An Introduction to USCJ Mishnah Yomit (Daily Mishnah)
What is the Mishnah?
When a convert asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel responded, “Love your neighbor as yourself, the rest is commentary go and learn." Answering a question like “What is the Mishnah” is not much easier, but I will try to give it a brief answer, with the caveat that in order to really know what this book is all about you must go out and learn the Mishnah itself.
The Mishnah is both a collection of Jewish laws and a study book for deriving Jewish laws and yet it is neither. I will explain. The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish laws dealing with nearly every subject imaginable, from the laws of Shabbat and holidays, to marriage laws, to civil laws to laws concerning the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it is not a collection of laws in the modern sense. First of all, it does not contain only the “right” opinion; it frequently contains disputes between different sages with regard to the correct law. The Mishnah itself does not usually say which opinion is to be followed. Second, its style is not intended to merely tell the reader what to do, but through its concise and highly formulized language, it allows the person studying it to derive other laws, not specifically mentioned in the Mishnah itself. Therefore, it could be considered a book meant to be studied, a guide to Jewish law, and not purely a collection of laws. However, the Mishnah does occasionally contain clues as to what is the “right” opinion, even if those clues are not always apparent. Furthermore, although the Mishnah does contain a variety of opinions, it does exclude some as well. Therefore, it is more than just a study book, it also has the character of a collection of laws. Our conclusion must therefore be that the Mishnah is both a collection of laws to be followed by the Jewish people and a study book for deriving more laws.
When was the Mishnah “written”?
First of all, it is not entirely proper to say that the Mishnah was written. The Mishnah contains oral traditions and oral laws. It is what is called in Jewish tradition “Oral Torah”, as opposed to the “Written Torah” which is the Five Books of Moses. At some point the Mishnah was written down, but we are not positive when this occurred. Therefore, we will rephrase our question with a more appropriate question: “When was the Mishnah composed?”
The Mishnah was composed by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) who lived in the northern part of the Land of Israel, at the Galilee, in the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century C.E. Therefore, one could say that the Mishnah as a composition was organized by Rabbi Judah HaNasi during his lifetime. However, the traditions in the Mishnah are much older than Rabbi Judah HaNasi. Some of them may be as old as the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is very difficult to know just how old some of these traditions are, and this is a question that has been debated since the Middle Ages. Most of the named sages who appear in the Mishnah lived during the first and second centuries of the Common Era. Indeed, most of them lived after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. A scholarly consensus seems to hold that the beginning of the composition of the Mishnah, or more precisely Oral Torah, began after the destruction of the Second Temple. Again, this does not mean that the traditions are not older than their compilation. These are traditions that may have been passed down for many generations and not recorded or composed into an orderly work until after the destruction of the Second Temple. Indeed some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written during the second and first centuries BCE, seem to prove that the opinions mentioned in the Mishnah were already known at least 200 years earlier. In any case, we can fairly certainly say that the Mishnah as we know it today did not exist until the second century CE.
The Mishnah was composed in the northern part of the Land of Israel, in such cities as Tzippori, Tiberias and Shepharam. It was to this area that the majority of the Jews moved after the Bar Kochba revolt was defeated in 135 C.E. The Mishnah contains traditions from Sages who lived in all parts of the country, including the coastal areas and Jerusalem. By the time of the composition of the Mishnah there were few centers of learning in the southern part of Israel, the area called Judea.
The Mishnah was written mostly in Hebrew, although there are some sections that are in Aramaic and there occasionally appear words borrowed from Greek and Latin. Scholars have long debated whether Hebrew was the lingua franca of Palestine in this period. The Hebrew of the Mishnah has a different syntax and vocabulary from Biblical Hebrew. As do all languages, Hebrew developed over time, and the Hebrew spoken by the Rabbis is not exactly the same Hebrew that one would encounter in the Bible, which was written centuries before the Mishnah.
How is the Mishnah related to the Torah?
The Mishnah is not a direct commentary on the Torah. It does not follow the order of the Torah, it contains many laws not mentioned in the Torah and there are many portions of the Torah that are not mentioned at all in the Mishnah.
Nevertheless, the Mishnah certainly has a strong relationship to the Torah. The Torah is the first book containing Jewish laws. According to Jewish tradition God gave the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, and since that point its laws have been binding on the Jewish people. However, the Torah does not explain many points of law that are necessary for their performance and necessary for the proper functioning of society. The Torah often mentions major laws without explicating many details. For instance the Torah says that one should not perform work on the Sabbath or on holidays, but except for a few examples, it does not specify what "work" means. The Torah barely discusses marriage law. It contains little information about the dietary laws (kashruth,) as we observe them today. The laws of separating milk and meat are hinted at in one single verse! The Torah alone cannot be the basis for an organized system of Jewish law.
Often, the details not explained in the Torah are filled in by the Oral Torah, which according to Jewish tradition was also given on Mount Sinai. The Mishnah being the first codification of the Oral Torah expands upon many laws that are mentioned in the Torah, but not fully proposed. For instance, the Mishnah lists 39 categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat, and then proceeds to describe in great detail each of these categories of work. The Mishnah talks about subjects barely mentioned in the Torah, such as blessings and prayer. It explains how one gets married and how one gets divorced, laws discussed only briefly in the Torah. The Mishnah also contains elaborate descriptions of the Temple service which were not mentioned in the Torah.
Although the Mishnah is not a direct commentary Torah, many of its passages contain exegesis or midrash on verses from the Torah. Sometimes the Mishnah will explicitly state that the discussed law is connected to a word or verse in the Torah and occasionally the connection is only implicit. As you learn Mishnah, it is essential to first examine the Biblical verses that deal with the topic.
How is the Mishnah related to the Talmud or Gemara?
The Mishnah was composed somewhere around 220 C.E. As soon as it was finished and publicized, the Sages began compiling commentary on the Mishnah. The Talmud, a Hebrew word, (in Aramaic, Gemara) is a compilation of their commentary on the Mishnah, along with many other traditions and discussions, loosely or not related at all to the Mishnah. There are actually two Talmuds, one composed in the Land of Israel and called either the Jerusalem Talmud or the Palestinian Talmud, and the other composed in Babylonia and called the Babylonian Talmud. The Palestinian Talmud was completed somewhere around the year 375 CE and the Babylonian Talmud was completed probably about 200 years later, although both of these dates are extremely tentative. The Babylonian Talmud has throughout history been more extensively studied and is consi dered more authoritative in Jewish law. It was this Talmud that formed the basis for all future codes of Jewish law, throughout the Jewish wandering in Europe and the Middle East.
Why should I learn Mishnah first?
Jewish learning has always been based on more than just “learning to know what to do”. As long as Jews can remember we have been learning texts that do more than just describe the way Jews should act in current times. Torah learning in Judaism is much more than just learning what to do. It is an exercise in engaging with our past, with different understandings of how God’s divine word is to be manifested in our material world. When one engages in Torah study one is actually performing a commandment in and of itself, regardless of whether that study leads to the performance of other commandments. Of course, this is not to say that the two should be totally divorced. According to the Talmud itself, learning about the commandments should lead to their performance. However, one is certainly commanded to learn even the parts of Jewish tradition, and they are numerous, that do not contain practical law as it is performed today.
Why should I learn Mishnah instead of skipping straight to Talmud?
Since the Mishnah is the first code of Jewish law excluding, of course, the Torah, the Mishnah is an excellent introduction to most of Jewish law. It is also much easier than Talmud, which contains much more intricate details and wordy discussions. The Mishnah has both value in and of itself, as most of later Jewish legal writing depends on the Mishnah, and it is an excellent introduction to Talmud and halakhah. It is worthy of studying for beginning students as the beginning of their learning and worthy of studying for advanced students, even those who know the entire Talmud! Of course, after you have gotten your feet wet with Mishnah you may begin to learn Talmud as well, but we will take it one step at a time.
What is in the Mishnah? How is it organized?
What makes the Mishnah more than just a collection of traditions and brings it closer to being a code of law is its topical organization. Before the Mishnah began to be organized, Jewish traditions and laws were transmitted from sage to student in a very loose format, usually not topically organized but, rather, associated with the name of the person who made the statement. For instance everything that Hillel said was learned together (and committed to memory) and then things that Shammai said and so on and so on with each Sage. The problem with this system is that, if one wants to learn the laws on any given topic, one will have to look in many different places. A topically organized composition is obviously much more useful. As such the Mishnah is usually organized by topic although it occasionally is organized differently. There remains one full tractate, Eduyoth or Testimonies, which is organized based on the old system. As you are learning Mishnah with Mishnah Yomit it will be important to pay attention to how the individual units are put together to compose a whole.
The Mishnah is divided into six orders, each of which is composed of a number of tractates. Each tractate is divided into chapters, ranging from three to thirty, and each chapter is divided into mishnahs or “mishnayoth” in Hebrew. (Note that mishnah with a small “m” refers to one individual unit and Mishnah with a capital “m” refers to the whole composition). Usually, when one refers to a mishnah, one will mention the tractate, chapter and number of mishnah. For instance Shabbat, 2:4 is the fourth mishnah of the second chapter of tractate Shabbat.
Most introductions to the Mishnah or translations of the Mishnah will list the orders and the tractates. I will list and briefly describe the tractates here for your convenience.
- Order Zeraim or Seeds—This order deals with agricultural laws that usually apply only in the Land of Israel, such as tithes, heave offerings, peah (corners of fields) and more. The first tractate is Brakhot, or blessings, which deals with blessings said on various occasions and with prayer. The Babylonian Talmud comments only on the first tractate, whereas the Palestinian Talmud comments on the entire order.
- Order Moed or Appointed Times—This order is concerned with Jewish holidays such as Shabbat, Pesah, Yom Kippur, etc. Both Talmuds comment on almost the entire order (there is no Babylonian Talmud on tractate Shekalim).
- Order Nashim or Women—This order is mostly concerned with marital law. It includes tractates on betrothal, marriage contracts, divorce, adultery and levirate marriage. It also contains tractates on vows and Nazirites. Both Talmuds comment on the entire order.
- Order Nezikin or Damages—This order deals with the full range of Jewish civil law: damage law, laws of theft and murder, property laws, laws of judicial procedures and more. Appended to the end of the order are several tractates that are not topically connected to the order. Both Talmuds comment on the entire order, with the exception of Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, for which there is no Talmud.
- Order Kodshim or Holy Things—This order deals with sacrificial law and law concerning the Temple in Jerusalem. There is also one tractate that deals with the laws of kashruth. There is only Babylonian Talmud on this order.
- Order Toharot or Purities—This order deals with the laws of purity and impurity. These laws mostly pertain to the time when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, although people may have kept some of the purity laws even after the Temple was destroyed. The only tractate that is of practical import after the destruction of the Temple is Niddah, or menstrual impurity. This is also the only tractate upon which Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud comment. For the other tractates neither Talmud exists.
What are some keys to learning Mishnah?
The key to learning Mishnah is to begin to recognize the structure and style of the work. The Mishnah is an extremely brief book. Without commentary the entire Hebrew text of the Mishnah could fit into a small paperback book! However, it packs in a tremendous amount of information. One must, therefore, learn how to “unpack” Mishnayoth, i.e. pay very close attention to structure and to details and to explore their relationship to the law derived from the Mishnah.
It is also important to realize that Mishnah is mostly taught in case law. This means that concrete examples are given as opposed to abstract laws. The Mishnah, for example, will not state that a person must tie up his ox to prevent it from causing damage. Rather, the Mishnah will state that a person who tied up his ox which, nevertheless, broke out and caused damage, is not liable for damage payments. We will see many, many more examples of this style as we proceed.
Our job in learning the Mishnah is not just to examine what the Mishnah says, but to try to uncover the unstated principles that lie behind its intricate system of law. This, by the way, is what makes learning Mishnah so enjoyable. A person learning Mishnah takes an active role in discovering the rich layers that lie behind what is revealed. In this process of discovery there is room for argumentation and differing opinions. This is indeed why Jews are debating the Mishnah’s meaning to this very day!
On another note: It is important, while learning the Mishnah to note that it often reflects ideas and values that were held by the society in which it was composed, which may no longer seem acceptable to our society. For example the last mishnah in Tractate Kiddushin states that the best of the doctors will go to Gehinnom (Hell)! While this might seem like a horrible thing to say about people who try to save lives, it makes much more sense when we remember what medicine was like in the time of the Mishnah. Going to a R 20;doctor” 2000 years ago was a desperate measure. The “medicine” known back then was primitive at best and would often do as much if not more damage than good. In our day, practicing medicine is a way of improving people’s lives and often saving them. No one and certainly no Rabbi would say that today’s doctors deserve eternal punishment for practicing their profession. Indeed, the Rambam (Maimonides), who is probably one of the most famous Rabbis in Jewish history, was a doctor by profession.
Masculine Language in the Mishnah
Hebrew, unlike English, is not a gender-neutral language. Every noun, verb and adjective in Hebrew has a gender. For example the same Hebrew sentence could be translated as, “When one’s ox injures another person” or “When his ox injures his fellow man”. Our translations and discussions will generally be in masculine language, although I have tried to on occasion to de-gender the language, without making it sound cumbersome. Unless otherwise noted, “he” does not exclude women. When the Mishnah wishes to exclude women, it usually states so explicitly.
What books can help me learn Mishnah?
To learn Mishnah with USCJ’s Mishnah Yomit project, it will be helpful to have the Mishnah text at hand. While the entire translated text of the mishnah will be on the page along with a brief commentary, it is always helpful to also have a book at hand with which to make reference. From time to time we will also refer to material in the Torah and it would be helpful to have a Tanakh (Bible) as well.
For those of you who would like to purchase a mishnah to help you on your way I will make a few suggestions. The two best translations of the Mishnah are those by Herbert Danby and Jacob Neusner. Danby’s translation is a little more archaic and the book is rather pricey (100 dollars on Amazon) but it is nevertheless an excellent translation. Neusner’s translation is a very good translation and sells at a reasonable $40. Neither of these translations contains the original Hebrew and neither contains any commentary. For those who wish to purchase a Hebrew/English Mishnah, Philip Blackman’s six volume edition is both user-friendly and affordable. This edition contains the original Hebrew text, the English translation and a brief commentary which, although slightly outdated, nevertheless is useful.
Another helpful book is the Steinsaltz Reference Guide which contains definitions of terms, a brief introduction and long section on halakhic terminology which is very helpful. Finally, for a one volume introduction to the Mishnah, Jacob Neusner’s book “The Mishnah an Introduction” is interesting. One could also read the entry on the Mishnah in the Encyclopedia Judaica for further reference. In general the Encyclopedia Judaica contains excellent articles on a variety of topics.
Again, these are all just suggestions. The pages you will receive as part of the USCJ Mishnah Yomit Project will contain all of the information essential to understanding the Mishnah. You need buy nothing but a few, inexpensive purchases might prove extremely helpful in the long run.
Where can I learn more?
A convenient option for most people might be to contact their local synagogue and speak to the Rabbi. All Jewish learning is meant to be shared and I hope that these commentaries will be studied in congregations and in people’s homes in study groups. A listing of Conservative synagogues can be found on the United Synagogue website.
Finally, I am available if I have not answered your questions. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck and happy Mishnah learning!