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Judaism 101: What Is the Mishnah and Why Is It Important to Jewish Life?

The Mishnah is considered the “Oral Torah” and is the first primary written version of the oral traditions and laws of the Jews. Collated and edited by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, the Mishnah provides a discussion of Jewish law for study based or scholarly debate.

Until Rabbi Judah collected and formed a study edition of the law in writing, the Judaic law was taught orally. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, many Jews left Jerusalem for other regions, particularly Babylon. At this point, the Rabbi thought it prudent to collate the notes of Torah scholars to form a study guide that would serve to preserve this wisdom as his people spread to new regions. Drawing from the work of other rabbis and scholars specializing in different areas of the halakhot (law), the Mishnah elaborates further on the Torah.

For example, while the Torah tells us to keep the Sabbath, the Mishnah provides guidance on how we do so. And while the law forbids Jews from eating on on Yom Kippur, the Mishnah exempts young children from this rule. The Mishnah provides instruction on how to follow the commandments found in the Torah under a wide range of situations.

What is the Mishnah About?

The first major work of the Rabbinical literature, the Mishnah is about a wide range of different topics. Organized into six separate orders, each of which is divided into “tractates,” for a total of 63 in all. These tractates (or masechtot), break down even further into chapters, called peraqim.

Since the Mishna is divided into six orders, it sometimes goes by the name of “shas,” which is an acronym for another term for the orders: “Shisha Sedarim.” The shas are found in the Mishnah are arranged as follows and each covers an essential aspect of halacha, or Judaic law:

Seder Zeraim (The Order of Seeds):

This order focuses on blessings and prayers, as well as agricultural laws and the matter of tithing and charity. This order also includes blessings and prayers and rulings regarding forbidden plantings, how to portion tithes, and how to handle produces restricted by the Torah.

Seder Moed (The Order of Festivals).

Order two covers the different laws governing the festivals, fasting, and keeping the Sabbath. For example, it explores subjects that include carrying and travel on the Sabbath, celebrating Rosh Hashana, and the requirements of Yom Kippur.

Seder Nashim (The Order of Women):

This order concerns itself with matters pertaining to marital and family relationships, including marriage, divorce, and property. Subjects covered include marriage contracts, vows, and the proper handling of adultery and divorce.

Seder Nezikin (The Order of Damages):

This order deals primarily with the functioning of the courts. It touches on matters of criminal and civil law. The subjects covered in the order include property and real estate law. It also includes discussions of punishment for criminal, civil, and even some religious transgressions.

Seder Kodashim (The Order of Holy Things):

This order specifies laws regarding the Temple, sacrificial rites, and important dietary laws. It covers the fitness of sacrificial animals and offerings. It also outlines the requirements for kosher foods, including prohibitions and the slaughter of animals for meat.

Seder Tohorot (Order of the Purities):

This order focuses upon laws pertaining to purity and impurity. These include impurity associated with the dead, laws regarding bodily purity, and the purity of food. Subjects also include the use of the mikvah and ritual washing of hands.

Other Facts About the Mishna

There are many historical events and points of interest regarding the Mishnah. For instance, the scholar Hillel organized the Mishnah for the Babylonian Talmud to make them easier to recall.

You can also divide the Mishnah further into two categories: Halacha (or law) and Aggadah (stories). The Mishnah contains both discussion on how to follow the Torah as well as stories that provide wisdom about the spirit and intent behind the laws. Some scholars say that the difference between the Halacha and Aggadah is similar to the differences between theory and practice. While the law directs behavior in life, family, and community, the Aggadah deals with less mundane matters, such as the afterlife and providence.

The Mishnah and the Gamara together comprise the Talmud. The Gamara is an additional book of teachings regarding the Torah and currently exists as two separate traditions. The Talmud Yerushalmi contains the Mishnah and Gamara of the sages of Israel. The other is the Talmud Bavli, which includes the Gamara of the Jewish sages of Babylon.

The Mishnah’s Critical Role in Judaism

Before the Mishnah was published, the judgment and scholarship of the Jews were transmitted by oral means. At the time, the Torah prohibited writing them down. However, after the loss of the Second Temple, fewer Jews remained in Jerusalem to teach and learn the laws in detail in this manner. The subsequent migration into other areas of the Roman Empire made a written text necessary.

While Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi’s decision to transcribe the Mishnah raised some controversy, it preserved this wisdom to modern day. While Karaite Jews don’t accept any written interpretation of the oral law, most Jews regard the Mishnah as core to the Jewish faith and Rabbinical practice utilizes its wisdom throughout the world.

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