Joseph Heinemann
Professor Heinemann, author of Aggadot VeToledoteihem (inter. alia.) wrote this essay nearly forty years ago. It was originally published in Ma'ayanot; Jewish Teacher's Companion vol. I: General Jewish Subjects (Jerusalem: Torah Education and Culture Department, 1960)
Ten Da'at, A Journal of Jewish Education, vol. X:1, Adar 5757, Spring 1997

Key words: Mishnah, methods,

Under conditions prevailing today in all Western countries, where the claims of a general secular education can no longer by disputed, Jewish education is limited mostly to a bare minimum, especially as far as the vast field of Talmudic and rabbinic literature is concerned. Except in the case of students who continue their studies in yeshivot, the goal of mastering the ability to study Talmud independently has long been abandoned. Even so, many Jewish schools will insist, rightly, that their students should study Talmudic literature; and if the aim is no longer Talmudic scholarship in the full sense, it is at least to provide some acquaintance with, and insight into the world of Halachah (and to a lesser extent of Aggadah), without which no understanding of the values of historical Judaism is possible.

When Talmudic literature takes its place as one of many subjects in a crowded syllabus, its teaching requires new approaches. The methods of the heder of old, which served its purpose when the Talmud and its study were the exclusive object of interest in the student's life and in that of his elders, are no longer applicable. For one thing, they are uneconomical where time is limited; far more rapid progress can be made by using a systematic approach and modern methods. For another, the needs and the attitude of the pupil of today have changed radically; and where the heder could, as it were, envelop the student and draw him bodily into the world of the Talmud, the modern Jewish school must prepare its pupils mentally and first arouse in them some willingness to enter into what is to them a strange world.

Today's students are trained to a critical, independent attitude. They will not take the Talmud for granted, but will need to be convinced of the need to study it, of its value and meaning for them; hence they must be taught not just the ability of reading Talmud, but of appreciating it and assimilating it into their own system of ideas and values.

The first and most elementary conclusion which follows from these general considerations is the importance of the choice of the material to be taught, its grading and its order. And here we state unhesitatingly, that under the conditions of today the teaching of Mishnah must occupy an important place, and in the first years of study even the central one. That systematic study of Mishnah should precede study of Gemara has been advocated even in past centuries by important authorities; today no other course is feasible. In the Mishnah alone of all the great works of the Torah shebe'al peh the material is arranged in a clear and systematic fashion; it alone presents a survey of a complete field of Halachah within a not too lengthy tractate, which can be studied in its entirety in a reasonable period of time. It alone offers a comprehensive picture of an entire subject, reduced to its essentials, unburdened with involved and confusing discussions and debates. Hence it is naturally suited to serve as the key to Talmudic literature in general; to provide a first, yet extensive acquaintance with the world of Halachah, and to lay the foundations on which, later, study of the Gemara may be built.

In addition, the Mishnah possesses other decisive advantages where teaching beginners is concerned. It is written in clear, precise language; though sometimes concise, it is rarely obscure. Moreover, that language is pure Hebrew; and though for students in the Diaspora, Hebrew, too, is a foreign tongue and as such presents no small difficulty, we can and must avoid, at least in the initial stages of study, confronting the student with two foreign languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, at the same time. There is no need to enlarge here on the special problems of Talmudic Aramaic. It is obvious, nonetheless, that where Hebrew itself has barely been acquired and certainly not yet mastered, the introduction of the highly technical and involved Aramaic of the Talmud on top of all other obstacles to be faced by the beginner will present insurmountable difficulties.

Thus a prolonged course in Mishnah is the only way in which we may attain what must be our main objectives in the first stage of teaching Talmudic literature: to provide knowledge and understanding of a fairly wide selection of the Halachah and, at the same time, to prepare our students gradually and systematically for the study of Gemara and of other branches of Halachah and Aggadah.

However, even in the case of advanced students who already study Talmud, the study of Mishnah should not be abandoned. It is still needed to add breadth and perspective to Talmudic studies which will otherwise, because of the limited time at his disposal, enable the student to learn in the course of perhaps a year no more than one single department of the Halachah. Even in the best of cases we shall achieve no more, outside the yeshivot, than to teach some three or four perakim of Gemara in all; the knowledge of some two chapters of Jewish civil law and two more, say, of divorce law, however, can hardly be considered sufficient equipment for young Jews who must live as Jews and be aware of the meaning of their Jewishness in an alien world. They must receive a more comprehensive knowledge of the main fields of Halachah, and what cannot be done by studying a further two or three perakim of Gemara can be done by studying, during the same period of time, some 30 or 40 chapters of Mishnah. These should be selected with a view to giving as comprehensive a picture of Jewish law and life as possible. They should, of course, include a representative selection from Seder Mo'ed, but other fields, including Zera'im, should not be ignored. It is especially important in our view that in preparation for studying a perek or sugya of Gemara, the Mishnah of that entire tractate (or at least the relevant parts of it) should be taught. Only thus will the pupil be enabled to see the special problem studied in its broader setting and really appreciate its significance.

If the teaching of Mishnah is to be given so prominent a part in Jewish studies, the question of method arises with yet greater force. Unless taught in a suitable way, study of Mishnah will neither provide a genuine preparation for the study of Talmud, nor even arouse and hold the interest of the student at all. For the study of Mishnah presents problems of its own. Where Gemara is too involved and complicated for the beginner, the Mishnah may be too dry and monotonous. Bare statements of law, following one upon another, are unlikely to create interest, nor do they provide an easy opportunity for active mental participation of students in the lesson. Where the Gemara presents an overabundance of problems with which the students must struggle, the Mishnah provides too few. Hence we must teach Mishnah in such a way as to create problems for the student to solve. He should not merely passively absorb items of knowledge, but we must lead him to discover difficulties whose solution requires mental effort. At the same time we must provide him with the tools and methods with which to tackle them.

In other words, we must introduce, though not the text of the Gemara, something of its approach and its spirit: careful analysis of each Halachah, not taking anything for granted, examining each possible explanation in turn, weighing the arguments in favor and against, etc. whether we choose our material from an actual Talmudic passage or not, we shall in this way teach our students the first element of the Talmudic way of thinking. If, in addition, we gradually introduce some Talmudic terminology and, eventually, first selected passages from the Talmud, we shall achieve both our objectives: to enliven the study of the Mishnah itself, and to utilize it as a preliminary for the study of Talmud, at a later stage.

All this leads to the inevitable conclusion that in teaching Mishnah it is not enough to teach the vocabulary, explain the contents, and go on to the following Halachah. Those are no more than preliminaries; they must be followed by the discussion of a specific subject, involving the raising of problems and their eventual solution, through the effort of the students themselves guided, of course, by the teacher. In each chapter, some two or three such major "subjects," each of which will take up one or two lessons, might be developed. In addition, a few smaller points might be brought up for discussion. The "development" of these central subjects, which in effect form the real contents of the lesson, will require additional material or reading of additional sources in most cases.

The teacher should look upon the Mishnayot themselves as the foundation on which he builds up a whole theme, in a way similar to that used by most teachers when teaching Humash, where two or three verses often provide the opportunity for the lengthy treatment of a much wider subject. It is suggested, in fact, that the Mishnah should be used as a text, on the foundation of which a wide range of subjects might be taught: chapters in the development of Jewish law and life; material from Jewish history, especially concerning some of the outstanding personalities of the Tanaitic period; halachic discussions (selected carefully) from the Talmud or from later rabbinic works; and, above all, points arising from a careful examination of the Mishnah itself, its ways and methods, from the comparison with complementary or contradictory passages elsewhere, from attention to its style and diction, etc.

Let us now illustrate some further points by means of examples drawn from different tractates:

1. The systematic use of Mishnah study as preparation for Gemara
Apart from the fact that Mishnah study inevitably puts the student in possession of a wide range of halachic terms and concepts, we can and must introduce him to Gemara gradually by two specific means:

(a) The introduction of problems raised in the Talmud and their solution without recourse to the text of the Gemara;
(b) by introducing short selected passages from the Gemara.

This can be done by either writing them out on the blackboard or by preparing stenciled texts. [N.B.: This essay was published in 1960!] We do not think it necessary to give examples of this latter method; the possibilities are practically unlimited. It should, of course, be borne in mind that only simple passages should be used at this stage, containing no more than one problem and its solution at the time. Moreover, this problem should arise actually out of the Mishnah itself. Passages of the type used in the first volume of Talmud LaTalmid would be suitable for this purpose. (Y.A. Efrati, Y. Burganski: Talmud LaTalmid (Jerusalem: Torah Education Department, 1958)]

Concerning the treatment of Talmudic problems without using the text of the Gemara, we want to give a few examples. The most simple type of Talmudic problem which can be taught in this way is the problem of contradictions - apparent or real - between different Mishnayot, and their solutions. Thus a comparison between Mishnayot Baba Metzi'a 1:1 and Shavuot 8:5 leads naturally to the question: Lima matnita dela keven nanas nor does its solution present difficulties, but can be arrived at by the students after a brief discussion stressing the differences between the two cases and drawing attention to the way in which the oath in Baba Metzi'a is formulated.

Similarly, a comparison between Berakhot 1:1 and Megillah 2:6 will lead us to the conclusion: mi sheshana zo lo shana zo. In Baba Metzi'a 7:1 and also elsewhere, the question: ma'aseh listor? Arises naturally. IN Baba Metzi'a 2:10 the question of the Talmud pointing out the absurdity of the statement: Mitzva min haTorah lifrok aval lo lit'on should be asked and answered. In Baba Metzi'a 2:3-4 part of the Talmudic discussion on the question: misfeka mafkinan mamona can be developed on the basis of the Mishanayot themselves in conjunction with Yebamot 15:7 (end) and the contradictions between them. At least some of the distinctions drawn by the Gemara (Baba Metzi'a 37a) can be worked out logically (e.g., baba latzet yedei shamayim) occasionally a baraita may be quoted and its relationship to the Mishanah determined. We suggest that this type of material be introduced frequently; as a result the pupils will gradually acquire not only the Talmudic approach, but a certain amount of Talmudic terminology as well; phrases such as the ones mentioned above should be written down, memorized, and used frequently.

2. The study of Mishnah according to subjects:
Often a certain subject can be dealt with more fully when passages from different tractates dealing with one and the same matter are studied. This can be done either by way of supplementing one tractate which is studied in its entirety, or a subject may be taught on the basis of texts selected from different tractates altogether. To give but two examples: When Berakhot is taught, much can be gained by studying supplementary material dealing with tefillah (e.g., Rosh HaShana 4:5-7; Ta'anit 1:1-3, 2:2-4; Megilla 3 and 4; etc.), or a subject such as: "Tanaitic Labour Legislation" may be presented on the basis of the following selected passages: Baba Metzi'a 6:1-2, 8; 9:11-12; 7:1-8; 10:5; Shevuot 7:1,5; Berakhot 2:4.

In similar way, selections of Mishnayot from different tractates can be used for teaching certain subjects in Jewish Thought. For this purpose, Avot will, naturally, play an important part, but there is much material elsewhere, of both aggadic and halachic nature, which can be utilized. Themes which can be dealt with in this way include: Torah Study and Work; Reward and punishment; Repentance and Atonement; Dignity of Man; Israel, the Chosen People; Social Teachings of the Sages; etc. [See, e.g., Y. Heinemann: Limud haTorah veyishuvo shel olam, Maayanot 6 (Jerusalem, 1957)].

In conclusion, a few further remarks are necessary.

It is obvious that the method suggested here involves a great deal of preparatory work on the part of the teacher. But so does any type of teaching which is not satisfied with "straightforward" translation and superficial explanation of the text. Until special material is available for the type indicated - which will guide the teacher on questions of methods and provide a suitable selection of sources for his use - the teacher will have to use for his preparation some of the classical commentaries (especially the Tosafot Yom Tov and the Melekhet Shelomo) as well as some modern ones. Apart from Hanokh Albek's new edition of the Mishnah, he will find Eliezer Levi: Mishnah Meforeshet (Tel Aviv, 1952) very useful. [Of course, we can now add Mishnahyot Kehati, now available from the Torah Department in a full English translation, as well.]

We might mention here that we do not think it advisable that the students read the commentary of R. Ovadia of Bertinoro - at least in the first year or two - except occasionally, e.g., where he quotes some Talmudic material which the teacher has decided to introduce. This commentary is liable to confuse the student with its overabundance of halachic concepts and Talmudic terms for which he is not ready. Moreover, it complicates matters by extensive use of difficult Aramaic. If the teacher feels that his pupils should read a commentary in the first stage of their studies, one of the modern ones mentioned above is by far preferable. But it is equally possible to do without commentaries in this initial stage.

We hope that by use of the methods indicated here the teacher will succeed in turning the subject of Mishnah into an interesting, lively and stimulating subject which will, slowly but surely, serve to open for the student the gates to a full understanding and appreciation of the world of Halachah and Aggadah.

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