Image: A stained glass window in Or Torah Synagogue, in Akko, Israel picturing the six orders of the Mishnah at Mt. Sinai. Photo by Ilana Shkolnik, via PikiWiki. Some rights reserved.
The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, is Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah.) The Mishnah is the first part of Torah Shebal Peh, Oral Torah. z
Rabbinic Judaism understands the Oral Torah to be handed down from Sinai just as the Written Torah was handed down, only Oral Torah was passed only by word of mouth. The early rabbis sought it out by searching their memories for what their teachers had taught them. They also sought it out via reason, as you will soon see if you read a bit of Mishnah. For many Jews, the process of understanding Torah continues today.
The early rabbis were engaged in trying to understand the Written Torah. The Bible is often vague about the details of commandments, for instance:
Impress [these words] upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.Deuteronomy 6:7
“These words” refer to the Shema. It is clear from the text that recital of these words is very important, and that there are times when it should happen. But when, exactly? In Mishnah Berakhot (Blessings) we have a record of the beginning of the rabbis’ discussion of the time to say the Shema in the evening:
From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter [their houses] in order to eat their terumah until the end of the first watch, the words of Rabbi Eliezer. The sages say: until midnight. Rabban Gamaliel says: until dawn. Once it happened that his sons came home [late] from a wedding feast and they said to him: we have not yet recited the [evening] Shema. He said to them: if it is not yet dawn you are still obligated to recite. And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but wherever the sages say “until midnight,” the mitzvah may be performed until dawn. The burning of the fat and the pieces may be performed till dawn. Similarly, all [the offerings] that are to be eaten within one day may be eaten till dawn. Why then did the sages say “until midnight”? In order to keep a man far from transgression.Mishnah Berakhot, 1:1
If you felt a little confused after reading that, you aren’t alone. In one short paragraph, we have three different opinions, a story, and a principle of Jewish Law! This is typical of the Mishnah: it is incredibly compact, almost in code. The rabbis are just beginning their discussions and when they continue (in the Gemara, which won’t be redacted until at least 300 years later) they will have more to say. This bit of Mishnah concludes with something that will become a principle in shaping Jewish life: “In order to keep a man far from transgression” some rabbis set limits beyond “the letter of the law” so that people won’t accidentally make a mistake.
The Mishnah is arranged into six orders, or parts:
- Zera’im (Seeds) Agricultural law, as well as blessings.
- Mo’ed (Festival) Laws of Shabbat and holidays.
- Nezikin (Damages) Civil and criminal law.
- Nashim (Women) Laws of marriage, divorce, and some kinds of oaths.
- Kodashim (Holy Things) Sacrifices and ritual slaughter.
- Taharot (Ritual cleanliness) Ritual purity and impurity.
Each of these parts is further broken down into tractates, which focus on more specific topics. Berakhot, which has to do with blessings, is a tractate within Order Zera’im.
The discussions in the Mishnah are unfinished, so why study them?
First, this is the document in which the precedent was set for including minority opinions. Rabbi Judah the Prince included not only the opinions that would eventually become law, he included minority opinions so that those ideas would not be lost. This reflects an attitude about discussion that would color Jewish education forever going forward: all opinions are important, even those that aren’t in favor at the moment.
Second, it is a snapshot of the rabbinic world at a critical moment in time. The First and Second Jewish Revolts against Rome had gone badly for the Jews. Life in the land of Israel (by then, Palestina) was becoming untenable for Jews. The centers of Jewish scholarship were moving to Babylon, outside the Roman Empire. There were still living individuals who remembered the Temple services (Much of Tractate Yoma is essentially an account of what went on at the Temple on Yom Kippur, for instance.)
Mishnah plus the further discussions of Gemara equal Talmud. The Talmud is also a collection of discussions, arranged in the same orders as the Mishnah. It, too, is often unfinished in spots and includes many minority opinions. For more about what the Talmud is, and how it functions, read What is the Talmud?