To speak about the dynamics of canonization in Rabbinic Judaism and its literature—the topic of this essay—one must inevitably begin with the Hebrew Bible and the dynamics of its canonization. It is no exaggeration to say that the canonization of the Bible remains to this day one of the great literary mysteries of all time. How did a collection of initially separate documents become ta biblia, and then those books the Bible? It was believed by many scholars for a considerable period that the final closure of the Hebrew Bible was the product of a collective decision made by the Rabbis at a certain “Council of Jamnia,” a synod held at the academy of Yavneh roughly around the year 90 C.E. where the Rabbis discussed the status of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes under the rubric of the question as to whether or not these books “defile the hands” (metam’im et hayadayim), a code-word, supposedly, for possessing sacred, canonical status (M. Yadayim 3:5). This discussion was connected by scholars with other passages regarding “books that are to be hidden away” (nignaz) (B.Shabbat 13b, 30b) and “outside books” (sefarim hitsonim) (M.Sanhedrin 10:1, B.Sanhedrin 28a). Taken together, these passages created a picture of a Rabbinic synod that was imagined to be comparable to the synod of Laodicea held in the middle of the 4th C. that supposedly helped finalize the Christian canon.1 The point of such a synod, it was assumed, was to rule that certain books were “in,” and others “out.” The process of canonization, in other words, was primarily one of definition by exclusion.
The existence of such a council was essentially disproven in 1964
1 For a helpful review of the early views, see Zevit, Ziony, “The Second-Third
Century Canonization of The Hebrew Bible and Its Influence on Christian Can-
onizing,” in: A. Van Der Kooij and K. Van Der Toorn (eds.), Canonization and
Decanonization: Papers Presented to the International Conference of the Leiden Institute for the
Study of Religions (LISOR), Held at Leiden 9–10 January 1997 (Leiden, 1998), 133–60,
esp. 139 and notes there.