Mishnah

When Palestinian society emerged from the turbulence of the two Jewish revolts against the Romans at the end of the second century c.e., rabbis united to promote a religious document called the Mishnah. The Mishnah and its subsidiary books, commonly called the Tosefta and the Talmud, serve Judaism to the present day just as a constitution unites citizens to a state.

The Mishnah is the core of this constitution; its name comes from the Hebrew word for "repeat". It was compiled under the leadership of Judah ha-Nasi, organized into six "orders", 63 tractates, and 531 chapters.

The six orders are Zera’im (agricultural laws), Mo’ed (seasonal observances), Nashim (relations with women), Neziqin (civil law), Qodashim (cultic law), and Tohorot (taboos). The Tosefta is a collection of supplements to the Mishnah, with approximately three-fourths devoted merely to citation and amplification of the contents of the Mishnah.

The Tosefta has no independent standing, being organized around the Mishnah, probably closed around the fifth century c.e. Both of these documents are the basis for the Talmuds, Palestinian (fourth century c.e.) and Babylonian (fifth century c.e.). The organization of the Talmuds also follows the Mishnah’s orders and tractates.


The Mishnah is something like the New Testament for Christians in two important ways: It represents a new and limited perspective of the Bible, and it presents itself as divinely inspired.

After the Temple was destroyed there was a need to reorient Judaism from a temple-oriented cult to a Torah-oriented culture of study and exposition. Similarly, after the life of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth, Christians reinterpreted the Old Testament in a way that centered on his messiahship.

Thus, neither document was a repetition of the Jewish Bible, since neither pays attention to all aspects of the Bible’s themes. The Mishnah projects itself as an orally transmitted supplement to the written inspiration of the Bible.

It claims to be the words of Moses that were not originally written down like the Bible, now safeguarded in written form to preserve the Jewish faith. The Bible is the written Torah; the Mishnah is the oral Torah. Both are from Moses and authoritative.

Surprisingly, however, the Mishnah is not at all focused on the historical plight or future destiny of the Jewish people. Rather, it is a compendium of topics that the rabbis found relevant for their religious imagination.

The only historical references are the some 150 teachers and rabbis that speak out in the book, but not much description surrounds them to help the reader figure out their "real world". In fact, the only historical context reflects the Jewish world after 150 c.e.

Its value for historians is therefore limited. Modern scholar ship holds that the Mishnah reflects what the second-century rabbis considered important for their faith: not the temporary and changing face of external history, but the permanent and enduring world of holiness and eternality.

For example, the fifth order mainly concerns the Temple, even though the Temple had been destroyed generations earlier and its grounds were off-limits to Jews. Half of the Mishnah addresses this imaginary world of officials and customs that were no longer present or possible in Judah ha-Nasi’s day.

Jews in late antiquity, however, could take "real-world" consolation in the message of the Mishnah. Its message hinted at an imaginary world that countered the Roman worldview where Caesar demanded total allegiance.

The Mishnah says that God owns the land of Palestine and gives it to the people of Israel, Israel must pay God representative payments (tithes and offerings) and observe religious calendars to show divine ownership, and God has sovereignty over the social dimensions of human life as in clan and culture.

If the Mishnah is a selective treatment of the Bible and refl ects a theology that its compilers found inspiring but not overtly related to the external world, then its sequel, the Talmud, also commented on the Mishnah according to its later priorities.

Whole sections of the Mishnah were ignored. The Jerusalem Talmud covers only 39 of the 63 tractates and says nary a word on the fifth order and little on the sixth order; the Babylonian Talmud has its own set of equally limited applications.

Together, both treated the Mishnah in a manner that was different than what the compilers of the Mishnah intended. If the Mishnah is analogous to the New Testament, then the Talmuds are analogous to the writings of the fathers of the church.

Very soon after the Mishnah was compiled, Jews made it the centerpiece of their study, and it became the structure and content of their discussions. Other academies outside of Yavneh (Tiberias, Caesarea, Sepphoris, and Lydda in Palestine; Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea in Babylonia) adopted the Mishnah as their base text.

Even non-Mishnaic materials (such as the baraitot) were studied in relation to their parallels in the Mishnah. Its language, commonly called Mishnaic Hebrew, is a direct development of the spoken Hebrew language of the late biblical period with heavy infl uence by the predominant Aramaic language.

Because of the Mishnah’s authority not only in Palestine but also in the other great center of Jewish culture, Babylon, the Hebrew language was revitalized and never died out in rabbinic circles.