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Mishnah Project

Commentary and Study Guides by Rabbi Dr. Avraham Walfish

Commentary

Rationale for Iyun Mishnah

Mishnah is the foundational text of the Torah Sheb’al-Peh (Oral Law). Both concise and comprehensive, it presents virtually all major topics of traditional halakhah, sometimes adding “aggadic” material of ethical-spiritual content. The unadorned terse style of Mishnah would seem to render it ideal as a text for “keviyat itim la-Torah” (establishing time for regular Torah study). A typical Mishnah unit can be read in under a minute, and another several minutes a day should suffice to read a standard commentary, to clarify difficult words and phrases, and to present the basic contents of the Mishnah before the reader.

However, the very features of Mishnah that render it attractive for study on a regular basis also present serious obstacles for most would-be Mishnah students. Mishnah does not normally present reasons for its rulings or discussion of disputed topics. Hence study of Mishnah generally is dry and matter-of-fact, devoid of the intellectual challenges of Talmud study or the spiritual stimulation of Tanakh (Bible) or Jewish thought. Moreover, it is difficult to study Mishnah as an integrated text, as opposed to a loosely-arranged collection of individual statements. Rarely does the Mishnah present a topic in logical order or provide important background information. More often than not the Mishnah will open the discussion of a topic with a seemingly marginal detail, and it frequently departs from the logical flow of the discussion, often inserting associatively arranged sub-units unconnected to the topic at hand.

Attempts to understand the apparently chaotic editing of the Mishnah have generally focused on reconstructions of the Mishnah’s textual pre-history, suggesting that Rabbi Judah the Prince (Mishnah’s redactor, c. 200 C.E.) possessed limited maneuverability in splicing together authoritatively transmitted oral texts from a wide variety of earlier sources. Explanations of this nature, when supported by firm evidence, may provide understanding of how this text came to be, but they do little to render the final text of the Mishnah intelligible, meaningful, challenging, or inspiring. In Iyun Mishnah we will seek to understand redacted units of Mishnah – usually chapters or “blocks” comprising several chapters – as coherent texts, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In order to make sense out of the way in which the Mishnah arranges and interweaves its materials, we will focus on Mishnah’s often-surprising language patterns, which reveal the sophisticated literary sensibility which informs Mishnah redaction. Explanation of the text will often include grappling with textual or conceptual difficulties in understanding the Mishnah, as well as literary insights into the language, arrangement, and redaction of the Mishnah. Wordplays, keywords, envelope structures, parallelism, and other literary-associative phenomena abound in the Mishnah, often alluding to conceptual and spiritual messages embedded between the lines of the halakhic text.

In addition to the discussions and ideas presented in the study units, many of the units will conclude with questions for further study, designed for two main purposes. Teachers and serious students of Mishnah will find that the study questions guide them towards deeper study and further reflection on important textual, conceptual, and spiritual issues related to the Mishnah unit. The more casual student of Mishnah will find that the study questions raise issues that are stimulating to reflect upon, however briefly, even when there is inadequate opportunity to pursue them at length. The study questions suggest the breadth and depth of serious Mishnah study, and hopefully will stimulate all participants to delve further into Mishnah, whether on a daily or an occasional basis.

Rifka Rosenwein, a’h

About Rabbi Dr. Walfish

Rabbi Dr. Avraham (Avie) Walfish is renowned in the world of Jewish Studies for his innovative studies of Mishnah and other classic rabbinic texts. Combining the keen analytical methods of classic yeshiva learning with the sophisticated “close reading” tools of contemporary literary scholarship, Rabbi Walfish explores the style and structure of rabbinic texts, revealing the spiritual and existential roots of Talmudic thought. His numerous publications include, alongside his pioneering studies of Mishnah and Talmud, explorations of a variety of topics in the fields of Biblical study, Midrash, halakhah, contemporary Jewish thought, and Jewish education. He also maintains a website, Iyun Mishnah, which contains many of his insights into the structure and ideas of the Mishnah. Rabbi Walfish has taught in many institutions of Torah and academic learning, including Pardes Institute, Drisha, and Bar Ilan University. He currently heads the M.A. program in Jewish Studies at Michlala College in Jerusalem and serves as senior instructor in Talmud and Jewish Thought at Herzog College, where he has taught for over twenty years. In 2005, Rabbi Walfish was awarded the Israeli Education Ministry Prize for Creative Work in Jewish Culture.

Rifka Rosenwein, a’h, was a celebrated and beloved writer, journalist, wife, mother and friend. She grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and attended Ramaz. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard College, Rifka was one of the first female editors of the Columbia Spectator and held a master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Rifka’s journalism career began at the Wall Street Journal. In addition to business coverage, she wrote personal features on topics ranging from meeting Natan Scharansky to learning to drive on New York’s mean streets. Rifka went on to cover law and media and also served as managing editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rifka’s most lasting literary legacy may be her monthly “Home Front” columns for The New York Jewish Week. Over a seven-year period, Rifka detailed the joys, challenges and changes experienced by a Jewish suburban family. Her columns, while rooted in their time and place, transcend them and years later retain their immediacy, passion and humor. A collection of Rifka’s columns, Life in the Present Tense, has been published by Ben Yehuda Press.

Rifka wrote about her son’s siddur party and her daughter’s love of dolls. She wrote about Days of Awe and days of soccer, feminism and friendship, about sending her kids off to camp and talking with them about God. And when she was diagnosed with cancer, Rifka wrote about that as well. By then, her columns had become her front porch and her readers were her worried neighbors.

Rifka died in 2003, leaving behind her husband, Barry Lichtenberg, three children and countless friends, admirers and readers. Rifka’s lifelong dedication to the study of Mishnah was exemplified by her 18-year partnership with her chevruta. May her memory be for a blessing.

 Podcasts By Rabbi Dr. Walfish

A series of lectures on the structure and meaning of tractate Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Dr. Avraham Walfish, from Ki Mitzion Teitze Torah http://www.kimitzion.org

Read More

Methodology of Learning Mishnah Rabbi Avraham Walfish

Yaakov Elman, “Order, Sequence, and Selection – The Mishnah’s Anthological Choices”, The Anthology in Jewish Literature (ed. David Stern), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, pp. 53-77

Elman Mishnah’s Anthological Choices

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies”, Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine (eds. Martin Goodman and Philip Alexander), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010, pp. 91-115

The State of Mishnah Studies

For Further Reading, click here

Drisha would like to thank Judy Heicklen for making the Mishnah Project possible.