Monday, May 16, 2005

A brief and tentative history of Mishna and Gemara

Lawrence Schiffman described the Mishna as a "syllabus for the study of halakha". That is right on the money. Mishnayos were compiled in a manner that enabled subsequent generations to study Torah systematically. Thus, the mishna was subdivided into six large categories and each one was subdivided into more particular categories by topic. The Mishna is interesting in two respects. One is that it is the first Jewish religious writing that consciously avoids imitating Scripture ala writings that are in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrepha, Dead Sea Scrolls and, lehavdil, the New Testament. Secondly, the Mishna specifically avoids anchoring its laws in Scripture. Thus, for example, the first mishna in Tractate Berachos discusses the obligation to recite shema in the evening and takes the fact of its recitation as a given, leaving it to the Gemara to anchor the Mishna's laws in Scripture.

Compiled or edited or published -- it is uncertain -- by R. Yehuda ha-Nasi in the early 3rd century C.E., the Mishna is not a law code. It invariably cites multiple opinions and does so specifically so that subsequent generations can examine all sides of the issue and pasken for themselves. However oftentimes the Mishna will in fact give preference to an opinion. Sometimes explicitly and sometimes one has to know the code. For example, if a Mishna gives an opinion without attribution -- a stam mishna -- it is not necessarily because the author of the opinion was unknown to R. Yehuda. On the contrary; often the same anonymous opinion is found with attribution in the Tosefta. When an anonymous opinion is given it is because R. Yehuda wanted to highlight that opinion and let is stand on its own, as it were. That is the opinion that R. Yehuda wanted to give preference to. Other times "the code" is that the halakha is always like specific authorities when they are named. Thus we find that when something is attributed to the early tanna R. Eliezer ben Ya'akov we pasken like him. Other times there are rules of how we resolve disputes between authorities. Thus we will pasken like Beis Hillel in their disputed with Beis Shammai, with relatively few exceptions. We will generally pasken in accordance with the chachamim, i.e., a majority of rabbis, when they are disputed by a minority.

When all is said and done, the Mishna is a syllabus. And that is precisely how it was used by the amoraim, the sages of the Gemara, in their academies.

The amoraim analyzed, debated and [insert a half dozen other terms like that here] the halakha, always mindful of the mishna (as well as other tannaitic literature, such as the Tosefta). The amoraim sought to ground the Mishna in Scripture. They demonstrate how the halakha of the Mishna is in fact derived from Tanakh. Thus, to revisit that first mishna in Berachos, the Gemara does not take it as given that there is an obligation to recite shema at night. The Gemara needs it to be proven from Scripture, and prove it it does. That is the MO of the Gemara. In its analysis of the Mishna and tannaitic statements it meticulously provides the sources in Tanakh as well as the exegetical method used to derive those laws from Tanakh itself.

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