The Mishnah as a Response to Catastrophe

The Mishnah reflects an attempt by the rabbis to create an eternal Judaism, unaffected by the kinds of catastrophes that had afflicted the Jewish people in the preceding two centuries.

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Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism: A complete guide to beliefs, customs, and rituals, published by Pocket Books.

As they had in times of crisis before, the religious leaders of the Jewish people turned their gaze inward [after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE] and found strength in Torah. And as they had before, they adapted to a new situation. The synagogues had evolved as a response to the Babylonian Exile. Ezra had used the "scroll of Moses" as a rallying point for the Jewish masses.

 

Now the rabbis would turn their attention to the codification of Jew­ish law, shifting the focus of Judaism from Temple to Torah, to creating a Judaism whose invisible walls could not be breached by any intruder, no matter how heavily armed.

In the period following the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis would establish the canon of the Tanakh, set the basic structure of the prayer service, and begin the lengthy process of codifying the Law, of creating the Oral Torah.

There had been collections of halakhic [legal] rulings in the past. Rabbi Meir had recorded and arranged the rulings of his mentor, Rabbi Akiba, in the second century C.E. Tannaim of earlier generations had also collected oral rulings, particularly those handed down in their own academies. But it was Judah Ha-Nasi (also known as Judah the Prince and Rabbi) who undertook the monumental task of creating a compre­hensive book of halakhah up to his time, the Mishnah (from the Hebrew shanah/to repeat, "teaching by oral transmission").

old book turning pagesOver a roughly 20-year period between 200 and 220 C.E., Judah Ha-Nasi created a veritable constitution, an authoritative guide to Jew­ish law for judges and teachers to use. By doing so, he and the rabbis with whom he worked were asserting the continuing uniqueness of the Jewish people. At the same time, they were creating an authoritative version that would be the center of discussion, classification, and interpretation for generations to come.

But it did more. Not only did the Mishnah present a practical solution to a real-life problem—creating a manageable handbook of legal opinions—it also sent a message to the Jewish people in a time of darkness. With its focus on the immutable nature of worship—the endless rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the unchanging problems of ritual cleanliness and impurity—the Mishnah presented Judaism as a faith and practice not bound by the fleeting passage of historical time.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.