The Mishnah as a Response to Catastrophe

The Mishnah reflects an attempt by the rabbis to create an eternal Judaism, unaffected by the kinds of catastrophes that had afflicted the Jewish people in the preceding two centuries.

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Several things are immediately apparent from a survey of the six orders of the Mishnah. First, the structure of the book, despite some attempt at a systematic organization, is more than a bit haphazard. In part, the problem lies in Judah's decision to incorporate large sections of material intact from earlier sources; earlier collections often grouped rulings by their authors rather than subjects. For instance, in the middle of the Tractate Rosh Hashanah, we find a series of rulings from Yohanan ben Zakkai that have nothing to do with the festival of the New Year. However, the structure also reveals the associative tech­niques that were often typical of the rabbinic mind at work; the order Nashim includes betrothal and marriage, wouldn't it make sense to include other laws governing vows as well? After all, each of these kinds of vows—betrothal and marriage, legal and financial—involved what was considered in ancient times to be a transfer of title to property [marriage is a transfer which is related but clearly distinct from a property transfer—ed.]. On the other hand, within each tractate only one subject is pursued.

Second, the prominence given to issues relating to the Temple—vir­tually the entirety of Kodashim and sections of all the other orders except Nashim—suggests that the Tannaim were committed to preserv­ing Jewish continuity in the face of disaster. Perhaps the Temple had been destroyed more than 100 years ago, but they would carry on as if it were eternal, as sure as the turning of the earth. (Not every great Jewish thinker agreed with this focus on the long-defunct cultic rituals. Abraham Ibn Ezra, for one, decried scholars who devoted their time to the study of halakhah that had no practical relevance.)

Third, in its unusual focus on the quotidian—laws governing agri­culture, criminal and civil law, rules governing the nuts and bolts of religious observance—the Mishnah is an elegant reminder of one of the governing principles of Judaism as a belief-system: that everything we do, no matter how mundane, has a spark of the holy within it. If we run through the areas of concern expressed in the tractates of the Mish­nah, we can see how its worldview shaped Judaism.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.