Since the time the Torah was given, Jews have always loved books. The vast amount of Jewish writing available is enough to keep a person occupied for well over a lifetime. We have writings in our canon that originate from every era of Jewish existence... except one.
There seems to be period after the close of the Tanach (shortly after the building of the second Temple) and the earliest writings of Chazal (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, Sifra/Sifre, etc.) where there are no writings that are a part of our establised canon. How is it that there are no writings from this period? Did the Jews of the time period just stop writing things until the times of the Mishnah?
The answer, of course, is no. There actually are works that originate from that time period. Rabbi Shalom Morris, the assistant Rabbi at the Lincoln Square Synagouge, gave an interesting four part lecture this past summer covering some of these works titled "Between Tanach and Chazal," highlighting those works and their significance to Jewish learning today.
Part 1 - The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha covers the "Biblical" works that did not make it into our final version of Tanach. The book of Susanah is looked at as an example of such a work.
Part 2 - Josephus talks about the works of the famous (or infamous) Jewish general. In particular, there are some interesting portions regarding the personal history of Josephus and some of the stories that he relates and how his versions of the stories differ from the versions that we have in the Talmud.
Part 3 - The Dead Sea Scrolls talks about the documents that were found in the caves in Qumran during the period of 1947-1956. Aside from the history of the scrolls and the controversy surrounding the release of their contents, Rabbi Morris takes us through some of the documents in the scrolls. For example, there is a scroll in Qumran that has a version of Ashrei with the Nun pasuk intact! But it's not the verse we are told about in the Gemara in Berachos. Is it possible that the Nun verse was perhaps added in at a later date?
In addition, Rabbi Morris takes us throught the MMT document, which is a letter from the head of the Qumran community during the time of the Maccabees to the Kohen Gadol, outlining some of the differences of opinions that they had with the established Temple leadership regarding ritual. The important part here, however, is that it demonstrates that some of the opinions and disputes mentioned in the Mishnah in Taharos (which wasn't compiled until centuries later) pre-date its compliation by centuries.
One last little teaser: They found tefillin at Qumran as well. Did they find Rashi's tefillin or Rabbeinu Tam's?
Part 4 - Megillat Ta'anit takes us through the scroll which deliniates the dates on which one is not allowed to fast because of victories that happened to the Jews on those days. Or is it a scroll of days on which one *is* supposed to fast? Or is it both? And what's the origin of this scroll (scrolls?) anyway? Aside from just providing a list of dates, together with some of the works of the Apocrypha, you can gain a valuable insight into the history of the times.
Personally, I've always been a fan of learning history through reading the documents of the day. By reading about how the people of the time felt and viewed matters, you always get a much better perspective on the events and culutre of the day than through the eyes of a historian centuries later. I love this set of shiurim and I encourage anyone interested in Jewish history to listen to them.