5. ‘If They are Not Prophets, They Are Sons of Prophets': Folk Religion (Minhag) as a Source of Rabbinic Law

The Use and Dissemination of Religious Knowledge in Antiquity - Catherine Hezser

Philip Alexander [+-]
University of Manchester
Philip Alexander is Professor Emeritus in post-biblical Jewish Literature from the University of Manchester, where he taught from 1995–2010 in the Department of Religions and Theology. Prior to that, he was a fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford, a lecturer in the Hebrew Centre of the Oriental Faculty at Oxford, as well as President of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. More recently he has been a visiting professor at Liverpool Hope University (2012), the University of St Andrews (2016), and the University of Chester (2017) and Currently, he is a Principal Investigator of the Hebrew Manuscripts Cataloguing Project at the John Rylands Library, Manchester (2018–). His publications have investigated aspects of Judaism in the Second Temple and Talmudic periods, early Jewish interpretation of the Bible, particularly Midrash and Targum, and the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism.


In this paper I borrow the anthropological concept of “a great tradition” and “a little tradition” to explore the theme of the use and dissemination of religious knowledge. I argue that the relationship between the elite “great tradition” and the popular “little tradition” should be seen as a two-way street: the traditions dynamically interact, the “little” playing as crucial a role as the “great” in the overall definition of the religion. I argue this specifically for Judaism by tracing the interaction between custom (Minhag – taken roughly as folk-religion) and law (Halakhah – the Rabbinic definition of religious practice). Starting out from a close analysis of Hillel’s dictum, “Leave it to the people. The holy spirit is upon them. If they are not prophets they are sons of prophets” (Tosefta Pesahim 4.13-14 and parallels: Yerushalmi Pesahim 6.1, 33a-b and Bavli Peshaim 66a-b), I sketch the incorporation of Minhag into Halakhah from antiquity to modern times. Drawing on Legal Positivist analysis of English common law I discuss the “rule of recognition” which was applied by the Rabbis in accepting custom as law, and identify, with concrete examples, four Rabbinic attitudes to Minhag: (1) acceptance; (2) modification; (3) rejection; and (4) toleration. Thus, from an internal analysis of the Jewish legal tradition itself I argue that folk-religion is recognized by the Rabbinic elite as having made a significant contribution to Judaism. What the elite gave to the people, the people in many cases already owned.

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Alexander, Philip. 5. ‘If They are Not Prophets, They Are Sons of Prophets': Folk Religion (Minhag) as a Source of Rabbinic Law. The Use and Dissemination of Religious Knowledge in Antiquity. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Aug 2021. ISBN 9781781798768. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=37994. Date accessed: 15 Apr 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.37994. Aug 2021

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