The Mishna was an attempt to keep the bare bones of the oral mitzvot as Jews were being dispersed across the world. The wars against Rome began in 66 CE and ended with most of the Jews being exiled from the holy land in 135 CE when the final revot (the בר כוכבא / Bar Kocbha rebellion) was squashed. Archeologists have discovered coins used by the Jews during the rebellion. The coin shown to the left shows the Temple a rising star. The other side shows a lulav (lulav -- date palm tree frond used in Sukkot). The Hebrew says: "to the freedom of Jerusalem."
Roman historians tell us that over 500,000 Jews died in the rebellions. By the time the Romans renamed Judah "Palestine" (after the ancient Jewish enemy, the Philistines) Jews had migrated throughout the Roman Empire -- as far as Spain, India and Egypt. The Jewish community in Egypt had been thriving since the days of Yirmiyahu / Jeremiah. Many other Jews fled to Babylon -- which had been home to Jews since the Babylonian Exile in 434 BCE.
When Cyrus gave the edict that Jews could return to Judah, many remained in Babylon. It is estimated that only 42,000 Jews returned to Judah, with nearly a million remaining in Babylon. They formed Synagogues and a rich Jewish life. It was to this vibrant community that many Jews fled around 135 CE.
The Roman who defeated Jerusalem had promised Yohanan Ben Zakkai that if he became Emperor he would let the Jews establish the Sanhedrin and schools in the town of Yavneh. Vespasian became Emperor within a year of his promise, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the destruction of Jerusalem. The school ben Zakkai established at Yavneh became the center of Jewish learning for centuries and replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin. It was at Yavneh, nearly 100 years after Ben Zakkai, that the finalized Mishna appeared.
For the next hundred years the Tannaim in Yavneh compiled the oral Torah into the מִשְׁנָה / Mishna. The last generation of Tannaim was overseen by Y'hudah HaNasi circa 170-200 CE at which time the Mishna was finalized.
The goal in putting the oral mitzvot in writing was to create a brief and concise document that is cryptic by design. The מִשְׁנָה / Mishna was created to be a "cheat sheat" for a learned person -- the writing was kept to a minimum and meant only to serve as a aid to faltering memories who were taught to memorize the oral mitzvot. The Mishna is divided into six sections known as סדרים / Sedarim, which translated means "order."
The first section, סדר זרעים / Seder Zera'im deals with agricuture. זֶֽרַע /zera is usually translated as "seed" or "living offspring of the physical parent." Seed is not the best translation since the word denotes the living entity that results from a fertile parent (male, female, or plant). This order discusses the mitzvot pertaining to the plants of the land such as laws of prohibited mixtures, laws of the Sabbatical year, for example. There are eleven tractates within this Seder, the first of which is ברכות / Berachot (Blessings) which has to do with many of the Jewish prayers -- including those blessing food.
The second section, סֵדֶר מוֹעֵד / Seder Mo’ed (appointed times) contains twelve tractate -- each explaining a different holy day. The first holiday discussed is Shabbat (Sabbath). The tractates explain requirements (for example, does it require fasting, or avoiding certain actions such as lighting a fire, etc.)
The third section, סֵדֶר נָשִׁים / Seder Nashim, focuses on the mitzvot around family purity, marriage, there are seven tractates.
The fourth section, סדר נזיקין / Seder Nezikin deals with the court system including both civil and criminal laws. There are ten tractates including one on idolatry. Penalties and punishment are also discussed.
The fifth section, סֵדֶר קָדָשִׁים / Seder Kodashim discusses holy things including ritual practices of the Temple (qorbanot / sacrifices). There are eleven tractates
The sixth section deals, סדר טהרות / Seder Tohorot discusses ritual purifications and impurities.
Some things were not included in the Mishna, but they were important enough to keep. They were collected in the תּוֹסֶפְתָּא / Tosefta -- literally "additional" or "supplementary" information. It was completed shortly after the completion of the Mishna. In fact, the תנאים / Tannaim (teachers) mentioned in the Tosefta are the same as those mentioned in the Mishna -- along with scholars from the two following generations – almost all either direct descendents of the tannaim mentioned in the Mishna. Most editions of the Talmud include the Tosefta as well.
After the completion of the Mishna, and the deat of Y'hudah HaNasi, a new generation of scholars called the אמוראים / Amoraim (explainers) began to discuss, explain and interpret the teachings of the Mishna. These discussions went on for over 200 years in Judah (Palestine), and 300 years in Babylon -- and eventually those discussions became the commentary and debate around the statements in the Mishna. We will discuss this גמרא / Gemara (study) in the next post on the topic of the Talmud.
Sophiee Saguy has been countering false missionary claims about Judaism and the T'nach (Jewish bible) for nearly twenty years. You may find her on FaceBook and at the Messiah Truth forum.