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

Jan. 13 2023

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


Israel Is Courting Saudi Arabia by Confronting Iran

Most likely, it was the Israeli Air Force that attacked eastern Syria Monday night, apparently destroying a convoy carrying Iranian weapons. Yoav Limor comments:

Israel reportedly carried out 32 attacks in Syria in 2022, and since early 2023 it has already struck 25 times in the country—at the very least. . . . The Iranian-Israeli clash stands out in the wake of the dramatic events in the region, chiefly among them is the effort to strike a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and later on with various other Muslim-Sunni states. Iran is trying to torpedo this process and has even publicly warned Saudi Arabia not to “gamble on a losing horse” because Israel’s demise is near. Riyadh is unlikely to heed that demand, for its own reasons.

Despite the thaw in relations between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic—including the exchange of ambassadors—the Saudis remain very suspicious of the Iranians. A strategic manifestation of that is that Riyadh is trying to forge a defense pact with the U.S.; a tactical manifestation took place this week when Saudi soccer players refused to play a match in Iran because of a bust of the former Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani, [a master terrorist whose militias have wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East, including within Saudi borders].

Of course, Israel is trying to bring Saudi Arabia into its orbit and to create a strong common front against Iran. The attack in Syria is ostensibly unrelated to the normalization process and is meant to prevent the terrorists on Israel’s northern border from laying their hands on sophisticated arms, but it nevertheless serves as a clear reminder for Riyadh that it must not scale back its fight against the constant danger posed by Iran.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, Syria