The book known as the Mishna is be considered to be the cornerstone of Judaism. Its 62 divisions (tractates, or Mesechtos) provide the background for every subject of Halacha (Jewish law) found in the Oral Torah. Each tractate is a collection of about 50 to 100 Mishnayos (plural for Mishna) – meaning that the title given to the whole book is the same word used to describe its smallest part. The Jews are a perplexing bunch of people, aren’t they?
The 62 sections are divided into six orders (Sedarim):
- Zeraim – deals mostly with agricultural laws – by and large relevant only to life in Israel.
- Moed – discusses the laws of the Sabbath and festivals.
- Nashim – deals with marriage and family law.
- Nezikin – covers civil and criminal law and the court system.
- Kodshim – is focused on the Temple and the Divine service that was centered around it.
- Taharos – discusses the laws of ritual purity.
Despite the fact that the Mishna (when compared with the endless explanation needed to understand it) is really nothing more than chapter headings, they are exceptionally good chapter headings. Amongst the beautifully concise wording and the seemingly simple arguments between sages, lie the hints and references needed to get a discussion going and lead the reader in the right direction. It’s hard to imagine any contract or constitution that could have said so much, so clearly, and in so few words.
The Hebrew of the Mishna is known as classical Hebrew because of its intense beauty and extreme simplicity. The writing is functional and unambiguous while at the same time, poetic and pleasing. It is a truly rare combination which is also found, (in a different way), in the Talmud.