To Learn by Repetition - Middah Mishnah

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").


Mishnah comes from the Hebrew root shin-nun-hey which means "to repeat." The word mishnah, influenced by Aramaic, took on the meaning "to learn." One can translate mishnah as "to learn by repetition." The middah—Jewish value—of mishnah means both "the study of Scripture" (the Written Law, which is Torah) and "the study of Mishnah" (the Oral Law).

"Teach them faithfully to your children; speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up." (Deuteronomy 6:7)

In this Text the verb "teach" in Hebrew is shinantam, which is from the same Hebrew root as mishnahshin-nun-hey. This Biblical verse is found in the V'ahavta prayer. This verse created the obligation of parents to teach their children about God and Torah. While this verse comes from Torah, or Written Law, parents are instructed to "speak of them," to transmit Jewish knowledge verbally.

Mishnah is also a book of Jewish law. The unique feature of the text called Mishnah is that originally it was only in oral form. The Hebrew term for this Oral Law is Torah sheh-b'al peh, literally "Torah from the mouth." The Hebrew term for the Written Law is Torah sheh-bichtav or "Torah that is written." Both kinds of law and learning are recognized as being equally important in Jewish life.

According to traditional Judaism, the Written Law was dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses' task was to write it all down word for word. Additionally, when the Written Law was given, God knew there were additional laws that the people would need once they settled in the Land, but the people were not yet sophisticated enough to understand them. These laws were given to Moses verbally and his task was to begin a chain of oral transmission that was to pass from one leader to the next.

This chain of transmission is described in Pirkei Avot:

"Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly." (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

Many liberal Jews believe that the Torah was the work of numerous authors who were inspired by God. The Oral Law was derived from the decisions of the battai din, the Jewish courts of law. These courts derived their decisions from the Written Law. The volumes known as Mishnah were compiled from these decisions from over a 400-year period from 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.

In the Talmud there is serious debate over whether or not this Oral Law could, or even should, be written down. It was not until the third century that Rabbi Judah the Prince put the Mishnah into its written form.

There are both positive and negative arguments for writing down an oral tradition. These arguments include: When a tradition is oral it remains open to change, variation, mistake, and refinement. Once an oral tradition is written down it can become stagnant, unchanging, accurate, and precise.

To Talk About

  1. In your family how have you observed the commandments of the V'ahavta: to "teach them faithfully to your children; speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up"?

  2. Share and discuss your beliefs about the origin of Torah, whether it was given to Moses at Sinai or was a product of human authors.

  3. Describe how you are a link in the chain of Jewish tradition. What responsibilities and obligations does one accept as a link in this chain?

  4. There are aspects of Judaism that we learn about from studying and other aspects that we learn through experience. Discuss the things that you have learned from written texts. Compare this to the things that have come to you orally, from watching, listening, and experiencing. Which type of learning is best for you? How do the two types of learning complement one another?

  5. Traditionally, young Jewish children begin their studies with the study of Mishnah. The reason for this is that the Mishnah, because it was originally understood to be learned orally, was written in simple, rhythmic, almost song-like phrases. Think of the Jewish music you have learned and love. Share your favorite selections. Discuss the lessons captured by the lyrics.

  6. Using the negative and positive arguments listed in the Commentary section for keeping a tradition oral versus writing it down, debate whether or not the Mishnah or Oral Law should have been committed to writing.

To Do

Finish this sentence "I am a link in Jewish tradition when I ____." Take this activity one step further, cutting out paper strips, writing out how you are a link, creating as many written statements as you like and connecting the strips into a paper chain.