Mishnah (Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, "repetition"): first great collection of rabbinical wisdom.

The synagogue of Sepphoris

After the fall of Jerusalem, in 70 CE, Jewish life had no temple and no high priest any more. Judaism had to reinvent itself. The Sadducees vanished, the people who had written the sectarian texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls (perhaps the Essenes) disappeared as well, the Sicarians and Zealots were violently repressed. Two branches survived: on the one hand the Pharisees, on the other hand the group that recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

The Parting of Ways

Texts, written in the last quarter of the first century, document a clash between those two branches of Judaism, both claiming to be the true continuation of Temple Judaism. The Fiscus Judaicus, a Roman tax that had to be paid by Jews only but allowed them to be monotheists, acerbated these tensions, and the fact that Simon bar Kochba, a Messianic leader who revolted against Rome in 132-136, executed adherents of the rival Messiah,note did not help either.

The Christians would find new leaders: priests, deacons, presbyters and bishops. The Pharisees continued the tradition of rabbinical teaching, often associated with the synagogues. The first to organize this branch of Judaism was Yohanan ben Zakkai, who had survived the sack of Jerusalem and founded a school in Javne, probably under Roman auspices.

Seizing power in a confused world, the academy of Javne, as it is called, made important decisions. The Amidah (the prayer of the Eighteen Benedictions) was created, a summary of Jewish faith. The canon of the Jewish Bible was established. The training of rabbis was organized. The old Pharisaic traditions, which had been handed down orally, were written down.

The Mishnah

The first to summarize these traditions may have been rabbi Aqiba; the first collection of rabbinical wisdom that survives is the Mishnah ("repetition"), which was created in c.200 CE by rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi of Sepphoris. It consists of sixty-three tractates, containing the opinions of the rabbinical sages. The tractates are divided into six groups ("orders"):

Although certain topics are not discussed, and several topics are obviously hypothetical (e.g., the tractate Middot on rebuilding the Temple), one gets the impression that Yehuda tried to cover every aspect of human life, showing that God is everywhere, Judaism is always possible, and that God had - as was written in the first chapter of the Bible - created a world that was good.

Later collections

A second collection of rabbinical wisdom is the Tosefta ("supplement"), which contains traditions that Yehuda ha-Nasi had left out, such as Messianism. Later, the Mishnah was commented upon and these new traditions were ordered in the Palestinian Talmud (fifth century) and the Babylonian Talmud (seventh century). These four collections - Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds - are the foundation of rabbinical Judaism.

Those Jews who did not accept the authority of the rabbis and their texts - in other words: those who accepted only the Jewish Bible as authoritative - are called Karaites.

This page was created in 2020; last modified on 12 October 2020.