Rabbinic Literature

Talmudic literature

Mishnah • Tosefta
Jerusalem Talmud • Babylonian Talmud
Minor tractates

Halakhic Midrash

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (Exodus)
Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon (Exodus)
Sifra (Leviticus)
Sifre (Numbers & Deuteronomy)
Sifre Zutta (Numbers)
Mekhilta le-Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael

Aggadic Midrash

—— Tannaitic ——
Seder Olam Rabbah
Alphabet of Akiba ben Joseph
Baraita of the Forty-nine Rules
Baraita on the Thirty-two Rules
Baraita on Tabernacle Construction
—— 400–600 ——
Genesis Rabbah • Eichah Rabbah
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
Esther Rabbah • Midrash Iyyov
Leviticus Rabbah • Seder Olam Zutta
Midrash Tanhuma • Megillat Antiochus
—— 650–900 ——
Avot of Rabbi Natan
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
Tanna Devei Eliyahu
Alphabet of Ben-Sira
Kohelet Rabbah • Canticles Rabbah
Devarim Rabbah • Devarim Zutta
Pesikta Rabbati • Midrash Shmuel
Midrash Proverbs • Ruth Rabbah
Baraita of Samuel • Targum sheni
—— 900–1000 ——
Ruth Zuta • Eichah Zuta
Midrash Tehillim • Midrash Hashkem
Exodus Rabbah • Canticles Zutta
—— 1000–1200 ——
Midrash Tadshe • Sefer ha-Yashar
—— Later ——
Yalkut Shimoni • Yalkut Makiri
Midrash Jonah • Ein Yaakov
Midrash ha-Gadol • Numbers Rabbah
Smaller midrashim

Rabbinic Targum

—— Torah ——
Targum Onkelos
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan
Fragment Targum • Targum Neofiti

—— Nevi'im ——
Targum Jonathan

—— Ketuvim ——
Targum Tehillim • Targum Mishlei
Targum Iyyov
Targum to the Five Megillot
Targum Sheni to Esther
Targum to Chronicles

The Mishnah or Mishna (Hebrew: משנה, "repetition", from the verb shanah שנה, or "to study and review", also "secondary"[1](derived from the adj. שני)) is the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions called the "Oral Torah" and the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism.[2] It was redacted c. 220 CE by Judah haNasi when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions dating from Pharisaic times (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. It is thus named for being both the one written authority (codex) secondary (only) to the Tanakh as a basis for the passing of judgment, a source and a tool for creating laws, and the first of many books to complement the Bible in a certain aspect. The Mishnah is also called Shas (an acronym for Shisha Sedarim - the "six orders"), in reference to its six main divisions.[3] Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah over the next three centuries[4] were redacted as the Gemara, which, coupled with the Mishnah, comprise the Talmud.

The Mishnah reflects debates between 70-200 CE by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim.[5] The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a wise and notable rabbi based on the rules, Mitzvot, and spirit of the teaching ("Torah") that guided his sentencing. In this way, it brings to everyday reality the practice of the mitzvot as presented in the Bible, and aimed to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most importantly, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed at the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing traditions.

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 or verses. The orders and their subjects 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 word Mishnah can also indicate a single paragraph or verse of the work itself, ie. the smallest unit of structure 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. Each masechet is divided into chapters (peraqim, singular pereq) and then paragraphs or verses (mishnayot, singular Mishnah). The Mishnah is also called Shas (an acronym for Shisha Sedarim - the "six orders").[3]

The Mishnah orders its content by subject matter, instead of by biblical context, and discusses individual subjects more thoroughly than the Midrash. It includes a much broader selection of halakhic subjects than the Midrash.

The six orders are:

In each order (with the exception of Zeraim), tractates are arranged from biggest (in number of chapters) to smallest.

The word Mishnah can also indicate a single paragraph or verse of the work itself, ie. the smallest unit of structure in the Mishnah.

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. The historical accuracy of this tradition is disputed. 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.)

Interestingly, Reuvein Margolies (1889 – 1971) posited that there were originally seven orders of Mishnah, citing a Gaonic tradition on the existence of a seventh order containing the laws of Sta"m (scribal practice) and Berachot (blessings).


The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but merely the collection of existing oral laws, traditions and traditional wisdom. The rabbis who contributed to the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim, of whom approximately 120 are known. The period during which the Mishnah was assembled spanned about 130 years, and five generations.

Most of the Mishnah is related without attribution (stam). This usually indicates that many sages taught so, or that Judah haNasi (often called "Rebbi") who redacted the Mishna together with his academy/court ruled so. The halakhic ruling usually follows that view. Sometimes, however, it appears to be the opinion of a single sage, and the view of the sages collectively (Hebrew: חכמים‎, hachamim) is given separately.

The Talmud records a tradition that unattributed statements of the law represent the views of Rabbi Meir (Sanhedrin 86a), which supports the theory (recorded by Rav Sherira Gaon in his famous Iggeret) that he was the author of an earlier collection. For this reason, the few passages that actually say "this is the view of Rabbi Meir" represent cases where the author intended to present Rabbi Meir's view as a "minority opinion" not representing the accepted law.

Rebbi is credited with publishing the Mishnah, though there have been a few edits since his time (for example, those passages that cite him or his grandson, Rabbi Yehuda Nesi'ah; in addition, the Mishnah at the end of Tractate Sotah refers to the period after Rebbi's death, which could not have been written by Rebbi himself). According to the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, after the tremendous upheaval caused by the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt, the Oral Torah was in danger of being forgotten. It was for this reason that Rebbi chose to redact the Mishnah.

One must also note that in addition to redacting the Mishnah, Rebbi and his court also ruled on which opinions should be followed, though the rulings do not always appear in the text.

As he went through the tractates, the Mishnah was set forth, but throughout his life some parts were updated as new information came to light. Because of the proliferation of earlier versions, it was deemed too hard to retract anything already released, and therefore a second version of certain laws were released. The Talmud refers to these differing versions as Mishnah Rishonah ("First Mishnah") and Mishnah Acharonah ("Last Mishnah"). David Zvi Hoffman suggests that Mishnah Rishonah actually refers to texts from earlier Sages upon which Rebbi based his Mishnah.

One theory is that the present Mishnah was based on an earlier collection by Rabbi Meir. There are also references to the "Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva", though this may simply mean his teachings in general.[6] It is possible that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir established the divisions and order of subjects in the Mishnah, but this would make them the authors of a school curriculum rather than of a book.

Authorities are divided on whether Rebbi recorded the Mishnah in writing or established it as an oral text for memorisation. The most important early account of its composition, the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, is ambiguous on the point, though the "Spanish" recension leans to the theory that the Mishnah was written. However, the Talmud records that, in every study session, there was a person called the tanna appointed to recite the Mishnah passage under discussion. This may indicate that, even if the Mishnah was reduced to writing, it was not available on general distribution.


Oral law

Before the publication of the MISHNAH, Jewish scholarship was predominantly oral. Rabbis expounded on and debated the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, 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. The oral traditions were far from monolithic, and varied among various schools, the most famous of which were the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.

The end of the Jewish commonwealth in the year 70 CE resulted in an upheaval of Jewish social and legal norms. The Rabbis were faced with the new reality of Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing.[7][8]

The earliest recorded oral law may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Torah. But an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, became dominant by about the year 220 CE, when Rebbi Judah haNasi redacted the Mishnah. In general, all opinions, even the non-normative ones, were recorded in the Mishnah and subsequently the Talmud.

In modern times, "the law" takes on a different meaning than discussed in the Mishnah and Talmud. "The law" in Judaism refers primarily to biblical law, given to the Israelites by God through Moses, as well as interpretations of the meaning and application of those rules. Thus, "the Law" is understood to be the religious teachings and rules given by God. Yet, since religion was infused in every area of life, rules for governing society, resolution of disputes, and enforcing safety and public order were also governed by the religious law, leading to an overlap of religion and modern conceptions of law.

Relationship with the Hebrew Bible

Rabbinic Judaism holds that the oral tradition was received by Moses at Mount Sinai in parallel with the Five Books of Moses, the (written) Torah (Torah she-bi-khtav), and that these together have always been the basis of Jewish law (halakha). The "Written Law" consists of the "Five Books of Moses," the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and not the Bible as a whole.[9]

According to the Rabbinic view, the Oral Law (Torah she-be'al-peh) was also given to Moses at Sinai, and is the exposition of the Written Law as relayed by the scholarly and other religious leaders of each generation. This Oral Law is authoritative in practical terms, as the traditions of the Oral Law are considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law.

Thus, Jewish law and custom is based not only on a literal reading of the Torah, or the rest of the Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written traditions. Notably, the Mishnah does not cite a written scriptural basis for its laws: since it is said that the Oral Law was given simultaneously with the Written Law, the Oral Law codified in the Mishnah does not derive directly from the Written Law of the Torah. This is in contrast with the Midrash halakha, works in which the sources of the traditionally received laws are identified in the Tanakh, often by linking a verse to a halakha. These Midrashim often predate the Mishnah.

By 220 CE, much of the Oral Law was edited together into the Mishnah, and published by Rabbi Judah haNasi. Over the next four centuries this material underwent analysis and debate, known as Gemara ("completion"), in what were at that time the world's two major Jewish communities, in the land of Israel and in the Babylonian Empire. These debates eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud: the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) for the compilation in Israel, and Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) for the compilation undertaken in Babylon.

Competing oral laws and acceptance

It is unclear, according to J. Sussman (Mehqerei Talmud III), whether there was any writing connected to the Oral Law, or whether it was entirely oral. Over time, different traditions of the Oral Law came into being, raising debates about what the laws or their rulings were. According to the Mevo Hatalmud many rulings were given about specific things that could have been taken out of context or where a ruling was revisited but the second ruling was not as popularly known. To correct this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi took up the redaction of the Mishnah. If something was already there with no conflict, he used it without changes in language, he reordered and ruled on where there was conflict, and clarified where context was not given. The idea was not do this at his own discretion, but rather to examine the tradition as far back as he could, and only supplement as required.

Some Jews did not accept the written codification of the oral law at all; known as Karaites, they comprised a significant portion of the world Jewish population in the 10th and 11th Centuries CE, and remain extant, though they currently number in the thousands.

Mishnah Study


A number of important laws are not elaborated upon in the Mishnah. These include the laws of tzitzit, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzah, the holiday of Hanukkah, and the laws of gerim (converts). These were later discussed in the minor tractates.

Rabbi Nissim Gaon in his Hakdamah Le'mafteach Hatalmud writes that many of these laws were so well known that it was unnecessary for Rabbi to discuss them. Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, Rabbi could not have included discussion of Hanukkah which commemorates the Jewish revolt against the Syrian-Greeks (the Romans would not have tolerated this overt nationalism). Similarly, there were then several decrees in place aimed at suppressing outward signs of national identity, including decrees against wearing tefillin and tzitzit; as Conversion to Judaism was against Roman law, Rabbi would not have discussed this.[10]

David Zvi Hoffman suggests that there existed ancient texts in the form of the present day Shulchan Aruch that discussed the basic laws of day to day living and it was therefore not necessary to focus on these laws in the Mishnah.

Textual variants

The earliest printed edition of the Mishnah was published in Naples ("the Napoli edition"). There have been many subsequent editions, including the late nineteenth century Vilna edition, which is the basis of the editions now used by the religious public.

As well as being printed on its own, the Mishnah is included in all editions of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Each paragraph is printed on its own, and followed by the relevant Gemara discussion. However, that discussion itself often cites the Mishnah line by line. While the text printed in paragraph form has generally been standardized to follow the Vilna edition, the text cited line by line often preserves important variants, which sometimes reflect the readings of older manuscripts.

The nearest approach to a critical edition is that of Hanoch Albeck. There is also an edition by Yosef Qafiḥ of the Mishnah together with the commentary of Maimonides, which compares the base text used by Maimonides with the Napoli and Vilna editions and other sources.

Oral traditions and pronunciation

The Mishnah was and still is traditionally studied through recitation (out loud). Many medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah are vowelized, and some of these contain partial Tiberian cantillation. Jewish communities around the world preserved local melodies for chanting the Mishnah, and distinctive ways of pronouncing its words.

Most vowelized editions of the Mishnah today reflect standard Ashkenazic vowelization, and often contain mistakes. The Albeck edition of the Mishnah was vowelized by Hanokh Yellin, who made careful eclectic use of both medieval manuscripts and current oral traditions of pronunciation from Jewish communities all over the world. The Albeck edition includes an introduction by Yellin detailing his eclectic method.

Two institutes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have collected major oral archives which hold (among other things) extensive recordings of Jews chanting the Mishnah using a variety of melodies and many different kinds of pronunciation. These institutes are the Jewish Oral Traditions Research Center and the National Voice Archives (the Phonoteca at the Jewish National and University Library). See below for external links.


As an historical source

Both the Mishnah and Talmud contain little serious biographical studies of the people discussed therein, and the same tractate will conflate the points of view of many different people. Yet, sketchy biographies of the Mishnaic sages can often be constructed with historical detail from Talmudic and Midrashic sources.

Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation of the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is composed of sources which date from its editor's lifetime, and to what extent is it composed of earlier, or later sources. Are Mishnaic disputes distinguishable along theological or communal lines, and in what ways do different sections derive from different schools of thought within early Judaism? Can these early sources be identified, and if so, how? In response to these questions, modern scholars have adopted a number of different approaches.

Cultural references

The most notable literary work on the composition of the Mishna is probably Milton Steinberg's novel As a Driven Leaf.


  1. In the Greek language, the name Deuterosis means "repetition."
  2. The list of joyful days known as Megillat Taanit is older, but according to the Talmud it is no longer in force.
  3. 3.0 3.1 The term Shas is also used to refer to a complete Talmud, which follows the structure of the Mishnah.
  4. Recorded mostly in Aramaic.
  5. The plural term (singular tanna) for the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah; the period of the Tannaim is also referred to as the Mishnaic period and followed the Zugot ("pairs"), preceding the period of the Amoraim The root tanna (תנא) is the Aramaic equivalent for the Hebrew root shanah (שנה), which also is the root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (שנה) literally means "to repeat [what one was taught]" and is used to mean "to learn".
  6. This theory was held by David Zvi Hoffman, and is repeated in the introduction to Herbert Danby's Mishnah translation.
  7. See, Strack, Hermann, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Jewish Publication Society, 1945. pp.11-12. "[The Oral Law] was handed down by word of mouth during a long period...The first attempts to write down the traditional matter, there is reason to believe, date from the first half of the second post-Christian century." Strack theorizes that the growth of a Christian canon (the New Testament) was a factor that influenced the Rabbis to record the oral law in writing.
  8. The theory that the destruction of the Temple and subsequent upheaval led to the committing of Oral Law into writing was first explained in the Epistle of Sherira Gaon and often repeated. See, for example, Grayzel, A History of the Jews, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 193.
  9. When Nevi'im [נביאים] ("Prophets") and Ketuvim [כתובים] ("Writings"), are added to the Torah, the expanded volume is called the Tanakh. It is this collection of books that Christianity knows as The Old Testament.
  10. Yesod Hamishna Va'arichatah pp. 25-28 (Hebrew textPDF)

See also


English Translations

Historical study


External links

Wikimedia projects

Wikisource's Open Mishna Project is developing Mishnah texts, commentaries, and translations. The project is currently available in four languages: Hebrew (the largest collection), English, French and Portuguese.

Other electronic texts

Mishnah study & the Daily Mishnah

Audio lectures

Oral traditions and pronunciation