What is it?
The Torah requires interpretation and elucidation if it is to be put into practice. Such traditions of interpretation and practice became known as the Oral Law. After the destruction of the Second Temple, there was concern that the Oral Law would be lost. This led several rabbis to put together the Mishnah (which means 'teaching'). The Mishnah is therefore a snapshot in time (from around 200 CE) of the Oral Law.
The Mishnah consists of six sections or sedarim (orders). These are:
Kedoshim (Holy Things)
Taharot (Purity Issues)
Each of these sedarim is further divided into parts called tractates. The tractates are divided into chapters, and the sub-divisions of each chapter are called halachot.
What is it about?
The sedarim (orders) of the Mishnah are on the following topics:
Zeraim (Seeds) - deals with agriculture and prayer.
Moed (Occasions) - deals with Shabbat, festivals, and fasts.
Nashim (Women) - deals with infidelity, marriage, and divorce.
Nezikin (Damages) - deals with civil and criminal law, the government, and ethics.
Kedoshim (Holy Things) - deals with the Temple, sacrifices, and kashrut.
Taharot (Purity Issues) - deals with laws of ritual purity and impurity, including menstruation.
The content of the Talmud in general - and thus of the Mishnah too - can be divided in to two main parts - Halachah (literally "the way" ie. the Jewish way of living) and Aggadah. A very large amount of the Mishnah is thus given over to discussion of Halachah (Jewish law). Aggadah is the name given to a certain kind of writing (be it history, story, legend, allegory, scientific observation or such like) that is not legal or concerned with law.
Although the Mishnah isn't arranged as a commentary on the Torah or Tanach in general, much of the Mishnah does explain the Tanach, wherever there seem to be gaps in meaning or narrative. In a sense, the Mishnah is the first Jewish encyclopaedia.
Where does it come from? Who wrote it down?
The Mishnah is the most important collection of the teachings of a group of scholars known as the Tannaim. These teachings had been passed down orally from generation to generation, and constituted much of the collective knowledge, teachings, and laws of the Jewish people at each time. The Tannaim lived between 400 BCE and 200 CE. The most famous Tannaim - and so some of the most prominent names of the Mishnah - include Hillel, Shammai, Gamliel, Akiva, and Yehuda HaNasi. Other collections of the statements of the Tannaim also exist (such as the Tosefta, Baraitot, and Sifra) but are not included in the Mishnah.
The collection of teachings that form the Mishnah was first arranged into six sedarim (orders) by Hillel, at the time of Herod (30 BCE - 20 CE). This system was improved upon by Akiva, and then by Meir. Finally, Yehuda HaNasi (Yehuda the Prince - head of the Jewish Community and rabbinic court) oversaw the writing down of the Mishnah in its present form, in the academy at Yavneh (near Ashdod) around 200 CE.
Some believe that the content of the Mishnah is Divinely inspired, and that the Mishnah was passed down from God to Moses on Sinai, and then relayed orally by Moses. This is a point of disagreement between differing streams of Judaism.
What do we do with it?
Primarily, the Mishnah is studied. As one of the most important collections of Jewish teachings, the Mishnah provides both asubstantial guide to Jewish Law (Halachah) and insight into a Jewish way of seeing the world. The Mishnah can either be studied alone or, as is far more common, together with the Gemara.
Since the Mishnah is arranged by subject matter, it can be used to get a good overview of any subject.
What language is it in?
The Mishnah is in Hebrew. This Hebrew differs somewhat from that of the Tanach (Bible). By the time the Mishnah was composed, Aramaic dialects had supplanted Hebrew as the language of everyday life, and Hebrew had thus become a language employed only for legal and religious purposes. The Hebrew of the Mishnah thus contains new grammar and forms of words as the language evolved according to the needs of those using it.
The Mishnah is written like a concise legal text, similar in format to a telegram.
If I want to read it...
The Mishnah can be read in translation. The best edition is the Kehati edition - which prints Hebrew and English and also gives a commentary to explain the difficult language. The commentary is extensive, and so this edition is very large and expensive.
Danby has written a single volume translation of the Mishnah. It is very dry and fairly difficult to understand.
Since the Mishnah is fairly difficult to understand without commentary, it is easier to read the Mishnah together with the Gemara.
One relatively easy place to start study of Mishnah include Tractate Pirkei Avot - from Seder Nezikin (Damages), which is a fairly simple tractate, and is printed in full in many siddurim (daily prayerbooks). Other parts of the Mishnah might be attractive to someone with a specific interest - such as Tractate Succah (which relates basically to Succot) from Seder Moed (Occasions).
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