Zechariah Chapter XXIX

Only a Jewish Mind Can Say What Jews Believe: A Discussion of the Mishnah

Chapter XXIX

It would be very difficult for a non-Jew to read Jewish literature and then state accurately "what Jews believe."

The importance of Palestinian Israel will impinge more and more on world politics. The possibility of a reconsideration of Jesus of Nazareth in the life of the Jewish nation looms. The current crisis in the Mid-East will raise the voices of enemies of Israel with renewed criticism of their right to exist. For these and other pressing reasons a knowledge of basic Jewish religious literature may help believers in Jesus as the Messiah understand and communicate with our Jewish friends. The Mishnah, whose position of primacy in Jewish religious life as an extension of the Torah, is the most important religious book for Biblically informed Christians to have knowledge about.

The Mishnah was in existence in oral form, taught orally by repetition for centuries before it was first "officially" written down about 200 C.E.

The Mishnah (from Hebrew "shanah" meaning "second" or "repeat") is the compilation of what is said to be the "oral law" which accompanied the written law. The "oral law" is said (with some degree of background evidence which we have just shown) to have been delivered to Moses at Sinai at the same time as the written law. Moses wrote the Torah but delivered the oral laws orally to the fathers who handed them down. There is a genealogy in the Mishnah in the tractate Aboth, naming fairly well known leaders who transmitted the "oral law" from Ezra and the Great Synagogue through the Macabbean period to Hillel and Shammai just before the Ministry of Jesus and continuing to Judah the Patriarch before 200 C.E. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. (and perhaps by some other predecessors) the oral laws (or traditions of the fathers) were written down and set in categories. The most important of these first writers of the Mishnah is Judah, the Patriarch, who was born the year of Bar Cochbah's aborted attempt to restore and rebuild the Temple, i.e. C.E. 135. Rabbi Akibah who may have been the prophetic power behind Bar Cochbah died the same year and is one of the chief names in transmission of the "oral law."

Jamneh, Jamnia, or Jabneh, a town just south of Joppa, near modern Tel Aviv, became the center of the Sanhedrin after the destruction of the Temple. When the rebellion of Bar Cochbah was put down by Hadrian, he forced a dispersion of Jews from Judea in 135 C.E. Consequently, the center of Judaism moved to Galilee. Judah, the Patriarch, part of that dispersion, put in writing, perhaps not for the first time, but the first of the official successive versions of the Mishnah. The Mishnah contains thoughts of many Rabbis on life and religious situations (not covered in the Pentateuch) as well as the traditions of the schools of Shammai and Hillel who often contradict each other. As the Old Testament and the New Testament is to the Christian religion so is the Old Testament and the Mishnah to the modern practicing Jewish religion. All that followed the destruction of the Temple in Jewish religious life would be based on the Mishnah.


The often cryptic comments in the Mishnah are outlined under six sections.

The first, Zeraim, deals with religious observances and obligations as tithes, offerings, the poor, first fruits, etc. in eleven tractates.

The second division, Moed, deals with "set feasts" as the Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, and others in twelve tractates.

The third division, Nashim, deals with women, marriage contracts, clean and unclean as regards ability to marry in priestly order, Levirate marriage, etc. in seven tractates.

The fourth division, Nezikin, deals with idolatry, obligations to Sanhedrin, Oaths, and legal matters in ten tractates.

The fifth division, Kodashim, deals with animal offerings and proper way to perform killing of animals in the Temple in eleven tractates.

The sixth and final division, Tohoroth, deals with ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness in great detail in twelve tractates.

Most of semi-authoritative Jewish literature and well known Jewish sages to follow, such as Rashi, Judah Halevi, and Maimonides are known for their commentaries or codification of the Mishnah. Both the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmud are extensive comments on the Mishnah, not the Torah. More clearly stated, the Mishnah is not a commentary on the Law of Moses, but an extension of the Law of Moses into every conceivable situation which might arise out of performing the rites and statutes of Moses' law. The Talmud is a group of commentaries on the 63 tractates of the Mishnah. The Mishnah is comparable to the Old Testament in size while the Talmud is larger and more complex than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In reading Jewish literature it would be well to have a clear understanding of two great divisions in the heritage of Jewish religious traditions contained in the Mishnah, the Talmud, (either Palestinian or Babylonian,) and other commentaries on the Mishnah through the centuries. This literary heritage is semi-authoritative and its most authoritative parts may be disputed by accepted authorities. For instance, Hillel and Shammai frequently took positions that were antitheses of each others'.

The two great divisions mentioned above are Halakah and Haggadah. All Jewish religious literature contains these two divisions, including the Mishnah. The word Halak means "to walk." Haggadah comes from a word meaning "to say." Halakah therefore is an authoritative explanation of a religious truth in which one must walk. It is taken to be just as authoritative as Scripture. Haggadah, on the other hand, meaning "that which has been said," means just that: "What all have the former Rabbis said about this thought?" The subtleties of Haggadah and Halakah as a method of interpretation often escape the non-Jewish mind; however the extent of authority attached to them is clear. Haggadah carries little or no authority and is part of the literary heritage and may or may not have historical value. Halakah is to be observed as Scripture; in fact it may supersede Scripture. But that can also be in dispute!

Most of the Mishnah is considered Halakah. Most, that's right, the bulk, of Talmud is Haggadah, in the sense of what has been said, if not always methodology. The job of the great sages as Rashi and Maimonides has been to decide what is Halakah or authoritative as distinguished from any other method of interpretation. Now here is the real eye opener! Much of Halakah is in dispute and some well known sage of the past can be quoted to contradict that which is recognized or called Halakah. Can you see the consequences of the variety of thought in Jewish religious law? What it means is that the body of Jewish law is always being added to by the Rabbis as new situations arise.

In this context, a further conclusion should be noted. When you are confronted with racist hate literature opposing Jews, (and be sure with the increasing Palestinian-Israeli conflict there will be a resurrection of the "Protocols" and other racist, anti-Jewish tracts), at that time; when Jewish literary quotations are presented to you, in or out of context, remember then the difference between Halakah and Haggadah and remind yourself that you are probably reading Haggadah, that which is a part of the literary heritage, and it "has been said"--no more. Consequently, in the evangelical Christian sense of the phrase, you will not be reading "what Jews believe"!

As a postscript, it might be well to notice that evangelical Christians rarely read the Mishnah. Since it does contain material, some of which would have been called "the word of God" while the Mosaic dispensation was in effect, then it most surely deserves a more important place in Christian educational institutions than it has had. For instance, many books are read by Christians on comparative religion to give a wider view of religion in general. These same students read the books of sects and cults in order to know better how to react to members of those groups. Does it not seem strange that we know comparatively nothing of this valid Jewish heritage which would make the Law of Moses more understandable? If we would read The Book of Mormon, to be better prepared to "witness" to our Mormon friends, how much more should we not have already been deeply informed of this book, which is not only the major authority of modern Judaism, but also has most important references which illuminate the Mosaic Law. Those references ought to have been read, at the least, by every preacher of the Christian Gospel. If James. the Lord's brother, and Paul, the apostle, not only knew, but lived by these precepts not only before but after they became Christians, should we not also want to know them, even though they were not bound on us Gentiles? And one more conclusion: Might we not be better prepared to teach our practicing Jewish friends if we were aware of this literature and if they knew they, like James and Paul, did not have to give up their Jewishness and religious practices to become a Christian?

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