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Reprinted with permission from Maimonides’ Introduction to His Commentary on the Mishnah, translated and annotated by Fred Rosner, and published by Jason Aronson.
After [dividing the Mishnah into] these six categories, which contain all the precepts of the Torah, were collected, [Judah the Prince], saw fit to subdivide each general category into its topics as appropriate. He called each topic a tractate. Then he further subdivided the subjects within each tractate into parts, and called each part a chapter. After that, he segregated the subjects of each chapter into yet smaller parts so that it is easy to remember them and to teach them. He called each of these smaller parts of a chapter a halakhah (law).
He subdivided the subjects of Seder Zera’im (agriculture) as I will describe. He commenced with tractate Berakhot (blessings). The reason for this is that when an experienced physician wishes to maintain the state of health of a healthy individual, he first attends to the diet as the primary therapy.
Similarly, this great Sage saw fit to begin [the Mishnah] with Berakhot, since anyone who wishes to eat is not permitted to do so until he has recited a benediction over the food. Therefore he found it appropriate to begin the Mishnah with tractate Berakhot in order to supply the necessary preparation for partaking of food. So that nothing be lacking in any aspect, he speaks about all the benedictions that a person is obligated to recite both over edibles and for fulfilling other precepts in the Torah. There is no commandment that every person is obligated to fulfill every day except for the recitation of the Shema. It would not be correct to speak of the blessings of the Shema before speaking of the Shema itself, and, therefore, he begins with the words; “From when may one recite the Shema…” and everything pertaining thereto.
Following this, he returned to the main subject of the order, and that is to speak of the commandments pertaining to the produce of the earth. He began with tractate Pe’ah (corners of the fields), which follows Berakhot, because all the offerings that a person is obligated to provide concerning produce are not required until after their cutting. But the obligation of Pe’ah exists while the produce is still in the ground, and for this reason he speaks of it first. After Pe’ah he placed tractate Demai (questionably tithed produce), because the poor have a privilege therein, just as they do in Pe’ah. So, too, did they state: “One may give Demai produce to the poor for food.”
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