What is the Mishnah?

Although he lived two generations before the Mishnah was written down, Rabbi Akiba (sometimes spelled Akiva) encouraged the organization and collection of unwritten rulings about how to live the laws of Torah. A passage in Avot d’Rabbi Nathan (a late work, written down roughly 800 CE) says of him:

R. Akiba was like a worker who took his basket and went outside. He found wheat and put it in; he found barley and put it in; he found spelt and put it in; he found lentils and put them in. When he came into his house, he set aside the wheat by itself, the barley by itself, the beans by themselves. R. Akiba did likewise, and made the whole Torah into separate rings.

–As cited in Barry Holtz, Back to the Sources

In other words, the traditions about specifics of Torah-keeping (halachot–plural of halacha) were disorganized and orally transmitted in Akiba’s time. But he began (with his students) gathering rulings and organizing them into topics. Two generations later, when Judah HaNasi (the Prince or Patriarch, called simply Rabbi in the Mishnah) put the halachot to writing, he built on the work of Akiba and others.

So, to put it simply, and in terms derived from Jacob Neusner, a well-known writer on rabbinic literature, the Mishnah is:

–A book of rules (halachot)
–A document put together by Judah the Patriarch
–First compiled in 200 CE
–A book of six parts (Orders) and sixty three sub-sections (Tractates).

Barry Holtz (Back to the Sources) describes the writing style of the Mishnah this way: “composed in very terse language and arranged topic by topic over a wide range of subjects.”

The rules in the Mishnah do not cite scriptural references. They are concise for the purpose of memorization. They do not seek to prove their points generally, but simply record them. Holtz calls it the “oldest curriculum of Jewish learning in the world.”

The Mishnah is the core of the Talmuds (the Jerusalem or Yerushalmi Talmud of c. 400 CE and also of the Babylonian or Bavli Talmud of c. 500 CE). In the volumes of Talmud, sections of Mishnah are cited and then discussion between later sages is recorded, related to the words of that section of Mishnah.

Mishnah is deceptively simple. Mastery of Mishnah is patently difficult. The large compilation of Talmud does not comment on all of the Mishnah and neither does it exhaust the topics and ideas in Mishnah.

You can read some parts of the Mishnah in English here online (the translation is not finished, but enough is done to give you an idea of what Mishnaic writing is like). Or read all of the Mishnah in English here at emishna.com

You will find in months to come weekly articles about rabbinic literature, including Mishnah, Midrashic literature, and the Talmud here on Messianic Jewish Musings. This is part of an effort to blog with more of an educational purpose about a host of topics important to Messianic Jews, the broader Jewish community, Christians, and others interested in religion. Topics regularly featured will include: Jewish books, reasons for faith, biblical studies, learning Hebrew, Yeshua’s life in context, ethics (and Mussar and wisdom), rabbinic literature, archaeology, and, of course, theology. I hope Messianic Jewish Musings will serve many people as a daily dose of educational and inspirational wisdom.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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5 Responses to What is the Mishnah?

  1. mjgot says:

    Thanks Derek, I really like the shift in emphasis. You may not get as many comments (or arguments) but I think this will more fruitful.

  2. netzerchosid says:

    Thanks for your post, Derek.

    I don’t know if you are aware of the e-mishna site, (emishna.com), an English translation with the comments of the Rav (MiBartenuro) incorporated. The Rav is to Mishna, what Rashi is to Chumash/Talmud. Next to Kehati, I’ve found this Mishna to be both simple and coherent, something Neusner’s work did not achieve.

    Thanks again for good work.

  3. Thanks, netzerchosid. Based on your suggestion, I put a link to emishna.com in the post so readers can access it easily.

  4. “Mishnah is deceptively simple. Mastery of Mishnah is patently difficult. The large compilation of Talmud does not comment on all of the Mishnah and neither does it exhaust the topics and ideas in Mishnah.”

    One of the fun things about the Talmud is realizing just how often the rabbis of centuries later had lost the original rationale behind the Mishnaic laws and were attempting to reconstruct it. I always enjoy coming across a contest between the rabbis to provide the best Scriptural proof of a given law.


  5. Yes, as Rabbi Akiva said: I am not worthy to speak the words of my teachers; I am as one who has smelled the fragrance of the etrog and can only describe the essence.

    And as a midrash in Song of Songs Rabbah says: when the Israelites refused to listen directly to the voice of God at Sinai, they set in motion a tragedy in which Torah would be forgotten and have to be continuously studied and relearned again and again.

    Each generation loses something.

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