December 5, 2004

by Reb Yudel
Remembering Rifka - Avi Walfish on Mishna

Live blogging of Rifka Rosenwein memorial lecture at Drisha on occasion of first yarzhei tonight.

Subject is Mishna, endowed by Judy Hiklind, her Mishna hevruta for nearly two decades.

I remember when Rifka was my editor, her telling of her hevruta with Judy, who was then working in Singapore.

Rabbi Avi Walfish is pioneering a literary approach to Mishna study.

Drisha's Rabbi David Silber, Judith Hikind, and Barry Lichtenberg spoke first.

Avi Walfish on Mishna

The very purpose of this compilation -- the Mishna -- is not altogether clear.

We know one purpose is to serve as a digest of Torah she Baal peh, and many students of mishna study it for this reason: It serves as a handy summary for rabbinic halacha. Still, many questions remain....

For one thing, what governed Rebbe's selection of Mishna?

Was it designed to be authoritative? Makhlokes both in Amoraim and contemporary scholars.

What governed the arrangement of Mishna? The structure is highly problematic. The gemara often has addressed itself to this question. Several masechtot open, 'tana heicha kai,' where is Mishna starting? Gittin seems to start at the end with an arcane case that seems to include all the laws of the masechet -- case of a messenger coming from overseas. The last mishna, on the other hand, is 'under what circumstances may a man divorce his wife' -- seemingly the first question on the topic.

Also, the gemara frequently departs from topic of mishna, or follows associative logic of names,numbers, or phrases..

So, it's really difficult to make heads or tales of what exactly this highly enigmatic text is all about.

I promise not to solve all the problems, but to shed some light. Tools I'm using: Literary scholarship. Literary structures, chiastic, etc, that we've used in study of Tanach. These phenomenon abound in Mishna.

Mishna Rosh Hashanah

Epstein characterized it as difficult structure, from different places.

For example, first mishnayot deal with years: Four new years, four periods when world judged. Then, two chapters on kiddush hachodesh. Third chapter returns to years.

A second issue in RH is that chapters tend to end in strange places. Chaps. 3 and 4 go on too long; others seem to end too soon. Chap. 1 ends in middle of a discussion of what witnesses do when they have to testify on Shabbat for sanctification of new moon; yet chapter closes with what seems to summarize topic (by citing verse in Vayikra justifying violating Shabbat). Chap. 2 ends with famous case of dispute of Rabban Gamliel on date, and Chap 3 continues....

Back to beginning:

Mishna seems to indicate there is a connection between years and kiddush hachodesh -- mishnas 1...4 all have numbers. Also, central role of Nissan and Tishrei. It does seem as though the Mishna wants to tell us before we start about sanctification of new months, it's important to know the real payoff. The real payoff is that it sanctifies essential times, part. the central times in which the world was judged (as seen in 1:2).

I want to focus on chapter endings.

The two chapter endings parallel each other -- epiphora - parallel between endings in literary units.

* Same (or similar) pasuk of "eleh mo'adei hashem"

Two diametrically opposed ideas concluding first and second chapters.

(Akiva's drasha -- some mss. have atem rather than otam, but I think based on t'kriu -- *you* are the ones who call them.)

-- By ending here, have the striking parallels of the pasuk, also the notion of walking sticks.

What is it trying to do?

The Mishna seems to be conveying the complimentary nature of the two ideas. bein b'zmanam u lo b'zmanam, these are God's moadot. Man's sanctification becomes God's appointed times. The first chapter says must sanctify at right time because they are God's time. It's a Divine responsibility. Therefore, even though whatever we will say will be authoritatively, it is our responsibility to sanctify the right time. There's a partnership between the Divine ordained sanctity and the human sanctity. But there's a tension.

What happens when Rabbi Yehoshua is convinced R' Gamliel has sanctified the wrong day?

I believe the Mishna is not about resolving the tension, but with living with the tension.

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