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Why study the Mishnah and Talmud? For a wide variety of reasons – but perhaps the most basic is that, for Jews, it is the only way to understand the Bible.
Jews read the Hebrew Bible, read through the lens of our oral law. While originally transmitted orally (as the name suggests) the oral law was ultimately recorded in the Mishnah, the classical Midrash compilations, and later extrapolated on in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.
The Bible always existed within a culture, so knowledge of cultural/historical context is necessary to understand it. Reading the Bible through the lens of an oral law, in broad strokes, is thus agreed upon by secular scholars and by all denominations of Judaism. How much of the oral law came from the time of the Torah itself is debatable, but the basic existence of a context is not.
Judaism’ oral law rescues Judaism from biblical fundamentalism. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18–21 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son… and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town…Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death.”
Fundamentalists imagine God actually commanded this. In contrast, Judaism teaches that this text was never meant to be taken literally: It was always a rhetorical device. Without Judaism’s oral law – in the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud – parents could become murderers. And the same is true for more than a dozen other cases. Happily, Rabbinical Judaism has no such beliefs precisely because we don’t read the Torah by itself, but rather through the additional information of our oral law.
Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants Our Ancestors to Our Descendants
Another example of how Jews read the Bible through our oral law. Consider this verse: “Take a life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Exodus 21:23–25)
The Oral Law says (and historical documents from the Second Temple era confirm) that this was never intended literally, but rather means `measured and just (monetary) compensation for damages inflicted’. The Rabbinic Law upholds this principle, but might still command a man to forego the monetary damages in certain cases so as not to even come close to transgressing some other Torah prohibition, such as exacting interest on a debt, or causing baseless hatred.soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Torah and Halachic Authority, Section – Question 3.15: What is the Talmud?
Among religious Jews, talmudic scholars are regarded with the same awe and respect with which secular society regards Nobel laureates. Yet throughout Jewish history, study of the Mishna and Talmud was hardly restricted to an intellectual elite. An old book saved from the millions burned by the Nazis, and now housed at the YIVO library in New York, bears the stamp “The society of woodchoppers for the study of Mishna in Berditchev.” That the men who chopped wood in Berditchev, an arduous job that required no literacy, met regularly to study Jewish law demonstrates the ongoing pervasiveness of study of the Oral Law in the Jewish community.
– Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History
The Mishnah (מִשְׁנָה, “study by repetition”), from the verb shanah שנה, “to review”, is the first major written part of the Jewish oral law, the first written work of Rabbinic literature. Judaism’s oral law rescues readers from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff writes:
the Rabbis were convinced that the Torah needs interpretation….There are sects of Christians who are “fundamentalists.” They try to make their decisions in life solely on the basis of the Bible. There also have been sects of Jews who have tried that, including the Karaites….The Rabbis, however, claimed that that was impossible since the Torah is open to many different interpretations:
#11) “Is not My word like a hammer that breaks a rock in many pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). As the hammer causes numerous sparks to flash forth, so is a Scriptural verse capable of many interpretations. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a)
#12) It happened that a heathen came before Shammai and asked him, “How many Torahs do you have?” He answered, “Two – the written and the oral.” He said, “With respect to the written Torah I will believe you, but not with respect to the Oral Torah. Accept me as a convert on condition that you teach me the former only.” Shammai rebuked him and drove him out with contempt. He came before Hillel with the same request, and he accepted him. The first day he taught him the alphabet in the correct order, but the next day he reversed it. The heathen said to him, “Yesterday you taught it to me differently!” Hillel replied, “Do you not have to depend upon me for the letters of the alphabet? So must you likewise depend upon me for the interpretation of the Torah.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
…Moreover, interpretation is necessary not only because the Torah on its own is ambiguous; it is also necessary if Jewish law is to retain sufficient flexibility:
#14) If the Torah had been given in a fixed form, the situation would have been intolerable. What is the meaning of the oft-recurring phrase, “The Lord spoke to Moses?” Moses said before Him, “Sovereign of the Universe! Cause me to know what the final decision is on each matter of law.” He replied, “The majority must be followed: when the majority declares a thing permitted, it is permissible; when the majority declares it forbidden, it is not allowed; so that the Torah may be capable of interpretation with forty-nine points for and forty-nine points against.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 22a)
The Mishnah was redacted by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi before his death around 217 CE, in a time when 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. They are further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs.
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.
Orders of the Mishnah
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:
- Zera’im (“Seeds”), dealing with prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws (11 tractates)
- Mo’ed (“Festival”), pertaining to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals (12 tractates)
- Nashim (“Women”), concerning marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths and the laws of the nazirite (7 tractates)
- Nezikin (“Damages”), dealing with civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths (10 tractates)
- Kodashim (“Holy things”), regarding sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws (11 tractates) and
- Tohorot (“Purities”), pertaining to the laws of purity and impurity, including the impurity of the dead, the laws of food purity and bodily purity (12 tractates).
In each order (with the exception of Zeraim), tractates are arranged from biggest (in number of chapters) to smallest.
What is the Talmud?
People often talk about the Talmud as if it were a book, but it’s not. The Talmud is more properly understood an an encyclopedic library of many books, each containing summaries of discussions of many authors, covering many centuries. The Talmud is an entire genre of Jewish literature that at one point was edited, redacted and published as if it were a book.
The Talmud (Hebrew: תַּלְמוּד talmūd “instruction, from the root lmd “teach, study”) is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It is also referred to as Shas (ש״ס), a Hebrew abbreviation of shisha sedarim, the “six orders”.
There are two Talmuds, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. The term “Talmud” by itself refers to the Babylonian Talmud; the Jerusalem Talmud is always identified specifically, sometimes with a tractate prefixed by “J” (Jerusalem) or “Y” (Yerushalmi).
The Talmud has two components. The first part is the Mishnah (Hebrew: משנה, c. 200 CE). The second part is the Gemara (c. 500 CE), a commentary on the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings, that often ventures onto other subjects, and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term ‘Talmud’ can be used to mean either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara as printed together.
The whole Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is over 6,200 pages long. It is written in Tannaitic Hebrew and Aramaic. The Talmud contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects, including Halakha (law), Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law and is much quoted in rabbinic literature.