(משנה, "repetition", from the verb shanah
שנה, or "to study and review") is a major work of Rabbinic Judaism
, and the first major redaction into written form of Jewish oral traditions, called the Oral Torah
. It was debated between 70-200 CE
by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim
and redacted about 200 CE by Judah haNasi
when, according to the Talmud
, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions would be forgotten. The oral traditions that are the subject of the Mishnah go back to earlier, Pharisaic times.
The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but merely the collection of existing traditions.
The Mishnah is considered to be the first important work of Rabbinic Judaism and is a major source of later rabbinic religious thought. Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah over the next three centuries were redacted as the Gemara.
The Mishnah consists of six orders
, singular seder
סדר), each containing 7-12 tractates
, singular masechet
מסכת; lit. "web"), 63 in total. Each masechet
is divided into chapters (peraqim
, singular peraq
) and then paragraphs or verses (mishnayot
, singular Mishnah
). The Mishnah is also called Shas
for Shisha Sedarim
- the "six orders").
The Mishnah orders its content by subject matter, instead of by biblical context, and discusses individual subjects more thoroughly than the Midrash. It includes a much broader selection of halakhic subjects than the Midrash.
The six orders are:
- Zeraim ("Seeds"), dealing with prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws (11 tractates)
- Moed ("Festival"), pertaining to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals (12 tractates)
- Nashim ("Women"), concerning marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths and the laws of the nazirite (7 tractates)
- Nezikin ("Damages"), dealing with civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths (10 tractates)
- Kodashim ("Holy things"), regarding sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws (11 tractates) and
- Tohorot ("Purities"), pertaining to the laws of purity and impurity, including the impurity of the dead, the laws of ritual purity for the priests (Kohanim), the laws of "family purity" (the menstrual laws) and others (12 tractates).
In each order (with the exception of Zeraim), tractates are arranged from biggest (in number of chapters) to smallest.
The word Mishnah can also indicate a single paragraph or verse of the work itself, ie. the smallest unit of structure in the Mishnah.
The Babylonian Talmud (Hagiga 14a) states that there were either six-hundred or seven-hundred orders of the Mishnah. Hillel the Elder organized them into six orders to make it easier to remember. The historical accuracy of this tradition is disputed. There is also a tradition that Ezra the scribe dictated from memory not only the 24 books of the Tanakh but 60 esoteric books. It is not known whether this is a reference to the Mishnah, but there is a case for saying that the Mishnah does consist of 60 tractates. (The current total is 63, but Makkot was originally part of Sanhedrin, and Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra may be regarded as subdivisions of a single tractate Nezikin.)
Interestingly, Reuvein Margolies posits that there were originally seven orders of Mishnah. He cites a Gaonic tradition on the existence of a seventh order. The missing order contained the laws of Sta"m (scribal practice) and Berachot (blessings).
The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but merely the collection of existing oral laws, traditions and folk wisdom. The rabbis who contributed to the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim, of whom approximately 120 are known. The period during which the Mishnah was assembled spanned about 170 years, and five generations.
Most of the Mishnah is related without attribution (stam). This usually indicates that many sages taught so, and the halakhic ruling usually follows that view. Sometimes, however, it appears to be the opinion of a single sage, and the view of the sages collectively (hachamim) is given separately. In such cases the halakha usually follows the "sages," but may follow a third view expressed by a named rabbi.
The Talmud records a tradition that unattributed statements of the law represent the views of Rabbi Meir, which supports the theory that he was the author of an earlier collection. For this reason, the few passages that actually say "this is the view of Rabbi Meir" represent cases where his view was later rejected.
Rabbi Judah haNasi (popularly called "Rabbi") is credited with publishing the Mishnah, though there may have been a few edits since his time (for example, those passages that cite him by name). According to Maimonides (Introduction to Mishneh Torah), after the tremendous upheaval caused by the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt, the Oral Torah was in danger of being forgotten. It was for this reason that Rabbi chose to redact the Mishnah.
One must also note that in addition to redacting the Mishnah, Rabbi and his court also ruled on which opinions should be followed, though the rulings do not always appear in the text.
As he went through the tractates, the Mishnah was set forth, but throughout his life some parts were updated as new information came to light. Because of the proliferation of earlier versions, it was deemed too hard to retract anything already released, as such, a second version of certain laws were released. The Talmud refers to these differing versions as Mishnah Rishonah ("First Mishnah") and Mishnah Acharonah ("Last Mishnah"). David Zvi Hoffman suggests that Mishnah Rishonah actually refers to texts from earlier Sages upon which Rabbi based his Mishnah.
One theory is that the present Mishnah was based on an earlier collection by Rabbi Meir. There are also references to the "Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva", though this may simply mean his teachings in general. It is possible that Rabbis Akiva and Meir established the divisions and order of subjects in the Mishnah, but this would make them the authors of a school curriculum rather than of a book.
Authorities are divided on whether Rabbi Judah haNasi recorded the Mishnah in writing or established it as an oral text for memorisation. The most important early account of its composition, the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, is ambiguous on the point, though the "Spanish" recension leans to the theory that the Mishnah was written. However, the Talmud records that, in every study session, there was a person called the tanna appointed to recite the Mishnah passage under discussion. This may indicate that, even if the Mishnah was reduced to writing, it was not available on general distribution.
Before the publication of the Mishnah, Jewish scholarship was predominantly oral. Rabbis expounded on and debated the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (megillot setarim), for example of court decisions. The oral traditions were far from monolithic, and varied among various schools, the most famous of which were the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.
The end of the Jewish commonwealth in the year 70 CE resulted in an upheaval of Jewish social and legal norms. The Rabbis were faced with the new reality of Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing.
The earliest recorded oral law may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Torah. But an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, became dominant by about the year 200 CE, when Rabbi Judah haNasi redacted the Mishnah. In general, all opinions, even the non-normative ones, were recorded in the Mishnah and subsequently the Talmud.
In modern times, "the law" takes on a different meaning than discussed in the Mishnah and Talmud. "The law" in Judaism refers primarily to biblical law, given to the Israelites by God through Moses, as well as interpretations of the meaning and application of those rules. Thus, "the Law" is understood to be the religious teachings and rules given by God. Yet, since religion was infused in every area of life, rules for governing society, resolution of disputes, and enforcing safety and public order were also governed by the religious law, leading to an overlap of religion and modern conceptions of law.
Relationship with the Hebrew Bible
holds that the oral tradition
was received by Moses
at Mount Sinai
in parallel with the Five Books of Moses
, the (written) Torah
), and that these together have always been the basis of Jewish law
(halakha). The "Written Law" consists of the "Five Books of Moses," the first five books of the Hebrew Bible
, and not the Bible as a whole.
According to the Rabbinic view, the Oral Law (Torah she-be'al-peh) was also given to Moses at Sinai, and is the exposition of the Written Law as relayed by the scholarly and other religious leaders of each generation. This Oral Law is authoritative in practical terms, as the traditions of the Oral Law are considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law.
Thus, Jewish law and custom is based not only on a literal reading of the Torah, or the rest of the Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written traditions. Notably, the Mishnah does not cite a written scriptural basis for its laws: since it is said that the Oral Law was given simultaneously with the Written Law, the Oral Law codified in the Mishnah does not derive directly from the Written Law of the Torah. This is in contrast with the Midrash halakha, works in which the sources of the traditionally received laws are identified in the Tanakh, often by linking a verse to a halakha. These Midrashim often predate the Mishnah.
By 200 CE, much of the Oral Law was edited together into the Mishnah, and published by Rabbi Judah haNasi. Over the next four centuries this material underwent analysis and debate, known as Gemara ("completion"), in what were at that time the world's two major Jewish communities, in the land of Israel and in the Babylonian Empire. These debates eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud: the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) for the compilation in Israel, and Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) for the compilation undertaken in Babylon.
Competing oral laws and acceptance
It is unclear, according to J. Sussman (Mehqerei Talmud III), whether there was any writing connected to the Oral Law, or whether it was entirely oral. Over time, different traditions of the Oral Law came into being, raising debates about what the laws or their rulings were. According to the Mevo Hatalmud
many rulings were given about specific things that could have been taken out of context or where a ruling was revisited but the second ruling was not as popularly known. To correct this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi took up the redaction of the Mishnah. If something was already there with no conflict, he used it without changes in language, he reordered and ruled on where there was conflict, and clarified where context was not given. The idea was not do this at his own discretion, but rather to examine the tradition as far back as he could, and only supplement as required.
Some Jews did not accept the written codification of the oral law at all; known as Karaites, they comprised a significant portion of the world Jewish population in the 10th and 11th Centuries CE, and remain extant, though they currently number in the thousands.
A number of important laws are not elaborated upon in the Mishnah. These include the laws of tzitzit
(Sta"m), the holiday of Hanukkah
, and the laws of gerim
(converts). These were later discussed in the minor tractates.
Rabbi Nissim Gaon in his Hakdamah Le'mafteach Hatalmud writes that many of these laws were so well known that it was unnecessary for Rabbi to discuss them. Reuvain Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, Rabbi could not have included discussion of Hanukkah which commemorates the Jewish revolt against the Syrian-Greeks (the Romans would not have tolerated this overt nationalism). Similarly, there were then several decrees in place aimed at suppressing outward signs of national identity, including decrees against wearing tefillin and tzitzit; as Conversion to Judaism was against Roman law, Rabbi would not have discussed this.
David Zvi Hoffman suggests that there existed ancient texts in the form of the present day Shulchan Aruch that discussed the basic laws of day to day living and it was therefore not necessary to focus on these laws in the Mishnah.
The earliest printed edition of the Mishnah was published in Naples ("the Napoli edition"). There have been many subsequent editions, including the late nineteenth century Vilna edition, which is the basis of the editions now used by the religious public.
As well as being printed on its own, the Mishnah is included in all editions of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Each paragraph is printed on its own, and followed by the relevant Gemara discussion. However, that discussion itself often cites the Mishnah line by line. While the text printed in paragraph form has generally been standardized to follow the Vilna edition, the text cited line by line often preserves important variants, which sometimes reflect the readings of older manuscripts.
The nearest approach to a critical edition is that of Hanoch Albeck. There is also an edition by Yosef Qafih of the Mishnah together with the commentary of Maimonides, which compares the base text used by Maimonides with the Napoli and Vilna editions and other sources.
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 Hanokh 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 introduction 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.
- In 1168, Maimonides published a comprehensive commentary on the Mishnah. It was written in transliterated Arabic (using Hebrew letters) and was one of the first commentaries of its kind. In it, "Rambam" condenses the associated Talmudical debates, and offers his conclusions in a number of undecided issues. Of particular significance are the various introductory sections - as well as the introduction to the work itself - these are widely quoted in other works on the Mishnah, and on the Oral law in general. Perhaps the most famous is his introduction to the tenth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin where he enumerates the thirteen fundamental beliefs of Judaism.
- Rabbi Samson of Sens (France) was, apart from Maimonides, one of the few rabbis of the early medieval era to compose a Mishnah commentary. It is printed in many editions of the Mishnah.
- Rabbi Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro (15th century) wrote one of the most popular Mishnah commentaries. He draws on Maimonides' work but also offers Talmudical material (in effect a summary of the Talmudic discussion) largely following the commentary of Rashi. In addition to its role as a commentary on the Mishnah, this work is often referenced by students of Talmud as a review-text, and is often referred to as "the Bartanura" or "the Ra'V".
- After the Maharal of Prague had initiated organised Mishnah study (Chevrath ha-Mishnayoth), Yomtov Lipman Heller (who is often believed to be his pupil but came to Prague already as a mature scholar) wrote a commentary called Tosafoth Yom Tov. In the introduction Heller says that his aim is to make additions (tosafoth) to Bertinoro’s commentary. The glosses are sometimes quite detailed and analytic. That is why it is sometimes compared to the Tosafoth - discussions of Babylonian gemara by French and German scholars of 12-13th C. In many compact Mishnah printings, a condensed version of his commentary, titled Ikar Tosafoth Yom Tov, is featured.
- Other Acharonim who have written Mishna commentaries:
- 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). Although Rabbi Lipschutz has faced some controversy in certain Hasidic circles, he was greatly respected by such sages as Rabbi Akiva Eiger, whom he frequently cites, and is widely accepted in the Yeshiva world.
- The commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati, which is written in Modern Israeli Hebrew and based on classical and contemporary works, has become popular in the late Twentieth Century. The commentary is designed to make the Mishnah widely accessible to a wide spectrum of learners of all ages and all levels of experience in Torah study. It 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. The current version of this edition is printed with the Bartenura commentary as well as Kehati's.
- The above-mentioned edition edited by Hanokh Albeck and vocalized by Hanokh Yellin (1952-59) includes the former's extensive commentary on each Mishnah, as well as introductions to each tractate (Masekhet) and order (Seder.) This commentary tends to focus on the meaning of the mishnayot themselves, without as much reliance on the Gemara's interpretation and is, therefore, considered valuable as a tool for the study of Mishnah as an independent work. It is currently out of print.
As a historical source
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 Mishnaic sages can often be constructed with historical detail from Talmudic and Midrashic
Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation of the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is composed of sources which date from its editor's lifetime, and to what extent is it composed 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.
- Some scholars hold that there has been extensive editorial reshaping of the stories and statements within the Mishnah (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 Mishnah 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 each 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 of 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.
- Professor Lawrence Shiffman proves that many of the specific, detailed arguments of the Pharisees already existed in 150 BCE (or earlier) - as documented in the Dead Sea Scroll MMT.
- Philip Blackman. Mishnayoth. The Judaica Press, Ltd., 2000 (ISBN 0-910818-00-X)
- Herbert Danby. The Mishnah. Oxford, 1933 (ISBN 0-19-815402-X).
- Jacob Neusner. The Mishnah: A New Translation. New Haven, reprint 1991 (ISBN 0-300-05022-4).
- Various editors. The Mishnah, a new translation with commentary Yad Avraham. New York: Mesorah publishers, since 1980s.
- 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)
- John W McGinley 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly ISBN 0-595-40488-X
- Jacob Neusner Making the Classics in Judaism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), pp. 1-13 and 19-44
- Jacob Neusner Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (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
- Reuvain Margolies, Yesod Ha-Mishnah V'Arichatah (Heb.)
- David Tzvi Hoffman, Mishnah Rishonah U'flugta D'tanna'e (Heb)
- Frank Alvarez-Pereyre, La Transmission Orale de la Mishna. Une methode d'analyse appliquee a la tradition d'Alep: Jerusalem 1990
Wikisource's Open Mishna Project
is developing Mishnah texts, commentaries, and translations. The project is currently available in four languages: he:משנה
(the largest collection), Mishnah
Other electronic texts
Mishnah study & the Daily Mishnah
- Aaron Ahrend, "Mishna Study and Study Groups in Modern Times" in JSIJ 3: 2004 (Hebrew). Available online here (Word & PDF).
- The Daily Mishna - uses the Kehati commentary (in English translation).
- Mishna Yomit - One Mishna per day. (Note: this study-cycle follows a different schedule than the regular one; contains extensive archives in English).
- Mishna of the Daf - a new Mishna study cycle that parallels the progress of the Daf Yomi.
- Kehati Mishna a program of two Mishnayos per day, and the complete text of Kehati in English
- Dafyomireview - custom learning and review programs for mishnayos
Oral Traditions (chanting and pronunciation of the Mishnah)