The Mishnah is the primary text of the Oral Law and the basis upon which the Talmud is built. Written in Hebrew, it is studied by schoolchildren and scholars alike. With six sections (“orders”) it provides Torah guidance on virtually every area of Jewish religious, social, and family life. Curious to know more? Read these 10 facts about the Mishnah.

1. It Is the Basis of the Oral Torah

The Torah, given by G‑d to the Jewish nation through Moses, is divided into two primary sections: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah consists of the 24 books of Scripture (the first five of which are known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses). The Oral Torah explains the Written Torah and elaborates on the details of the 613 commandments.

The Mishnah is the primary compilation that serves as the base for most of the thousands of books that make up the Oral Torah.

Read: What Is the “Oral Torah”?

2. It Is the Product of 15 Centuries of Scholarship

Much of the Oral Torah was transmitted to Moses by G‑d Himself at Mt. Sinai. The rest is the handiwork of Torah scholars throughout the following three millennia (until today), empowered by G‑d to expound upon the Written Law using a precise set of guiding principles He dictated.

The Mishnah is an authoritative collection comprising much of the Oral Torah as it existed at the time of its compilation. It is the culmination of 1,500 years of Torah scholarship, beginning with the Giving of the Torah in 2448 (1313 BCE) until the conclusion of the Tannaic Era (see below) in c. 3949 (189 CE).

Read: Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis?

3. It Ensured the Survival of Jewish Life

The reason the Oral Torah is known by this name is because originally, it was not meant to be committed to writing. In the Temple era, young scholars would gather in the vast academies of the Land of Israel (and later in Babylonia) to study Jewish law from the great rabbis there. In this way, Jewish law was transmitted orally from one generation to the next with no need for written texts.

As long as Jewish scholarship was centralized and Jews lived in relative peace, the system worked. But with the destruction of the Second Temple in 3829 (69 CE) and the subsequent persecution by the Romans, this method of study was no longer viable. With Jews being hounded for studying and observing Torah, the academies all but ceased to operate. The Jewish way of life was in severe danger of being forgotten.

It was against this backdrop that a great leader arrived on the scene and compiled the Mishnah, thus preserving Jewish scholarship for all future generations.

Even after being committed to writing, the Oral Torah retained its original name.

Read: The History of the Mishnah

4. It Was Compiled by Rabbi Yehuda “the Prince”

This remarkable sage was Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, so called since he was the leader of the Jews at the time. He undertook the monumental task of organizing the colossal body of the Oral Law as it existed at that time into a single work that would be easy to memorize and review. This project made the Oral Law widely accessible, allowing it to be studied anywhere and everywhere. Torah study, crucial for Jewish survival, was thus preserved throughout the subsequent centuries of exile, hardships, and persecution.

Watch: Judah Hanasi as Educational Revolutionary

5. The Scholars It Cites Are Known as “Tanna’im”

The Mishnah cites teachings in the name of numerous expounders of Torah scholarship known as Tanna’im (“instructors”). These were the scholars of the great academies of the Land of Israel in the final centuries preceding the Mishnah’s compilation.

With the conclusion of the compilation, the era of the Tanna’im came to an end. Subsequent expositors of Jewish law are known as Amorai’m (“explainers”), the scholars who elaborated on the Mishnah and whose teachings are cited in the next great work of the Oral Law, the Talmud.

Read: The Seven Eras of Jewish Scholarship

6. It Is Split Into Six Sections

The Mishnah is divided into six general sections, known as sedarim (“orders”). Each section focuses on a particular aspect of Jewish life:

  1. Zera’im, “Seeds” (i.e., plants): Laws relating to agriculture in the land of Israel, such as separating tithes and giving part of the harvest to the poor. Also includes the laws of prayer and blessings.
  2. Mo’ed, “Times” (i.e., holidays): Laws relating to Shabbat and the festivals.
  3. Nashim, “Women”: Laws relating to the husband-wife relationship, such as marriage, divorce, and so on. Also includes the laws of vows.
  4. Nezikin, “Damages”: Laws relating to civil jurisprudence, penal law, and the Rabbinic courts. Also includes the laws of idolatry and “Ethics of the Fathers,” a compilation of Jewish morals and values.
  5. Kadashim, “Sacred Entities”: Laws relating to the Temple and its sacrifices. Also includes the laws of ritual slaughter and kosher food.
  6. Taharot, “Matters of Purity”: Laws of ritual purity and impurity (including family purity).

Watch: Tour of the Mishnah

7. It Is the Name of Both the Sum and Its Parts

Each of the six orders is divided into various mesichtot (“tractates), with each mesichta comprising several perakim (“chapters”). Every paragraph within these chapters is also referred to as a mishnah (pl. mishnayot). So if you were to ask your colleague, “Would you like to study Mishnah together?” the response might be, “Sure! Which mishnah should we tackle first?”

Read: 13 Facts About Learning Torah

8. Two Talmuds Expound on It

The Mishnah was written in a highly concise fashion; numerous laws are alluded to in the specific word and lettering choices. The Amora’im, the sages of the Talmud, expounded on the Mishnah and also taught new laws. Drawing also from other works of the Mishnaic period (such as the beraitot and midrashim), this formed the basis of the two foundational texts known as Talmud: the Jerusalem Talmud (written in the Land of Israel in the 4th century CE) and its more authoritative counterpart, the Babylonian Talmud (completed in Babylonia about 150 years later).

Read: What Is the Talmud?

9. Its Commentaries Include Maimonides’ First Major Work

Maimonides is famous for his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, and for his philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim, “Guide for the Perplexed.” His first work, however, was a commentary on the Mishnah written in Arabic. It was an endeavor that spanned continents: Maimonides began writing it in Spain and continued while escaping persecution in his homeland and later in Morocco, until finding refuge in Egypt, where he completed his commentary.

Read: Maimonides: His Life and Works

Other well-known works on the Mishnah include the commentary of the Italian sage Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura (1455-1520), and “Tosafot Yom Tov,” written some 150 years later by the Bohemian scholar Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller.

Today, the Mishnah has been translated into numerous languages and is accessible by Jews of any background or academic level.

Study the Mishnah in English

10. It Carries Immense Spiritual Power

The tremendous spiritual power of the Mishnah has led to the practice of committing sections of it to memory and repeating them whenever and wherever possible (such as when walking down the street), thus injecting purity and sanctity into the world’s atmosphere.

In addition, the Hebrew word Mishnah (משנה) contains the same letters as the word neshamah (נשמה, “soul”). It is therefore customary to study Mishnah in the merit of a departed loved one—especially during the year following their passing and on each subsequent yahrtzeit—thereby bringing elevation to their soul.

Study Mishnah for a Loved One’s Yahrtzeit