A page of the Babylonian Talmud, an edition printed in the mid-16th century. The Mishnah text is in the center, while the surrounding text is commentary. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why The Mishnah Is the Best Jewish Book You’ve Never Read

This almost 2,000-year-old text flies under the radar -- but it's immensely important to Jewish life.

The Mishnah, a body of Jewish legal text compiled around the year 200 C.E, has played a foundational role in the history of Judaism. As the first text of the rabbinic tradition (together with the Gemara it makes up what is known as the Talmud), the Mishnah arguably played a greater part in the re-invention of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple than any other text.

However, many Jews have never heard of it. If you are one of them, know that you are not alone! Despite the Mishnah’s immense importance to Jewish life in the past and present, it often flies entirely under the radar, such that many Jews who are deeply engaged in synagogue life never crack open a page of its teachings.

Why the Mishnah Gets So Little Attention

The reasons for this are numerous and varied. First, it is written in terse, fragmented Hebrew that can be ambiguous in its meaning. That reality can make reading the text (even in English translation) a challenge. Second, it devotes substantial time to many subjects that seem quite distant from 21st-century concerns, such as temple sacrifices and ritual purity laws. Third, many rabbis and educators present it primarily as a book of esoteric laws – and for most people, the idea of sitting down to read a bunch of legal jargon from the year 200 feels downright ridiculous.

Despite all that, I find that the Mishnah can be genuinely transformational. For anyone looking to engage more deeply in the study of Judaism – past, present, or future – it is a great place to start.

But before arguing why this 63-tractate, 500+ chapter, 1,800-year-old document is worth your time, let’s explore its content.

The Mishnah’s Structure: Six Books

The Mishnah is organized into six books:

Zera’im (Seeds) provides an overview of the agricultural world inhabited by ancient Jews. It also outlines key elements of Jewish liturgy’s structure.

Mo’ed (Seasons) examines the yearly calendar of Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, introducing many of the details that today we take for granted. As one prominent example, the Mishnah codifies the idea of a Passover seder, which now serves as one of the bedrock experiences of Jewish life all over the world.

Nashim (Women) looks at Jewish family life. Without it, we would have almost no conception of what a Jewish wedding or divorce would entail, as the Torah leaves such subjects almost entirely unexplored.

Nezikin (Damages) looks at civil disputes between Jews, along with related questions of crime and punishment. It also brings us the Mishnah’s only tractate concerned primarily with ethical issues: Pirkei Avot, which is the best-known section of the Mishnah today).

Kodashim (Holy Things) discusses the practice of sacrifices at the Temple

Taharot (Purities) elucidates the complex laws of ritual purity and impurity.

A few lines of text from the Kaufmann Manuscript, Tractate Avot of the Mishnah. The manuscript is dated approximately 12th century. (Wikimedia Commons)
A few lines of text from the Kaufmann Manuscript, Tractate Avot of the Mishnah. The manuscript is dated approximately 12th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

Minority Opinions and Other Mishnah Features

The Mishnah provides the framework to Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. Without it, Jews would have no conception of a thrice-daily Amidah prayer recitation, no ritual of asking the Four Questions on Passover, and no connection to the world-renowned quotation, “If not now, when?”

One small collection of rabbis, over the course of several generations and a couple hundred years, laid out entire systems of holiday observance, civil and criminal law, and taxation, among many others.

It’s not just the rituals and customs introduced in the Mishnah that are fascinating, though. The structure of it is at the core of what we think of as Jewish tradition today: a rich collection of arguments that, most importantly, preserves minority viewpoints.

The decision to include losing perspectives alongside winning ones is by no means intuitive. Many legal texts, ancient and modern, simply delineate rules and regulations. But the Mishnah’s crucial decision of presenting a wide spectrum of thoughts (and occasionally doing so without indicating the debate’s victor) laid the groundwork for the rich tradition of Jewish debate that all contemporary denominations hold dear. In many ways, the Mishnah created the foundation for a tradition in which the refrain “Two Jews, three opinions” would hold true.  It set the tone for a religion in which deep and holy disagreement with one another (and even with ourselves) is at the very core.

Is the Mishnah Still Relevant?

One of the most frequent critiques of  the Mishnah is that its  final two books focus on content that is, in most measurable ways, not directly applicable to our lives today. Kodashim focuses almost entirely on the different forms of sacrificial offerings that took place at the Temple in Jerusalem, and Taharot discusses what a rabbi of mine once colloquially (and not inaccurately) termed “Jewish cooties” – the system of laws regarding objects that are deemed ritually pure (tahor) or ritually impure (tamei).

While these texts can seem archaic or even offensive to some readers, some beautiful principles can be gleaned from them. For example, we learn in one section that the daily offering (tamid) at the Temple takes precedence over those offerings that are sacrificed on a special occasion (such as a holiday). Later commentators expound from this that those moments that happen most regularly – those that might feel mundane or repetitive – are often the most holy.

These sections also provide a unique opportunity to live out the value of Torah Lish’ma (learning for its own sake). While the particulars of tum’ah (ritual impurity) might not matter much today, the discussion of it is surprisingly stimulating, largely due to the rigorous logic and attention to detail that the rabbis bring to the table.

The Mishnah may not be the best-known text in our tradition. In the Orthodox world, it is seen largely as a prelude to the Gemara (the second and more expansive section of the Talmud), and in many Jewish communities it is barely discussed at all. When explored deeply, however, it can add richness and texture to Jewish lived experience today, over 1,800 years after its initial publication.

Students studying Jewish texts in the beit midrash (study hall) Mechon Hadar, an educational institution in New York City working to empower Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer and service. (Emil Cohen/Mechon Hadar)
Studying Jewish texts in the beit midrash (study hall) at Mechon Hadar, an educational institution in New York City working to empower Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer and service. (Emil Cohen/Mechon Hadar)

How To Study Mishnah

So how can you jump into the Mishnah and experience it for yourself? It is, after all, an intimidating text. Here are a few recommendations.

1. Enroll in this Introduction to Mishnah class, available through Darshan Yeshiva.

These seven short podcasts (one introductory, and one for each book of the Mishnah), provide a general taste of what the Mishnah has to offer. This should help give you some confidence to feel ready to jump into the text yourself. (Other Jewish course providers, both online and bricks-and-mortar, also sometimes offer introductory Mishnah classes. You may want to inquire at local synagogues, Jewish community centers and universities.)

2. Choose one tractate of the Mishnah that particularly interests you, such as B’rachot (on blessings), Pesachim (on Passover), or Kiddushin (on marriage).

Then purchase the volume of the Kehati Mishnah (Hebrew-English edition) that contains that tractate. The Kehati translation is the only one we know of  that provides detailed explanatory notes for beginners. While it lacks explanatory notes, Sefaria contains the entire Mishnah in translation for free. In addition to being affordable, an advantage of reading on Sefaria is that the site hyperlinks to numerous other related Jewish texts.

3. Find a study partner.

This person might be located in your neighborhood, but he or she  could also be a friend from afar, with whom you can study via Skype or another video-conferencing platform. Some programs, such as Project Zug (a partnership of Mechon Hadar and Panim, two nondenominational Jewish educational institutions) and Partners In Torah (an Orthodox outreach program), will help you find a knowledgeable partner/tutor. Study together, and slowly! There will be elements of the text that seem confusing. Work through them as best as you can, and as you progress through a few chapters, certain elements will become easier to understand.

4. Embrace both the challenge and the reward.

This text is a hidden gem of the Jewish tradition. Wishing you nothing but joy as you journey your way through it!

 

Discover More

Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

One of the best-known and most cited of Jewish texts.

Gemara: The Essence of the Talmud

Together with the Mishnah, these texts make up what is known as Rabbinic Judaism.

Tale of Two Talmuds: Jerusalem and Babylonian

The two texts developed simultaneously in the two major Jewish communities of the rabbinic era.