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15th-century Mishnah

This was the first complete printed text of the Mishnah - a book of authoritative Jewish law as compiled by early rabbis. The scope of the Mishnah over everyday life and business is extensive: these pages for instance contain detailed rules on the permitted mixing of seeds in agricultural plots.

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15th century Mishnah

Mishnah, Naples, Italy, 1492. Kilayim
BL MS C.50.e.6 ff. 22v-23
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Mishnah?

Compiled around 200 by Judah the Prince, the Mishnah, meaning 'repetition', is the earliest authoritative body of Jewish oral law. It records the views of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim (from the Aramaic 'tena', meaning to teach).

The Torah - the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, as handed down by God to Moses - forms the basis of Jewish written law. The Mishnah supplements the Torah, but its laws lack all scriptural references.

The Mishnah was the first great creation of the rabbis, who were not clergy but rather came from all walks of life. It is a large collection of sayings, arguments and counter-arguments that touch on virtually all areas of life (including Temple ritual, which was long gone).

What is the Talmud?

Over the three centuries following the compilation of the Mishnah, the rabbis added enormously to it with the Gemara: what they called a 'sea' of learning, using stories about both Biblical personalities and their own lives, sober legal arguments and fanciful imaginings of the world of old and the world to come. Around 500 AD they wrote it all down in multiple volumes that go under the name Talmud, 'Teaching'.

What is the significance of the Talmud?

Getting to grips with a Talmudic text can be demanding. While it is possible to read a page of the Bible in a matter of minutes, depending on the difficulty, a page of Talmud may take an hour or considerably more to go through with understanding. Traditionally it is studied with a partner or 'friend' in order to recreate the internal arguments and make sure that the subject in question, whether marriage, business ethics, capital punishment, property law or dietary regulations, has been examined from every conceivable angle. This kind of study leads to sharpness of mind, but also creates an intense community of shared ideas and visions.

Along with its companion literature, the Midrash (multiple collections of interpretations of the Bible, much like the interpretations and sermons on their own Scriptures by Christians and Muslims), the Talmud ensured that male Jews, who engaged in this study their whole lives, and their womenfolk, who were taught the stories (but not the legal material) in more popular form, were armoured against an often unfriendly outside world by their own internal world of values.

What does this page say?

This page is from the tractate Kilayim (which translates as 'of two kinds') which deals with the laws regarding forbidden mixtures of species in agriculture, breeding and clothing. It forms part of Zera'im (Seeds), one of the six divisions or orders of the Mishnah. Added to the text is Moses Maimonides's commentary translated from the original Arabic.

The diagrams show ways of dividing up plots of land to grow permitted types of seeds and mixed species.

This book itself was printed in Naples in 1492 by Joshua Solomon Soncino, and was the first to contain the complete text of the Mishnah.

Who were the Soncinos?

The Soncino family, named after the Italian town in which they were active, ran a dynamic international publishing house for religious literature. Through the 15th and 16th centuries they ran presses from Italy to Egypt and Turkey. Joshua Solomon Soncino (d.1493) was the publisher of their first book in 1484; his family continued to run the company, branching out into volumes in Greek, Latin and Italian.

Who was Moses Maimonides?

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was a Jewish rabbi, physician and philosopher in Spain, Morocco and Egypt. His religious writings were highly influential. In his Mishneh Torah, completed in 1180, he organised, edited, summarised and codified the laws in the Talmud. This is probably is the greatest individual contribution to Jewish law. He also wrote a Commentary on the Mishnah, one of the first works of its kind. Its contents are widely quoted and appear on the page illustrated above.

Maimonides wrote his Commentary in Arabic, the major language of science and learning of his day, as he did his many medical works. He was not afraid of controversy and had little time for superstition: for instance, he clearly differentiated between astronomy ("a true science") and astrology ("sheer stupidity").