Tag Archives: Chain of Transmission

Introduction to Mishneh Torah – Part 3

The Rambam continues to explain the chain of transmission in the rabbinic period following Rabbi Yehuda haNasi.

Read the full text of the Introduction here. 

Summary: Among Rabbi Yehuda haNasi’s disciples were Rav and Shmuel, who later moved to Babylon to open new schools of Torah learning where much of the Talmud would be developed. Rav also composed two important works for understanding Torah law called Sifre and Sifra. Meanwhile, another disciple, Rabbi Chiya composed the Tosefta, a set of additional teachings to supplement the Mishnah, while Rabbis Hoshaya and Bar Kappara put together the similar Baraita. (Later, in the discussion of the Talmud, the Sages will quote from various Tosefta and Baraita to help make sense of the Mishnaic verses.) The Rambam also makes sure to note the Talmud Yerushalmi, the “Jerusalem Talmud” that was composed in the Holy Land, alongside the better-known Talmud Bavli, the “Babylonian Talmud” put together in Mesopotamia. The Talmudic period comes to a close with Rav Ashi, who was the 40th generation from Moses. The Rambam explains that between the two Talmuds and the additional texts of exegesis mentioned above, one can come to properly understand all the laws of the Torah, as well as the necessary “fences” instituted by the Sages to ensure Torah law is not broken.

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the 16th century Mantua Haggadah

Insight: Although Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is credited with composing the Mishnah, he did not do this single-handedly. In fact, the overall framework of the Mishnah (its six “orders”) is thought to have already been devised by Rabbi Akiva a generation prior. (Interestingly, there is a tradition that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was born at the same moment that Rabbi Akiva passed away!) The teachings in the Mishnah are usually cited in the name of a particular rabbi. The most oft-cited individual rabbi is Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, a student of Rabbi Akiva. Second most is Rabbi Meir, another of Rabbi Akiva’s students. There is a general rule in Torah-learning that a stam Mishnah, meaning an anonymous Mishnah that doesn’t mention the name of its teacher, is actually always Rabbi Meir. In third place is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, of Lag b’Omer fame, who was also a student of Rabbi Akiva! And in fourth place is Rabbi Yose bar Halafta, yet another of Rabbi Akiva’s students. So, we see how the bulk of the Mishnah’s teachings were transmitted by a handful of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. (Many other Mishnahs are taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva himself, or his teacher Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, as well as the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai, together with other Chakhamim, “Sages”, more broadly.)

Introduction to Mishneh Torah – Part 2

The Rambam continues his Introduction by laying out the exact figures responsible for transmitting Torah teachings over the centuries.

Read the full text of the Introduction here. 

The Tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, in Beit Shearim, Israel.

Summary: Moses’ primary disciple (and successor) was Yehoshua (Joshua). Moses would teach Yehoshua first, who would then teach the Seventy Elders (see Exodus 24:1, Numbers 11:16) who, in turn, taught the rest of the nation. The Prophets and High Priests transmitted the teachings throughout the following generations, all the way up to the Knesset HaGedolah, the “Great Assembly” of 120 Sages, which consisted of history’s last prophets (including Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, and Nehemiah), and the first rabbis (namely Shimon haTzadik). The rabbinic period officially began at this point. The tradition continued to be passed on until Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, “the Prince” (c. 135-217 CE), who took the monumental step of first putting the Oral Torah into writing. He did this because Roman persecutions had nearly extinguished Judaism, and Rabbi Yehuda (often referred to simply as Rebbi) felt that the Oral Tradition must be recorded for preservation, lest it be lost and forgotten. The Code of Law that Rebbi produced came to be known as the Mishnah.

Insight: The Rambam is famous for being a strict rationalist. He generally avoided speaking of mystical matters and rarely relied on Midrash. (Midrash refers to the allegorical level of Torah study.) Here, in listing the chain of transmission, the Rambam surprisingly notes Achiya the Shilonite who, according to Midrash, merited to live for hundreds of years. He participated at the Exodus from Egypt, and lived all the way up to the times of Eliyahu (Elijah), as we read in I Kings 11 and 14. The Rambam specifically notes Achiya as a link between Moses and Eliyahu – a time span of over 500 years. We would think that the rationalist Rambam would not rely on such a Midrash! Indeed, he does make it clear that there were, of course, many other links in the chain between Moses and Eliyahu, including Pinchas (who was undoubtedly at the Exodus, as we read in the Torah), Eli the High Priest, Shmuel (Samuel), and King David. We must also not forget that there was an entire era of Shoftim, “Judges”, like the righteous prophetess Deborah, and the great hero Shimshon (Samson) who were certainly links in the chain of Torah transmission as well. Altogether, we see a solid, unbroken chain of Torah transmission going all the way back to Mt. Sinai!

Introduction to Mishneh Torah – Part 1

The Rambam begins his monumental code of law with an introduction to explain the foundations of Judaism and the chain of the Torah’s transmission from one generation to the next.

Read the full text of the Introduction here. 

Summary: The Rambam explains that the Torah has two components: the Written and the Oral. At Mount Sinai, Moses received the Two Tablets which contained the Ten Commandments. From then on, over the period of forty years in the Wilderness, he composed the Torah as dictated to him by God. At the same time, God explained all the commandments and teachings of the Torah to Moses, and Moses then taught them to the nation. The Written Torah itself is just an encrypted, shorthand summary of God’s Law. To truly understand the Torah, one needs the Oral Tradition to extract its deeper meaning.

The Rambam cites Exodus 24:12 as proof: “And I will give you the Tablets of Stone, the Torah, and the mitzvah.” The phrasing seems redundant – does not the Torah contain all the mitzvot? What is meant here is that God gave Moses the Written Torah, but also explained it to him orally, hence “the mitzvah“, literally “the command”. The Rambam further cites Deuteronomy 13:1, where Moses tells the people: “Be careful to observe everything that I prescribe to you.” In other words, Moses gave over more than just a written text, but also a set of oral teachings that the nation must carefully adhere to.

Insight: To properly understand Jewish law, one must grasp the fact that there is both a Written and Oral Law. It is nearly impossible to understand the Torah without the Oral Tradition. For instance, the Torah states four different times to bind a symbol upon one’s arm and between one’s eyes (the mitzvah of tefillin), yet nowhere does it say what this symbol looks like, or how it is to be bound. Similarly, the Torah states multiple times to tie fringes onto the corners of one’s clothes, but does not explain how these fringes must be tied or what exactly they should look like. Such information comes from the oral teachings, as transmitted by the Prophets and Sages over the millennia. In the coming passages, the Rambam will carefully lay out the chain of transmission, and the exact figures that passed on the Torah over the generations.