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The Mishnah (Hebrew משנה, "Repetition") is a major source of rabbinic Judaism's religious texts. It is the first recording of the oral law of the Jewish people, as championed by the Pharisees. It was redacted by Judah haNasi around the year 200 CE. It is considered the first work of Rabbinic Judaism.

The Mishnah is noteworthy in Rabbinic literature for its depiction of a religious universe in which the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed a century earlier, still retains a central place. Laws concerning the Temple service constitute one of the Mishnah's six divisions.

Also noteworthy is the Mishnah's lack of citation of a scriptural basis for its laws. It is said that the Oral Law was given simultaneously with the Written Law (Torah), and so does not derive directly from it. Connecting the Mishnaic law with the Torah law was a major enterprise of the later Midrash and Talmuds.

The Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded therein are called Tannaim, the plural of Tanna; Tanna is an Aramaic term for the Hebrew word shana, which also is the root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (שנה) literally means 'to repeat [what one was taught]' and is used to mean 'to learn'. The term 'Mishna' basically means the entire body of Jewish religious law that was passed down and developed before 200 CE, when it was finally redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (Judah the Prince). He is usually simply referred to as 'Rabbi'.

The word mishna can also indicate a paragraph, i.e., the smallest unit of structure in the Mishna. The plural is mishnayot. Thus, a number of mishnayot make up a perek (chapter), a number of perakim (chapters) make up a masechet (tractate), a number of masechtot (tractates) make up a seder (order) and the Shas (acronym for Shisha Sedarim - the six orders) make up the Mishna (or alternatively the Talmud if discussing the Gemara.)


Relation between the Bible and the Mishnah

Rabbinical Judaism holds that the Five Books of Moses called the Torah have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. Two guides to laws were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. The first, known as Torah she-bi-khtav, or the "Written Law" is composed of only the Five Books of Moses--Genesis through Deuteronomy. These five books are the Hebrew Bible. When the writings of the Prophets and the wisdom and creative literature are added to the Torah [the Five Books of Moses] the expanded volume is called the Tanakh. It is this "complete" version of Hebrew Literature that Christianity knows as "The Old Testament." The Tanakh comprises the Hebrew Bible as we know it today. The second law given to Moses at Sinai, known as Torah she-ba'al peh, is the exposition of the Written Law as relayed by the scholarly and other religious leaders of each generation. This Oral Law is, in some sense, the more authoritative of the two. The traditions of the Oral Law are considered as the basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law.

By the time of Judah Ha-Nasi (200 CE) much of the Oral Law was edited together into the Mishnah; see below. Over the next four centuries this material underwent analysis and debate, known as Gemara (completion), in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in the land of Israel and Babylon). These eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud. Jewish law and custom thus is not based on a literal reading of the Torah, or the rest of the Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written tradition.

The writing of the Mishnah

Prior to the time of Rabbi, Jewish Law was transmitted orally; It was forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law, as any writing would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation and abuse. However, after great debate, this restriction was lifted when it became apparent that it was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved. To prevent the material from being lost, Rabbi took up the redaction of the Mishna. He did not do this at his own discretion, but rather examined the tradition all the way back to the Great Assembly. Some of tractates preceded him; These he merely supplemented.

The structure of the Mishna

The Mishna consists of six orders (sedarim). This explains the traditional name for the Talmud as Shas, which is an abbreviation of shishah sedarim, "six orders". Each of the six orders contains between 7 and 12 tractates, called masechtot. Each masechet is divided into smaller units called mishnayot.(mishna - singular)

  • First Order: Zeraim ("Seeds"). 11 tractates. It deals with agricultural laws and prayers.
  • Second Order: Moed ("Festival Days"). 12 tractates. This pertains to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals.
  • Third Order: Nashim ("Women"). 7 tractates. Concerns marriage and divorce.
  • Fourth Order: Nezikin ("Damages"). 10 tractates. Deals with civil and criminal law.
  • Fifth Order: Kodshim ("Holy things"). 11 tractates. This involves sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws.
  • Sixth order: Tohorot ("Purity"). 12 tractates. This pertains to ritual and the laws of family purity.

Most of the Mishnah is related stam, i.e. without any name attributed to it. This usually indicates that many sages taught so, and the halakhic ruling usually follows that view. Sometimes, however, it is the opinion of a single sage whom Rabbi Judah haNasi favored and sought to establish the ruling accordingly.

The generations of the Mishnah sages

First Generation: Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai's generation (circa 40-80 CE).
Second Generation: Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua's generation, the teachers of Rabbi Akiva.
Third Generation: The generation of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues.
Fourth Generation: The generation of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and their colleagues.
Fifth Generation: Rabbi Judah haNasi's generation.
Sixth Generation: The interim generation between the Mishnah and the Talmud: Rabbis Shimon ben Judah HaNasi and Yehoshua ben Levi , etc.

Oral traditions and pronunciation

The Mishnah was and still is traditionally studied through recitation (out loud). Many medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah are vowelized, and some of these contain partial Tiberian cantillation. Jewish communities around the world preserved local melodies for chanting the Mishnah, and distinctive ways of pronouncing its words.

Most vowelized editions of the Mishnah today reflect standard Ashkenazic vowelization, and often contain mistakes. The Albeck edition of the Mishnah was vowelized by Hannokh Yellin, 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 entire volume by Yellin 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.


Maimonides was probably the first to author a comprehensive commentary on the Mishnah. He condenses the associated Talmudical debates, and offers his conclusion in a number of undecided issues.

Rabbi Samson of Sens (France) was, apart from Maimonides, one of the few rabbis of the early medieval era to compose a Mishna commentary. It is printed in many editions of the Mishna.

Rabbi Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro (15th century) wrote one of the most popular Mishna commentaries. While he draws on Maimonides' work, he offers more Talmudical material, making his work an occasional but useful work of reference in Talmud study.

After the Maharal of Prague had initiated organised Mishna study (Chevrath ha-Mishnayoth), his pupil Yomtov Lipman Heller wrote a commentary which resembles that of the Tosafists on the Talmud, and is therefore called Tosafoth Yom Tov. He offers brief insights into the Mishna and Bartenura's work. In many compact Mishna printings, a condensed version of his commentary, titled Ikar Tosafoth Yom Tov, is featured.

Other Acharonim who have written Mishna commentaries:

  • Rabbi Solomon Luria (the Maharshal)
  • The Vilna Gaon (Shenoth Eliyahu)
  • Rabbi Akiva Eiger

A prominent commentary from the 19th century is Tifereth Yisrael by Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz. It is subdivided into two parts, one more general and the other more analytical, titled Yachin and Boaz respectively (after two large pillars in the Temple in Jerusalem). Lipschutz has not been completely without controversy, partially because he refers on occasion to scientific findings.

The commentary by Pinhas Kehati, based on classical and contemporary works, has become widely popular. The commentary is designed to make the Mishnah widely accessible and is popularly referred to as "The Kehati". Each tractate is introduced with an overview of its contents, including historical and legal background material, and each mishnah is prefaced by a thematic introduction.

Historical study

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 Mishaic sages can often be constructed with historical detail from Talmudic and Midrashic sources.

Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is comprised of sources which date from its editor's lifetime, and to what extent is it comprised 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.

  • Traditionally, rabbinic Judaism has viewed the statements in the Mishna and Talmud as being historically accurate, and written under a subtle form of divine inspiration, sometimes called the Ruach haKodesh, "The Holy Spirit". In this view, the statements described therein are entirely reliable, and accepted as much. Nevertheless, even the Talmud points out that the Mishna is on occasions ambiguous or deficient. In general, textual criticism of the Mishna from Orthodox point-of-view has ceased after the completion of the Talmud, and modern attempts at textual criticism are mainly considered heretical. Most Orthodox Jews view the biographical statements in the Mishnah, Talmud and in some cases, even the early midrash collections, as being entirely historically reliable.
  • Some scholars hold that there has been extensive editorial reshaping of the stories and statements within the Mishna (and later, in the Talmud.) Lacking outside confirming texts, they hold that we cannot confirm the origin or date of most statements and laws, and that we can say little for certain about their authorship. In this view, the questions above are impossible to answer. See, for example, the works of Louis Jacobs, Baruch M. Bokser, Shaye J.D. Cohen, Steven D. Fraade.
  • Some scholars hold that the Mishna and Talmud have been extensively shaped by later editorial redaction, but that it contains sources which we can identify and describe with some level of reliability. In this view, sources can be identified to some extent because era of history and each distinct geographical region has its own unique feature, which one can trace and analyze. Thus, the questions above may be analyzed. See, for example, the works of Goodblatt, Lee Levine, David C. Kraemer and Robert Goldenberg.
  • Some scholars hold that many or most the statements and events described in the Mishnah and Talmud usually occurred more or less as described, and that they can be used as serious sources of historical study. In this view, historians do their best to tease out later editorial additions (itself a very difficult task) and skeptically view accounts of miracles, leaving behind a reliable historical text. See, for example, the works of Saul Lieberman, David Weiss Halivni, Avraham Goldberg and Dov Zlotnick.

See also



Historical study

  • Shalom Carmy (Ed.) Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations Jason Aronson, Inc.
  • Shaye J.D. Cohen, Patriarchs and Scholarchs, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 48 (1981), pp. 57-87
  • Steven D. Fraade, "The Early Rabbinic Sage," in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990), pp. 417-23
  • Robert Goldenberg The Sabbath-Law of Rabbi Meir (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1978)
  • Jacob Neusner Making the Classics in Judaism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), pp. 1-13 and 19-44
  • Jacob Neusner Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishna (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 14-22.
  • Gary Porton, The Traditions of Rabbi Ishmael (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982), vol. 4, pp. 212-25
  • Dov Zlotnick, The Iron Pillar: Mishnah (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1988), pp. 8-9

External links

  • Electronic Texts:
    • Mechon Mamre - Hebrew text according to Maimonides' version.
    • The Structured Mishnah - Hebrew text according to the Albeck edition (without vowels) with special formatting.
    • The Open Mishnah Project (project page), a multilingual project at Wikibooks in English (Mishnah ) and in Hebrew (משנה).
  • The Daily Mishnah (a study-cycle):
    • The Daily Mishnah - uses the Kehati commentary (in English translation).
    • Mishna Yomis - Daily Mishnah audio (English).
    • Mishnah Yomit - One mishnah per day. (Note: this study-cycle follows a different schedule than the regular one; contains extensive archives in English).
    • Mishnah of the Daf - a new Mishnah study cycle that parallels the progress of the Daf Yomi.
  • Audio Lectures:
  • Manuscripts:
  • Oral Traditions (chanting and pronunciation of the Mishnah):

Last updated: 10-24-2005 01:23:23
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