Mishnat Eretz Israel by the late Prof. Shmuel Safrai and Prof. Ze’ev Safrai

The Mishna is a basic text of the Oral Law, “An iron pillar – that is the Mishna” and it’s is hard to exaggerate its importance to Jewish history, culture and religion. Although the halakha was not determined solely on the basis of the Mishna, it is impossible to understand the construct of halakha without understanding of the foundation on which halakha was created, and Mishna’s vision.

The idea of writing a historical-scientific and social commentary on the Mishna grew out of dozens of study discussions in various contexts. We felt that it is necessary due the situation and achievements of contemporary study of this text. Although the Mishna has been studied for generations, it was seen for the most part as part of the Gemara, and was studied as though it was the first line of each Talmudic passage (Sugia).

The Oral Law has been studied for many generations, and in the past four or five generations a new scientific method of “Jewish Studies,” using philological and historical study and research, has offered new and different work tools. The commentary of Mishnat Eretz Israel tries to combine all these methods into one approach that will make it possible to understand the literal meaning of the Mishna.

The Mishna was written on the background of the Land of Israel and what took place there, as the Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yehiel, who lived in Germany and Spain in the 13th-14th centuries) said: “But the Mishna is studied in the Land of Israel”, but the Jews were uprooted and became distant from their land. The Mishna became a cornerstone of the magnificent halakhic structure, but the realistic backdrop that it reflects – the geography of the country, the everyday tools, the political situation, the social background and the history of the nation – became marginal, unfamiliar and alien.

In our generation we have had the privilege of returning to the land and getting to know it once again. The historical and archaeological research has deepened and expanded, and at the same time we have found additional manuscripts of the Mishna. And we have taken upon ourselves to present the Mishna from a context of the historical, social and realistic background of its creation.

Contemporary halakha has already gone beyond the Mishna. Today’s decisors of halakha do not begin with explaining the Mishna, they begin with more advanced “stories” of clarifying details, and the views of the Rishonim concerning them. Still, in the world of Torah study, the Mishna is still the foundation for all the other texts, and scholars throughout history considered themselves interpreters of the Mishna.

The contemporary student of halakha is an educated person who knows something about the world, is familiar with social structures, and sometimes is also aware of comparisons with the non-Talmudic legal world. We are presenting to him the ancient world, the social structure, with the basic ethical assumptions that prevailed in Jewish society. For example, if the Sages describe idolatry, we will examine the nature of that idolatry and how the Gentiles described it in their literature. If the Sages determined the laws of fraud, we will try to clarify the nature of the economic world on which that halakha was based. If they determined the laws of the Ketuba, what was the social significance of the sum of money, why was it chosen? And what was the divorced woman supposed to do after being divorced?

In addition, other questions come up in our commentary that the traditional commentaries, in an attempt to clarify the halakha, did not see fit to address. For example, when does the halakha reflect the reality (and what is the reality?) and when do the Sages want to shape Jewish society according to their vision? Do they sometimes present a utopian halakha that may perhaps be implemented only generations in the future? For example, is the rule that “land cannot be stolen” a social reality that the Sages are familiar with, or on the contrary, is it a vision of how things should be, a vision that is eroded by the reality.

We believe that with this method of study we are both making the Mishna accessible to the educated modern student, and also deepening the understanding of the Mishna, while taking advantage of achievements in research in the fields of history, philology and archaeology, as well as  social insights.

Certainly the Mishna cannot be explained without the traditional Talmudic commentaries (the BT and even more the PT), and the voluminous interpretative literature. But it is not sufficient. The contemporary student wants not only to understand the halakhic idea, but also the reality, the tools and the social examples…

To give a simple explanation we will cite one example:

a. The first Mishna in the Tractate Berakhot states: “From when do we read the Shema in the evening – from the time that the priests go in to eat their heave offering.” The traditional commentary focused on the halakhic question, at what time should the Kriat Shema be read, a practical question that every Jew wonders about, or should wonder about, every evening.

The commentary of the Mishnat Eretz Israel focused on the questions of the realistic background. When did ordinary people eat their meal, what was special about the priests, what was their social status? And what were the customs of ritual purity and eating that were unique to them? What did the Jewish village look like towards evening, and what was the role of the priests in the social fabric?

We tried to examine the development of the halakha, when was the reciting of Kriat Shema decided, how was it organized, did the entire community observe the commandment and when? Was it usual to read the Kriat Shema in the synagogue or in the individual’s home? As we know, Beit Shammai taught that everyone should read the Shema in the evening when he went to sleep, and in the morning when he awoke. In that case, according to them the Kriat Shema is an individual prayer and it has no place in the synagogue. Our custom of reciting the Kriat Shema as part of the public prayer in the synagogue is a halakha of Beit Hillel. The commentary we offer clarifies when the halakha of Beit Hillel was accepted, and what people did before the halakha was decided.

In addition to the commentary on site, we have brought appendixes in every tractate, some of them related to the rationale of the halakha. Among the subjects in the appendixes: Torah study in the open field, the 39 main types of labor forbidden on Shabbat, the attitude of the Sages to Greek and Roman leisure time culture; measurements (beitza [an egg], kezayit [like an olive], seah]; pikuakh nefesh (a danger to life), the confession of the High Priest; Hebrew and Aramaic in the Temple; enforcement of religious observance; the culture of holy sites; the national fight over the land; ritual purity, the Temple, the pilgrimage to the Temple, and the economy; the attitude toward mysticism; the culture of debate and decision and more.

In explicating the text of the Mishna we used the Kaufmann manuscript, which is the best version we have of the Mishna. This is a manuscript that preserved much of the tradition of the Land of Israel version and the spelling unique to the country. Alongside it we displayed the Naples edition, which is the first printed version, as representing the traditional method of study. We did not deal with explicating the text itself. We are certain that it is important to so for the purpose of studying the language and the spelling, and indirectly of course for clarifying the content. But we decided to narrow our focus and to leave that to professionals who specialize in studying the different versions of the text.

The Mishnat Eretz Israel commentary is a breakthrough in the study of the initial halakhic text in the Mishna. Academicians are for the most part overly committed to textual criticism and for two or three generations the hidden treasure of the halakhic and study-oriented creativity has dried up by being consigned to tables and charts. On the other hand, students of Torah in the various traditional study halls have devoted themselves to the study of halakha divorced from the historical, social, linguistic, geographical knowledge that has accumulated.

On the one hand, we are breaking the study paradigms, and therefore each of the schools of study find our method hard to digest for. On the other hand, this is precisely a link between the halakha at its inception and the world of the modern student.

Mishnat Eretz Israel is a historical-social commentary on the Mishna that is the lifetime project of the Safrai family. The project was started by my father (the late Rabbi and Professor Shmuel Safrai) and myself. At a certain point my sister Prof. Chana Safrai joined us. At first the Lifschitz College assumed responsibility for publishing the project. After Lifschitz merged with the Herzog Academic College of Education, Herzog took on the responsibility of continuing the project and enriched it by means of meticulous scientific Talmudic editing. Two volumes were published by Bar Ilan University.

After the passing of my father (2003) and my sister (2008) I have carried on with the initiative, with the occasional assistance of additional scholars. The entire project will include 55 volumes. In 2008 we began to publish the volumes, and to date 23 have been published, including Seder Zeraim and Seder Moed, as well as the tractates Ketubot and Abot. At present, in 2019, the manuscript is completed and ready, and we are in the process of editing another six volumes at the same time.

We are interested in posting a beta version of the commentary on all the volumes on the internet, starting this year.

For the digital edition of the order Taharot (טהרות) on Kotar, see here.

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