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.