In “The Soul of the Mishna”, Rabbi Dr Yakov Nagen brings the Mishna to life in a way that few teachers have done.
He explains in his Introduction: “The body of the Mishna is the halakha, the law; in this book I intend to uncover its inner spirit. I wish to reveal the ideas that underpin the Mishna’s laws, and, where possible, to elucidate their existential implications”.
Rabbi Nagen succeeds in these intentions magnificently. To analyse the various Mishnayot, he employs several techniques:
He shows several examples of how the Mishna might employ ambiguity to put several points across in one seemingly-simple sentence.
Also, he frequently shows how a simple Hebrew phrase can subtly refer to other subjects. In this, he extrapolates from the standard Talmudic tool of logic called gezerah shavah, an inference which can be drawn from identical wording.
For example, the Mishna records an incident when Tuvia the Doctor and his son came to the Beit Din together to testify that they had seen the new moon; the Kohanim (Priests) accepted their testimony, but the Beit Din rejected the father-and-son pairing (Rosh Hashanah 1:7).
Rabbi Nagen suggest that the Mishna deliberately uses the phrase אֹתוֹ וְאֶת בְּנוֹ (he and his son), in order to refer to the Torah-mitzvah that it is forbidden to slaughter an ox and his son (אֹתוֹ וְאֶת בְּנוֹ) on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). This, says Rabbi Nagen, implies a rebuke to the Kohanim who accepted the evidence of the father and son together.
Analysing the Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the rejoicing of the Water-Drawing Ceremony in the Holy Temple) in Sukka 5:1, Rabbi Nagen offers other startling insights: He demonstrates that the Mishna’s deceptively dry description of the water libation often parallels the Torah’s account of the Creation itself. Hence the waters of the libation ceremony parallel the waters of the Garden of Eden.
He then demonstrates the parallels between the annual Simchat Beit HaSho’eva and the celebrations when King Solomon completed the construction of the Holy Temple (1 Kings 8), and deduces that the Simchat Beit HaSho’eva celebrated the Holy Temple itself as much as the water libation.
Maybe Rabbi Nagen’s most powerful device is to bring the Masters of the Mishna to life by detailing their biographies.
In this, he seems to be inspired by the classic Sefaradi method of learning Talmud – but he takes it to a higher level.
Knowing at least something about the Masters’ lives is crucial to deciding halakha in practice: after all, there are rules about whose opinion we follow in disputed rulings. For example, when a Master and his disciple dispute, we follow the ruling of the master; when a Tanna (a Master from before the redaction of the Mishna in the year 200) and an Amora (a Master from 200 until the close of the Talmud) dispute, we follow the Tanna’s opinion; but if two Tanna’im or two Amora’im dispute, we follow the opinion of the later Master.
So in order to adjudicate halakhic disputes in the Mishna or the Gemara, it is essential to know who was whose disciple, and when the various authorities lived.
But Rabbi Nagen shows how the Masters in the Mishna were inspired by the events they lived through, how they learned from each other, and how these influences caused them to reach their various explanations.
For example, the Mishna (Sukka 3:4) records Rabbi Yishmael’s ruling that the Four Species on Sukkot must consist of three myrtle-branches, two willow-branches, one lulav, and one Etrog. Rabbi Akiva opines that just as we take only one lulav and one Etrog, so too we take only one myrtle-branch and one willow-branch.
Rabbi Nagen notes that Israeli coins from Great Revolt against Rome (66-73 C.E.) depict the Four Species following Rabbi Yishmael’s ruling (seven components in all), while Israeli coins from the Bar Kokhba Revolt (135-138 C.E.) depict the Four Species following Rabbi Akiva’s ruling (four components in all).
Rabbi Nagen explains the difference in interpretation by citing a Midrash Halakha, Pesikta de-Rav Kahane 27:9:
“Rabbi Akiva says: ‘The fruit of the goodly (hadar) tree’ – that is the Holy One, blessed be He, of whom it is written ‘You are clothed with glory (hadar) and majesty’ (Psalms 104:1). ‘Branches of the palm trees’ – that is the Holy One, blessed be He, of whom it is written ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree’ (92:13). ‘And boughs of thick trees’ – that is the Holy One, blessed be He, of whom it is written ‘and He stood among the myrtle trees’ (Zechariah 1:8). ‘And willows of (arvei) the brook – that is the Holy One, blessed be He, of whom it is written ‘Extol He Who rides upon the skies (Psalms 68:5)”.
Rabbi Nagen concludes from this that Rabbi Akiva conceives of the Four Species in mystical terms, each representing G-d and His unity, hence only one of each Species.
Rabbi Akiva, who was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and who desperately tried to bring Redemption to Israel, sees Sukkot as representing Redemption; this is why he sees the Sukka itself as representing the Clouds of Glory, which represent the Redemption from Egypt.
Ove and over again, Rabbi Nagen brings these inspiring and beautiful interpretation to Mishnayot which, at first reading, seem to be no more than legal disputes between the Masters of the Mishna.
After reading “The Soul of the Mishna”, studying the Mishna will forever be a far more exciting, inspiring, and spiritually rewarding adventure.
Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, The Soul of the Mishnah, 416 pages, hardback, published by Maggid Books, translated into English by Elie Leshem. Rabbi Nagen is a senior rabbi at the Otniel Yeshiva in Israel, where he teaches Talmud, halakha, Jewish thought, and Kabbala. He also serves as director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He received his rabbinical ordination from RIETS at Yeshiva University and holds a PhD in Jewish Philosophy from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also the author of Be, Become, Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West (Maggid, 2019).