The History of the Mishnah

The Jewish people were led by Zugot, or rabbinic pairs, who taught the binding natures of both the Written Law and the Oral Law, during the first and second centuries BCE. Jewish practice dramatically changed after the destruction of the Second Temple as the community focus shifted from Temple rituals to Torah learning. Threats of Roman persecution also grew, and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi feared that the Jewish community would become fragmented and any oral traditions would be lost. At that point, he made a bold decision: he wrote down the Oral Law in a book called the Mishnah.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. Which Jewish sect believed that both the Written and Oral Laws of the Bible are binding?
    • Pharisees
    • Sadducees
    • Hellenized Jews
    • Tannaim
  2. What were the Zugot known as?
    • Chachamim and Tannaim
    • Nasi and Av Beit Din
    • Pharisees and Sadducees
    • Written Law and Oral Law
  3. Who organized and edited the Mishnah?
    • Shimon ben Shetach
    • Shamai
    • Hillel
    • Rav Yehudah HaNasi
  4.  How many books are in the Mishnah?
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
    • 7
  5.  What was the primary goal of writing down the Oral Law?
    • The maintenance and unity of Jews 
    • Setting up a system of rabbinic leadership
    • Fighting the Romans
    • Remembering the Second Temple
  1. When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans, the era of Rabbinic Judaism emerges. The title of “rabbi” is used for the first time and they become the focal point of Jewish life. Why do you think rabbis became more central in the Jewish community and what do you think their role within the community should be?
  2. The Zugot were known as the Nasi and Av Beit Din and mirrored the roles of the President and Vice President. Do you think that having two people in charge instead of one was a strong leadership model?
  3. Hillel and Shammai argued about questions, including whether white lies are permitted, if one lies down while reciting Shema, and how to light Hanukkah candles. Their debates are described as “controversy for the sake of Heaven” because their goal was to find and establish the truth and not to fulfill their own personal agendas. Do you think it’s possible to disagree fundamentally with someone and still maintain a friendship and mutual respect?
  4. Recording the Oral Law was considered a bold decision at the time Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi compiled the Mishnah. The debates are even recorded in the Gemara! Many rabbis thought that the Oral and Written Laws needed to be kept separate because learning an oral tradition allowed flexibility in adapting to new situations and encouraged students and teachers to congregate and learn together. However, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was nervous that the Oral Law would be lost as a result of the Roman persecution against the Jews. Similarly, we all have family stories that are not written down anywhere but are part of our family’s oral tradition. When thinking about the pros and cons to writing down an oral tradition, do the positives outweigh the negatives?
  1. Use our ready made lesson plan about documenting an oral tradition.
  2. The Rabbinic era emerged around the time of the destruction of the Temple. Create a job posting for the rabbi and consider what their role should be within the community. Include what kind of training they need, what skills they should possess, and a description of what the position entails. See here for sample job postings.
  3. Hillel and Shammai disagreed on the order of lighting Hanukkah candles. Their debate was not only practical; they disagreed about the meaning of how to make positive changes. Read this article and think about a change you want to bring into your life. Take five to ten minutes to journal for yourself what the next steps would be. Will you tackle the change head on like Beit Shammai or will you take it step-by-step like Beit Hillel?
  4. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi recorded debates throughout Jewish history in the Mishnah, so both sides of the argument would be preserved. Pick one of the debate topics from this list and find a partner who does not agree with your opinion. Discuss your different perspectives and then write a short summary of your opinions in one paragraph. Compile the class’ summaries together to create a new segment of the Mishnah!
  5. Give your students our Kahoot on the Mishnah!
  1. The Zugot often disagreed with one another but still had to lead the Jewish people together. Do you ever disagree with someone you still have to work with, like in a group project or when planning an event together? How do you work out your disagreements while still remaining friends and working towards a united goal?
  2. Hillel teaches, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?” What do you think he means? What lesson can you incorporate in your own life based on this saying?
  3. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people relied on Torah study as their national mission. Think about a building where you feel religiously connected like a synagogue, where your youth group meets, or a school. Do you think it would be difficult if you no longer could be in that physical space?
  4. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi hoped that Torah study would become accessible and central in Jewish people’s lives. Now there are so many ways to make Torah learning more accessible. Take a look at these links (Unpacked for Educators, Sefaria, Chabad, and Aleph Beta) and think about how you can incorporate these learning opportunities into your life.

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