The word "mishnah" means repetition, and that's what the Mishnah originally was: Oral Torah, learned through repetition. Sometime around the year 200 of the Common Era, Yehuda ha Nasi orchestrated the compilation of these formerly-oral teachings in print. In Rabbi Judith Abrams' words:
When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jewish people were devastated spiritually and emotionally. In addition, after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E., the Jews of the Land of Israel were subjugated militarily and politically by the Roman conquerors. What does a people do when they are defeated spiritually, emotionally, physically, and politically?
They dream. Powerless to change the world in which they live, they imagine an orderly, meaningful world in which human relations, commerce, and politics run according to tidy paradigms. This is precisely what the sages did. The document they formulated to express this neat world vision is called the Mishnah. It is spare, rhythmic, clearly organized, and idealistic; in a word, poetry.
Usually Mishnah is called the first code of Jewish law, but as my rabbi pointed out to me, it doesn't exactly match what we think of as a law code. (Imagine, if you will, a Massachusetts state law that began, "What do we do upon reaching a red light? Stop entirely; this is the opinion of Joe. Jane says that a rolling stop is acceptable. In the opinion of Sue, the answer depends on whether there are other cars on the road. Once, Joe's sons were coming home from a party in the middle of the night, and they admitted to their father that they had neglected to stop at a stop sign...") Mishnah is less a code of law, in the modern sense, than it is a collection of authorized tradition about how to do mitzvot.
And yesterday I began my formal study of it, with my rabbi, which was awesome. We spent our hour on the first mishna (when not capitalized, the word means the first teaching) of the first perek (chapter) of the first tractate (volume) in seder Zera'im, the order concerning seeds. The first tractate in Seeds is called Berachot -- "Blessings." (Why do teachings on prayer belong in the book of seeds? Beats me. One theory is that seeds relate to agriculture, and therefore to food, and what do we do over food but bless it? If you have other explanations, I'd love to hear them.)
I'm really excited about beginning this process. The Hebrew is simple (and, as R' Judy notes, a kind of prose poetry) and the subject matter is fascinating. And even more fascinating are the tidbits I can begin to glean about what mattered to our sages almost two thousand years ago. The first mishna of Berachot begins with the question, "From when does one recite Shema in the evening?" The answers are intimately tied to the cycle of offerings in the Temple...even though, at the time when this was written, there had been no Temple sacrifices within living memory. What can we learn from their decision to ground this conversation in that history? How does avodah she-ba-lev (the service of the heart) relate to the avodah (service) once performed by priests at the altar? These are the kinds of questions I look forward to exploring.
Starting my Mishnah learning was sweet on another level, too: for an hour or so, it took my mind off of the fact that I continue to be a medical mystery. I look forward to where this study will lead me, and for now, I'm saying a fervent shehecheyanu for the blessing of this beginning. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Source of all things, who has kept me alive, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment!