Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

The Mishna.

All the supplementary laws that grew up around the written Codes of the Bible were called, by distinction, the Oral Law. These included the decisions of the Scribes, the Pairs and the Tannaim. Rabbi Judah the Nasi made a compilation of all of these and called it The Mishna. Derived from the Hebrew verb shanah, to learn or repeat, the Mishna is popularly known as the Second Law. It became the recognized code for all legal decisions, and the authorized text-book in all the schools.

It now took its place beside the Law of the Pentateuch, and just as that first Law was a text for further development, so too we shall see that this Second Law, containing Halachoth of the Sopherim, the Pairs and the Tannaim, became the parent of a vast growth of precepts and prohibitions in the interpreting hands of the generations now to follow.

The Mishna is divided into six groups (Sedarim) containing sixty subdivisions (Mesechtas), as follows:


1, Introductory chapter on "Prayers"; 2, "Corners" of fields for the poor (Levit. xix., 9-10); 3, Doubtful produce (whether tithed or untithed); 4, Illegal mixtures (Deut. xxii. 9-11); 5, Sabbatic Year; 6, Priests' Tithes; 7, Levites' Tithes; 8, Secondary Tithes; 9, Dough offerings (Numbers xv., 17-21); 10, Prohibited fruits of first three years (Levit. xix., 23-25); 11, First fruits.


1, Sabbath; 2, Uniting localities to extend limit of Sabbath walk; 3, Passover; 4, Half-shekel tax (Ex. xxx., 11-16); 5, Day of Atonement; 6, Tabernacles; 7, Festival regulations; 8, New Year; 9, Fasts; 10, Purim; 11, Middle days of the Festivals; 12, Festival Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.


1, Levirate marriage (Deut. xxv., 5-10); 2, Marriage contracts; 3, Vows; 4, Nazarites (Numb. vi, and xxx); 5, The suspected sinner; 6, Divorce; 7, Betrothal.


1, First division—general; 2, Second division—Suits between master and servant, etc; 3, Third Division—Municipal and social regulations; 4, The Sanhedrin and Criminal Law; 5, Punishment by flogging; 6, Oaths; 7, Decisions between opposing traditions; 8, Idolatry (crime as well as sin); 9, Ethics of the Fathers; 10, Accidental Offences.


1, Sacrifices; 2, Meat offerings; 3, Slaughtered animals for food only; 4, The first born sacrifice; 5 and 6, Redemption and Exchange (see Levit. xxii); 7, Excommunication; 8, Profanation; 9, Temple sacrificial services; 10, Temple arrangements; 11, Offerings of poor (Levit. v, 1-10, and xii, 8).


1, Household furniture; 2, Tents and houses; 3, Leprosy; 4, The "Red Heifer" purification (Numb. xix.); 5, Lesser defilements; 6, Washing; 7, Periodic defilement; 8, Conditional impurities; 9, Open wounds; 10, Personal purification; 11, Washing of the hands; 12, Defilement of fruits.

About 150 authorities are quoted in the Mishna, involving about two thousand statements. Here are a few specimen sentences:

"From what time should we begin to read evening prayers (Shema)? From the hour when the priests enter to partake of their offering till the end of the first watch, according to R. Eleazer; (other) sages say till midnight. Rabban Gamaliel says, till dawn. Once it happened that his sons returned (late) from a feast. They said to him, 'We have not yet recited (the Shema).' He replied, 'If it is not yet dawn, the obligation to read it still abides; nay further, where the sages have said, 'till midnight,' their injunction extends it till dawn."—Opening paragraph of Mishna.

R. Nechunjah b. Hakanah was accustomed to offer a short prayer on entering and leaving the Academy. His (disciples) asked the appropriateness of such prayer. He replied: "On entering I pray that no harm should happen through me, on departing I give thanks for my lot."

"It is man's duty to offer a prayer at the occurrence of evil, just as he prays at good fortune; for Scripture says, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might,' 'With all thy heart'—with thy two inclinations of good and evil. 'With all thy soul' (life)—even though He (God) take thy life. 'With all thy might'—with all thy substance."—Prayers, i, 1.

"On New Year all who enter the world, pass before Him (God) like sheep to be judged, as Scripture says: He fashioneth their hearts alike, He understandeth all their doings."

"On six (different) months messengers are sent forth (to report on the occurrence of the New Moon); On Nisan on account of the Passover; on Ab, on account of the Fast (ninth); on Ellul, on account of New Year; on Tishri, to adjust the Festivals; on Kislev, on account of Hannukah; on Adar, on account of Purim. In the days when the temple stood they (the messengers) also went forth on Iyar, on account of Minor Passover" (see Numb. ix, 10-12).

"The following are prohibited from testifying:—he who gambles with dice, he who lends money on usury, he who trains doves for racing purposes, he who traffics in the produce of the seventh year and slaves.—New Year, ii, 8.

Here is a specimen piece from Sanhedrin, with accompanying notes, translated for a forthcoming work, Library of Post-biblical Hebrew Literature:—

They (the Judges[1]) examined them (the witnesses) with seven searching questions: "In what sabbatical year? In what year? In what month? What date of the month? What day? What hour? What place?" R. Jose said, "What day. What hour? What place? Did you know him? Did you warn him?[2] In a case of idolatry, whom did he serve? And with what did he serve?"

The more searching a judge is in his examinations, the more praiseworthy he is. It happened that the son of Zaccai examined (even) concerning the stems of the figs.[3] And what difference is there between investigations and examinations? In investigations if one should say, "I don't know," his testimony is worthless. In examinations, if one should say, "I don't know," and even two should say, "We don't know," their testimony stands. Whether in investigations or examinations, when they contradict each other, their testimony is worthless.

One witness said, "on the second of the month," and another witness said, "the third of the month," their testimony stands; because one knows of the intercalary month, and another does not know of the intercalary month.[4] One said, "on the third," and another said, "on the fifth," their testimony is worthless. R. Judah said "it stands." One said, "on the fifth," and another said, "on the seventh," their testimony is worthless, because at the fifth (hour) the sun is in the east, and at the seventh the sun is in the west.

And afterwards they introduce the second (witness[5]) and examine him. If both their statements agree, they open the case for the defense. If one witness says, "I possess information to clear him," or one of the disciples (of the Sanhedrin) says: "I possess information to condemn," they are ordered to keep silence. If one of the disciples says, "I possess information to clear him," they bring him up, and seat him between the judges, and he does not go down during the whole day.[6] If there be substantial information, they give him a hearing. And even when he (the accused) says, "I possess information for clearing myself," the judges give him a hearing; only there must be substantial information in his words. If the judges find him not guilty, they release him, but if not, they defer his verdict to the next day.[7]

  • NOTES:
  • [1] Criminal cases were judged by a regularly constituted court of three-and-twenty qualified members.
  • [2] No punishment could be inflicted if the culprit had not been warned that he was charged with a crime and forewarned as to its consequences.
  • [3] The witnesses testified that the crime has been committed under a fig tree.
  • [4] i. e., one knew that the preceding month was what is called a complete month, counting thirty days, and the days of the celebration of the New Moon (Rosh Hodesh) belonged to the following month; while the other believed that the preceding month was what is called a defective month, counting only twenty-nine days, and that the semi-holyday of the new moon was observed on two days, the first of which belonged to the preceding month.
  • [5] It was forbidden to examine a witness in the presence of another one.
  • [6] Even if his information is worthless, he remains seated besides the Judges, the whole day, in order not to degrade him before the public.
  • [7] A verdict of guilty cannot be pronounced on the same day as that on which the trial was held.

While the Mishna is strictly a code only, still its underlying structure is religious. The moral is everywhere impressed. One of its sections is a Book of Morals called Ethics of the Fathers, iv. 9, from which rabbinic sayings have already been quoted. A complete translation of this section will be found in the Sabbath Afternoon Service of the Prayer Book.

We find no system of doctrines in the Mishna and no formulated creed. A bad life is summed up in the general term—epicurean, which probably meant sensual self-indulgence and scoffing scepticism. The Jew is not asked to believe in God's existence. That is taken for granted; atheism hardly came within his ken. He is asked rather to shun anything that tends to polytheism. Revelation and Resurrection are regarded as fundamental beliefs. He who denies them will be deprived of future life. To withhold immortality from him who disbelieves it we might call poetic justice.

While the ceremonial law was rigorous, its observance was saved from being mechanical by the importance laid on sincerity of intention and on inner devotion. Not the brazen serpent but the repentant heart cured afflicted Israel in the wilderness, the Mishna reminds us, pointing its moral with the quotation from the prophet Joel, "Rend your hearts, not your garments." To go beyond the Law in the keeping of one's word merits the highest praise. Many prohibitions were imposed against actions not wrong in themselves, as barriers against possible wrong. These formed a "fence around the Law."


The acceptance of the Mishna as the Canon of Jewish Law curtailed—theoretically at least—the freedom of the rabbis who now followed, in the evolving of new Law. This later group of teachers was henceforth at liberty only to expound the Mishna. They are therefore called Amoraim, expounders, to distinguish them from the Tannaim, that class of teachers who interpreted direct from the Scriptures and whose work closed with the Mishna.

The Mishna tended still further to emphasize the legal character of Judaism. While it may have robbed the individual of spontaneity of religious action, it strengthened the bulwarks of moral law.


Another collection similar to the Mishna and arranged on the same plan, was called Tosephta (addenda). This contains for the most part commentaries on Scripture and much of what has been called Agada.

Read article "Prof. Schurer on Life Under the Law," by Israel Abrahams in Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. xi., and "The Law and Recent Criticism," Schechter, vol. iii.

"The Mishna is for the most part, free from the blemishes of the Roman code. There are fewer contradictory laws, fewer repetitions, fewer interpolations than in the digests: ... as regards a certain outspokenness in bodily things ... its language is infinitely purer than that of the mediaeval casuists."—E. DEUTSCH, The Talmud, J. P. S. A.

Theme for discussion:—What is Revelation, and how did the sages apply it to the Oral Law? (See "Ethics of the Fathers," ch. i), Sabbath Afternoon Service, Prayer Book.)