initially accepted the Torah as binding law and immediately put some of its rules into practice, this purported widespread acceptance of the Torah is also said to have been strikingly ephemeral. A short time after Ezra’s public reading from the Torah, Nehemiah claims that the people of Yehud are transgressing the Torah by desecrating the Sabbath:
נחמיה יג:טו בַּיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה רָאִיתִי בִיהוּדָה דֹּרְכִים גִּתּוֹת בַּשַּׁבָּת וּמְבִיאִים הָעֲרֵמוֹת וְעֹמְסִים עַל הַחֲמֹרִים וְאַף יַיִן עֲנָבִים וּתְאֵנִים וְכָל מַשָּׂא וּמְבִיאִים יְרוּשָׁלִַם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וָאָעִיד בְּיוֹם מִכְרָם צָיִד. יג:טז וְהַצֹּרִים יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ מְבִיאִים דָּאג וְכָל מֶכֶר וּמֹכְרִים בַּשַּׁבָּת לִבְנֵי יְהוּדָה וּבִירוּשָׁלִָם.
Neh 13:15 In those days I saw in Judah [people] treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing heaps [of grain] and loading them onto donkeys; and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. I admonished them on that very same day on which they engaged in selling provisions. 13:16 And the Tyrians who lived there were bringing fish and all sorts of wares and selling them on the Sabbath to the Judahites and in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah further claims that the people were marrying foreign women:
נחמיה יג:כג גַּם בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם רָאִיתִי אֶת הַיְּהוּדִים הֹשִׁיבוּ נָשִׁים (אשדודיות עמוניות) [אַשְׁדֳּדִיּוֹת עַמֳּנִיּוֹת] מוֹאֲבִיּוֹת. יג:כד וּבְנֵיהֶם חֲצִי מְדַבֵּר אַשְׁדּוֹדִית וְאֵינָם מַכִּירִים לְדַבֵּר יְהוּדִית וְכִלְשׁוֹן עַם וָעָם.
Neh 13:23 Also in those days, I saw that Judahites had married Ashdodite, Ammonite, and Moabite women; 13:24 half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of [those] various peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.
Thus, based only on these biblical accounts, there is little reason to think that the Persian period marks the emergence of a Judean society characterized by lasting, widespread adherence to Torah laws.
Working Backwards in Time
In order to date when Torah-laws became widespread in Judean society, I propose that we begin by examining an era from which we possess a great deal of evidence—both textual and archaeological—which indicates that the laws of the Torah were generally known and widely observed among Judeans: the first century C.E. This era will then serve as a benchmark from which we may proceed backward in time in search of evidence indicating that these laws were known and commonly observed prior to this period.
Our quest will continue until the trail of evidence ends—once we have reached a point in time when we are no longer able to discover any further evidence. The date of the earliest available evidence establishes our terminus ante quem—the boundary of time when or before which widespread observance of the Torah must have first emerged.
The next step will be to explore circumstantial and contextual evidence from the periods of time preceding our established terminus ante quem which might suggest that something resembling the Torah had already—or had not yet—been adopted as authoritative law among the Judean masses.
Torah Observance in the 1st Century C.E.
Judean observance of the dietary laws—especially abstinence from pork—is noted time and again by such first-century C.E. writers as Philo of Alexandria, the authors of New Testament texts, Josephus, and even several non-Judean authors writing in Greek and Latin. Many of these writers also tell of widespread observance of the ritual purity laws outlined in Leviticus, a practice confirmed by the archaeological remains of hundreds of ritual immersion pools (later known as mikvaʾot), along with the ubiquitous chalk vessels which were regarded as impervious to ritual impurity.
During this time, Judeans strictly eschewed depictions of humans or animals in their art and architecture, apparently in strict compliance with a particular understanding of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8). Dozens of tefillin and several possible mezuzot—all inscribed with passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy—have been found in caves near Qumran and elsewhere in the Judean Desert.
First-century writers, Judean and non-Judean alike, attest to the widespread observance of the Sabbath prohibitions, and of such festivals as Passover, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The four species ritual of Sukkot is furthermore attested on bronze coins minted in the fourth year of the Great Revolt (69/70 C.E.). The entirety of this evidence reveals beyond any doubt that the laws of the Torah were regarded as binding within first-century C.E. Judean society.
Evidence in the 1st and 2nd Centuries B.C.E.
Proceeding backward in time, we find in the first and second centuries B.C.E. some evidence for the widespread observance of Torah laws.
Several letters and decrees promulgated by Roman officials in the mid-first century B.C.E. directed cities around the Mediterranean to allow local Judean communities the freedom to observe their Sabbath laws. Around 70 B.C.E., a quip about Judean avoidance of pork is attributed to the Roman orator Cicero. Immersion pools and chalk vessels begin to appear archaeologically around the end of the second century B.C.E. The earliest surviving tefillin, found at Qumran, likely date to the late second or early first century B.C.E.
The earliest coins minted by a Hasmonean ruler appeared around 130 B.C.E., and from this point onward all Hasmonean coins completely avoided figural images. Most strikingly, many of these coins feature on their obverse a floral wreath framing dense text that covers almost every available space. These legends provide the name and title of the Hasmonean ruler and also cite “the assembly of the Judeans.”
Clearly, the designers of these coins were attempting to display a virtual portrait of the Hasmonean leader while avoiding any graphic image. The underlying message was simple: The highest echelons of the political leadership had endorsed what they understood to be the Torah’s strict ban on images.
Evidence in Earlier Periods
The trail of evidence for observance of the Torah’s laws ends around the middle of the second century B.C.E. As we proceed further back in time, we no longer find any evidence—textual or archeological—to suggest that the laws of the Torah were widely observed within Judean society. No texts from before the mid-second century speak of Judeans avoiding pork or other prohibited species of meat or seafood.
No archaeological or textual evidence from before the mid-second century suggests that ordinary Judeans were adhering to the complex web of Pentateuchal ritual purity laws. The same lack of evidence applies to the avoidance of figural art, the observance of Sabbath prohibitions, any kind of Yom Kippur observance, or any kind of ritual inscriptions on doorposts (mezuzot).
Not only do we possess no evidence that these practices and prohibitions were widely observed—we lack evidence that the laws of the Torah on these matters were widely known at all!
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It is possible that positive evidence for all these practices prior to the mid-second century B.C.E. simply may not have survived. However, certain evidence that has survived from earlier periods suggests that many Judeans were not observant of the Torah laws.
Remains of catfish found in several Persian-period archaeological contexts in Jerusalem indicate that Judeans ate this species of scaleless fish that was prohibited by the Torah. Images of either humans, animals, or gods and goddesses appear on every coin minted in Judea in the fourth and early third centuries, some of which also display the names of Judean leaders, such as “Yeḥizqiyah the governor” and “Yoḥanan the priest.”
Fifth-century papyri and ostraca from a Judean community at Elephantine, together with clay tablets from contemporary communities of Judeans in Babylonia, suggest that Judeans sometimes paid reverence to deities other than the Judean God YHWH through oaths, naming of children, and donations to temples. And although documents from these Judean communities often provide precise dates in terms of days of the month and specified years, they never refer to days of the week, which suggests that members of these communities did not yet know of a seven-day week—let alone of a notion that certain activities might be prohibited on a weekly-occurring Sabbath.
It would seem, therefore, that rather than the Persian Period, the subsequent Hellenistic period (332–63 B.C.E.) presents a far more conducive epoch within which to seek the beginnings of widespread Torah observance.
The Ptolemaic Period
One possibility is that the Torah was made the “law of the land” during the third century B.C.E., when Judea was ruled by Ptolemaic Egypt, a Macedonian dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, who had served under Alexander the Great and seized Egypt following the death of the famed Hellenistic conqueror in 323 B.C.E.
Ptolemy’s son and successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 284–246 B.C.E.), is known to have instituted significant legal reforms around the year 275 B.C.E. Separate courts were established for different ethnic groups, with certain courts set up to hear cases of Greek-speaking parties and others for native Egyptians—each according to their own laws.
The Judeans living under Ptolemaic rule would also have required a set of laws under which they were to be governed. It may have been precisely these reforms that played a significant role in re-characterizing the Pentateuch as the normatively binding, prescriptive law of the Judeans. If this is correct, we may speculate that widespread Torah observance might have been born out of the Ptolemaic court reforms of the early third century.
The Hasmonean Period
An alternative possibility is that the Torah may have been adopted as law-of-the-land over a century later, when Judeans enjoyed a brief period of self-governance following the Judean revolt that broke out under the leadership of the priestly family of the Hasmoneans, probably around 167 B.C.E. Over the course of the next 25 years, the Hasmonean brothers Judas Maccabaeus, Jonathan Apphus, and Simon Thassi slowly consolidated their control over Judea, until a fully independent Judean polity was established under the rule of Simon Thassi in 142 B.C.E.
Recently, some scholars have suggested that it was the Hasmonean family that sponsored the Torah as an instrument for the unification of their newly autonomous state. I would add that the early Hasmonean leaders may have decided to solidify their position vis-à-vis both their subjects and their enemies by officially adopting a document that might serve to codify the core narratives of the nation’s origins together with the officially sanctioned Judean laws. This single, composite work would have served the Hasmoneans in a way roughly akin to an amalgamated American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
The Pentateuch—with both its stories about Israel’s origins and its laws—would have served such a role magnificently. In adopting the Pentateuch as the formal conceptual and legal foundation of the newly emergent Judean state, the Hasmonean rulers would have provided a rallying point around which the people of Judea might unite.
Observance: Actual vs. Biblical Ideal
The notion that the Torah only began to be widely observed starting as late as the third or second century B.C.E. may strike some as surprising—perhaps even radical. In truth, however, my conclusions here are hardly revolutionary.
The biblical authors themselves never asserted that the Torah was widely known and kept from an early date but rather that the laws of the Torah should be observed assiduously. For the biblical writers, it was not the antiquity of the Torah’s widespread observance that mattered, but rather its divine source of authority.
A Personal Reflection
The goal of the present essay has been to explore a concrete historical question: When did observance of the laws of the Torah first become widespread within Jewish society? Although it is a problem which for decades has fascinated me on a personal level, I also recognize that the question is one which was never the subject of particular interest among traditional Jewish thinkers.
The focus of traditional Jewish thought has invariably been on the ultimate authoritative status of the Torah, which is wholly a normative/prescriptive judgement rather than a historical/descriptive one. In simpler terms, the traditional interest in Torah has always centered on the “ought” rather than on the “is”. As such, the traditional appreciation of the Torah has remained—and must always endure—entirely beyond the purview of history, archaeology, or any other scientific endeavor.
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Prof. Yonatan Adler is an Associate Professor at the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Ariel University, where he also heads the Institute of Archaeology. He studied at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, where he received rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and subsequently earned his Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University. Adler was appointed in 2018 by the Minister of Culture to serve as a member of the Israeli Council for Archaeology. He has written extensively on the subject of archaeological evidence relating to the observance of Torah law, covering topics such as ancient ritual immersion pools, dietary laws, ancient tefillin found in the Judean Desert, and chalk vessels (used by Jews who observed the purity laws). Adler has directed excavations at several sites throughout Israel, most recently at ‘Einot Amitai and at Reina, two sites in Galilee where Roman-era chalk vessel workshops have been unearthed. His book, The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal, is due out with Yale University Press in November 2022.
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