Mysterious Mishnah

According to a medieval midrash, Moses asked God to write down the Oral Torah:

Moses requested that the Mishnah be in writing, but God foresaw that the nations would translate the Torah and would be reading it in Greek and say, “We are Israel!” God said to him, “Oh, Moses! In the future, the nations will be saying, ‘We are Israel; we are the sons of God!’ And Israel will be saying, ‘We are the sons of God!’ . . . God will say to the nations, ‘What is it that you are saying? That you are my sons? I do not know. But he who possesses my Mystery—he is my son.’ And when they will say to him, ‘What is your Mystery?’ God will reply, ‘It is the Mishnah.’”

Composed in the shadow of Christianity, the midrash returns to Sinai to forecast a rivalry between Jews and Gentiles over the Written Torah. Jewish distinctiveness will, therefore, be maintained only through the existence of an unwritten book—the Mishnah—which preserves the divine mystery and symbolizes the Jews’ chosenness.        

The Mishnah is, indeed, something of a mystery. It famously begins, without explanation or preamble, with a question: Me’eimatai korin et shema be-aravit? (“From what time of day may the evening Shema be recited?”). Once this question is raised, the conversation continues for some 180,000 words, covering nearly every facet of Jewish life—from daily prayer to Sabbath observance to how to deal with damages, defilement, divorce, defiant sons, sacrifices, purification rituals, court procedures, and more. By the time the Mishnah was codified, more than a century after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, many of the topics discussed were no longer exactly practical knowledge. Other sections presuppose institutions of Jewish self-rule that may never have really existed. And no matter the issue, there is almost always a multiplicity of opinions—one rabbi says do x, while another says do y, without the Mishnah clearly stating which view should be adopted.

Portrait of Edward Pococke, frontispiece to Theological Works. (The Trustees of the British Museum.)

The origins of the Mishnah are also unclear. Although our midrash imagines the work to have existed in some form already in the days of Moses, the predominant rabbinic view attributes its creation to Judah the Prince, the foremost rabbinic sage of turn-of-the-third-century Galilee. Judah, also called “Our Holy Rabbi,” or even more affectionately, simply “Rebbi,” lived in a period of relative calm following a tumultuous century that saw the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt. He foresaw the calamities that would befall the Jews, and—so the story goes—he compiled and shaped the Mishnah from oral traditions to unite the nation during future periods of unrest.

Scholars have also long debated the Mishnah’s true purpose. Some assume that it was intended as a primer for those entering the rabbinate. Others have suggested that, despite its many impractical or anachronistic discussions, it is nonetheless a guide to Jewish practice. Some conceive of the Mishnah as a kind of a utopian political statement, which deliberately ignores the destruction of the Temple and the Roman subjugation of the Galilee. Still other scholars have argued that the Mishnah is a “hidden transcript” of rabbis speaking to each other in a kind of subversive code under Roman rule.

Perhaps the Mishnah is all these things. What is certain is that since its creation, the Mishnah has been at the center of Jewish study, serving as the point of entry for young learners and as a focus of sophisticated talmudic analysis for accomplished scholars. At the same time, for many Jews, the Mishnah, with its concise passages and clear Hebrew, has been the ideal work to turn to when time is short or when scholarly abilities are limited. Mishnah study has even taken on prayerful and meditative expressions, its text being murmured in daily prayers and in rites of mourning. It would not be overstating things to say that the history of the Mishnah’s success and its reception is the history of rabbinic Judaism itself.

An ambitious new scholarly translation of the Mishnah, produced by fifty-one leading scholars and published by Oxford University Press, is therefore both a major event and an opportunity to think about the nature of rabbinic Judaism’s foundational document and what it means, and has meant, to translate it.

The Mishnah was composed and transmitted orally for the first centuries of its existence. Yet, at some point in the early Middle Ages—scholars are uncertain as to when—Moses got his wish, and the Mishnah was finally written down. Unsurprisingly, it also turns out that God was right. Once it was written, the Mishnah was eventually translated by Christians who used the text for their own religious purposes.

Already in antiquity, Church Fathers such as Origen and Jerome took a keen interest in nonbiblical Jewish traditions, referring to them as the “deuterosis”—a Greek rendition of “Mishnah” hinging on the meaning “second” and paralleling the Christian notion of a second—or New—Testament. In medieval Europe, Christian Hebraists studied Hebrew and consulted rabbinic texts in their attempt to explicate the Bible. But it was only over the course of the long seventeenth century that Christian scholars began to properly study and translate the Mishnah. The efforts of these scholars, who were mainly based in England and the Netherlands, culminated in a monumental, multiauthored edition and Latin translation of the Mishnah with commentaries, orchestrated by Guilielmus Surenhusius and published in Amsterdam between 1698 and 1703.

This story is told in a fascinating new collection of scholarly essays, The Mishnaic Moment: Jewish Law among Jews and Christians in Early Modern Europe, edited by Piet van Boxel, Kirsten Macfarlane, and Joanna Weinberg. One of its main protagonists is Edward Pococke, the tenth Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. While serving as a chaplain in Aleppo, Pococke had amassed an enviable collection of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, including what scholars believe was Maimonides’s own copy of his great Mishnah commentary. Pococke closely studied and marked up the manuscript and ultimately produced a Latin translation of portions of the text, which he published in 1655 under the name Porta Mosis. Pococke’s translation, along with those of some of his students and colleagues, made its way into Surenhusius’s edition when it was published about a half century later.

Alongside Pococke and his peers were some Jews who also helped make the Mishnah accessible to Christians. Chief among them were Jacob and Isaac Abendana, two book-selling brothers who were born in Hamburg, a city once home to many Sephardi exiles. Eventually, the Abendanas made their way to England where Jacob, hakham of London in the early 1680s, translated the Mishnah into Spanish. Isaac spent a significant amount of time in Cambridge and Oxford teaching rabbinic texts to Christian students. He translated the Mishnah into Latin, and although it was never printed, the complete autograph manuscript is still held at Cambridge University.            

Why did Christian scholars spend years of painstaking study acquiring the linguistic skills and religious literacy necessary to translate and understand the Mishnah? No doubt there were many reasons, including a fascination with Semitic philology, a passion for comparative law, and antiquarian curiosity. But there was one motivating factor that united them all, succinctly summarized by Surenhusius himself: “Thus far I certainly have not seen a book that could bring more clarity to the New Testament than the Mishnah.”

Although Jews turned (and turn) to the Mishnah as a guide to practice (when should we say the evening Shema?) or because learning or reciting Mishnah is a pious act in itself, these Christians studied the Mishnah as a historical document that contextualized the acts and sayings of Jesus and his apostles in the waning days of the Second Temple. Indeed, this idea is announced in the title of the very first English translation of Mishnah, William Wotton’s Shabbath and Eruvin; Two Titles of the Misna or Code of the Traditional Laws, Which Were Observed by the Scribes and Pharisees In Our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ’s Time, published in 1718. In his preface Wotton exults that thanks to translation, the Jews’ “mysteries have been laid open to Christians.”

With translations like these, what was an English-speaking Jew to do? In the mid-nineteenth century, the London Sephardi community saw the need for one that would provide Jews with “an English translation from persons of their own faith.” Eighteen Treatises from the Mishna, which was to fulfill this need, was published in 1843 by David Aaron de Sola and Morris Jacob Raphall. But the first complete translation into English of all the Mishnah’s sixty-three tractates was not published until almost a century later—and it was by yet another Christian Hebraist, Herbert Danby.

While a student in Oxford, Danby had already begun to translate selections from the Mishnah. He moved to Jerusalem in 1919 to serve as a cleric in the Anglican St. George’s Cathedral, where he wrote learned defenses of Jews and the Talmud, though he also delivered internal church lectures that betrayed his desire to convert the Jews. In 1933, at age forty-four, while still serving at St. George’s and three years before he eventually took up Pococke’s former position as Regius Professor at Oxford, Danby published The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes.

A visualization of Tractate Eruvin from Surenhusius’s Latin edition of the Mishnah. (Courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.)

Jewish translations of the Mishnah, based primarily on rabbinic commentaries and focused more on halakhic practice than historical questions, began to appear several decades later—think of the volumes of Philip Blackman’s translation collecting dust in the library of your local synagogue. But Danby’s translation has retained its reputation as the go-to English translation of the Mishnah for academic scholars. It is accurate and remains (relatively) readable almost a century after it was first published. In contrast to the translations and commentaries by Danby’s early modern predecessors, which were prefaced by remarks on the Jews’ theological stubbornness or even idiocy, Danby’s tone in his introduction and his comments is strikingly neutral, and this, too, is a reason for his translation’s long success.

An example of Danby’s style can be found in his translation of the first Mishnah of tractate Bava Kamma, on the laws of damages. Like many such introductory passages in the Mishnah, it numbers its points and adopts a distinctive cadence. In the original Hebrew, the first line rolls off the tongue: “arba avot nezikin—ha-shor, ha-bor, ha-maveh, ve-hahever.” Danby’s translation, however, is more legal brief than lyric:

The four primary causes of injury are the ox and the pit and the crop-destroying beast and the outbreak of fire. [The distinctive feature of] the ox is not like [that of] the crop-destroying beast, nor is [the distinctive feature of] the crop-destroying beast like [that of] the ox; nor is [the distinctive feature of] either of these, wherein is life, like [that of] fire, wherein is not life; nor is [the distinctive feature of] any of these, whose way it is to go forth and do injury, like [that of] the pit, whose way it is not to go forth and do injury. What they have in common is that it is the way of them to do injury and that the care of them falls on thee; and if one of them did injury whosoever did the injury must make restitution for the injury with the best of his land.

The bracketed texts fill in what is left unsaid in the terse, often cryptic original Hebrew. In his notes, Danby adds that his “primary causes” translates what could be more literally rendered as “‘fathers of injuries’, i.e., they characterize the four main classifications within which miscellaneous kinds of injury can be included.” The main text is presented in a block with justified columns, so that the entire first chapter of the tractate—around 190 words in the original Hebrew and 510 words in Danby’s English—takes up a single page.

Oxford University Press has kept Danby’s translation in print for almost a century. But a rival was published in 1988 by the controversial and astonishingly prolific American scholar Jacob Neusner (he wrote or edited more than nine hundred books). Among his many crusades, Neusner resituated the study of rabbinic texts in the context of midtwentieth-century academic religious studies. In doing so, Neusner expressly wrote for nonrabbinic scholars—scholars of early Christianity but also scholars of regions and traditions much farther afield. For Neusner, the Mishnah was a primary document, even a philosophical one, useful for contemplating the varieties of religious experience. Accordingly, Neusner argued that “the source must be translated so that the reader sees exactly what is there and can follow what is said” and set out to translate, on his own and with his students, almost every classical rabbinic work. By his own account, Neusner did not “excel” at “the work of translation.” Reviewers of his translations have been even less generous, highlighting numerous mistakes and misinterpretations.

Neusner’s translation of the Mishnah was published in one volume by Yale University Press in 1991 (the first Mishnaic order was translated by his students under his close supervision, and the remaining five orders were translated by Neusner himself). In his introduction, he praises the accuracy of Danby’s translation but also notes that Danby did “not make the effort to translate the Hebrew into English words following the syntax of Mishnaic Hebrew.” In attempting “to render the contents of the Mishnah easily accessible in their entirety,” Danby sacrificed the Mishnah’s distinctive literary style, which, Neusner argued, followed from the work having been intended to be memorized. For him, it was crucial to present “the Mishnah as a work of careful poetry and prose.” His new translation “subdivided each unit of thought into smaller sense-units, marked by letters, making possible convenient reference to the smallest complete thought-constituents of the unit.” Take, for example, his translation of the opening of Bava Kamma:

A. [There are] four generative causes of damages: (1) ox [Ex. 21:35-36], (2) pit [Ex. 21:33], (3) crop-destroying beast [Ex. 22:4], and (4) conflagration [Ex. 22:5].

B.  [The definitive characteristic] of the ox is not equivalent to that of the crop-destroying beast;

C. nor is that of the crop-destroying beast equivalent to that of the ox;

D.  nor are this one and that one, which are animate, equivalent to fire, which is not animate;

E.  nor are this one and that one, which usually [get up and] go and do damage, equivalent to a pit, which does not usually [get up and] go and do damage.

F.  What they have in common is that they customarily do damage and taking care of them is your responsibility.

G. And when one [of them] has caused damage, the [owner] of that which causes the damage is liable to pay compensation for damage out of the best of his land [Ex. 22:4].

Instead of rewriting the opening clause like Danby (“The four primary causes of injury are . . .”), Neusner used a colon, which captures the lapidary crispness of the original Hebrew. He followed Danby in using brackets to flesh out what is unsaid (as well as to cite scriptural sources). In addition to breaking up the text into lettered paragraphs, Neusner adds numbers, as he does throughout the Mishnah whenever numerical lists appear. Taken together, Neusner’s translation choices make for an awkward read, and his version never supplanted Danby’s among academic readers. His attempts to conform to Hebrew syntax, the frequency of odd (or even inaccurate) word choices, the sometimes-idiosyncratic division of the text, and the heavy reliance on bracketed notes are more often distracting than helpful. Perhaps some of these problems were on Neusner’s mind when he wrote in the introduction that “a great work of classical antiquity, as influential as is this one, may warrant more than a single translation.”

The new Oxford Annotated Mishnah, which was edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen, the late Robert Goldenberg, and Hayim Lapin and employed four dozen other translators, returns to the expressly collaborative model of Surenhusius. Echoing Neusner’s introduction, the editors explain that the goal of their translation “is to make the Mishnah accessible to the Hebrew-less reader,” who is unfamiliar with Mishnaic rhetoric and terminology. For such readers, “Danby’s translation, whileexcellent in itself, remains a closed book.” Curiously, or perhaps just tactfully, Neusner’s translation goes unmentioned. (Neusner was the doctoral adviser of several of the Oxford Annotated Mishnah’scontributors, including Goldenberg; he was also a frequent sparring partner of Cohen’s.)

One innovative and praiseworthy feature of the translation in The Oxford Annotated Mishnah is that it tries, often successfully, to emulate the Mishnah’s economy of language. Let us return a final time to the opening of Bava Kamma, now as translated by Hayim Lapin:

There are four primary classes of damage:

(1) the Ox, (2) the Pit, (3) the Crop-Eating Animal, and (4) the Fire.

The Ox is not like the Crop-Eating Animal;

the Crop-Eating Animal is not like the Ox;

and neither this one nor that one, which are alive,

is like the Fire, which is not alive;

and neither this one nor that one, which typically cause damage by moving along,

is like the Pit, which does not typically cause damage by moving along.

The common feature to all of them:

they typically cause damage, and watching over them is upon you,

and when they cause damage,

the one who caused the damage is obligated to make  payments for the damage from the best land.

While Danby and Neusner felt a need to introduce prose in brackets to underline the fact that for present purposes the ox is not a crop-eating animal, Lapin allows the Mishnah its cryptic precision. His translation of “four primary classes” is also altogether better than Danby’s somewhat inaccurate “four primary causes” and Neusner’s awkward “four generative causes.” And yet breaking up the text into “sense-units” and using numbers are translation choices that both began with Neusner.

Another distinctive feature of the new translation is a greater reliance on untranslated terms. One of many such examples can be found in Zevahim 2:3, which was translated by Aryeh Cohen. The passage describes what happens if a priest had certain improper thoughts while preparing a sacrifice:

This is the general rule:

One who slaughters,

and who receives,

and who conveys,

and who sprinkles,

intending to eat that which is normally eaten,

or to burn that which is normally burnt—

If the intention is directed outside its place—

it is invalid but there is no karet;

if outside its time—

it is piggul and one is liable for karet,

so long as he offered the permitting element as commanded.

For karet, both Danby and Neusner have “extirpation; and for piggul, they have “refuse.” Brief notes in the Oxford Annotated Mishnah elliptically gloss pigul as an “abomination” resulting from improper intention and karet as “extirpation.” Yet, only in a glossary at the end of the work are these terms more fully explained.

What is immediately noticeable about The Oxford Annotated Mishnah, however, is not the precision or economy of the translation but the enormous physical size of the work. Thumbing through its volumes, it is clear that this is primarily a result of the empty space that engulfs the page.

According to the editors, “Sentences are divided into short lines (as if they were poetry) to aid comprehension.” We might recall that Neusner was similarly keen on the Mishnah’s poetry. Yet, Neusner also knew when to admit that the Mishnah was being prosaic. By contrast, every sense-unit in The Oxford Annotated Mishnah is awarded its own line, even the less lyrical ones. This leads to some very peculiar poems, such as this passage from tractate Tohorot2:1, translated by Yair Furstenberg, that discusses a woman who has immersed in a mikvah but remains ritually unclean until the end of the day:

If a tevul yom woman shook the pot

with unclean hands,

and she saw liquids on her hands,

and it is uncertain

whether they splashed from the pot

or whether the stalk touched her hand

the vegetable is disqualified,

and the pot is pure.

One could just as well understand that “the vegetable is disqualified and the pot is pure” if both statements shared the same line. If anything, some readers might find the line break distracting. To be sure, there are contributors who took the editors’ suggestions less literally, allowing themselves to place more than one clause on a single line (as Lapin does above).

After Neusner, the focus on the Mishnah’s literary form has been mainly associated with the work of the Israeli scholar Avraham Walfish (who did not contribute to The Annotated Oxford Mishnah and whose work is not cited). This approach has become especially popular in Israel, thanks in part to the success of Eliyahu Dordek’s Mishna Sdura, which uses empty space and a variety of fonts to highlight features of the text to aid traditional students in memorizing the original Hebrew. These features draw out literary devices like cadence, repetition, and alliteration. Although many of the translations in The Oxford Annotated Mishnah also seek to reproduce the literary effects of the original, its innovative layout does not always help. Ironically, once The Oxford Annotated Mishnah lays out the page like poetry and adds new topical headers, textual notes, and annotations, the formal coherence of the Mishnah’s chapters—which are its primary literary unity—become harder to appreciate.

Such features have also expanded this English Mishnah’s girth. Despite the admirable concision of its actual translation, which is much shorter than that of Danby or Neusner, The Oxford Annotated Mishnah exceeds 2,500 pages, in three hefty volumes, as opposed to Danby’s 870 or Neusner’s 1,162, each published in a single volume. It also costs $680.

As a work of academic scholarship, the features that most distinguish The Oxford Annotated Mishnah from traditional translations include a focus on textual criticism, an interest in historicity and material culture, and attention to the Mishnah’s use of earlier rabbinic sources. For example, scholars now know that much of what the Mishnah says of the past—particularly in its depictions of Temple rituals and rabbinic courts—is best understood not as reliable reports but as ideologically charged narratives. Thus, Naftali S. Cohn writes in his introduction to tractate Tamid, on daily Temple rituals:

Comparison with earlier accounts of similar rituals suggests that the rabbinic authors of the Mishnah have shaped these accounts, in part guided by what they understood to be the correct law, though also influenced by their own self-understanding as a group.

In her introduction to tractate Sanhedrin, Beth Berkowitz includes a two-paragraph discussion on the rabbinic court system in which she concludes that “legal documents discovered in the Judaean desert suggest multiple languages and legal traditions coexisting, all under the aegis of Roman authority,” and that some of the rabbinic courts depicted in the tractate, if they existed at all, would have only “constituted one among a variety of available legal options.”

These are important historical observations. Still, when the chips are down, the realization that a lot of what the Mishnah describes may be fiction does not have much impact on the translations themselves. And whether or not the Mishnah’s complex descriptions of ancient institutions, like the Temple, are historically accurate, more diagrams still would have been helpful. Despite the advances in bookmaking over the last four centuries, Surenhusius’s seventeenth-century Mishnah includes significantly more visualizations than does The Oxford Annotated Mishnah.

Contributors of The Oxford Annotated Mishnah “were asked to present variants from two of our main Mishnah manuscripts, variants which affect the meaning of the text.” This is by nature a subjective enterprise, all the more so when it is mainly limited to the Kaufmann and Parma manuscripts, which are closely related. Still, it is disorienting for the scholarly reader to find some contributors engaging in serious consideration of the textual evidence, while others ignore such questions. Something similar happens with the attempts by a few of the contributors to map the Mishnah’s sources by paying close attention to internal textual cues and comparing the Mishnah with other early rabbinic works. This approach is most identified with Jacob Nahum Epstein, the so-called father of the exact Talmudic science, whose formative studies on the Mishnah are cited only once.

Unfortunately, the inconsistency goes all the way down. For instance, different contributors use different shorthand notations to refer to the same manuscripts. Even more problematic, as others have noted, some key terms are translated differently by different contributors—for example, the word “ger” is translated interchangeably as “proselyte” or “convert.” In their introduction, the editors write that they “have tried, and no doubt failed, to maintain consistency in the translation of technical terms and rhetorical patterns,” but they “have consoled” themselves “with the argument that the reader may benefit in noting divergence in the translation of parallel terms and passages.” This is cold comfort, since the reader is given no note or clue as to when these differences reflect differences in the Hebrew original and when they do not.

The most significant inconsistency is apparent in the very nature of the annotations. The editors’ assignment—“to make the Mishnah understandable”—was clearly interpreted variously, with some contributors writing extremely short notes and others finding ways to incorporate more extensive explanations. Many of the more successful commentaries are these longer ones, and it is clear that most of them were written by scholars who had already written monographs on their assigned tractates. It is precisely because of these successes, however, that one wishes that contributors would have been guided—or allowed—to simply write more. For example, in his comment to Ketubbot 2:9, “A woman who was imprisoned by gentiles—on a monetary matter, she is permitted to her husband; and on a capital matter, she is forbidden to her husband,” Robert Brody—the author of several books on this tractate—writes the following: “This section may reflect an ancient rule according to which a married woman who was raped is forbidden to her husband.” The reader is not told where to turn to learn more about this tragic “ancient rule.”

The Oxford Annotated Mishnah is a significant event in the history of Mishnah interpretation. Never before has such an illustrious cadre of scholars joined forces to create such a work. Considering its significance and considering the enormous amount of time and labor that surely went into its creation, it is unfortunate that so little of the knowledge held by these scholars ended up on the page.

As the editors write in their acknowledgments, Shaye Cohen began this project on his own, “thinking he could translate and annotate the Mishnah single-handedly.” But after concluding that he could not, he enlisted the editorial aid of Goldenberg and Lapin and their dozens of contributors.

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, “Cohen says that unless one has years of Jewish day school education and a strong grasp of Hebrew under the belt, reading the Mishnah can feel as disorienting as breaking into the middle of a complex conversation between strangers.” In interviews, Cohen has said that his “ideal audience would be a professor of New Testament,” as he “kept on thinking about academics who are very bright, very learned, have worked on related questions, but for whom the Mishnah is fundamentally a closed text because there’s nothing out there.” In other words, a Jew—or at least, a scholar of Jewish studies—is needed to decipher the Mishnah for a scholar of the New Testament. One may question whether this is, indeed, what contemporary scholars of the New Testament have so desperately needed. However, if we consider the historic depth of Christian interest in the Mishnah, Cohen’s remarks take on more weight. We must ask: Is this indeed the duty of Jewish studies? Are contemporary scholars of Jewish studies tasked, like the Abendana brothers before them, with translating Jewish texts for the students of Christianity?

Of course, neither Shaye Cohen nor his distinguished fellow editors and contributors believe this to be the case, but the history of apologetics, polemics, and religious anxiety is often closer to the surface in the study of religion than one would like to think, and the notion of the New Testament scholar as the implied reader of this translation may have hampered its ambition.

And what of the Hebrew-less (or Hebrew-light) reader, Jewish or not, whose fundamental interest is in the Mishnah itself? There is no question that The Oxford Annotated Mishnah does far more than Danby or Neusner to unlock the mystery of the text. But it is hard not to pine for what could have been—less blank space, more consistency, and more commentary from its extraordinary team of contributors.


Suggested Reading

Robert Alter’s Bible: A Symposium

Ronald Hendel, Aviya Kushner, Shai Held, David Bentley Hart, Adele Berlin, Adam Kirsch

In the 14 years since he published the Five Books of Moses, Alter has steadily progressed through the Tanakh, producing translations that aim at something like a 21st-century American equivalent of what he has called the “simple yet grand” English of the King James Version, while attending closely to the literary techniques of the Hebrew text. We asked a learned, eclectic group of six critics to discuss the results.