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The Mishnah Was a series of interpretations of the meaning of the Law; according to rabbinic tradition, they were given when Moses received the Law from God on Mt Sinai and were to be passed down in oral form, [according to Jewish tradition] (See below). This “oral tradition” was the “law” to which Jesus referred, for example, in Matthew 15:1–9. By about ad 200, under Rabbi Judah, the work begun by Rabbi Akiba around ad 120 was completed, and the oral tradition was finally written down. This written material is called the Mishna. The word is derived from a verb which means “to repeat something,” and reflects the way the material had been repeated orally from teacher to disciple for many generations.
The Mishna is divided into six “orders,” each order is divided into sections called “tractates,” which in turn are divided into chapters. The orders deal with specific areas of legal concern as follows:
- Seeds is concerned with agricultural laws, and is introduced with a tractate dealing with daily prayers.
- Festivals deals with feasts, fast days, and sabbath regulations.
- Women records marriage and family laws.
- Injuries deals with civil/criminal law and ethical standards.
- Holy Things concerns the ritual laws and the activities of the priesthood.
- Purifications elaborates the laws of ritual purity.
The Mishna, which is essentially a commentary on the OT Law, forms the basis for the Gemara and the Talmud.
Overview History of the Mosaic Law Down to the Mishnah and the Talmud
Throughout the period when the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures were author (c. 1500–c. 440 B.C.E.), God had earthly representatives among his people who clarified disputes that came up among His people. In many of these cases, we find God himself supporting them and giving them answers by means of divine power or by His fulfilling prophecies that he had given the the prophets to declare. (Exodus 28:30; Numbers 16:1–17:15; 27:18-21; Deuteronomy 18:20-22) From the days of Moses until the days of Malachi, if anyone taught something that contradicted the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people did not see him as some scholar but rather as an apostate. God warned the whole nation: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.”—Deuteronomy 12:32; 13:1.
After the days of Malachi around 440 B.C.E. down to the time Matthew wrote his Gospel 45 C.E., things took a change in the mindset of the Israelites. We have the Pharisees, who came to light in the third-second centuries B.C.E., was a prominent Jewish sect in the first century C.E., distinguished by strict observance of their oral traditions and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity, began to espouse the teaching of what would come to be known as the “Oral Torah,” which they themselves had developed. The Pharisees had the people convinced that not only had God given his people the Mosaic Law on Mount Sinai but that God had also transmitted an oral law as well. This so-called oral law interpreted and clarified the written law, so they claimed. They claimed that these were details that God had expressly told Moses not to record. The Pharisees said that this oral law was only to be handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Of course, this conveniently gave special authority and power to the Pharisees, who saw themselves as the protectors of this oral tradition.
After General Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., killing a million Jews and taking a hundred thousand captive to Rome, the oral law of the Pharisees became a rabbi-dominated form of religion for the displaced Jews. Now, the power belonged to the rabbis whereas before it was the prophets and the priests who had the power, as the oral law became the new main feature of Judaism. As The Encyclopedia of Judaism states: “The Oral Torah came to be regarded as more important than the Written Torah inasmuch as the explanation and understanding of the latter depended upon the former.”—1989, page 710.
In time as the rabbis garnered more and more prestige and power and as those oral traditions grew, it became evident that they should lift the ban on writing down the oral law. This took place at the end of the second and the beginning of the early third century C.E., Judah Ha-Nasi (135-219 C.E.), would systematically record the oral traditions in a work that would become known as the Mishnah. This now authoritative collection of exegetical material embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law formed the first part of the Talmud. There were more additions that would be added later, known as the Tosefta. Of course, the rabbis would debate these traditions and then give commentary on the oral traditions that were supposed to be the interpretation of the Mosaic written record. This would become a voluminous collection of books called the Gemara (published third to the fifth century C.E.) Eventually, these works would become known as the Talmud. The body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law and legend comprising the Mishnah and the Gemara. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian Talmud (which dates from the 5th century C.E. but includes earlier material) and the earlier Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud. Because these imperfect humans were not inspired or moved along by the Holy Spirit, there was no harmony to these different views, so many see “seventy faces to the Torah.”
(1) Mishnah, “the oral doctrine and the study of it” (from shanah, “to repeat,” “to learn,” “to teach”), especially (a) the whole of the oral law which had come into existence up to the end of the 2nd century AD; (b) the whole of the teaching of one of the rabbis living during the first two centuries AD (tanna’, plural tanna’im); (c) a single tenet; (d) a collection of such tenets; (e) above all, the collection made by Rabbi Jehudah (or Judah) ha-Nasi’.
(2) Gemara’, “the matter that is leaned” (from gemar, “to accomplish,” “to learn”), denotes since the 9th century the collection of the discussions of the Amoraim, i.e. of the rabbis teaching from about 200 to 500 AD.
(3) Talmudh, “the studying” or “the teaching,” was in older times used for the discussions of the Amoraim; now it means the Mishna with the discussions thereupon.
(4) Halakhah (from halakh, “to go”): (a) the life as far as it is ruled by the Law; (b) a statutory precept.
(5) Haggadhah (from higgidh, “to tell”), the non-halakhic exegesis.
Bibliography. A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud; H. Danby, The Mishna; D. Daube, The NT and Rabbinic Judaism; W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; H.L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash; Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Mishna,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1475.