The Mishnah and God’s Law to Moses
“WE START with the impression that we join a conversation already long under way about topics we can never grasp . . . We . . . feel as if we are in a transit lounge at a distant airport. We understand the words people say, but we are baffled by their meanings and concerns, above all, by the urgency in their voices.” This is how Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner describes the feeling readers might have when first turning to the Mishnah. Neusner adds: “The Mishnah begins nowhere. It ends abruptly.”
In A History of Judaism, Daniel Jeremy Silver calls the Mishnah “the constitutive text of rabbinic Judaism.” In fact, he further comments: “The Mishnah replaced the Bible as the core curriculum of continuing [Jewish] education.” Why would a book with such an obscure style become so important?
Part of the answer lies in this statement made in the Mishnah: “Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly.” (Avot 1:1) The Mishnah claims to deal with information handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai—an unwritten part of God’s Law to Israel. Men of the great assembly (later called the Sanhedrin) were viewed as part of a long line of wise scholars, or sages, who orally passed on certain teachings from generation to generation until these were finally recorded in the Mishnah. But is that factual? Who actually wrote the Mishnah, and why? Did its contents originate with Moses at Sinai? Does it have meaning for us today?
Judaism Without a Temple
Belief in a divine oral law given in addition to the written Law of Moses was unknown when the Scriptures were being penned under inspiration.* (Exodus 34:27) Many centuries later the Pharisees were the group within Judaism that developed and promoted this concept. During the first century C.E., the Sadducees and other Jews opposed this non-Biblical teaching. As long as the temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish worship, however, the issue of an oral law was secondary. Worship at the temple gave structure and a degree of stability to every Jew’s existence.
In 70 C.E., though, the Jewish nation faced a religious crisis of unimaginable proportions. Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman legions, and over one million Jews were killed. The temple, the center of their spiritual lives, was no more. Living by the Mosaic Law, which required sacrifice and priestly service at the temple, was an impossibility. The foundation stone of Judaism was gone. Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz writes: “The destruction . . . in 70 C.E. had made the reconstruction of the entire fabric of religious life an urgent necessity.” And reconstruct it they did.
Even before the temple was destroyed, Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a respected disciple of the Pharisaic leader Hillel, received permission from Vespasian (soon to be emperor) to move the spiritual center of Judaism and the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem to Yavneh. As Steinsaltz explains, after the destruction of Jerusalem, Yohanan Ben Zakkai “faced the challenge of establishing a new center for the people and helping them adjust to the new circumstances whereby religious ardor had to be diverted to another focal point now that the Temple had ceased to exist.” That new focal point was the oral law.
With the temple in ruins, the Sadducees and other Jewish sects offered no compelling alternative. The Pharisees became the Jewish mainstream, absorbing the opposition. Emphasizing unity, the leading rabbis stopped calling themselves Pharisees, a term filled with sectarian and partisan implications. They became known simply as the rabbis, “the sages of Israel.” These sages would create an edifice to house their concept of the oral law. It would be a spiritual structure far less vulnerable to human attack than the temple.
Consolidation of the Oral Law
Although the rabbinic academy at Yavneh (25 miles [40 km] west of Jerusalem) was now the main center, other academies teaching the oral law began to spring up throughout Israel and even as far away as Babylon and Rome. However, this created a problem. Steinsaltz explains: “As long as all the sages were gathered together and the main work of scholarship was carried out by one group of men [in Jerusalem], the uniformity of tradition was preserved. But the proliferation of teachers and the establishment of separate schools created . . . a plethora of forms and methods of expression.”
Teachers of the oral law were called Tannaim, a term derived from an Aramaic root meaning “to study,” “to repeat,” or “to teach.” This emphasized their method of learning and teaching oral law by intense repetition and memorization. To facilitate memorization of oral traditions, each ruling or tradition was reduced to a brief, concise phrase. The fewer the words, the better. A stylized, poetic form was sought, and the phrases were often chanted, or sung. Yet, these rulings were disorganized, and they varied greatly from teacher to teacher.
The first rabbi to give specific form and structure to the many different oral traditions was Akiba ben Joseph (c. 50-135 C.E.). Concerning him, Steinsaltz writes: “His contemporaries compared his activity to the work of a laborer who goes out into the field and heaps into his basket whatever he finds at random, then returns home and arranges each species separately. Akiba had studied numerous disorganized subjects and classified them into distinct categories.”
In the second century C.E.—over 60 years after Jerusalem’s destruction—a second major Jewish revolt against Rome was led by Bar Kokhba. Once more, rebellion brought disaster. Akiba and many of his disciples were among the nearly one million Jewish victims. Any hopes of rebuilding the temple were dashed as Roman Emperor Hadrian declared Jerusalem off limits to Jews, except on the anniversary of the temple’s destruction.
The Tannaim who lived after Akiba had never seen the temple in Jerusalem. But the structured pattern of study in the traditions of the oral law became their “temple,” or center of worship. The work begun by Akiba and his disciples in solidifying this structure of the oral law was taken up by the last of the Tannaim, Judah ha-Nasi.
The Makings of the Mishnah
Judah ha-Nasi was a descendant of Hillel and Gamaliel.* Born during the period of Bar Kokhba’s revolt, he became the head of the Jewish community in Israel toward the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century C.E. The title ha-Nasi means “the prince,” indicating the status he held in the eyes of his fellow Jews. He is often referred to simply as Rabbi. Judah ha-Nasi headed both his own academy and the Sanhedrin, first at Bet She’arim and later at Sepphoris in Galilee.
Realizing that future conflicts with Rome might endanger the very transmission of the oral law, Judah ha-Nasi determined to give it a structure that would ensure its preservation. He gathered at his academy the most outstanding scholars of his day. Each point and tradition of oral law was debated. The summations of these discussions were consolidated into incredibly succinct phrases, following a stringent pattern of poetic Hebrew prose.
These summations were organized into six major divisions, or Orders, according to main topics. Judah subdivided these into 63 sections, or tractates. The spiritual edifice was now complete. Up to this point, such traditions had always been transmitted orally. But as an added protection, the final revolutionary step was taken—that of putting everything down in writing. This impressive new written structure housing the oral law was called the Mishnah. The name Mishnah comes from the Hebrew root sha·nahʹ, meaning “to repeat,” “to study,” or “to teach.” It is the equivalent of the Aramaic tenaʼʹ, from which comes tan·na·ʼimʹ, the term applied to teachers of the Mishnah.
The purpose of the Mishnah was not to set in place a definitive code. It dealt more with the exceptions, assuming that the reader knew the basic principles. Actually, it summarized what was discussed and taught in the rabbinic academies during the period of Judah ha-Nasi. The Mishnah was meant to be an outline of the oral law for further debate, a skeletal form, or basic structure, on which to build.
Rather than revealing anything given to Moses at Mount Sinai, the Mishnah provides insight into the development of the oral law, a concept that began with the Pharisees. Information recorded in the Mishnah sheds some light on statements in the Christian Greek Scriptures and on certain discussions between Jesus Christ and the Pharisees. However, there is need for caution because ideas found in the Mishnah reflect Jewish viewpoints from the second century C.E. The Mishnah is the bridge between the second temple period and the Talmud.
For additional information, see pages 8-11 of the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
See the article “Gamaliel—He Taught Saul of Tarsus,” in The Watchtower of July 15, 1996.
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The Divisions of the Mishnah
The Mishnah is divided into six Orders. These consist of 63 smaller books, or tractates, divided into chapters and mishnayot, or paragraphs (not verses).
1. Zeraim (Agricultural Laws)
These tractates include discussions on prayers said over food and in connection with agriculture. They also include rules on tithing, priestly portions, gleanings, and Sabbath years.
2. Moed (Holy Occasions, Festivals)
The tractates in this Order discuss laws relating to the Sabbath, the Day of Atonement, and other festivals.
3. Nashim (Women, Marriage Law)
These are tractates discussing marriage and divorce, vows, Nazirites, and cases of suspected adultery.
4. Nezikin (Damages and Civil Law)
The tractates in this Order cover subjects related to civil and property law, courts and penalties, the function of the Sanhedrin, idolatry, oaths, and Ethics of the Fathers (Avot).
5. Kodashim (Sacrifices)
These tractates discuss regulations related to animal and grain offerings as well as dimensions of the temple.
6. Toharot (Purification Rituals)
This Order consists of tractates discussing ritual purity, bathing, washing of the hands, skin diseases, and impurity of different objects.
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The Mishnah and the Christian Greek Scriptures
Matthew 12:1, 2: “At that season Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath. His disciples got hungry and started to pluck heads of grain and to eat. At seeing this the Pharisees said to him: ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’” The Hebrew Scriptures do not forbid what Jesus’ disciples did. But in the Mishnah we find a list of 39 activities forbidden by the rabbis on the Sabbath.—Shabbat 7:2.
Matthew 15:3: “In reply [Jesus] said to them: ‘Why is it you also overstep the commandment of God because of your tradition?’” The Mishnah confirms this attitude. (Sanhedrin 11:3) We read: “Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] Law. If a man said, ‘There is no obligation to wear phylacteries’ so that he transgresses the words of the Law, he is not culpable; [but if he said], ‘There should be in them five partitions’, so that he adds to the words of the Scribes, he is culpable.”—The Mishnah, by Herbert Danby, page 400.
Ephesians 2:14: “He [Jesus] is our peace, he who made the two parties one and destroyed the wall in between that fenced them off.” The Mishnah says: “Inside the Temple Mount was a latticed railing (the Soreg), ten hand-breadths high.” (Middot 2:3) Gentiles were forbidden to pass beyond this point and to enter the inner courtyards. The apostle Paul may have alluded to this wall in a figurative way in writing to the Ephesians in 60 or 61 C.E., when it was still standing. The symbolic wall was the Law covenant, which had long separated Jews and Gentiles. On the basis of Christ’s death in 33 C.E., however, that wall was abolished.