The Mishnah (Hebrew: משנה, "repetition"), is the first written recording of the Oral Law of the Jewish people. Traditionally, it is thought to have been redacted (edited) around 200 C.E. by Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, also known as "Judah the Prince." It includes the often divergent religious opinions championed by the competing schools of the Pharisees and debated between 70-200 C.E. by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim. It is considered the first work of Rabbinic Judaism.
In the centuries after its initial redaction, commentaries on the Mishnah known as the Gemara (Aramaic: "Tradition") were compiled together with the Mishnah into the work known as the Talmud. The core of the Talmud is the Mishnah.
The Mishnah consists of six major orders (sedarim), each containing between seven and 12 tractates (masechtot), which are further divided into verses. The orders include:
Most modern editions of the Talmud are organized with each Mishnah section followed by its associated Gemara commentaries. A Mishnah section may only be a few lines or short paragraph, followed by much longer commentaries by various authorities of several pages.
After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., rabbinical interpretations became increasingly important since the authority of the Temple priesthood diminished. The rabbinical leaders, comprised primarily of the movement known as the Pharisees, debated both major and minor points of contention within the Torah. However these had not been formally compiled. In the wake of the persecution and scattering of the Palestinian Jewish community following the Bar Kochba revolt of the mid-second century, there was real fear that the oral tradition might be lost to posterity. By 200 C.E., much of the Oral Law was edited together into the Mishnah.
Over the next four centuries, this material underwent further analysis and debate—known as Gemara ("completion")—in the world's two major Jewish communities, in the former territory of Israel and in the Babylonian Empire. These debates eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud: the Jerusalem Talmud for the compilation in Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud for the version undertaken in Babylon, which ultimately became the main center of Jewish learning. Additional commentaries, based on the writings of European Jewish sages, were added to the Talmud in the medieval period.
Rabbinical Judaism holds that written Torah exists in parallel with an oral tradition, and that both of these were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. The first, known as the "Written Law," is composed of the five "Books of Moses," namely Genesis through Deuteronomy. The second law given to Moses also takes the form of the expositions of the Torah relayed by the scholars, prophets, and sages of each generation. This Oral Law is, in a certain sense, the more authoritative of the two, in that it is the basis for properly understanding the Written Law. Thus, Jewish law and custom—referred to as Halakhah—is based not only on a literal reading of the Torah, but on the combined oral and written traditions.
Interestingly, the Mishnah intentionally preserved contrasting, often diametrically opposed rabbinical opinions of various issues. For example:
Thus, it takes the position that revealed truth can sometimes exist dialectically, and that members of the believing community can remain united despite opposing views of matters of both theology and practice. This attitude has enabled Judaism to avoid permanent schisms for the most part, in contrast to the Christian tendency to more easily condemn divergent theological views as heresy.
The Mishnah does not cite a written scriptural basis for its arguments and dicta. This is in contrast with the Midrashim (singular: midrash), commentaries in which the scriptural sources are specifically identified. These commentaries often predate the Mishnah.
The period of the Mishnah is commonly divided into five stages according to generations of the Tannaim—the sages of whose opinions the Mishnah is composed. There are approximately 120 known Tannaim. They lived in several areas of Judea, later known as Palestine.
The spiritual center of Judaism at that time was Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city and the Temple in 70 C.E., Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his students founded a new religious center in Jammia (Yavne). It would be here that many of the debates described in the Mishna were recorded.
The generations of the Tannaim included:
Many of the Tannaim worked as laborers in addition to their duties as teachers and legislators. They were also leaders of the people, and negotiators with the Roman Empire.
Some Jews did not accept the written codification of the Oral Law, but insisted on the authority of the Written Law only. Known as Karaites, they comprised a significant portion of the world Jewish population around the tenth and eleventh centuries CE. Some communities of Karaites still exist, though they currently number in the thousands.
Other important Mishnah commentaries were written by Rabbi Solomon Luria, the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbi Akiva Eiger. A prominent commentary from the nineteenth is Tifereth Yisrael by Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz. The commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati, which is written in Modern Israeli Hebrew and based on classical and contemporary works, became popular in the late twentieth century. It was designed to make the Mishnah widely accessible to a wide spectrum of learners of all ages.
The Mishnah was and still is traditionally studied through recitation (out loud). Although ancient Hebrew does not include vowels, many medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah are vowelized, and some of these notations indicate how the material is to be chanted. Jewish communities around the world preserved local melodies for chanting the Mishnah and distinctive ways of pronouncing its words. Most editions of the Mishnah today reflect standard Ashkenazic vowelization. However, scholars indicate that many editions also contain errors.
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 pronunciation. These institutes are the Jewish Oral Traditions Research Center and the National Voice Archives.
Both the Mishnah and Talmud contain little intentional biographical information. A typical section simply indicates that one rabbi said such-and-such, while another said so-and-so. Yet, sketchy biographies of the Mishnaic sages can often be constructed with historical detail provided by Talmudic and Midrashic sources.
Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation of the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is comprised mainly of sources which date from Judah the Prince's lifetime, or whether considerable later material has been inserted. Furthermore, are the opinions of the rabbis preserved from before the time of Judah the Prince accurate? And what has been omitted or lost as a result of previously well-known acrimony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai? 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?
In response to these questions, modern scholars disagree widely. While some students of the Mishnah take the text quite literally, critical scholarship of the subject can be divided into three basic approaches:
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