Aramaic Literature – Part 10 – The Mishnah

Following the “three gates” that form the first three treatises of Nezikin, the Mishnah moves on to the treatise Sanhedrin. That name is, of course, familiar from the New Testament. In the Mishnah, however, this section deals with criminal law and its related procedures. In this material, the reader often recognizes the Biblical background to the discussion, but the directions in which the discussion develops may seem alien. This is largely due to the fact that those teachers in Judaism from whom the Mishnah developed held a somewhat different view of the Old Testament law than many moderns may have.

Modern perceptions of Old Testament law, even among those who hold the Bible dear, tend to be weak and uncertain. Perhaps most tend to think of it as a complete law code for ancient Israel. However, greater familiarity with the Torah shows this not to be the case. Many obvious sorts of issues are not addressed by the Old Testament law, and the early rabbis recognized that. Hence, they understood the written law as being primarily principial. That is, the specific laws illustrate principles of justice and of righteousness, and hence are to be studied and used as a source of principles, rather than being imposed in a wooden way on societies and in cultures far different from that of pre-exilic Israel.

The fifth section is Makkot (blows, punishments). Obviously, it deals with regulations for carrying out punishments, springing from the Biblical statements in Deuteronomy 25:1-3. So, for example, a man is to be beaten for a transgression for which he was to be cut off, but which is not a capital offense. This would apply to a man who ate leaven during the Passover. A man was also to be beaten if he violated a prohibition, such as boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. On this latter item, it should be remembered that the Jewish regulation against eating dairy and meat together developed out of this law (no cheeseburgers, especially no bacon cheeseburgers).

The sixth section is Shevu’oth (oaths). This discussion arises out of the sacrificial regulations in Leviticus 5:1-4, where it says, among other things, “if anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good” when he realizes his guilt, he is to bring an offering.” There are, according to the discussion, four kinds of “oaths of pronunciation.” Two have to do with things past (taking an oath with regard to whether a thing was done or not done), and two have to do with things future (taking an oath as to whether one will or will not do a thing). This section also discusses the related question of under what considerations a man may be bound to, or loosed from, an oath he has made.

The next section is called Ediyyot or Eduyot. In this section later rabbis comment on decisions and pronouncements of earlier authorities. Among other things, this section lists some of the famous disagreements (the Talmud lists 316 such disagreements) between the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai.