Aramaic: plural of tanna ["repeater"]

Term used to designate rabbinic scholars of the first two centuries CE. Prior to definitive publication of the Mishna, rabbinic tradition had been transmitted primarily orally, with a heavy emphasis on memorization of precepts formulated by eminent Jewish sages of previous generations. The tanna committed to memory the opinions not only of his own teacher(s) but of other rabbinic sages whose decisions were regarded as worthy of respect.  These traditions were rehearsed in teaching students and in debate with other scholars over issues of common concern.  A tanna's scholarly reputation depended to a large measure not only on the scope & accuracy of his memory, but on his ability to invoke elements of accepted tradition to resolve disputed questions and problems raised by new situations. The school of Hillel, which dominated the rabbinic Academy after the Romans terminated the institutions that had governed Jewish life during the 2nd temple period, tended to recall materials that illustrated the acumen of their founder [Hillel], his disciples [Johanan ben Zakkai in particular] & the circle of scholars closest to those who claimed descent from him [especially Judah ha Nasi]. Thus, the tannaim were not only the conservers of the oral Torah of the Pharisees; in recalling & interpreting the vast body of aphoristic rabbinic tradition, they developed the intellectual tools & authoritative rabbinic texts that became normative for later generations of Jews. Their precepts are not limited to those codified in the Mishna, Tosefta & biblical Midrashim but continued to circulate orally among the generations of scholars that composed the Talmud.

The very vitality of tannaic lore poses problems for the modern intellectual historian. The fact that tannaitic tradition was originally & remained essentially oral for centuries [passing through many, many minds in the process of transmission] means that it is often difficult to determine how closely a given aphorism, anecdote or dialogue represents the actual thinking of the historical sage to whom rabbinic tradition ascribed it.

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