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The Building Blocks of Jewish Knowledge


By TorahLab

Description of the Mishnah

The Mishnah is considered the earliest text of Oral Torah (though in actuality Megilas Taanis was compiled slightly earlier). The Mishnah is the foundation of Halacha and the basis of the Gemara, which is a compilation of three centuries of discussion after the Mishnah. It was compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) in about 200 CE, though it may not have been written down until several centuries later.

The Mishnah records the halachic statements of the Tannaim (singular Tanna) who were the Sages living between 70 and 200 CE. The Tannaim followed the era of the Zugos ("pairs") and preceded the Amoraim (Sages of the Gemara). The root Tanna (???) is the Aramaic equivalent for the Hebrew root shanah (???), which also is the root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (???) literally means "to repeat [what one was taught]" and is used to mean "to learn".


There are approximately 120 known Tannaim who lived in several areas of Israel. The spiritual center of Judaism at that time was Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city and the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students founded a new religious center in Yavne.

The Tannaim are all students of either Hillel or Shammai, the last of the Zugos. The rival schools are often referred to as ‘Beis Hillel’ and ‘Beis Shammai’. The Mishnaic period is commonly divided up into five periods based on the generations following Hillel and Shammai. The generations of Tannaim are:

  1. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's generation (circa 40 BCE-80 CE).
  2. Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua's generation, the teachers of Rabbi Akiva.
  3. The generation of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues.
  4. The generation of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and their colleagues.
  5. Rabbi Judah haNasi's generation.
  6. The interim generation between the Mishnah and the Talmud: Rabbis Shimon ben Judah HaNasi and Yehoshua ben Levi, etc.

Structure and Style of Mishnah

Most Mishnayos are written anonymously and usually follow the opinion of Rabbi Meir. Often there are two or more opinions recorded in a Mishna, in which case the names of those who argue are given. The anonymous first opinion cited in a Mishna is known as the Tanna Kamma (the first Tanna).

The Mishnah only rarely cites scriptural (Written Torah) basis for its laws. This is in contrast with the Midrash halachic, works in which the laws are derived from Torah verses. Often the Mishnayos are very short and cryptic and can only be understood with the Gemara’s explanation. Sometimes words, opinions or even whole sections are left out. This was perhaps in order to facilitate memorization and also to retain the ‘non-written’ nature of the Oral Law (since a Mishna can only be understood with explanation that remained oral for several more centuries).

The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim). This explains the traditional name for the Talmud as Shas, which is an abbreviation of shishah sedarim, "six orders". These six sedarim contain a total of 63 tractates, called masechtos. Each Maseches is divided into chapters and each chapter into individual Mishnayos (singular - Mishnah). A typical reference to a Mishnah will give the name of the masechet, number of chapter and number of Mishnah. For example ‘Berachos 5: 1’.

  1. Zeraim ("Seeds"). Primarily deals with agricultural laws and blessings.
  2. Moed ("Festival"). The laws of Shabbos and the Festivals.
  3. Nashim ("Women"). Concerns marriage and divorce.
  4. Nezikin ("Damages"). Civil and criminal law.
  5. Kodashim ("Holy things"). Sacrifices, the Temple, and kashrus laws.
  6. Tohoros ("Purities"). The laws of purity and impurity, including the impurity of the dead, the laws of ritual purity for the priests (Cohanim), the laws of "family purity" (the menstrual laws).

In each order (with the exception of Zeraim) the tractates are arranged from biggest (in number of chapters) to smallest.

  1. Berachos
  2. Pe'ah
  3. Demai
  4. Kil'ayim
  5. Shevi'is
  6. Terumos
  7. Ma'aseros
  8. Ma'aser Sheni
  9. Challah
  10. Orlah
  11. Bikkurim
  1. Shabbos
  2. Eruvin
  3. Pesachim
  4. Shekalim
  5. Yoma
  6. Sukkah
  7. Beitzah
  8. Rosh Hashanah
  9. Ta'anis
  10. Megillah
  11. Mo'ed Katan
  12. Chagigah
  1. Yevamos
  2. Kesubos
  3. Nedarim
  4. Nazir
  5. Sotah
  6. Gittin
  7. Kiddushin
  1. Bava Kamma
  2. Bava Metzia
  3. Bava Basra
  4. Sanhedrin
  5. Makkos
  6. Shevu'os
  7. Eduyos
  8. Avodah Zarah
  9. Avos
  10. Horayos
  1. Zevachim
  2. Menachos
  3. Chullin
  4. Bechoros
  5. Arachin
  6. Temurah
  7. Kerisos
  8. Me'ilah
  9. Tamid
  10. Middos
  11. Kinnim
  1. Keilim
  2. Oholos
  3. Nega'im
  4. Parah
  5. Tohoros
  6. Mikva'os
  7. Niddah
  8. Machshirin
  9. Zavim
  10. Tevul Yom
  11. Yadayim
  12. Uktzim

Commentaries on the Mishnah

Rambam - In 1168, Maimonides was probably the first to author a comprehensive commentary on the Mishnah. It was written in Arabic. In it, Rambam condenses the associated Talmudic debates, and offers his conclusions in a number of undecided issues. He also wrote several introductions to different sections of the Mishnah. Apart from his introduction to the Mishnah, the most famous introductions are Shmoneh Perakim (introduction to Pirkei Avos), Chelek (introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin in which he enumerates the thirteen principles of Judaism).

RaSH - Rabbi Samson of Sens (France) was, apart from Maimonides, one of the few rabbis of the early medieval era to compose a Mishnah commentary. It is printed in many editions of the Mishnah.

Bartinura - Rabbi Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartinura (15th century) wrote one of the most popular Mishnah commentaries. He mainly offers Talmudic material (in effect a summary of the Talmudic discussion) following the commentary of Rashi. This commentary is often referred to as "the Bartinura" or "the Ra'V".

Tosefos Yom Tov - Yomtov Lipman Heller (who is often believed to be a pupil of the Maharal, but in fact came to Prague already as a mature scholar) wrote a commentary called Tosafos Yom Tov. In the introduction Heller says that his aim is to make additions (Tosafos) to Bartinura’s commentary. In many compact Mishnah printings, a condensed version of his commentary, titled Ikar Tosafos Yom Tov, is featured.

Tiferes Yisrael - A prominent commentary from the 19th century is Tiferes Yisrael by Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz. It is subdivided into two parts, one more general and the other more analytical, titled Yachin and Boaz respectively (after two large pillars in the Temple in Jerusalem).

Kehati - The commentary by Rabbi Pinchas Kehati, which is written in Modern Israeli Hebrew and based on classical and contemporary works, has become popular in the late Twentieth Century. The commentary is designed to make the Mishnah widely accessible to a wide spectrum of learners of all ages and all levels of experience in Torah study. It is popularly referred to as "The Kehati". Each tractate is introduced with an overview of its contents, including historical and legal background material, and each Mishnah is prefaced by a thematic introduction. The current version of this edition is printed with the Bartenura commentary as well as Kehati's.

English Translations of Mishnah

There are several English translations of Mishna available, including:

  • Philip Blackman. Mishnayoth. The Judaica Press, Ltd., 2000 (ISBN 0-910818-00-X)
  • Artscroll. The Mishnah, a new translation with commentary Yad Avraham. New York: Mesorah publishers
  • Pinchas Kehati translated by Edward Levin, The Mishnah, Dept. for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, Jerusalem, 1994

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