[b-hebrew] WHY WAS THE MISHNAH WRITTEN DOWN? Was previously: Motivation for Vocalizing the Hebrew Old TestamentText

Ishinan ishinan at comcast.net
Sun Apr 11 03:15:17 EDT 2010

[RANDALL BUTH] - Your general motivations seem in the right direction but 
they don't explain an 1100-year gap. Why did it take from 400 BCE to 700 CE 
for the vowels and tunes to be recorded?

[ISHINAN] -  Apparently this can be blamed on a trend that had existed for a 
longtime among some members of the priesthood.  They resisted writing down 
the "Oral Torah", let alone any attempt at its vocalization, leaving the 
process to be conveyed by word of mouth and memorized from teacher to 
student. In fact, didn't Rabbi ?iyya denounce every attempt to collect and 
commit Oral Torah to writing, and upon seeing such a collection he cursed 
the hand that wrote it?  I guess the same may be applied to the written law. 
This trend rapidly dissipated in front of the rapid spread of the Plague of 
Justinian, which centuries later became infamous for either causing or 
contributing to the black death.

The plague began in 540, when people first fell ill in Pelsium east of the 
Egyptian Delta.  Within a month, traders and itinerant scholars carried the 
disease to Alexandria and Palestine. The Historian Procopius of Caesarea, 
said that in the Spring of 542 the death toll in Constantinople alone, had 
reached 10,000 a day. By the year 600, the plague had reduced the population 
of the Mediterranean world by 40%. Such a massive mortality rate caused 
depopulation of the urban centers and created a structural imbalance in the 
society.  One can easily understand that, under such a pandemic threat, the 
motivation for vocalizing the Hebrew Old Testament text for future 
generation became highly imperative.

[RANDALL BUTH] - There is a related question that should be included. Why 
was the oral, unwritten law, written down? One reason is the natural 
capacity of a community to preserve an oral literature was reached. The 
Mishnah appears to be written down at a time when the tannaim were being 
stretched to the limit of their abilities to memorize vast amounts of text.

[ISHINAN] - In exploring the logical principles underlying the Mishnah's 
original intention, many considerations seem to come into play.

For example, there were a great many dissensions taking hold in the 
religious community.  During this time, "Beit Hillel" and "Beit Shammai" 
came to represent two distinct perspectives on Jewish law, and they bitterly 
engaged in endless heated disagreements.   Until then there had been few 
disagreements among Rabbinic scholars.  Jose ben Halafta, who was opposed to 
their controversy, declared that the antagonism between the schools of 
Shammai and Hillel made it seem as if there were two Torahs.

In addition, during this time, the Kohanim of the Temple became increasingly 
corrupt, while the office of the Kohen Gadol himself was rented out to the 
highest bidder and the priests routinely extorted as much as they could from 
the pilgrims who came to sacrifice at the Temple. Many of them were seen as 
collaborators with the Romans. The conflict between the high priesthood and 
the people led to the split between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

This antagonism exposed different understandings by the community of the 
"Oral Torah", and consequently led to differences in their practical 

Furthermore, according to Rav Sherira Gaon in his Iggeret (1)*, the 
persecution of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple and subsequent 
upheaval raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions 
would be forgotten. To continue on this path would have led to disastrous 

Fearing that the oral traditions were seriously undermined, Judah HaNasi, 
best known as the chief redactor and editor, undertook the mission of 
compiling oral traditions in what became known as the Mishnah *(2).

Best regards,

Ishinan Ishibashi


*(1) IGGERET:   A comprehensive history of the composition of the Talmud and 
inquiry into the origin of the Mishnah and the sequence of the redactions, 
throwing light upon many obscure passages of Jewish history.

*(2) The Mishnah was assembled spanned about 130 years, and five 
generations. The Tannaim whom approximately 120 are known who contributed to 
the Mishnah helped the collection of existing oral laws, traditions and 
traditional wisdom. Their work excluded the development of any new laws

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