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.


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.

This is because the Mishnah is not a code of Jewish law; it is a study book of law. As the Mishnah itself describes, in a rare self-reflective comment: Why are the opinions of the minority included with the opinions of the majority even though the law is not like them? So that a later court can examine their words and rely upon them? (Mishnah Eduyot 1:3). While one could determine law based upon the Mishnah, its intention was to train the sages in thinking through the legal issues that inform the halakhah.

In editing the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah the Patriarch worked with a variety of materials. Some halakhot of the Tannaim, the sages from the time of the Mishnah, had been transmitted to him organized around a particular sage, some around particular verses, and others according to certain formal characteristics. Signs of these pre-existing collections are still apparent in the Mishnah. On the other hand, it is also clear that Rabbi was not simply a collector. He selected his sources from a larger pool of available material, and he modified his sources, combining and editing materials to facilitate memorization and to clarify the points of dispute between the different sages.

The Mishnah is divided into six orders; each order is divided into tractates; each tractate is divided into chapters, and each chapter has a number of halakhot.  This structure became the template for all of subsequent Talmudic literature. The first document to follow the Mishnah's structure was the Tosefta (supplement), which included many of the materials that Rabbi left out. Collectively, the Tosefta, as well as materials in works of Midrash (Scripture interpretation), and materials preserved orally until their appearance in the Talmud are called Baraitot (excluded materials). The terms Tosefta and Baraitot, which implicitly refer to the Mishnah, serve to emphasize the significance and centrality of the Mishnah in Jewish culture.

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