Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

Scholars have long debated the exact nature and history of the process that led to the redaction, arrangement, and selection of the Mishnah, the first major document to emerge from and to represent the tannaitic tradition. The Mishnah was the only major text to be redacted in the tannaitic period, although other texts, edited afterwards in the amoraic period (200-500 C.E.), depended heavily on tannaitic materials. The Mishnah became the formative document in the shaping of Talmudic Judaism. The redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Judah the Prince (ca. 200 C.E.) represented the end of a process, although the extent of his contribution should not be minimized.

Most modern scholars agree that the Mishnah originated in discrete statements, some attached to specific named authorities. Only a small part of the mishnaic material is attributed to the period before the Roman conquest of Palestine in 63 B.C.E. Between then and the period leading up to the Great Revolt of 66-73 C.E. are attributed materials relating to Hillel and Shammai and to the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, the schools of tannaim consisting of the students of these two preeminent sages. Yet it must be recognized that the material preserved in the earliest strata of tannaitic literature was originally in forms different from those in which the material is preserved from the post-destruction period.

With the destruction of the Temple and the shifting of the activity of the tannaim to Yavneh, Usha, Beth Shearim, and Sepphoris, profound changes occurred in the manner by which tannaitic material was transmitted. A process began of bringing together divergent views on issues into disputes and shaping the statements so as to reflect the divergence of opinion. Further, mnemonic formulations became more common, as students and teachers were expected to be familiar with an increasingly large body of oral material.

It is difficult to determine at what point in the history of the mishnaic material the process of redaction began. By redaction, we mean the bringing together of diverse materials into blocks of material, assembled from disparate sources by a compiler. Among the earliest principles for the assembling of such materials, usually no larger than a chapter of the present Mishnah, were either the recurrence of a general formulary, such as “there is no difference between X and Y except Z,” or attribution to a particular sage. There is evidence in the existing Mishnah text of earlier arrangements of small corpora of material which were ordered in this manner, rather than according to the dominant system of subject classification.

Sometime after the destruction, the approach of organizing the materials by subject became prominent. This opened the way to the development of large-scale “essays” on topics of law. Later tradition and many modern scholars ascribe the basic subject classification into orders (Hebrew sedarim) and tractates (massekhtot) to Rabbi Akiva, who flourished at the Yavneh academy around 80-132 C.E. Whether he was responsible for this concept is impossible to determine with precision. Yet the large number of highly developed treatises which remain embedded in, or which even constitute, mishnaic tractates from the period between the Great Revolt (66-73 C.E.) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.) proves that this approach, at least on the level of individual tractates, was evolving in his day. It was left for those who came after Rabbi Akiva at the academy at Usha to bring many tractates to a well-developed state.

After the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the process continued with renewed vigor. Attempts were made to gather together traditions, as often happens after a tragedy of great proportions. Thus, many more tractates began to move toward completion while halakhic concepts developed over the years served as the basis for new organizational and redactional approaches. By the time Rabbi Judah the Prince began his work of final redaction, he had most probably inherited many almost completed tractates and a basic system of classification by orders. He completed the compilation of the individual tractates and placed them in the appropriate orders.

Rabbi Judah the Prince, known often as “Rabbi” in the Mishnah, the rabbi par excellence, did not seek to create an authoritative code of law. Had he, we would have to judge his work a failure. After all, the amoraim, the teachers of the Talmud (Gemara), set aside or modified so many of his rulings. He provided variant rulings on many subjects, explaining that his purpose was to keep options open for later courts of greater authority and wisdom. He intended to create a curriculum for the study of Jewish law. Yet he sought to point out which rulings he favored by providing information on majority and minority status of rulings, and by indicating the greater or lesser authority of individual tradents (transmitters of tradition) and decisors whose statements he included. He even placed materials in his text anonymously, though he was well aware of the tradents, in order to indicate that the ruling was (in his view) to be followed. These views, by and large, he reproduced anonymously, or with the label the opinion of the sages,” where there was an individual who dissented.

The material was organized into six orders- Zera’im (Agricultural Laws), Mo’ed (Holy Occasions, Festivals), Nashim (Women, Marriage Law), Neziqin (Damages and Civil Law), Qodashim (Sacrifices), and Tahorot (Purification Rituals). Each order comprised several tractates. Today, these tractates are arranged roughly in size order within each order, at least in Mishnah texts. The same order was later used for the Tosefta, and for the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds. Within the six orders there are a total of sixty-three tractates.

Zera’im begins with a discussion of prayers and benedictions (anomalous in this order) and then deals with produce given as charity to the poor, tithing, priestly dues, Sabbatical years, and first fruits. Mo’ed deals with the Sabbath and festivals, as well as fast-days and other special occasions. In most tractates emphasis is clearly on the aspects of Temple ritual associated with the holiday. Nashim discusses marriage, divorce, adultery, and vows. Neziqin prescribes the composition of the court and then deals with criminal sanctions, damage law, idolatry, and incorrect rulings by the courts. The tractate Avot (known as Pirqe Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers) comes near the close of this order. It includes ethical teachings aimed at the rabbinic class. Qodashim deals with animal sacrifices, meal offerings, ritual slaughter, violations of sancta, daily sacrifice, and the structure of the Temple precincts. Tahorot discusses laws of purification pertaining to vessels for food, the impurity of the dead, the skin diseases described in Leviticus, menstrual and other impurities, and the construction of ritual baths for purification.

If there is anything to be learned from this survey it is that the Mishnah reflects the full variety of the Torah’s laws, and that it is firmly anchored in a Temple-centered reality in which priests, sacrifices, and purity remain as important as Sabbath and festivals, civil law, marriage, and family. This does not mean that the Mishnah was created in the days of the Temple. Rather, it was edited in an atmosphere in which the restoration of a Temple-centered reality was still a living hope, and in which the conception of sanctity still flowed from that reality, even in its absence.

We have already noted that the tannaim believed the oral law to have been revealed to Moses by God at Sinai, alongside the written law. This should have required that the oral law be transmitted orally, and, indeed, so it was in the tannaitic period. At the same time, evidence indicates that individual tannaim kept notebooks in which they listed certain oral traditions. There was a debate throughout the medieval period on the question of when the Mishnah was written down. Some believed that Rabbi Judah the Prince himself had recorded the Mishnah in writing, while others believed that it had been written down in Babylonia at the end of the talmudic period, when the threat of an Islamic invasion led to fears that the oral traditions might be lost. The problem is best solved by realizing that the oral law concept required that the publication of the Mishnah, its teaching, and its exegesis all be carried on in oral form. For this reason, formal study in amoraic circles
was based on oral tradition. While individual amoraim had written texts of various parts of the Mishnah, the formal transition to the use of a written Mishnah as an object of teaching, study, and exegesis took place only at the end of the amoraic period or later. Rabbi Judah the Prince, however, promulgated his Mishnah in oral form. To the rabbis, what God had given orally had to be transmitted orally, and so it was with the Mishnah, the consummate summary of the oral law.