English, Reviews

Protestant Mishnah

Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther, 1529.

A serendipitous combination of circumstances brought Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine and Hanan Gafni’s Peshutah shel Mishnah to my shelf side by side. Gafni’s brand-new book, based on a dissertation written under the supervision of Jay Harris at Harvard, is written in beautiful and clear Hebrew and attempts to introduce the uninitated reader into the complex and fraught world of Mishnah scholarship in its infancy.

The Mishnah has two strands of textual tradition: the Babylonian and the Palestinian. Yaakov Zussman, through his command of the Mif’al Hamishna, claims  that there are no Mishnah  manuscripts that follow the tradition of the Bavli. This is no coincidence, per Zussman: the Babylonian tradition – of which all extant Jewish communities are heirs – did not prize the study of Mishnah on its own. The Mishnah was to be studied in conjunction with the Bavli. When Maimonides wanted to write a commentary on the Mishanh, he had to use a Palestinian Mishnah manuscript and sometimes update it to keep it in line with the Mishnah or the halakha of the Bavli.

The first edition of the Mishnah was printed in Naples, in 1502, with Maimonides’ commentary. Ovadia of Bertinoro published a commentary in Venice, in 1549. Study of the Mishnah on its own regained some ground in Kabbalistic circles in 16th century Safed – R. Joseph Karo’s supernatural Maggid was in fact the Mishnah personified.

But Gafni’s study begins in earnest somewhat later, scouring Kabbalistic works from the Lurianic school for oblique references to “Peshat and Derash” in the Mishnah. These references – that give his book its name – were the seedling that allowed Mishnah scholarship to begin in the school of the Vilna Gaon.

Gafni surveys scholars by geography, beginning with Safed, then Lithuania, Italy, Galicia, Germany and then, finally, Vienna. Scholars are selected, described and their work is discussed. Each chapter ends with an example, that is useful for understanding the real meaning of the figure’s work – often readers of such books end up knowing so little about the actual substance of the work. Many of the debates important to the interface between Jewish studies and Jewish people in our time are echoed in these sketches: should scholars be engaged in the issues of their communities? Should they bring their religious agendas to their work with them?

But for me – reading Smith at the same time – the striking point was the Protestantism of it all. The idea that these early Mishnah scholars had, that at some time in Jewish history there was a moment of purity, of clarity, when everything was pristine and not mangled up by the Talmud and its casuistry strikes a note that Smith hears elsewhere. Just as early study of religion was focused on highlighting the “uniqueness” of the one Religion – i.e. Apostolic Christianity, through a Protestant lens- so perhaps early study of Judaism by Jews was marked by their aversion to the Talmud (read: Bavli), its embarrassing complication, superstition, and stringency. The Bavli was the repository of choice for the shame Jews had of their own religion; as the protestants blamed the “rabbins” for the Jews and their strangeness, the Maskilim blamed the Bavli. Then, when they began to study the Mishnah as a work unto itself, this added another layer of embarrassment: really, the Bavli couldn’t understand the Mishnah at all!

The field in fact took over a century to recover. Only David Halivni and Eliezer Rosenthal, neither a “natural” heir to this tradition, both steeped in traditional talmudic study that they did not hate, were able to bring the Bavli back into the limelight. Numerous lessons were learned from this retreat from the Bavli, as well: first, that there are other texts besides the Bavli, and second, that the Talmud is neither stupid or superstitious. It is an interesting and complex product of its time and place – and that it is, on a most basic level – still not really understood.


26 thoughts on “Protestant Mishnah

  1. I don’t remember (and haven’t the article at my disposal), but my reconstruction would be that the nusach of the mishnah in these fragments is still Palestinian. So all you would have is a (later, perhaps Cairene) babylonian community wanting to learn Mishnah and copying it for their own use from Palestinian books. Ditto perhaps for Sifra, but “Mavo Lenusach Hasifra” is yet to be written.

  2. Yoel Borregard says:

    “Protestant Mishnah” is a very interesting concept. Since the Naples Mishnah with Rambam’s commentary antedates Luther’s theses by a decade or so, it certainly sounds as though you are talking about a zeitgeist.

  3. I don’t really think the Naples Mishnah *itself* is a case of Protestant Mishnah; I think it was just a commercial initiative by the printers. I was referring to the later students of Mishnah, from Geiger and Zunz on. But perhaps…


  5. Well in any case, we know that the nussah was originally Palestinian – it was compiled in Palestine in the third century! It then was transmitted in Babylonian and Palestinian circles over the centuries. So even if the geniza fragments with Babylonian vocalization represent a Palestinian nusah (of the letters) that are then vocalized according to Babylonian tradition (questionable), you have relatively early evidence that the Mishna was studied separately outside of the standard Ashkenazi orbit. Great post, by the way!

  6. Zohar says:

    Great post. If you’re going to go Protestant, you might as well bring in Biblical Criticism too and the search for the “original bible”. See Kugel, How to, Intro.

    Just because those Mishna Manuscripts are Palestinian, it doesn’t mean that they represent what the Yerushalmi was working with, although its probably closer.

    • Zohar says

      Just because those Mishna Manuscripts are Palestinian, it doesn’t mean that they represent what the Yerushalmi was working with, although its probably closer.

      Actually, the provenance of these MSS – excluding, maybe, the Rehov Inscription – is outside of Palestine: Cairo, Italy and Byzantium. I acutally meant that they represent what the Yerushalmi was working with.

  7. moulie says:

    of course, Rosenthal and Halivni are “protestant” in this sense as well, only their desired “original” is the early Talmud (R) or Amoraic dicta (H) rather than the Mishnah; their work often employs precisely the same negative rhetoric (“derivative”; “forced”; “secondary”; “falsifying”; “tortuous”; “artificial”) about the final stages of the Bavli’s production (this is especially true with the early works: Rosenthal’s dissertation and the early volumes of S+T).

    and perhaps this protestantism is true of most descendants of classical philology, or really, given the chronology, it is also the other way around, and protestantism is really the child of the emergence of classical philology in the renaissance.

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  10. Joseph I. Lauer says:

    How (if at all) does Ha-Mishnah be-Bavli u-ve-Yerushalmi (“The Babylonian and Jerusalem Mishnah Textually Compared”) of Rabbi Dr. Melech Schachter (Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem 1959) fit into this discussion?

    • Zohar says:

      I can’t speak for this source, but I think that someone interested in the topic might also be interested in Shamma Friedman’s discussion of Zuckermandel’s theory that the Mishna of the Yerushalmi is the Tosefta. Intro to (Tosefta Atikta.) Friedman throws it out and rightly so, but there can be little doubt that that Ershter Mishna was in certain respects similar to the Tosefta. My feeling is that our Yerushalmi mishna and our Mishnayos Mishna are more closely related to that Ershter Mishna than our Bavli Mishna but still represent a later stage of its development.

  11. DF says:

    Could you kindly explain how it was once thought that there once a “time in Jewish history [when]there was a moment of purity, of clarity, when everything was pristine and not mangled up by the Talmud and its casuistry. . .”? I dont see how anyone with any familirity of the mishna could think this. There are many mishnayos in which one finds records of debates between tannaim that sound no diffrent than the debates of babylonian amoraim. And the “logic” of the Talmud flows directly from the mishna. I thus dont see how one could ever have thought there was once a time of clarity. It sounds almost like the early 19th century bible critics, who thought there was an ur-text somewhere of the Torah. Could it be the pure Hebrew of the mishna, rather than the garbled (ie, “Jewish”) language of the Talmud, fooled some into thinking that the logic employed in one was any diffrent than in the other?

    Agav, I read Gafni’s dissertation a while back. it was a nice work. The discussion of the mishna in Bechirta about not being allowed to change precedent unless greater in number and wisdom went on a little long, though. Gafni’s father also has some neat stuff out there.


    • DF, I beg to differ. You would agree with me that there is dialectic almost on every page of Talmud, whereas there is very little dialectic in the Mishnah. Also, since the Mishnah is not a commentary there are no forced interpretations, no okimtaot, and no urge to say that everyone agrees when everyone patently does not. It is important to realize that the Mishnah is in fact more “orderly” and less “casuistic” than the Bavli (and the Yerushalmi) while accepting the fact that one is not more “good” than the other.

  12. DF says:

    Amit, I readily agree with that. Certainly the mishna as a whole is more orderly than the Gemara, and contains no okimtas, forced interpretations, etc. My point is only that there are still many mishnayos ( though certainly overall a small minority of them) in which one finds records of debates and dialectic. And in these examples there is much material, such as Biblical interpretation, that modern man could not honestly call pure and clear.

      • S. says:

        It was a branch of Christian Hebraism which had some traction in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Basically, traditional Christian Hebraism was interested in rabbinic scholarship because of its interest in the language of the Bible, Hebrew. They realized that there were countless pearls in rabbinic exegesis, and of course the rabbis had developed Hebrew grammar and so forth. But of course there was still that basic antiphathy to Judaism and especially a distrust of rabbinic Judaism.

        However, some scholars began to feel that in addition to the utilitarian uses of studying Hebrew and rabbinic writings, that rabbinic Judaism, as represented by the Mishnah in particular, was actually something quite different and authentic. They believed that the rabbis had not been lying about the dual Torah, and that they had received authentic traditions. Therefore studying the Mishnah – not the Gemara – could tell you authentic stuff about the Bible. Thus, to study Mishnhah Yoma could shed much light on the Yom Kippur rites as described in Leviticus, for example. Even more importantly for them was that the Mishnah was an authentic record of Judaism at the time of Jesus, and therefore the Mishnah could shed important light on the New Testament. For example, Massekhet Kiddushin could teach about the marriage practices of the Jews and shed light on the relationship between Joseph and Mary, and so forth,

        The great scholarly work from this school of thought was Willem Surenhuys’ Latin translation of the Mishnah, as well as the commentaries of the Rambam and Bertinoro, which I posted about here. The complete 6 volumes is available on Google Books. If you are unable to download it in Israel, please don’t hesitate to ask and I will send them to you.

        Anyway, when it comes down to it, Surenhuys was obviously a can-do guy. True, some of the tractates were included from prior translations, but think about it: one guy just sat down and knocked off the entire Mishnah as well as Pirush Ha-mishnayot and the Ra”av. In addition, it included his own learned notes.

        William Wotton was an English scholar who followed in his footsteps, and he translated Massekhet Shabbat and Eruvin as part of a larger work called “Miscellaneous Discourses Relating to the Traditions and Usages of the Scribes and Pharisees in Our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ’s Time,” a very fortuitous title, because it clearly explains what it was all about. In addition the translations (and his notes, mostly based on Rambam and Bertinoro) there are essays explaning the arguments for and against the Mishnah.

        Here’s a sample of Wotton’s translation, Mishnah Bameh Madlikin:

        With what may [Men] light their Lamps? And with what may they not light them? They may not light them with the wooly Substance that grows upon Cedars, nor with undress’d Flax, nor with Silk, nor with the Threads of the Willow Tree, nor with the Threads of the Wilderness, nor with the Moss that grows upon the water : Nor with Pitch, nor with Oil of Kik, nor with the Oil of Burning, nor with [the Fat of] the Tails [of Sheep,] nor with the Fat [of the Entrails of Beasts.] Nahum the Mede said, they might light their Lamps with the Fat [of Entrails] if it was try’d; but the Wise Men say, it ought not be used whether it were try’d or not.

        It then follows two pages of densely written notes, explaining the purpose of candle lighting, why the fuel was a concern, what the definition of Kik is, etc. He also questions whether Maimonides (“whom the latter Interpreters chiefly follow”) really knew what they all meant. He quotes a lengthy passage in Latin from Joseph Scaliger about what shemen kik meant, etc.

        It’s extremely interesting, and I can send you or anyone who wants a copy of this as well.

        In the 18th century, Rabe translated the entire Mishnah into German, although I think his motivation was more conventional Christian Hebraist.

        Anyway, this is what I meant by actual Protestant Mishnah! I suppose to a certain degree this particular scholarly tradition made it all the way into the 20th century, and that is why we have, for example, Danby’s complete translation of the Mishnah. (It always amuses me how Danby included as an appendix the Vilna Gaon’s list of the rules of tuma’h).

      • Zohar says:

        S.: Bells were ringing in my head while reading your post: “Danby, Danby.” Then you rang it at the end. I’d just like to add that the Christian Mishnaists (scholars: is that a word?) had a strong interest in Tosefta. I think this is because they were less interested in the later Talmud and they didn’t have some of the hangups that “we” do about dating and authority. They wanted to know primarily about the Jewish law in the time of Jesus, so Tosefta is the way to go. Danby had a connection with HaGrash Liberman, who later became “Mister Tosefta.”
        These can be downloaded from http://www.toseftaonline.org/seforim.html
        Sukkah, Mishna and Tosefta with introduction, translation and short notes, by A.W Greenup. (1925)
        Please be aware that this translation of the Tosefta has been written by a Christian priest. Do not read it if you do not feel comfortable doing so.
        Tractate Sanhedrin, Mishna and Tosefta translated from the Hebrew with brief annotations, by Herbert Danby. (1919)
        Tractate Berakoth, Mishna and Tosephta, translated from the Hebrew, with introduction and notes, by Williams Lukyn. (1921)

    • Zohar says:

      Off topic and back to a previous one. IMHO S. himself has single-handedly done more for scholarship than the entire so-called “secular revolution.” And look, he can’t even get a gig. If the world of academia can’t bend and accommodate S. — even INVITE him, and actively encourage others in the yeshiva world to follow through and branch out into scholarship, there is not going to be any of the meaningful change people here are dreaming of.

      • S. says:

        You’re too kind. 🙂

        I definitely think I’ve carved a niche and have been able to

        1) popularize Judaic studies for the general public to a degree, and
        2) successfully exploit online databases for research.

        The second point in particular is something which people should learn how to do more of and how to do it better.

        As for the issue of whether or not the academic world needs a continuing supply of bodies and minds from the yeshiva world, I think the answer is that it very definitely does. Not only for the textual knowledge, but also for the fact that some things you can’t get in books. No one who wants to study, for example, responsa literature is ever really going to understand florid rabbinic titles – really understand it – unless they have some taste of a traditional environment, which you can’t acquire as a tourist in your early 20s. You have to have been a shiny-eyed 5 year old hearing stories of ge’onim from a rebbe who truly believes, and that only happens once in a lifetime.

      • Zohar says:

        S.: You can’t learn auto mechanics from a manual and you can’t learn about the spirit of shabbos from reading Heschel and shmiras shabbos k’hilchasa. I was in a discussion with a geneticist who was studying Ashkenazim. He was surprised at how there is so much interbreeding and everybody is related to each other on so many sides. I told him how many hareidi cousins of mine are married to each other and that I just went to a chasene of a cousin and his niece. He was blown away!

        That said, I think we shouldn’t forget the flipside. Sometimes those on the inside mistakenly think things were always this way. The further back you go the more this holds, obviously. This is an integral part of the anachronistic “authentic” Rabbinic mode of interpretation. Sometimes only those on the outside, even Christians, can pull themselves out of this subjectivity and see the past for what it really was.

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