Ze’ev Safrai, Bar-Ilan University
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.
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 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.