By: Zach Beer  | 

Revitalizing the Mishna’s Soul: A Review of “The Soul of the Mishna”

In our lives as Jews and as students of Torah, we often rely on commentaries to guide us through various texts. We can readily pull up memories of a fantastic Rashi on the Torah or Gemara that elucidates the section at hand. We also can think of many contemporary commentators and translations, such as Soncino, Artscroll and Koren, on just the Gemara alone. 

In all of these translations and layers of commentary, the central points and meanings of texts are sometimes lost. This is unfortunately true of one of the foundational texts of limmud Torah, the Mishna. Often buried under the sea of Gemara, it is often relegated to study for fourth and fifth graders and is rarely understood on its own terms. 

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen’s “The Soul of the Mishna” challenges this trend, tackling the Mishna as a unique and independent text. Rabbi Nagen brings forth an approach that combines traditional, literary, academic and mystical readings and understandings of the Mishna, and overall represents a radical new methodology. On a myriad of occasions, he shows how the structure of the Mishna in and of itself prefigures later developments and interpretations in the Gemara, as well as later interpretations and practices. 

One standout example of his work is in the book’s chapter on the tenth perek of Masechet Pesachim, particularly the mishnayot which lay out the course of the seder night, many of which found their way into the Haggadah itself. Through a comparison of the common printing of the Mishna and some alternative manuscripts, Rabbi Nagen develops a profound explanation of Rabbi Gamliel’s famous words, “Anyone who did not say these three matters on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: The Paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herbs.” 

At first glance, this section is separate from the requirement of the Mishna to praise God for the salvation of the Exodus. However, through his analysis, Rabbi Nagen demonstrates that this requirement actually stems from a close reading of the commandment to celebrate Pesach in Exodus 12. He also demonstrates that the later Mishnayot in the chapter actually follow the same framework demonstrated in the passage from the Torah. Furthermore, he uncovers Rabbi Gamliel’s chiddush in the matter: The Mishna expands the Torah’s commandment to retell the story of Exodus from merely a rote halachic explanation of the Korban Pesach to an intense exploration of the many aspects of the seder night – the lamb for sure, but also the matzah, the marror and the story of the Exodus. 

Despite this high praise, there are some places where “The Soul of the Mishna” falls short. Firstly, it is focused more heavily on Seder Moed and Masechet Berachot than any other part of the Mishnaic canon. It would have been great intellectually and educationally to show the Mishna’s profundity and literary structure outside of typically learned mishnayot. This is especially true regarding the sedarim of Kodshim and Taharot, to which only one chapter is devoted. Additionally, some of Rabbi Nagen’s explanations of the Mishna can occasionally veer into what could charitably be called a “short vort” on a mishna, as opposed to a full-blown analysis of the Mishna at hand or a unique perspective on the Mishna as he does in some other chapters.

Regardless, “The Soul of the Mishna” is a must-read for any serious student of the Mishna, and for any Jew looking to plumb the depths of Chazal’s thought and profundity more deeply.

Photo Caption: A page of Mishna

Photo Credit: Zach Beer