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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Bar Kokhba is defeated? The new moon still will come this month and need to be welcomed on Rosh Chodesh [the first of the new month]. The Romansoppress us yet again? Spring still means Pesach and summer Shavuot. Whether Jerusalem is in the hands of the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, or the Turks, Jews will still get married, give birth and be born, eat, work, and die, and the rituals that govern those realities must be themselves governed. Thus the Mishnah is a book of "an eternal present," as it has been phrased by Jacob Neusner.

Essentially, the Mishnah is a collection of legal rulings and opinions, written in what has come to be known as Mishnaic Hebrew. Distinct from biblical Hebrew grammatically and, to some extent, in vocabu­lary, Mishnaic Hebrew has been proven by archaeological finds to have been the everyday language of the Hebrews of Judea at the time of Bar Kokhba. However, when the centers of rabbinic learning shifted to the Galilee, where Aramaic was the common tongue, Mishnaic Hebrew was destined to become a dead language, and by the end of the tannaitic period it had.

The Mishnah is divided into six sedarim (orders), a structure that the Tosefta (a supplementary collection compiled anonymously in the same period) and both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds will follow. This order also gives Talmud one of its nicknames, shas, an acronym derived from shishah sedarim (six orders). Each of the Orders, in turn, has between seven and 12 subdivisions called masechtot (tractates, sing. masechet), of which the Mishnah contains 63. The tractates are divided into perakim / chapters, and the smallest units are designated as mishnayot (sing. mishnah) in the Babylonian Talmud or halakhot in the Palestinian Talmud. The tractates are given in order of length, beginning with the ones with the most chapters and continuing to those with the fewest.

Each of the six orders is named in a way that suggests one of its pri­mary topics. The first order, Zeraim (Seeds) deals particularly with laws of agriculture. The second order, Mo'ed (Appointed Seasons), covers the laws governing the festivals, fast days, and the Sabbath. The third order, Nashim (Women) primarily is concerned with laws governing marriage, divorce, betrothal, and adultery (although this order also contains the tractates Nedarim [Vows] and Nazir, which deals with the Nazirite vows of asceticism). The fourth order is Nezikin/Damages, and is largely con­cerned with what modern Anglo-American courts would call civil and criminal law, but also includes laws governing the treatment of idola­ters, and the most commonly read tractate of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of ethical maxims. The fifth order, Kodashim (Holy Things) covers such Temple-related matters as sac­rifices, ritual slaughter, and the priesthood. The sixth and final order is Tohorot /Purities, and the majority of the tractates within it deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity.

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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.