Who or What is Chazal?

Image: A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo genizah. Public Domain.

“Chazal say…” a more advanced rabbinical student said to me, in answer to a question. I heard, “Chagall says…” and was very confused. I’d asked a question about halakhah (Jewish law) – why is he quoting a Jewish artist?

Chazal (Kha-ZAHL) is a collective noun meaning “the sages,” the ancient rabbis, from the “Men of the Great Assembly,” up through the closing and final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, roughly from 500 BCE until about 650 CE. Think of it as a fancier way of saying “the ancient rabbis.”

Rabbis talk about those rabbis in terms of eras of rabbis:

First there was the age of the Men of the Great Assembly, which ran from the time of Ezra the Scribe up until about the time of the Maccabees. One of the last of that era was Shimon the Righteous:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Then there was the age of the Zugot, or Pairs of teachers, the last and most famous of whom were Hillel and Shammai. They all lived in Palestine, the land of Israel. They saw Rome come to power in the land, and were alive during the time of a fellow called Jesus.

Next came the Tannaim, which means “repeaters.” They were the rabbis who formulated the Mishnah. They taught during the difficult period just before and after the destruction of the Temple, from about 20 BCE – 200 CE.

The rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah are called the Amoraim, which means “those who speak.” They are the rabbis of the Talmud. Some of them lived and taught in Babylonia, and some lived and taught in Palestine. They lived from 200 until 500 CE.

The last era of rabbis who are Chazal is a rather shadowy group called the Savoraim, the “reasoners.” They lived in Babylonia, and were responsible for putting the Talmud into its final form from 500-600 CE.

So now you know that Chazal is not Chagall! Had there been no Chazal, likely Chagall would have painted differently; most of his subject matter was deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition shaped by Chazal.

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