See H. L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (1931, repr. 1969).
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The Tannaim (Hebrew: תנאים, singular תנא, Tanna) were the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 70-200 CE. The period of the Tannaim, also referred to as the Mishnaic period, lasted about 130 years. It came after the period of the Zugot ("pairs"), and was immediately followed by the period of the Amoraim.
The root tanna (תנא) is the Talmudic Aramaic equivalent for the Hebrew root shanah (שנה), which also is the root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (שנה) literally means "to repeat [what one was taught]" and is used to mean "to learn".
The Mishnaic period is commonly divided up into five periods according to generations. There are approximately 120 known Tannaim.
The Tannaim lived in several areas of the Land of Israel. The spiritual center of Judaism at that time was Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city and the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and his students founded a new religious center in Yavne. Other places of Judaic learning were founded by his students in Lod and in Bnei Brak.
Many of the Tannaim worked as laborers (e.g., charcoal burners, cobblers) in addition to their positions as teachers and legislators. They were also leaders of the people and negotiators with the Roman Empire.
The Tannaim operated under the occupation of the Roman Empire. During this time, the Kohanim (priests) of the Temple became increasingly corrupt and were seen by the Jewish people as collaborators with the Romans, whose mismanagement of Iudaea province (composed of Samaria, Idumea and Judea proper) led to riots, revolts and general resentment. Throughout much of the period, the office of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was rented out to the highest bidder, and the priests themselves extorted as much as they could from the pilgrims who came to sacrifice at the Temple.
The conflict between the high priesthood and the people led to the split between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The elitist Sadducees (who generally controlled the high priesthood) were supported by the Hasmonean royal family and later by the Romans. The Pharisees were a more egalitarian sect; they accepted students from all the tribes, not only the Levites, and they also taught laws in addition to those set forth in the Torah. These laws make up the Mishnah, whose compilation marked the end of the period of the Tannaim.
Until the days of Hillel and Shammai (the last generation of the Zugot), there were few disagreements among Rabbinic scholars. After this period, though, the "House of Hillel" and the "House of Shammai" came to represent two distinct perspectives on Jewish law, and disagreements between the two schools of thought are found throughout the Mishnah, see also Hillel and Shammai.
The Tannaim, as teachers of the Oral Law, were direct transmitters of an oral tradition passed from teacher to student that was written and codified as the basis for the Mishnah, Tosefta, and tannaitic teachings of the Talmud. According to tradition, the Tannaim were the last generation in a long sequence of oral teachers that began with Moses.
The generations of the Tannaim included: