Maimonides on the Six Orders of the Mishnah

The sequence of the six orders follows the precedent of Scripture

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Maimonides, also known as Rambam, was a Jewish legal codifier, a philosopher, and a physician. He also wrote a commentary on the Mishnah in Arabic. In his introduction to that commentary, Maimonides  explains the sequence of the six sedarim (orders)  of the Mishnah by finding parallels between the order of the sedarim and several passages from the Torah. Reprinted with permission from Maimonides' Introduction to His Commentary on the Mishnah, translated and annotated by Fred Rosner, and published by Jason Aronson.

When the author of the Mishnah considered its editing, he saw fit to divide this work into sections and therefore di­vided it into six sections.

The first section deals with commandments per­taining to the plants of the land such as laws of prohibited mixtures, laws of the Sabbatical year, Orlah (fruit prohibited in the first years of a trees production), heave offerings, tithes, and other laws of agricultural gifts.

 

The second section deals with the holidays and the festivals their requirements and their varying laws, that which is prohibited, desirable and permitted therein, and those laws and command­ments that are properly associated with each of these holidays.

the mishnahThe third section deals with conjugal relations and enumeration of the laws pertaining to rela­tions between men and women such as the Levirate marriage, Halitzah (a surviving brother's refusal to marry his deceased brother's wife), the marriage settle­ment document, betrothals and divorces, and all that is deemed necessary to be stated for each of these subsections.

The fourth section deals with civil and criminal laws, disputes between man and his neighbor, trade, business dealings, partnership in real es­tate and the like.

The fifth section deals with sacrifices according to their varying laws and multitude of types.

The sixth section deals with the matter of puri­fications and their opposites.

Each of these sections is called a Seder (order). The first section is called Seder Zera'im (seeds, agriculture), the second Seder Mo'ed (appointed times), the third Seder Nashim (women), the fourth Seder Nezikin (damages), the fifth Seder Kodashim (holy things), and the sixth Seder Tohorot (purities).

[Rabbi Judah the patriarch] began with Seder Zera'im because it deals with laws specifically relating to the plants of the earth, and the plants of the earth represent the sustenance of all living creatures. Since it is not possible for man to survive without consuming food, it would be impossible for him to serve the Lord in any manner. Therefore, he began by speaking of preceptsdealing specifically with produce of the land.

Following this, he discusses Seder Mo'ed be­cause this is their sequence in the Torah, as it is stated: Six years shall thou sow thy land and shall gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year thou shall let it rest and lie fallow (Exodus 23:10-11) and immediately after is stated: Six days shall thou do thy work (Exodus 23:12); and this is followed by: Three festivals shall thou celebrate unto me in the year (Exodus 23:14).

After this he saw fit to have the laws of women precede the laws of damages, in order to follow the Divine approach as in the sequence in Scriptures which states, if a man sells his daughter to be a maid servant (Exodus 21:7),  And if men fight and hurt a pregnant woman(Exodus 21:22) and only then does it state; if an ox gores a man (Exodus 21:28). For this reason, he gave Seder Nashim precedence over Seder Nezikin. The Book of Ex­odus contains these four subjects, that is to say the topics of Seder Zera'm, Seder Mo'ed, Seder Nashim, and Seder Nezikin.

Having described the subject matter of the Book of Exodus, he then moved to the Book of Leviticus, according to their sequence in the Torah. And after Seder Nezikin he established Seder Kodashim and after that Seder Tohorot, because this is their sequence in Scripture. He gave the laws of sacrifices precedence over the laws of defilements and purifcations because purifications are first dis­cussed in the portion of Scripture: And it came to pass on the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1ff, whereas sacrifices are described in the first eight chapters of Leviticus).

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Dr. Fred Rosner

Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of the Department of Medicine of the Mount Sinai Services at the Queens Hospital Center and Professor of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.