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The Mishnah or Mishna (//; Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, "study by repetition"), from the verb shanah שנה, or "to study and review", also "secondary," is the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah". It is also the first major work of Rabbinic literature. The earliest known copy of the Mishnah has additions, and is contained within a book featuring commentary that was printed in Naples Italy during the late 15th century.
The Mishnah was redacted by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi before his death around 217 CE, in a time when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. The majority of the Mishnah is written in Mishnaic Hebrew, while some parts are Aramaic.
The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim, singular seder סדר), each containing 7–12 tractates (masechtot, singular masechet מסכת; lit. "web"), 63 in total, and further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs or verses.
The word Mishnah can also indicate a single paragraph or a verse of the work itself, i.e. the smallest unit of structure in the Mishnah. For this reason the whole work is sometimes called by the plural, Mishnayot.
The term "Mishnah" originally referred to a method of teaching by presenting topics in a systematic order, as contrasted with Midrash, which meant teaching by following the order of the Bible. The Mishnah as a written compilation accordingly orders its content by subject matter, instead of by biblical context as the Midrashim do. Likewise it includes a much broader selection of halakhic subjects, and discusses individual subjects more thoroughly, than the Midrashim.
The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim, singular seder סדר), each containing 7–12 tractates (masechtot, singular masechet מסכת; lit. "web"), 63 in total. Each masechet is divided into chapters (peraqim, singular pereq) and then paragraphs (mishnayot, singular mishnah). In this last context, the word mishnah means a single paragraph of the work, i.e. the smallest unit of structure, leading to the use of the plural, "Mishnayot", for the whole work.
Because of the division into six orders, the Mishnah is sometimes called Shas (an acronym for Shisha Sedarim – the "six orders"), though that term is more often used for the Talmud as a whole.
The six orders are:
The Babylonian Talmud (Hagiga 14a) states that there were either six hundred or seven hundred orders of the Mishnah. Hillel the Elder organized them into six orders to make it easier to remember. The historical accuracy of this tradition is disputed. There is also a tradition that Ezra the scribe dictated from memory not only the 24 books of the Tanakh but 60 esoteric books. It is not known whether this is a reference to the Mishnah, but there is a case for saying that the Mishnah does consist of 60 tractates. (The current total is 63, but Makkot was originally part of Sanhedrin, and Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra may be regarded as subdivisions of a single tractate Nezikin.)
Interestingly, Reuvein Margolies (1889–1971) posited that there were originally seven orders of Mishnah, citing a Gaonic tradition on the existence of a seventh order containing the laws of Sta"m (scribal practice) and Berachot (blessings).
A number of important laws are not elaborated upon in the Mishnah. These include the laws of tzitzit, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot, the holiday of Hanukkah, and the laws of gerim (converts). These were later discussed in the minor tractates.
Rabbi Nissim Gaon in his Hakdamah Le'mafteach Hatalmud writes that many of these laws were so well known that it was unnecessary for Rabbi Judah to discuss them. Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, Rabbi Judah could not have included discussion of Hanukkah which commemorates the Jewish revolt against the Syrian-Greeks (the Romans would not have tolerated this overt nationalism). Similarly, there were then several decrees in place aimed at suppressing outward signs of national identity, including decrees against wearing tefillin and tzitzit; as Conversion to Judaism was against Roman law, Rabbi Judah would not have discussed this.
David Zvi Hoffman suggests that there existed ancient texts in the form of the present day Shulchan Aruch that discussed the basic laws of day to day living and it was therefore not necessary to focus on these laws in the Mishnah.
Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah from the next four centuries, done in the land of Israel and in Babylonia, were eventually redacted and compiled as well. In themselves they are known as Gemara. The books which set out the Mishnah in its original structure, together with the associated Gemara, are known as Talmuds. Two Talmuds were compiled, Babylonian Talmud (to which the term "Talmud" normally refers) and Jerusalem Talmud. Unlike the Hebrew Mishnah, the Gemara is written primarily in Aramaic.
The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a notable rabbi based on the halacha, mitzvot, and spirit of the teaching ("Torah") that guided his decision. In this way, it brings to everyday reality the practice of the mitzvot as presented in the Bible, and aims to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most important, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed since the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing traditions.
The term "Mishnah" is related to the verb "shanah", to teach or repeat, and to the adjectives "sheni" and "mishneh", meaning "second". It is thus named for being both the one written authority (codex) secondary (only) to the Tanakh as a basis for the passing of judgment, a source and a tool for creating laws, and the first of many books to complement the Bible in certain aspects.
Before the publication of the Mishnah, Jewish scholarship and judgement were predominantly oral, as it was not permitted to write them down. The earliest recorded oral law may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Torah. Rabbis expounded on and debated the Tanakh (Hebrew: תַּנַ"ךְ), the Hebrew Bible, without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (Hebrew: מגילות סתרים, megillot setarim), for example of court decisions. The oral traditions were far from monolithic, and varied among various schools, the most famous of which were the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.
After First Jewish–Roman War in 70 CE, with the end of the Second Temple Jewish center in Jerusalem, Jewish social and legal norms were in upheaval. The Rabbis were faced with the new reality of Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing. The possibility was felt that the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (530s BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten, so the justification was found to have these oral laws transcribed.
Over time, different traditions of the Oral Law came into being, raising problems of interpretation. According to the Mevo Hatalmud many rulings were given in a specific context, but would be taken out of it; or a ruling was revisited but the second ruling would not become popularly known. To correct this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi took up the redaction of the Mishnah. If a point was of no conflict, he kept its language; where there was conflict, he reordered the opinions and ruled; and he clarified where context was not given. The idea was not to use his own discretion, but rather to examine the tradition as far back as he could, and only supplement as required.
According to Rabbinical Judaism, the Oral Torah (Hebrew: תורה שבעל-פה, Torah she-be'al-peh) was given to Moses with the Torah at Mount Sinai, as an exposition to the latter. The accumulated traditions of the Oral Law, expounded by scholars in each generation from Moses onward, is considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law. Jews sometimes refer to this as the Masorah (Hebrew: מסורה), roughly translated as tradition, though that word is often used in a narrower sense to mean traditions concerning the editing and reading of the Biblical text (see Masorah). The resulting Jewish law and custom is called halakha (Hebrew: הלכה).
While most discussions in the Mishnah concern the correct way to carry out laws recorded in the Torah, it usually presents its conclusions without explicitly linking them to any scriptural passage, though scriptural quotations do occur. For this reason it is arranged in order of topics rather than in the form of a Biblical commentary. (In a very few cases, there is no scriptural source at all and the law is described as Halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, law to Moses from Sinai.) The Midrash halakha, by contrast, while presenting similar laws, does so in the form of a Biblical commentary and explicitly links its conclusions to details in the Biblical text. These Midrashim often predate the Mishnah.
The Mishnah also quotes the Torah for principles not associated with law, but just as practical advice, even at times for humor or as guidance for understanding historical debates.
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The rabbis who contributed to the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim, of whom approximately 120 are known. The period during which the Mishnah was assembled spanned about 130 years, or five generations, in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Yehudah haNasi is credited with the final redaction and publication of the Mishnah, though there have been a few additions since his time: those passages that cite him or his grandson, Rabbi Yehuda Nesi'ah, and the end of Tractate Sotah, which refers to the period after Rabbi's death. One must also note that in addition to redacting the Mishnah, Rabbi and his court also ruled on which opinions should be followed, though the rulings do not always appear in the text.
Most of the Mishnah is related without attribution (stam). This usually indicates that many sages taught so, or that Yehudah HaNasi (often called simply "Rabbi") ruled so. The halakhic ruling usually follows that view. Sometimes, however, it appears to be the opinion of a single sage, and the view of the sages collectively (Hebrew: חכמים, hachamim) is given separately.
As Yehuda haNasi went through the tractates, the Mishnah was set forth, but throughout his life some parts were updated as new information came to light. Because of the proliferation of earlier versions, it was deemed too hard to retract anything already released, and therefore a second version of certain laws were released. The Talmud refers to these differing versions as Mishnah Rishonah ("First Mishnah") and Mishnah Acharonah ("Last Mishnah"). David Zvi Hoffman suggests that Mishnah Rishonah actually refers to texts from earlier Sages upon which Rabbi based his Mishnah.
The Talmud records a tradition that unattributed statements of the law represent the views of Rabbi Meir (Sanhedrin 86a), which supports the theory (recorded by Sherira Gaon in his famous Iggeret) that he was the author of an earlier collection. For this reason, the few passages that actually say "this is the view of Rabbi Meir" represent cases where the author intended to present Rabbi Meir's view as a "minority opinion" not representing the accepted law.
There are also references to the "Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva", suggesting a still earlier collection; on the other hand, these references may simply mean his teachings in general. Another possibility is that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir established the divisions and order of subjects in the Mishnah, making them the authors of a school curriculum rather than of a book.
Authorities are divided on whether Rabbi recorded the Mishnah in writing or established it as an oral text for memorisation. The most important early account of its composition, the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, is ambiguous on the point, though the "Spanish" recension leans to the theory that the Mishnah was written. However, the Talmud records that, in every study session, there was a person called the tanna appointed to recite the Mishnah passage under discussion. This may indicate that, even if the Mishnah was reduced to writing, it was not available on general distribution.
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Some Jews did not accept the written codification of the oral law at all; known as Karaites, they comprised a significant portion of the world Jewish population in the 10th and 11th centuries CE, and remain extant, although they currently number in the thousands.
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Very roughly, there are two traditions of Mishnah text. One is found in manuscripts and printed editions of the Mishnah on its own, or as part of the Jerusalem Talmud. The other is found in manuscripts and editions of the Babylonian Talmud; though there is sometimes a difference between the text of a whole paragraph printed at the beginning of a discussion (which may be edited to conform with the text of the Mishnah-only editions) and the line-by-line citations in the course of the discussion.
Robert Brody, in his Mishna and Tosefta Studies (Jerusalem 2014), warns against over-simplifying the picture by assuming that the Mishnah-only tradition is always the more authentic, or that it represents a "Palestinian" as against a "Babylonian" tradition. Manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza, or citations in other works, may support either type of reading or other readings altogether.
The first printed edition of the Mishnah was published in Naples. There have been many subsequent editions, including the late 19th century Vilna edition, which is the basis of the editions now used by the religious public. Vocalized editions were published in Livorno in the 1880s and have since been reprinted in Israel: these represent the Sephardic tradition for recitation, for example in memory of a deceased person (see link "Tradition and Relevance" at end of article).
As well as being printed on its own, the Mishnah is included in all editions of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Each paragraph is printed on its own, and followed by the relevant Gemara discussion. However, that discussion itself often cites the Mishnah line by line. While the text printed in paragraph form has generally been standardized to follow the Vilna edition, the text cited line by line often preserves important variants, which sometimes reflect the readings of older manuscripts.
The nearest approach to a critical edition is that of Hanoch Albeck. There is also an edition by Yosef Qafiḥ of the Mishnah together with the commentary of Maimonides, which compares the base text used by Maimonides with the Napoli and Vilna editions and other sources.
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The Mishnah was and still is traditionally studied through recitation (out loud). Many medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah are vowelized, and some of these contain partial Tiberian cantillation. Jewish communities around the world preserved local melodies for chanting the Mishnah, and distinctive ways of pronouncing its words.
Most vowelized editions of the Mishnah today reflect standard Ashkenazic vowelization, and often contain mistakes. The Albeck edition of the Mishnah was vowelized by Hanokh Yalon, who made careful eclectic use of both medieval manuscripts and current oral traditions of pronunciation from Jewish communities all over the world. The Albeck edition includes an introduction by Yalon detailing his eclectic method.
Two institutes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have collected major oral archives which hold (among other things) extensive recordings of Jews chanting the Mishnah using a variety of melodies and many different kinds of pronunciation. These institutes are the Jewish Oral Traditions Research Center and the National Voice Archives (the Phonoteca at the Jewish National and University Library). See below for external links.
Both the Mishnah and Talmud contain little serious biographical studies of the people discussed therein, and the same tractate will conflate the points of view of many different people. Yet, sketchy biographies of the Mishnaic sages can often be constructed with historical detail from Talmudic and Midrashic sources.
Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation of the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is composed of sources which date from its editor's lifetime, and to what extent is it composed of earlier, or later sources. Are Mishnaic disputes distinguishable along theological or communal lines, and in what ways do different sections derive from different schools of thought within early Judaism? Can these early sources be identified, and if so, how? In response to these questions, modern scholars have adopted a number of different approaches.