A Hebrew term that means “to repeat” and eventually, in the rabbinic period (beginning about A.D. 100), “to learn.” Specifically, in rabbinic Judaism mishnah refers to the teaching or learning about the oral law (halakah) passed on by a particular teacher (rabbi). Today the Mishnah usually refers to the collected edition of rabbinic discussions of halakah compiled by Judah ha-Nasi (literally “the Prince,” or Patriarch) head of the rabbinic academy at Javneh (or Jamnia) at about A.D. 220. In rabbinic tradition he is usually referred to simply as “Rabbi.”
The Mishnah has six major divisions:
1. Zeraim (seeds) deals with agricultural produce and proper tithing;
2. Moed (set feasts) deals with religious festivals;
3. Nashim (women) deals with laws regulating women;
4. Nazikim (damages) deals with property rights and legal proceedings.
5. Kodashim (holy things) deals with the Temple;
6. Tohoroth (cleannesses) deals with laws of purity.
The six major divisions are each further subdivided into specific tractates. References to the Mishnah in scholarly writing are usually given according to tractate, not according to the major divisions. While these divisions appear clear and orderly, the modern reader of the Mishnah is frequently confused by the inclusion of what appears to be legal discussion unrelated to the major division in which they are found. For example, Benedictions (Berakoth) are treated in the first division on agricultural produce. To some extent these inconsistencies become more understandable when we look at the way in which the Mishnah was developed from earlier mishnoth of individual rabbis.
Development According to the Mishnah itself, oral tradition and its teachings goes all the way back to Moses himself who received the halakah from God on Sinai and passed it on to subsequent generations. In rabbinic tradition this understanding seems to have functioned in at least two ways. First, the teachings of previous generations is regarded as important in setting oral law. Second, this understanding did not mean that oral law was seen as the literal passing on of particular words. Halakah was to some extent a spiritual ideal only imperfectly brought to concrete realization in the teaching of specific rabbis. Therefore, halakah was a matter of exceptional religious importance and heated debate. The Mishnah frequently preserved contrary opinions, While it usually resolves the matter on one side or the other, the preservation in the tradition also allows for reconsideration by later generations.
Modern scholars see the Mishnah as a collection and editing of Jewish case law whose traditions may go back to about 150 B.C. but primarily from the period of 50 B.C. to 220 A.D. The tradition of the Mishnah appears to begin with the sect of Judaism called the Pharisees, who sought to liberalize the legal system of Judaism by applying regulations for Temple purity particularly with regard to food laws to the entirety of Judaism. This sect may be regarded as liberal since they argued that the entirety of the nation should be righteous before God in ways similar to the priesthood. The Pharisees were largely a lay movement. The major representatives of this party in the Mishnah are Hillel and Shammai who taught around A.D. 50.
After the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70, Yohannan ben Zakkai founded the rabbinic movement at Javneh (Jamnia) in Galilee. This movement succeeded in eventually unifying the surviving elements of Judaism into a coherent traditional system that forms the core of Judaism into the modern era. Hence, one of their primary concerns was to set the boundaries of legal interpretation or “make a fence around the Law.” The Mishnah primarily represents the collections of various teachers' opinions on halakah and seeks to establish the limits of normative interpretation through an examination of case law and Scripture. Rabbi Akiba (50?-135 A.D.) is one of the towering figures who probably contributed the present system of the organization of the Mishnah. He also sought to make explicit the scriptural basis of halakah. His student Rabbi Meir appears to be the connecting link between Akiba's mishnah and the Mishnah of Rabbi.
The Mishnah of Rabbi is the basis of the Talmud which was written in Palestine about 360 A.D. and in Babylonia about 500 A.D. Those rabbis quoted in the Mishnah are referred to as the Tannaim while those in the Talmud are referred to as Amoraim. Scholars are somewhat divided on the issue to what extent Rabbi simply collected and systematized various rabbis' opinions or to what extent he functioned as an editor who left his own stamp upon the material. It is probably safe to conclude that Rabbi was a highly respected rabbi whose opinion was considered authoritative in his day. Nevertheless, the extent to which he could creatively edit the rabbinic traditions of halakah was probably limited by the community of rabbis who would not hesitate to challenge him if he misrepresented tradition. The Mishnah may therefore be seen as a compendium of the tradition of rabbinic Judaism for the first two centuries.
Rabbinical Oral Law Several principles seem to have been used to determine the oral law that would enter the Mishnah. First, the Mishnah presumes the written Mosaic law as given in Scripture as its fundamental underpinning. Rabbi Akiba sought to give explicit scriptural precedent for decisions in the oral law, sometimes in what appear to be exceptionally strained logic. The Mishnah preserves some legal debate based upon direct scriptural commentary (referred to as midrash). In most of the Mishnah, however, the oral law is developed by reference to precedent and the development of case law, much on the same order that British and American jurisprudence has developed. From generation to generation certain rabbis are considered to be of particular importance in establishing the halakah. For example, almost always the halakah is according to Hillel rather than Shammai, even though Shammai's opinion is also quoted. While much of the Mishnah concerns matters of pragmatic concern to the social and religious organization (the rabbis do not distinguish between the two) of Judaism, some segments seem o preserve tradition for its own sake. For example, the Mishnah preserves an entire section dealing with the Temple organization and sacrifice, in spite of the fact that the Temple no longer existed at the time of the writing of the Mishnah. Such discussion indicates that perhaps priests were part of the academy of Yohannan ben Zakkai and also reflects the continuing hope through the first two centuries that the Temple would be rebuilt.
Mishnah and Understanding the Bible The Mishnah has proven helpful to an understanding of the Bible in two ways. First, it has helped in reconstructing specific elements in the Judaism of Palestine at the time of Jesus. Second, it has been helpful in understanding the development of Judaism during the same period that the early Christians were engaged in similar development.
1. An earlier generation of Christian scholars tended to see the Mishnah as descriptive of the practices of Judaism in Palestine during Jesus' life. More recent scholars are more cautious since they recognize the long history of development of the Mishnah and also since it has become more and more apparent that Judaism in Jesus' day was composed of many religious viewpoints and movements. See Jewish Parties. Particularly, the practices of the Pharisaic sect may be reflected in some of the early traditions included in the Mishnah. For example, Jesus' saying in
Matthew 7:12 is quite similar to rabbinic statements in the Mishnah. Also, certain Mishnaic evidence may be helpful in better understanding social relationships depicted in the Gospels. For example, evidence from Nashim (on women) helps us to reconstruct the social position of Palestinian Jewish women in the first century. In this context it appears that Jesus is certainly more liberal in His treatment of women than was rabbinic tradition. The evidence of the Mishnah should not be taken as representative of what all or most Jews believed in the first century. Rather, it should be taken as a clue to what some Jews believed and balanced with other historical data.
2. Since the earliest Christians were also Jews, the Mishnah may give some indication of the development of early Christianity alongside of the development of rabbinic Judaism. At the same time that Yohannan ben Zakkai was founding the academy at Javneh, Christian Jews were coping with the loss of the Temple and the development of their own religious communities. Understanding of the development of Judaism in this period alongside the development of Christianity may help in understanding the commonalities and strains between the two sibling religions. See Halakah; Talmud; Pharisees; Torah; Tosephta.
Stephenson Humphries Brooks