A law code brought to closure ca. 200 CE, the Mishnah is the first document of rabbinic Judaism. Its material is arranged by topic rather than by names of authorities; this system suggests that through order, through the reordering of Israelite life, Israel attains that sanctification which inheres in its very being. The Mishnah is presented in six divisions, embracing sixty‐three tractates and 531 chapters, and it encompasses six broad topics.

Agriculture (Zeraʿim)

. The primary interest of the Mishnah regarding farming encompasses the ways in which farmers should do their work in accord with the rules of sanctification contained within the Torah. Sanctification involved observing the rules of classification, that is, not mixing diverse seeds, substances, or species.

Appointed Times (Moʿed)

. The second division of the Mishnah deals generally with holy days in the Temple and local village. The basic principle is that what is permitted in one place is forbidden in the other.

Women (Našim)

. The third division concerns the sanctification of the family, with special reference to the holiness of the relationship between women and men. The basic interest is in those points in a woman's life when she passes from the domain of one man, ordinarily the father, to that of another, the husband.

Damages (Neziqin)

. The fourth division of the Mishnah deals with political questions: first, institutions of government, and second, resolving questions of conflict, aggression, and property rights so as to preserve the stability of an economy of perfection. Objects have a fixed and intrinsic value, and in commerce that intrinsic worth must govern exchange so that no one will gain more or less.

Holy Things and Purities

. The fifth division (Qodašim) deals with sacrifices that are offered regularly, every day, as distinct from those that are prepared on special occasions, for appointed times. The sixth division (ṭoharot) concerns purity and impurity. Both relate to the Temple and its cult, though the purview of the purity laws is the home as much as the Temple. The sixth deals with three matters: sources of uncleanness, objects and substances that are susceptible to uncleanness, and modes of purification from uncleanness. Sources of contamination, listed mainly in Leviticus 11–15, break the natural balance and order of creation. Also subject to the rules of cultic uncleanness are utensils used in the home, as well as food and drink. Tractates on what is affected by uncleanness are Kelim, for utensils, ṭoharot and ʿUq⊡in for food and drink; tractates on modes of purification are Para, on making the purification water mentioned in Numbers 19, and Miqwaʾot, on purification water.

See also Interpretation, History of, article on Jewish Interpretation; Purity, Ritual; Talmud


Jacob Neusner