Mishnah (Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, “study by repetition”, from the verb shanah שנה, or “to study and review”, also “secondary”) is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the “Oral Torah”. It is a compilation of legal opinions and debates, statements in the Mishnah are typically terse, recording brief opinions of the rabbis debating a subject; or recording only an unattributed ruling, apparently representing a consensus view. The rabbis recorded in the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim.
Since it sequences its laws by subject matter instead of by biblical context, the Mishnah discusses individual subjects more thoroughly than the Midrash, and it includes a much broader selection of halakhic subjects than the Midrash. The Mishnah’s topical organization thus became the framework of the Talmud as a whole. But not every tractate in the Mishnah has a corresponding Gemara. Also, the order of the tractates in the Talmud differs in some cases from that in the Mishnah.
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.
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:
- Zeraim (“Seeds”), dealing with prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws (11 tractates)
- Moed (“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).
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. 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.)
Mishnah, Gemara, and Talmud
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, the Babylonian Talmud (to which the term “Talmud” normally refers) and the Jerusalem Talmud. Unlike the Hebrew Mishnah, the Gemara is written primarily in Aramaic.
The Talmud (Hebrew: תַּלְמוּד talmūd “instruction, learning”, from a root LMD “teach, study”) is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It is also traditionally referred to as Shas (ש״ס), a Hebrew abbreviation of shisha sedarim, the “six orders”, a reference to the six orders of the Mishnah. The term “Talmud” normally refers to the collection of writings named specifically the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), although there is also an earlier collection known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) or Palestinian Talmud. When referring to post-biblical periods, namely those of the creation of the Talmud, the Talmudic academies and the Babylonian exilarchate, Jewish sources use the term “Babylonia” long after it had become obsolete in geopolitical terms.
The Talmud has two components; the Mishnah (Hebrew: משנה, c. 200 CE), a written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism’s Oral Torah; and the Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. “Talmud” translates literally as “instruction” in Hebrew, and the term may refer to either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara together.
The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is over 6,200 pages long. It is written in Tannaitic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through the fifth century CE) 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 widely quoted in rabbinic literature.
Originally, Jewish scholarship was oral. Rabbis expounded and debated the Torah (the written Torah expressed in the Hebrew Bible) and discussed the Tanakh without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (megillot setarim), for example of court decisions. This situation changed drastically, mainly as the result of the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth and the Second Temple in the year 70 CE and the consequent upheaval of Jewish social and legal norms. As the Rabbis were required to face a new reality—mainly Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without at least partial autonomy—there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing. The earliest recorded oral Torah may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Pentateuch. But an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, became dominant about the year 200 CE, when Rabbi Judah the Prince redacted the Mishnah (משנה).
The Oral Torah was far from monolithic; rather, it varied among various schools. The most famous two were the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. In general, all valid opinions, even the non-normative ones, were recorded in the Talmud.
The oldest full manuscript of the Talmud, known as the Munich Talmud (Cod.hebr. 95), dates from 1342 and is available online.
The structure of the Talmud follows that of the Mishnah, in which six orders (sedarim; singular: seder) of general subject matter are divided into 60 or 63 tractates (masekhtot; singular: masekhet) of more focused subject compilations, though not all tractates have Gemara. Each tractate is divided into chapters (perakim; singular: perek), 517 in total, that are both numbered according to the Hebrew alphabet and given names, usually using the first one or two words in the first mishnah. A perek may continue over several (up to tens of) pages. Each perek will contain several mishnayot with their accompanying exchanges that form the “building-blocks” of the Gemara; the name for a passage of gemara is a sugya (סוגיא; plural sugyot). A sugya, including baraita or tosefta, will typically comprise a detailed proof-based elaboration of a Mishnaic statement, whether halakhic or aggadic. A sugya may, and often does, range widely off the subject of the mishnah. The sugya is not punctuated in the conventional sense used in the English language, but by using specific expressions that help to divide the sugya into components, usually including a statement, a question on the statement, an answer, a proof for the answer or a refutation of the answer with its own proof.
In a given sugya, scriptural, Tannaic and Amoraic statements are cited to support the various opinions. In so doing, the Gemara will highlight semantic disagreements between Tannaim and Amoraim (often ascribing a view to an earlier authority as to how he may have answered a question), and compare the Mishnaic views with passages from the Baraita. Rarely are debates formally closed; in some instances, the final word determines the practical law, but in many instances the issue is left unresolved. There is a whole literature on the procedural principles to be used in settling the practical law when disagreements exist: see under #Logic and methodology below.
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