Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) faculty members contributed to the recently published The Oxford Annotated Mishnah: A New Translation of the Mishnah With Introductions and Notes (Oxford University Press), edited by Shaye J.D. Cohen, Robert Goldenberg, and Hayim Lapin. The Mishnah, the foundational document of rabbinic law, is overwhelmingly technical and focused on matters of practice, custom, and law. Assembled by an expert group of translators and annotators, The Oxford Annotated Mishnah is the first annotated translation of this work, providing explanations of technical terms and making the text accessible to those without specialist knowledge. HUC-JIR contributors include Rabbi Michael Chernick, Ph.D.; Alyssa Gray, JD, Ph.D.; Rabbi Dalia Marx ‘02, Ph.D.; Rabbi David Levine, Ph.D.; Rabbi Richard Sarason ‘74, Ph.D., and Rabbi Dvora Weisberg ‘11, Ph.D.
Sarah Bunin Benor, HUC-JIR Vice Provost, shared, “The contributions of six HUC-JIR scholars to this impressive publication are yet another indication of our faculty’s prominence in the field of Jewish studies.”
Alyssa Gray, JD, Ph.D., Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics and Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature at HUC-JIR/New York, worked on two very different tractates: Megillah and Horayot. Tractate Megillah takes its name from Megillat Esther, the reading of which (and the Purim holiday more broadly) are the main topics of its chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 3 discusses how and whether sacred spaces or objects can be sold and the proceeds or things themselves used for non-sacred purposes. The chapter moves on to discuss specific Torah readings for certain days, which is a good segue to Chapter 4, which is largely about Torah reading.
Tractate Horayot (“horayot” means “rulings”) is about erroneous rulings of law issued either by the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Chapter 1), the high priest (parts of Chapters 2 and 3), and the “nasi” (“prince,” meaning “king”) (also parts of Chapters 2 and 3). The tractate also deals with atonement for inadvertent sins committed by the high priest and nasi.
Dr. Gray said, “I was honored to have been approached by the editors early in their conception of the project. I chose to work on tractate Megillah, which has long been a favorite of mine. The editors later asked me to work on Horayot, which falls squarely within my interest as a lawyer and Talmudist in judicial procedure and the responsibilities of judicial and political leaders.”
Rabbi David Levine, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Talmud and Jewish History at the Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem, explored Tevul Yom and Ta’anit. Reflecting on his participation in this new publication, he shared, “I was happy to participate in this attempt to make an ancient text and critical insights available to a wider audience.”
A tevul yom (lit. ‘immersed of day’) is a person who has immersed but not yet completed the purification process. This person still is anticipating sunset (ha’arev shemesh) to be completely pure. This in-between category – not yet pure, nor still impure – is not explicit in the Torah and should be viewed as a post-biblical innovation. The creation of this category may reflect a desire to expand the accessibility of laypeople to different religious experiences as it would be easier for people to partake in meals requiring a minimal level of purity. The relative purity of a tevul yom is debated among different groups and sects of the late second temple period.
The tractate Ta’anit (lit. affliction or fasting) describes the halakhic norms and communal practices that are to be observed in response to “any distress that befalls the public” (Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8). The community responds to war, drought, plague, et al., with rituals of mourning and repentance. The tractate also describes public gatherings with special sermons and prayers addressing the needs of the day. The blowing of the shofar figures prominently in these public rituals, and “sounding the shofar” is one of the terms that refers to these communal fasts.
Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem, focused on Tractate Qinnim. Tractate Qinnim (literally meaning nests — Qen is a pair of birds in a nest), the last tractate in the order of Qodashim, discusses laws governing bird offerings – individual sacrifices consisting of pairs of young pigeon chicks or of turtle doves. In fact, the tractate examines only a small number of issues related to bird offerings, namely cases of mixtures and mistakes. One may describe it as an appendix to the discussion of bird offerings in Tractate Zevakhim (chap. 6-7). The bulk of the discussion is the determination of the maximal number of birds that can be offered when a mixture of birds occurs.
Rabbi Marx shared, “After my volume in the Feminist Commentary of the Talmud Bavli project was published (ed. Tal Ilan, Mohr Siebeck 2012), I was approached by the editors. It was a great privilege to participate in this wonderful and unprecedented international scholarly project alongside so many leading scholars in the field. It was lovely to find out that quite a few of us at HUC-JIR were part of it.”
Rabbi Richard S. Sarason, Ph.D., Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies and The Deutsch Family Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, translated two tractates for the project. The first, Berakhot, relates to his research interest in the history of Jewish liturgy and ritual. It contains our earliest information about rabbinic liturgy and prayer: formal structures, rhetoric, and theological content. And the second, Dema’I, revises work that Dr. Sarason completed in his doctoral dissertation and thereafter. The tractate deals with social relations around food and meals in the land of Israel between those who are punctilious about proper tithing of produce and those (ammei ha’arets) who are less observant of tithing and purity regulations.
Dr. Sarason wrote, “I responded positively to the invitation to contribute to this project because of its importance: this is the first English translation of the Mishnah with introductions and careful annotations that are meant to be useful to the general reader: they are brief enough to be manageable, but lengthy enough to fill in requisite background so that the text becomes intelligible. Such an edition has long been needed, and here it is.”
Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, Ph.D., Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Rabbinics and Director of the HUC-JIR Rabbinical School and Los Angeles Rabbinical Program, explored Tractate Menahot. The primary focus of the tractate is the grain and flour offerings that were brought to the Jerusalem Temple. The Mishnah is interested in how the offerings are assembled and presented; there is also a great deal of discussion about offerings that are damaged or treated improperly. Surprising as it might seem, the tractate is also the source for some laws related to tallit and tefillin.
“I was delighted to participate in this project,” said Rabbi Weisberg. “I have always loved studying and teaching Mishnah, and I was working on the same tractate for the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, so this project intersected with that longer work. I recognize the value of having an annotated translation for scholars and students who cannot access the original Hebrew text. Additionally, it was a joy to collaborate with dozens of distinguished colleagues. Our conversations about language and translation were fascinating and thought-provoking.”
Rabbi Michael Chernick, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature, also contributed to the publication, exploring Tractate Kelim.
Stay tuned for more information about an HUC Connect webinar highlighting The Oxford Annotated Mishnah, which will feature the HUC faculty contributors. Visit huc.edu/HUCConnect for details about Season 3. Questions? Contact HUCConnect@huc.edu.