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How the Mishnah was Compiled

Rav Sherira Gaon (906-1006), the head of the rabbinic academy at Pumpeditha in Babylon, was the first scholar to write a systematic account of the composition of the Mishnah, the authoritative collection of Oral Law produced at the end of the 2nd century.

In the passage quoted here, he explains why the Mishnah preserved minority as well as majority opinions. He then discusses why the Oral Law was compiled and the organizing principles of each of its sections (or "tractates").






The greatest of all Rabbi Akiva's students was Rabbi Meir, as we learn in [Tractate] Eruvin: "Rav Aøa ben Øanina said, 'It is revealed and known before Him Who spoke and the world came into existence, that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was none equal to him. Then why was not the halakhah fixed in agreement with his views? Because his colleagues could not fathom the depths of his mind, for he would declare the ritually unclean to be clean, and the ritually clean to be unclean, and he would supply plausible proof." Therefore Rabbi Akiva was fond of him and ordained him in his youth.

In his halakhot Rabbi chose the way [of teaching] of Rabbi Meir, which was the way of Rabbi Akiva because Rabbi saw that Rabbi Meir's way was succinct and easy to teach. His statements were well composed, each topic [placed] with that which was similar to it. His teachings were more exact than those of any of the other tannaim, without superfluous language. Each word makes a vital point without unnecessary exaggeration. Nothing was missing or extra, except in a few instances. The way [of presentation] was concise. Great and wondrous things were included in every single word. Not everyone who is learned knows how to create such a composition, as it is said: "A man may arrange his thoughts, but what he says depends on God" [Proverbs 16:1]. All the rabbis shared the same underlying principles; nevertheless, since Rabbi Akiva possessed a broad heart and his disciple Rabbi Meir also possessed a broad heart, they arranged [the material] in an excellent manner, and they were preferable to all the other tannaim.

Therefore, Rabbi gathered [their arrangement]. To it he added [halakhot] that were [formulated] in his time. He arranged it as he saw fit. He also explained the essence and the main principles behind disputes of the rabbis. Since there were rabbis who had heard from great sages a different opinion [from that in the Mishnah] or who taught minority opinions anonymously, if someone heard about this he could become confused [when studying the Mishnah]. [But] when Rabbi explained the matter, no doubt [regarding the halakhah] could set in. Thus we learn in the Mishnah. Rabbi Judah said: "Why is the opinion of the minority recorded along with the majority? In order to nullify it, so that if a man says this, [one can] say to him: 'Where did you hear this?' If he replies: 'I received it [as a tradition from my teachers],' one can say to him: 'Perhaps what you heard was the opinion of so-and-so.'"

When everybody saw the form of the Mishnah, the truthfulness of its teachings, and the exactness of its words, they abandoned their previous formulations and compilations. These halakhot were disseminated throughout the Jewish people, while the other halakhot were shunted aside. . . . However, the Jewish people gave [only] these halakhot [binding] authority. They accepted it faithfully when they saw it, and no one has disputed its authority.

Using this approach [of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir], Rabbi arranged the six orders of the Mishnah. This does not mean that the more numerous earlier sages were abandoned for the later ones. Rather, the earlier sages had no need for compiled material and the things that we learn by memory. Every single one of the [earlier] rabbis knew these things through a chain of transmission. They had no need to compile them and write them down among themselves until the Temple's destruction. Then came [these earlier sages'] students, who were not as knowledgeable, and found it necessary to make compilations...

Therefore Rabbi had to compile and arrange the six orders of the Mishnah after a respite of two generations from the persecutions that took place during the Temple's destruction..

When Rabbi arranged the Mishnah he did not place the tractates in a specific order, one after another. [Rather] he arranged [and taught] each tractate separately in whatever order was convenient for him. We do not know which he taught first. However, the halakhot [in each chapter] and the chapters of each tractate were arranged in a specific order.