The title promises a lot, and maybe also too much. Please forgive me for that, but I simply couldn’t make a better title up.
It’s not a lie though, since I do attempt to give a little insight – not only to the reader, but also to myself – of the Sages of the Mishnah. But how to do that, if one doesn’t intend to study the whole Mishnah? Of course, that is certainly a good way to do it, as well as studying the Midrashim and other Mishnaic texts of the Tannaim, but – to be honest – I’m not there yet, and if I had to wait until I would be there, then I wouldn’t be able to write anything about the subject for years.
Instead, what I have thought about doing is to go through the Pirqey Avot, and each time a new Rabbi is mentioned, I’ll attempt to both tell a little about the Rabbi in subject, as well as pondering a little on the verses ascribed to him.
Of course, I know that the Pirqey Avot is summer reading, and that there are probably many other things I should be focusing on instead of this, but for me – who do like ethics – it is of interest to get to know the Sages. And for the novice to Judaism, it could be interesting, as well, to get an understanding of the Sages of the Mishnah. Also for others, such as the Christians, there could be interest in getting to know the Pharisees, who are so often mentioned in the Christian scriptures.
But, some may already now sit with questions after the little I’ve written here. What is Mishnah? What is Midrash? What is Pirqey Avot? And so on. Well, in order not to give too long an explanation here, I will attempt to explain briefly about the words mentioned, and then add them to a newly established dictionary, that can be found among the pages. From now on, when I mention new terms or the like, I will explain it in the post mentioned, and then add it to the dictionary (so one doesn’t have to look through the whole blog for explanations).
So here goes:
Midrash: Midrash (מדרש) is a variant of the word “D’rash” (דרש), which means to require, search, or seek (for example guidance), which can be translated as “homiletic exegesis”, attempting to get to a deeper understanding of the Biblical texts. It can both be used in classical context, in context of the Mishnah and Talmud, and in more modern contexts.
Mishnah: According to Rabbinical tradition, Moshe Rabenu, A”S, received both a Written and an Oral Torah on Mount Sinai. Whereas the Written Torah, which we know as the Five Books of Moshe Rabenu, A”S, was written down and copied, the Oral Torah was not. Instead it was passed from generation of Sages to the next generation, being given from Moshe Rabenu, A”S, till Yehoshu’a, A”S, and so on.
Unfortunately, in the second half of the second century according to Western time (CE), the need to write it down had grown too big, so hence R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, began the task, and the Oral tradition was written down around the end of the second century CE and the beginning of the third century CE.
The Mishnah (משנה) thus forms one half of “Torah”, the Divine Guidance given by G-D to Israel, via Moshe Rabenu, A”S, supplementing the Written Torah. Therefore one cannot read the Five Books, and then claim to understand the rulings, but needs to have them explained in the light of the Mishnah.
The Mishnah is parted in six “orders,” which are again parted in 63 tractates (in total).
For more on the Mishnah, please see my page on the Mishnah on Judaic Awareness.
Pirqey Avot: Pirqey Avot (פרקי אבות, Heb. for ‘Chapters of the Fathers’, but most often called ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ in English) is one of the tractates of the Mishnah, but where the other tractates deal mostly with legal matters, this tractate deals mostly with ethical issues.
Tanna: A Tanna (תנא, Heb. ‘repeaters,’ ‘teachers’) is a Mishnaic Rabbi, which means one who lived and taught from around 200 BCE until around 200 CE. All the Sages mentioned in the Mishnah are Tannaim.