Mishnah

A description of Judaism's primary book of Jewish legal theory.

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According to tradition, following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the many teachers of Jewish law (halakhah) transmitted a growing and ever more complex body of material known as oral Torah (Torah she’b’al peh). At the same time, tradition says, oppression by Rome, reflected in the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion (135 CE), was causing the oral Torah to be lost. As a consequence, Rabbi Judah the Patriarch undertook to collect and edit a study edition of these halakhot (plural) in order that the learning not vanish.

mishnah

Interestingly, modern scholars have re-affirmed the significance of the catastrophic defeats of the Jews by the Romans. The scholarly twist, however, is that, at the end of the second century CE, when Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (often referred to simply as “Rabbi”) was on good terms with the Roman imperial government, he published the Mishnah as a conscious effort to ignore and displace the memories of destruction and loss.

Although the Temple had been destroyed 130 years prior to its publication, in the world described by the Mishnah the Temple still exists and the laws that governed it are expressed in the present tense. Although the Talmud (the compendium of the Mishnah and the Gemara, which interprets and comments on the Mishnah) preserves traditions allegedly contemporaneous with the Mishnah that refer to the Bar Kokhba rebellion and defeat, the Mishnah itself ignores these. In this way, the Mishnah is a document that describes a life of sanctification, in which the rituals of the Temple are adapted for communal participation in a world that has no Temple, which escapes the ups and downs of history.

Disputes Between Rabbis

This idyllic world of the Mishnah, however, is not a world of uniformity; far from it. The vast majority of passages in the Mishnah contains a dispute between different rabbinic sages.  When does one begin the morning prayers? How does one treat produce which may or may not have had the priestly gifts separated from it? How does one constitute a Jewish marriage? What are the limitations of the liability of someone who watches another’s property? Can cheese and meat be on the same table? How much drawn water invalidates a ritual bath? On all of these issues and on thousands of similar issues, the Mishnah includes various opinions.

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