…the rabbis did take notice of shifts in historical reality, but only when such comparisons provided some contribution toward an understanding of their own situation. The past thereby emerges as a way of defining or categorizing the present, just as discussions on the cessation of prophecy helped contribute to an understanding of the role of the sages.
Regarding historical causality in rabbinic thought, it appears meaningful only when understood within a framework of moral virtue or culpability. Punishment following sin (for nations as well as individuals) thus becomes a form of moral causality, with the nature of the divine chastisement frequently deriving from the essence of its causes. This is not to say that the rabbis were totally oblivious to the role of history in the halakhic process. Their discussions surrounding gezerot and takkanot clearly portray an awareness of the impact of social realities in the past on the development of certain halakhic behavior. But here too history plays a subservient role, and it is the relevant legal issues that remain at the center of the rabbinic discourse.
Isaiah Gafni, “Concepts of Periodization and Causality in Talmudic Literature”, Jewish History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), 34.
That “classical rabbinic literature was never intended as historiography” goes without saying, as evidenced not only by the fact that the sages refrain from a detailed presentation of contemporary events, but also in the decidedly a-historical license they granted themselves when taking up biblical history. Attempts to categorize Talmudic works such as Seder Olam as “Jewish historiographic literature” have justifiably been rejected, with that work more accurately defined as a “chronographical midrash”, an attempt at the synchronization of Biblical events, with almost no interest in what transpired in the post-Biblical period.
Isaiah Gafni, “Concepts of Periodization and Causality in Talmudic Literature”, Jewish History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), 22.