Eighteen hundred years ago Rabbi Judah Nasi edited the oral traditions of his predecessors, the Tannaim, into a six-volume collection known as the Mishnah (teaching). Each volume, or Seder, contains smaller tractates, totaling 63 books, which span the subjects of agriculture, festivals, family law, civil law, ritual purity, and sacrifice. These brief books, composed in elegant Hebrew, were later expanded into the massive mélange of Hebrew and Aramaic, law and lore, known as the Talmud. They form the foundation of Jewish practice and are second in importance only to the Torah itself.
We will study one Mishnah each week, proceeding sequentially through the 63 tractates. The Mishnah should be read aloud, preferably with a study partner. Our translation, comments, and questions are intended to elicit reflective conversation rather than to explicate every detail of the Mishnah.
Nasi, generally translated "prince," actually denotes a title that was both academic and political. The Nasi served as head of the Sanhedrin, a rabbinic supreme court, and he also had political authority to represent the Jewish community of Palestine vis-a-vis the Roman imperial authorities. Judah the Nasi was the quintessential "rabbi’s rabbi." Indeed he is often referred to as simply, "Rabbi."
Tannaim (teachers) refers to six generations of sages beginning with Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, who established the first academy in Yavneh following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. His students were active primarily in the northern area of Israel. After the career of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the next generations of rabbis were known as Amoraim. These rabbis, active both in Israel and in Babylonia (today’s Iraq), expanded the earlier traditions into an encyclopedic work known as the Talmud.
Although the Mishnah was edited five generations after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the cessation of sacrificial worship, the Mishnah lavishes great attention upon its procedures and even architecture.