The Soul of the Mishna
Rabbi Yaakov Nagen / Yeshivat Otniel / Maggid Press 2021
Reviewed by Rabbi Barry Gelman
As a post-high school student in Yeshivat Beit Midrash L’Torah (BMT), I pledged to study the entire corpus of rabbinic legal rulings (4,192 Mishnayot) compiled between 70 CE and the second century, within a year.
The pledge was made to “pay” for a specific honor during Simchat Torah services. Instead of appealing for funds, the Yeshiva asked us to take on extra Torah study.
Studying all of those Mishnayot in just a year introduced me to the gamut of topics discussed in the Talmud. This type of learning is called bekiyut — an attempt to develop a familiarity with large amounts of material —and does not leave time for analysis of the greater themes of the texts.
Rabbi Yaakov Nagen’s new book, The Soul of the Mishna — an English translation of his 2006 commentary with some additions and reworked chapters — redeems the text from this type of shallow study by asking the reader to consider its “inner spirit”.
Rabbi Nagen finds beauty in dry legal statements by revealing various tools used by the authors, including wordplay, parallels and use of specific structures within the Mishnayot and its chapter structure.
Using the structure of the ninth chapter of tractate Berakhot he uncovers the rabbinic answer to the question of “where is God to be found.”
Rabbi Nagen writes, based on Berakhot Chapter 9, Mishna 3 that teaches the requirement to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing when one builds a house, that “On the face of it, the construction of a house and the acquisition of vessels are human activity...But in fact, it is God who sustains people’s very lives, along with their actions, so that even human achievements requires the blessing…”
Summing up he quotes Rav Kook: “The divine is revealed in the world in all its beauty...in the talents of every speaker... in the imagination of every poet, in the feelings of every passionate being…” (Orot Hakodesh 119)
In the hands of Rabbi Nagen, the troubling statement by Hillel (Gittin 9:10) that a man may divroce his wife “even if she merely has burnt his dish” is transformed into a statement on the essence of marriage. (See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s analysis of marriage in Family Redeemed, pp. 49-6 for parallels.)
For Hillel, the most important element of marriage is the “shared life” of the couple. Any damage to it is grounds for divorce. Rabbi Nagen explain, however, that the Hebrew for the burnt dish incident is “afilu hikdiha tavshilo”.
“The Hebrew word for burnt, hikdiha, comes from the root k-d-h, which in the bible connotes anger (of God towards Israel), and the school of Hillel employs it in order to hint at the range of problems that arise in the home. The link between God’s wrath and marital strife casts the rift between the partners as a cosmic disaster...the death of a complete organism - the family unit.” The burnt dish points to a deep fault in the marital relationship.”
Seen this way, Rabbi Nagen reveals that Hillel only allows for divorce when the relationship between the wife and husband has totally broken down. A far cry from the literal understanding of the burnt dish clause.
I remember how excited I was as a young student to take on the study of Mishnayot. Rabbi Nagen’s approach has reignited a passion to dive back into the world of the Mishna.
Rabbi Gelman's book reviews are a joint project of the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and the Jewish Herald-Voice.
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.