Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman
The Mishnah or Mishna (//; Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, "study by repetition", from the verb shanah שנה, or "to study and review", also "secondary") is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah". It is also the first major work of rabbinic literature. The Mishnah was redacted by Judah the Prince at the beginning of the third century CE in a time when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. Most of the Mishnah is written in Mishnaic Hebrew, while some parts are Aramaic.
The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim, singular seder סדר), each containing 7–12 tractates (masechtot, singular masechet מסכת; lit. "web"), 63 in total, and further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs. The word Mishnah can also indicate a single paragraph of the work, i.e. the smallest unit of structure in the Mishnah. For this reason the whole work is sometimes referred to in the plural form, Mishnayot.
The term "Mishnah" originally referred to a method of teaching by presenting topics in a systematic order, as contrasted with Midrash, which followed the order of the Bible. As a written compilation, the order of the Mishnah is by subject matter and includes a much broader selection of halakhic subjects, and discusses individual subjects more thoroughly, than the Midrash.
The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim, singular seder סדר), each containing 7–12 tractates (masechtot, singular masechet מסכת; lit. "web"), 63 in total. Each masechet is divided into chapters (peraqim, singular pereq) and then paragraphs (mishnayot, singular mishnah). In this last context, the word mishnah means a single paragraph of the work, i.e. the smallest unit of structure, leading to the use of the plural, "Mishnayot", for the whole work.
Because of the division into six orders, the Mishnah is sometimes called 'Shas' (an acronym for Shisha Sedarim – the "six orders"), though that term is more often used for the Talmud as a whole.
The six orders are:
The Babylonian Talmud (Hagiga 14a) states that there were either six hundred or seven hundred orders of the Mishnah. Hillel the Elder organized them into six orders to make it easier to remember. The historical accuracy of this tradition is disputed. There is also a tradition that Ezra the scribe dictated from memory not only the 24 books of the Tanakh but 60 esoteric books. It is not known whether this is a reference to the Mishnah, but there is a case for saying that the Mishnah does consist of 60 tractates. (The current total is 63, but Makkot was originally part of Sanhedrin, and Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra may be regarded as subdivisions of a single tractate Nezikin.)
Reuvein Margolies (1889–1971) posited that there were originally seven orders of Mishnah, citing a Gaonic tradition on the existence of a seventh order containing the laws of Sta"m (scribal practice) and Berachot (blessings).
A number of important laws are not elaborated upon in the Mishnah. These include the laws of tzitzit, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot, the holiday of Hanukkah, and the laws of conversion to Judaism. These were later discussed in the minor tractates.
Nissim ben Jacob's Hakdamah Le'mafteach Hatalmud argued that it was unnecessary for Judah the Prince to discuss them as many of these laws were so well known. Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kokhba revolt, Judah could not have included discussion of Hanukkah, which commemorates the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire (the Romans would not have tolerated this overt nationalism). Similarly, there were then several decrees in place aimed at suppressing outward signs of national identity, including decrees against wearing tefillin and tzitzit; as conversion to Judaism was against Roman law, Judah would not have discussed this.
David Zvi Hoffmann suggests that there existed ancient texts analogous to the present-day Shulchan Aruch that discussed the basic laws of day to day living and it was therefore not necessary to focus on these laws in the Mishnah.
Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah from the next four centuries, done in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, were eventually redacted and compiled as well. In themselves they are known as Gemara. The books which set out the Mishnah in its original structure, together with the associated Gemara, are known as Talmuds. Two Talmuds were compiled, the Babylonian Talmud (to which the term "Talmud" normally refers) and the Jerusalem Talmud. Unlike the Hebrew Mishnah, the Gemara is written primarily in Aramaic.
The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a notable rabbi based on halakha, mitzvot, and spirit of the teaching ("Torah") that guided his decision. In this way, it brings to everyday reality the practice of the mitzvot as presented in the Torah, and aims to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most important, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed since the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah is not the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing traditions.
The term "Mishnah" is related to the verb "shanah", to teach or repeat, and to the adjectives "sheni" and "mishneh", meaning "second". It is thus named for being both the one written authority (codex) secondary (only) to the Tanakh as a basis for the passing of judgment, a source and a tool for creating laws, and the first of many books to complement the Tanakh in certain aspects.
Before the publication of the Mishnah, Jewish scholarship and judgement were predominantly oral, as according to the Talmud, it was not permitted to write them down. The earliest recorded oral law may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Torah. Rabbis expounded on and debated the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (מגילות סתרים) for example of court decisions. The oral traditions were far from monolithic, and varied among various schools, the most famous of which were the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.
After First Jewish–Roman War in 70 CE, with the end of the Second Temple Jewish center in Jerusalem, Jewish social and legal norms were in upheaval. The Rabbis were faced with the new reality of Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing. The possibility was felt that the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (530s BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten, so the justification was found to have these oral laws transcribed.
Over time, different traditions of the Oral Law came into being, raising problems of interpretation. According to the Mevo Hatalmud, many rulings were given in a specific context, but would be taken out of it; or a ruling was revisited but the second ruling would not become popularly known. To correct this, Judah the Prince took up the redaction of the Mishnah. If a point was of no conflict, he kept its language; where there was conflict, he reordered the opinions and ruled; and he clarified where context was not given. The idea was not to use his own discretion, but rather to examine the tradition as far back as he could, and only supplement as required.
According to Rabbinic Judaism, the Oral Torah (Hebrew: תורה שבעל-פה) was given to Moses with the Torah at Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb as an exposition to the latter. The accumulated traditions of the Oral Law, expounded by scholars in each generation from Moses onward, is considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law. Jews sometimes refer to this as the Masorah (Hebrew: מסורה), roughly translated as tradition, though that word is often used in a narrower sense to mean traditions concerning the editing and reading of the Biblical text (see Masoretic Text). The resulting Jewish law and custom is called halakha.
While most discussions in the Mishnah concern the correct way to carry out laws recorded in the Torah, it usually presents its conclusions without explicitly linking them to any scriptural passage, though scriptural quotations do occur. For this reason it is arranged in order of topics rather than in the form of a Biblical commentary. (In a very few cases, there is no scriptural source at all and the law is described as Halakha leMoshe miSinai, "law to Moses from Sinai".) The Midrash halakha, by contrast, while presenting similar laws, does so in the form of a Biblical commentary and explicitly links its conclusions to details in the Biblical text. These Midrashim often predate the Mishnah.
The Mishnah also quotes the Torah for principles not associated with law, but just as practical advice, even at times for humor or as guidance for understanding historical debates.
Some Jews did not accept the codification of the oral law at all. Karaite Judaism, for example, recognised only the Tanakh as authoritative in Halakha (Jewish religious law) and theology. It vehemently rejected the codification of the Oral Torah in the Mishnah and Talmud and subsequent works of mainstream Rabbinic Judaism which maintained that the Talmud was an authoritative interpretations of the Torah. Karaites maintained that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah without additional Oral Law or explanation. As a result, Karaite Jews did not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud. The Karaites comprised a significant portion of the world Jewish population in the 10th and 11th centuries CE, and remain extant, although they currently number in the thousands.
The rabbis who contributed to the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim, of whom approximately 120 are known. The period during which the Mishnah was assembled spanned about 130 years, or five generations, in the first and second centuries CE. Judah the Prince is credited with the final redaction and publication of the Mishnah, although there have been a few additions since his time: those passages that cite him or his grandson, Judah II, and the end of tractate Sotah, which refers to the period after Judah the Prince's death. One must also note that in addition to redacting the Mishnah, Judah the Prince and his court also ruled on which opinions should be followed, though the rulings do not always appear in the text.
Most of the Mishnah is related without attribution (stam). This usually indicates that many sages taught so, or that Judah the Prince ruled so. The halakhic ruling usually follows that view. Sometimes, however, it appears to be the opinion of a single sage, and the view of the sages collectively (Hebrew: חכמים, hachamim) is given separately.
As Judah the Prince went through the tractates, the Mishnah was set forth, but throughout his life some parts were updated as new information came to light. Because of the proliferation of earlier versions, it was deemed too hard to retract anything already released, and therefore a second version of certain laws were released. The Talmud refers to these differing versions as Mishnah Rishonah ("First Mishnah") and Mishnah Acharonah ("Last Mishnah"). David Zvi Hoffmann suggests that Mishnah Rishonah actually refers to texts from earlier Sages upon which Rabbi based his Mishnah.
The Talmud records a tradition that unattributed statements of the law represent the views of Rabbi Meir (Sanhedrin 86a), which supports the theory (recorded by Sherira Gaon in his famous Iggeret) that he was the author of an earlier collection. For this reason, the few passages that actually say "this is the view of Rabbi Meir" represent cases where the author intended to present Rabbi Meir's view as a "minority opinion" not representing the accepted law.
There are also references to the "Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva", suggesting a still earlier collection; on the other hand, these references may simply mean his teachings in general. Another possibility is that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir established the divisions and order of subjects in the Mishnah, making them the authors of a school curriculum rather than of a book.
Authorities are divided on whether Rabbi Judah the Prince recorded the Mishnah in writing or established it as an oral text for memorisation. The most important early account of its composition, the Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon (Epistle of Rabbi Sherira Gaon) is ambiguous on the point, although the Spanish recension leans to the theory that the Mishnah was written. However, the Talmud records that, in every study session, there was a person called the tanna appointed to recite the Mishnah passage under discussion. This may indicate that, even if the Mishnah was reduced to writing, it was not available on general distribution.
Very roughly, there are two traditions of Mishnah text. One is found in manuscripts and printed editions of the Mishnah on its own, or as part of the Jerusalem Talmud. The other is found in manuscripts and editions of the Babylonian Talmud; though there is sometimes a difference between the text of a whole paragraph printed at the beginning of a discussion (which may be edited to conform with the text of the Mishnah-only editions) and the line-by-line citations in the course of the discussion.
Robert Brody, in his Mishna and Tosefta Studies (Jerusalem 2014), warns against over-simplifying the picture by assuming that the Mishnah-only tradition is always the more authentic, or that it represents a "Palestinian" as against a "Babylonian" tradition. Manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza, or citations in other works, may support either type of reading or other readings altogether.
Complete mss. bolded.
|Usual name||Formal designation||Place written||Period written||Description|
|Kaufmann||Hungarian Academy of Sciences Library Kaufmann ms. A50||Prob. Palestine||10th, possibly 11th C.||It is considered the best manuscript and forms the base text of all critical editions. Vocalization is by a different, later hand.|
|Parma||Biblioteca Palatina ms. Parm. 3173||Palestine or Southern Italy, which in any case it reached soon after being written down||Script shows strong similarities to Codex Hebr. Vaticanus 31, securely dated to 1073||The Parma ms. is close to the Kaufmann ms. palaeographically but not textually. Text is closest to the Mishnah quotations given in the Leiden Palestinian Talmud.|
|Cambridge / Lowe||Cambridge University Library ms. Add. 470 (II)||Sepharadic||14-15th C.||A very careless copy, it is nonetheless useful where the Kaufmann text is corrupt.|
|Parma B||North Africa||12-13th C.||Toharot only. Unlike all of the above mss., the vocalization and consonant text are probably by the same hand, which makes it the oldest vocalization of part of the Mishnah known.|
|Yemenite ms.||National Library of Israel quarto 1336||Yemen||17-18th C.||Nezikin to Toharot. The consonant text is dependent on early printed editions. The value of this ms. lies exclusively in the vocalization.|
The Literature of the Jewish People in the Period of the Second Temple and the Talmud, Volume 3 The Literature of the Sages: First Part: Oral Tora, Halakha, Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, External Tractates. Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Ed. Shmuel Safrai, BRILL, 1987, ISBN 9004275134
The first printed edition of the Mishnah was published in Naples. There have been many subsequent editions, including the late 19th century Vilna edition, which is the basis of the editions now used by the religious public.
Vocalized editions were published in Italy, culminating in the edition of David ben Solomon Altaras, publ. Venice 1737. The Altaras edition was republished in Mantua in 1777, in Pisa in 1797 and 1810 and in Livorno in many editions from 1823 until 1936: reprints of the vocalized Livorno editions were published in Israel in 1913, 1962, 1968 and 1976. These editions show some textual variants by bracketing doubtful words and passages, though they do not attempt detailed textual criticism. The Livorno editions are the basis of the Sephardic tradition for recitation.
As well as being printed on its own, the Mishnah is included in all editions of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Each paragraph is printed on its own, and followed by the relevant Gemara discussion. However, that discussion itself often cites the Mishnah line by line. While the text printed in paragraph form has generally been standardized to follow the Vilna edition, the text cited line by line in the Gemara often preserves important variants, which sometimes reflect the readings of older manuscripts.
The nearest approach to a critical edition is that of Hanoch Albeck. There is also an edition by Yosef Qafiḥ of the Mishnah together with the commentary of Maimonides, which compares the base text used by Maimonides with the Napoli and Vilna editions and other sources.
The Mishnah was and still is traditionally studied through recitation (out loud). Jewish communities around the world preserved local melodies for chanting the Mishnah, and distinctive ways of pronouncing its words.
Today, many communities have a special tune for the Mishnaic passage "Bammeh madliqin" in the Friday night service; there may also be tunes for Mishnaic passages in other parts of the liturgy, such as the passages in the daily prayers relating to sacrifices and incense and the paragraphs recited at the end of the Musaf service on Shabbat. Otherwise, there is often a customary intonation used in the study of Mishnah or Talmud, somewhat similar to an Arabic mawwal, but this is not reduced to a precise system like that for the Biblical books. (In some traditions this intonation is the same as or similar to that used for the Passover Haggadah.) Recordings have been made for Israeli national archives, and Frank Alvarez-Pereyre has published a book-length study of the Syrian tradition of Mishnah reading on the basis of these recordings.
Most vowelized editions of the Mishnah today reflect standard Ashkenazic vowelization, and often contain mistakes. The Albeck edition of the Mishnah was vowelized by Hanokh Yalon, who made careful eclectic use of both medieval manuscripts and current oral traditions of pronunciation from Jewish communities all over the world. The Albeck edition includes an introduction by Yalon detailing his eclectic method.
Two institutes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have collected major oral archives which hold (among other things) extensive recordings of Jews chanting the Mishnah using a variety of melodies and many different kinds of pronunciation. These institutes are the Jewish Oral Traditions Research Center and the National Voice Archives (the Phonoteca at the Jewish National and University Library). See below for external links.
Both the Mishnah and Talmud contain little serious biographical studies of the people discussed therein, and the same tractate will conflate the points of view of many different people. Yet, sketchy biographies of the Mishnaic sages can often be constructed with historical detail from Talmudic and Midrashic sources.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Second Edition), it is accepted that Judah the Prince added, deleted, and rewrote his source material during the process of redacting the Mishnah. Modern authors who have provided examples of these changes include J.N. Epstein and S. Friedman.
Following Judah the Prince's redaction there remained a number of different versions of the Mishnah in circulation. The Mishnah used in the Babylonian rabbinic community differing markedly from that used in the Palestinian one. Indeed within these rabbinic communities themselves there are indications of different versions being used for study. These differences are shown in divergent citations of individual Mishnah passages in the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Talmud Bavli, and in variances of medieval manuscripts and early editions of the Mishnah. The best known examples of these differences is found in J.N.Epstein’s Introduction to the Text of the Mishnah (1948).
Epstein has also concluded that the period of the Amoraim was one of further deliberate changes to the text of the Mishnah, which he views as attempts to return the text to what was regarded as its original form. These lessened over time, as the text of the Mishnah became more and more regarded as authoritative.
Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation of the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is composed of sources which date from its editor's lifetime, and to what extent is it composed of earlier, or later sources. Are Mishnaic disputes distinguishable along theological or communal lines, and in what ways do different sections derive from different schools of thought within early Judaism? Can these early sources be identified, and if so, how? In response to these questions, modern scholars have adopted a number of different approaches.
[The Oral Law] was handed down by word of mouth during a long period. ... The first attempts to write down the traditional matter, there is reason to believe, date from the first half of the second post-Christian century.Strack theorizes that the growth of a Christian canon (the New Testament) was a factor that influenced the Rabbis to record the oral law in writing.
Despite the many secular demands on his time, Rabbeinu Shmuel authored a number of books. The most famous is the Mevo HaTalmud, an introduction to the study of the Talmud which clarifies the language and structure which can be so confusing to beginners. In addition, the Mevo HaTalmud describes the development of the Mishnah and the Gemara and lists the Tannaim and Amoraim who were instrumental in preparing the Talmud.