Understanding the Biblical and Religious Meaning of the Talmud’s Foundational Text

Compiled in the Land of Israel around 200 CE, the Mishnah is a carefully organized collection of rabbinic statements about halakhah, which would later form the backbone of the Talmud—a work comprising extensive, discursive commentary on the Mishnah accumulated over the subsequent centuries. A series of brief essays on this terse, often puzzling, text by Rabbi Yakov Nagen (né Genack) has recently been published in English translation. Richard Hidary writes in his review:

Despite the wide range of citations and methodologies that Nagen employs, and although it spans topics selected from all of rabbinic law, this book nevertheless bears a consistent message: the Mishnah is not a dry manual of rules and regulations but a masterfully deep wellspring of inspiration encoded within a ritual system and legal tradition. While each essay offers a unique self-contained insight, reading the entire book reveals several themes and methodologies, of which I will explore just three: strategies for Jewish continuity without a Temple, relating oral law to Scripture, and the search for meaning in both daily rituals as well as in life’s milestones and tragedies.

Hidary proffers an example that includes all three themes:

In a splendidly inspiring reading, Nagen demonstrates that the narrative telling of the nightly and morning Temple rituals reenacts a drama from Song of Songs. Tractate Middot describes 24 watchers surrounding the Temple. A chief officer would check on each one―and if he found the watchman sleeping, the chief would beat him for being derelict at his job, strip him, and burn his uniform.

Meanwhile, the priests serving [in the Temple] the next day would sleep in the chamber of the fireplace all night so as to be ready and present for the morning. Any priest who wanted a chance to perform the first [of the many daily rituals], the seemingly menial task of sweeping the ashes off of the altar, would awake before dawn, bathe, and dress in his uniform. The superintendent would then knock on the chamber door around dawn and find the priests bathed, dressed, and ready to perform their service. Past commentators have wondered at this detailed narrative― [uncharacteristically lacking] any argumentation or legal significance―and would question whether this represents actual events or a rabbinic reconstruction.

Nagen brilliantly points to word parallels in Song of Songs 5:2-7, which narrates the lover sleeping as her beloved knocks on the door on a rainy night. Laziness overcomes her―she is not dressed; she already washed her feet―and she delays getting to the door. When she finally gets the strength to open the door, her beloved is gone. She goes out to seek him only to be beaten and stripped by the city watchman.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Judaism, Mishnah, Second Temple, Talmud


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy