Did Yehuda HaNasi get the wrong idea when he wrote the Mishnah?

The Daf Yomi study group in which I’ve been participating for two and a half years has agreed, after repeated observation, that the Talmud is aimed less at codifying a set of laws than at recording a discussion and (implicitly) encouraging further discussion.

For hundreds of years, we hear, these laws were passed from generation to generation orally. In fact, many people said it would be sacrilegious to write down the laws—because, I think, God chose to transmit them orally.

Everybody knows the game of telephone, and the effects of transmitting things orally must have been widely known for as long as speech has existed. The rabbis themselves talk often about rumors. They are also amenable to altering the received rulings when they suspect that the rulings have been garbled in transmision.

It must have been obvious to the rabbis that choosing oral transmission meant settling for a tradition that would evolve over time and adapt to the sensibilities of the people sharing that tradition.

I connect this realization with the insight I found in Max Kadushin’s classic book The Rabbinic Mind, which my rabbi recommended to me many years ago. Kadushin explains that the main concepts of Judaism (tzedek, chesed, shechina, and so forth) can’t be defined precisely but have to be lived to be understood. I think Jewish law is the same way: it is not fixed, but is recreated by each community (a Reconstructionist concept, by the way).

The suggestion I’m making here is that some deep, unstated wisdom might have lain behind the deliberate choice to leave the oral Torah unwritten.

So maybe Yehuda HaNasi shouldn’t have been so worried about the loss of the tradition embodied in his Mishnah. Maybe it would have been better for the Jews to keep debating orally, rather than to record (for instance) a debate about whether a priest who was a natural eunuch should be treated differently from a priest who became a eunuch after marriage.

And even if Yehuda HaNasi felt it necessary to write the Mishnah because the Jews were in the Diaspora, I don’t see any indication that he called it a sacred text. He might have thought of it as a “cheat sheet” like the ones people in modern technical disciplines create to help them remember key tools of their trade. It might have been later rabbis who turned the Mishnah into the institutional framework it has been for fifteen hundred years.

An example of the pain these records have caused the Jews is the tradition of the etrog. The Bible just asks us to use a fruit from a beautiful tree; the pear that used to be in my backyard would meet that criterion. The rabbis said this fruit must be an etrog, which was incredibly hard to obtain in medieval Europe. Huge sums of money were spent each Autumn on obtaining etrogs, which were treated as preciously as gold. Many people never had a chance to own the etrog, and competed for the honor of holding it during the Sukkot ceremony (and making sure not to break the pitom). I don’t believe this obsessiveness and exclusionary possessiveness was intended by the authors of the Bible.

Luckily, writing the Mishnah didn’t stop discussions, but it slapped a huge weight on them. There might be a lot of beauty in the Mishnah and Gemara, but there are also consequences not intended by those who transmitted the ideas orally for so long.

More Biblical commentaries

Andy Oram
October 27, 2022

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