Friday, April 19, 2024 -
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Why I don’t need to go to Rome

I CAN dream. In theory, someday I’ll visit the Arch of Titus in Rome to see a depiction of Roman soldiers carrying looted artifacts from the Jerusalem Temple; I’ll visit the tomb of Shammai (Hillel’s colleague) on Mt. Meron in Israel; I’ll visit the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to see the bust of the Roman Emperor Tiberius; and I’ll visit the British Museum to see the bust of Vespasian, the Roman emperor who destroyed much of Judea before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Dream? Actually, not.

I do not even need to make the visits. I hold in front of me a beautiful illustrated history of the Mishnah, the main work in the canon of Jewish law.

I have before me a seemingly countless array of photos of coins, sarcophagi, busts, archaeological excavations and tombs. They’re all in the The Oral Law of Sinai, the newest book by a worldwide master of the spoken word, Rabbi Berel Wein, who has sold some one million tapes and disks on Jewish history.

Later in his fruitful career he turned to the written word. His new book’s pictures are but the bonus in the bargain. Rabbi Wein brings his vivid grasp of history to the Mishnah, specifically, to the lives of its sages, who lived in tumultuous times and made monumental decisions that directly affected the shape of Judaism and Jewish history for all subsequent generations, including our own.

“What caused this critical change of mood from harmony and cooperation to strife and contention in Yavneh?” the author asks at one point in the book. I cite the sentence randomly to illustrate that while the author’s respect for the Mishnaic sages is without end, this is an honest book. Wein hides nothing. The struggles both within and between the sages, and their tricky and often devastating relations with foreign sovereigns, all find their way into Wein’s primer on the Mishnah.

He combines the literary and the historical. How and why the Mishnah was written — a revolutionary concept for a law that had been conveyed orally for centuries — is combined with realia, the historical conditions and diverse personalities of the Mishnah’s sages.

The relevance of Wein’s discussions veritably jump from his pages.

Besides the fact that the Mishnah, as the central repository of Jewish wisdom after the Torah, is inherently relevant, the painful issues that confronted the Jewish community of the Mishnaic era are relevant in our own.

For example, how strongly — or weakly — could the Jewish intellectual and spiritual leadership of Mishnaic times confront the Roman rulers of Palestine?

Plug in a few name changes — Netanyahu for Yehoshua ben Chananya, for example — and one sees the reflection of ancient struggles in such contemporary questions as: Can, or should, Israel act against Iran independently of the US?

Another example: How do survivors of catastrophe rebuild a Jewish community? Before the era of the Holocaust, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans was history’s worst persecution of the Jews.

The Romans killed some one million Jews in their conquest of Palestine. A focused study of the struggles in the Mishnaic period rings with relevance today.

TO grasp Wein’s achievement, one needs to know that there exist no records or documents of the kind from which one would construct the history of a recent period. Until the time of Azariah Rossi a little less than 500 years ago, Jews did not generally think historically; they kept few records with an eye to history. They kept travelogues, receipts, manifests, poems, Torah thoughts, ethical wills; but what we now call diplomatic, political and social history were foreign to the Jewish mind.

This means that to write his history, Wein had to pull together all manner of stray, contemporaneous observations, and extract nuggets of historical significance from legal documents (the Mishnah is a legal document par excellence) and from extra-Jewish historical records. What might seem like a straightforward literary agenda really requires a very wide knowledge.

In the end, Wein has given us a very readable, even enjoyable, history of the Mishnah. Fascinating personalities populate its academies. Tragic personal stories, heart-rending negotiations with anti-Jewish sovereigns, superb minds, but also quirky ones, populate his book.

Not to mention, Wein puts matters into perspective with visual aids. Besides the photos and art, he supplies a precise, clear timeline of the Mishnaic sages and a handy table of all of the Mishnaic tractates, the way they are classified into six “orders,” the number of chapters in each tractate, and which tractates were later commented on by the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and which were not.

THE Oral Law of Sinai: An Illustrated History of the Mishnah is published by Jossey-Bass (2008). Whatever you do, don’t miss the controversy over the end of Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruria, or the modesty and suffering of the main formulator of the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah the Prince.

He was the towering scholar of his day, forgiving, loyal, outreaching, humble and wealthy to boot, but he suffered greatly. Writes the author:

“Though we may not fathom the Heavenly ledger, according to the Talmud, Rabbi Judah’s suffering and holiness protected the Jewish people, so that no woman died in childbirth or miscarried during the 13 years of his agonizing illnesses.”

The Jewish people ever since has regarded Rabbi Judah the Prince as a seminal figure in all of Jewish history. Yet this opinion was not shared by the widow of the son of the famous founder of mysticism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who rebuffed Rabbi Judah’s proposal to marry  her with a rhetorical question:

“A vessel that served in holiness should now be asked to serve the mundane?”

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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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