In my experience, both liturgical and academic, the phrase “the Rabbis”* is often used rather loosely. Generally speaking, this is used to refer to those scholars who studied and debated oral Torah, and whose thoughts and teachings (when considered especially relevant or profound) were occasionally written down and codified within a massive tome known as the Talmud.
Many of these people are now considered famous Jewish sages. Akiva, Judah haNasi, Rav Nachman, Rashi, Maimonides (aka Rambam), etc., are all examples of scholars from a variety of different time periods that are widely taught and studied to this day.
What interests me most is the way that the Rabbis are taught and engaged with within liturgical spaces. Though they are known to be from radically different times and spaces (for example, Akiva was around in first century Judea, Maimonides lived 1138-1204 in North Africa), they are often taught side by side.
The way that the Talmud operates allows for this easily. A typical page of Talmud will have a section in the center of the page that is devoted to the actual text that is being discussed. Surrounding it are all the commentaries, each written or uttered by a different scholar, many of which arguing with or building upon another scholar’s commentary. Each of these might have been written with decades or centuries in between. The beautiful result is a sort of cross-generational debate, with scholars engaging with their predecessors long after the earlier scholars are gone.
This brings up questions about time. The Rabbis are discussed, especially liturgically, as if they all exist simultaneously, and as if specific arguments and counter-arguments are being examined at the same time. For example, if one Rabbi is responding to a previous Rabbi, it seems as though the previous Rabbi would be able to see the response- though he is long dead.
I think it is interesting to view this as a sort of “temporal drag”, something J. Jack Halberstam discusses in “In a Queer Time and Place”. Though it is known that these individuals existed and wrote at varying periods of history, they are also seen as speaking through history. Time is reorganized and granted a position of lesser importance than it holds in normative life.
The existence of these Rabbis is only in the textual space of the Talmud. The development of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism is thought to have originated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., causing many Judean people to move into exile and diasporic lands. A centralized worship site no longer existed in physical reality, so space was created through text. It could be said that (for this particular strain of Judaism) text is their home, or has been cultivated into a home in a non-normative fashion.
* Distinct from the modern title “Rabbi”, which refers to an individual who has attended rabbinical school and earned the degree.