Off the Shelf: The spiritual side of the Mishna

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Study is considered a spiritual practice in Judaism. Most people study either the biblical text (and the midrashic – rabbinic stories – about that text) or the Talmud. Since the Talmud includes much of the text that appears in the Mishna, fewer study the latter text on its own. That’s also partly because it’s not usually considered a spiritual text in the same way the other two major texts are. However, Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen, the senior rabbi at the Otniel Yeshiva in Israel and director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beit Midrash for Judaim and Humanity, believes otherwise. That’s the premise of his work “The Soul of the Mishna” (Yeshivat Otniel/Maggid Books). Nagen notes that “when we approach the Mishna with an understanding of its inherent importance and with an awareness of halakha’s spiritual implications, we can encounter its soul.” By looking more closely at the text, the author uncovers the spiritual lessons it teaches. 

Readers should note that “The Soul of the Mishna” is not a work for beginners: it doesn’t contain a historical explanation of the Mishna or tell how it developed. The author assumes that readers will already have some familiarity with the text. What Nagen does do is look at specific texts throughout the Mishna in order to explore what they teach not just about the law under discussion, but the important life lessons underlying that law. 

For example, when discussing Berakhot 1:2, he notes that the rabbis were trying to determine when it was light enough to recite the morning Shema. The text focused on the need for there to be enough light to distinguish between different types of objects or people. Nagan mentions a discussion in the Talmud about the Mishna where the rabbis speak about distinguishing between different types of animals. There is a spiritual reason behind that discussion: “Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva chose to reference [being able to distinguish between] only pairs of species that consist of one wild animal and one domesticated animal. Symbolically speaking, this means that the time for the mitzva whose import is accepting the yoke of heaven is based on the time when one can distinguish between animals that appear similar but have an essential difference: One has a master and the other does not.” Therefore, when someone says the Shema at the appropriate time, they are like the domesticated animal: they acknowledge their commitment to God by reciting the Shema. By doing this, they also affirm their love of God. 

A beautiful interpretation of the text can be found in the discussion of Pe’ah 5:6, which looks at the biblical commandment to leave the corners of one’s fields for the poor. Nagen sees the Mishna text as “reflecting that the corner of the field is the property of the poor person rather than the owner of the field.” This means the owner is not giving something to the poor; the poor are taking what rightly belongs to them. Those fulfilling the commandment are acknowledging that they have no more right to the field than the poor: everything belongs to God. Nagen continues this discussion by showing how the lesson taught by this Mishna is still relevant in today’s society. 

While most of the commentary is impersonal, Nagen periodically offers a story from his own life. When the son of a friend died in a shooting, those attending his yeshiva did not feel that they should focus on their current study text. Instead, they looked at Berakhot 3:1, which discusses what a mourner can and can’t do before their loved one is buried. Mourners do not have to say the daily prayers, which are usually mandatory. Nagen notes, “Our studies sparked a fascinating debate.... Some saw the exemption as a way of honoring the deceased by showing that the mourner is devoted exclusively to them. Others suggested that when a person is grappling on a personal level with the most difficult questions regarding faith, evil, and the existence of death in the world, they should not be forced to make declarations and recite prayers that they might not fully identify with.... One student, Aharon Zeff, put forward a novel interpretation... The purpose of praying and accepting the yoke of heaven, he said, was to connect us to God. But when our dead lies before us, we do not need those means for connection to God, for He is right there in front of us.” Nagen writes how this resonated with those from the yeshiva who attended the funeral; it also helped them feel God’s presence even though they were in pain. 

A few of Nagen’s interpretations were not completely convincing, although they always were interesting. That is a quibble, though, for a work that will appeal to anyone looking to increase the spirituality of their study and seeking further insights into the Mishna text. While knowledge of, and previous experience with, the Mishna is definitely helpful, other readers may also find themselves intrigued by “The Soul of the Mishna.”