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The Large Reading (“Kriya Gdola”)

In contrast to the conventional argument that a clear method cannot be identified for the compilation of the Mishnah tractates, Dr. Yair Eldan sees these as complete stories dealing with great dilemmas of that period. Among other things the ‘large reading’ that Dr. Eldan suggests teaches us that tractate Sotah actually revolves around Messianism and that tractate Ta’anit is an attempt to cope with the silence of God

In contrast to the conventional argument that a clear method cannot be identified for the compilation of the Mishnah tractates, Dr. Yair Eldan sees these as complete stories dealing with great dilemmas of that period. Among other things the "large reading" that Dr. Eldan suggests teaches us that tractate Sotah actually revolves around Messianism and that tractate Ta’anit is an attempt to cope with the silence of God.
The Mishnah is a canonic text. It is an original Jewish creation written in Hebrew which constitutes the main source for all Halakhic codices. The Mishnahh, compiled by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (circa 200 A.D.) contains the opinions of the Sages (Tanna’im) that lived during the two centuries prior to the destruction of the Temple and up to the time of its compilation. In my book, “Masechet – a Story of Law,” I suggest a new way of understanding the Mishnahh, which focuses on the Mishnaic tractates as stand-alone stories that reveal the dilemmas and existential problems with which that they attempt to cope.
Traditionally, philological-historical research of the Mishnahh has focused on the source of words and the cultural influences (e.g., Hellenistic, Roman) that are implicit within the Mishnaic text. The underlying assumption of philological researchers has been that the understanding of the Mishnah is dependent on the clarification of its exact language and the historic context in which it was written. Their research concentrated on examining the parallel languages of that period and comparing various manuscript formulae of the same period. Other researchers have taken a more literary approach, emphasizing the fact that the Mishnah is a text that was learned orally. In order for the Mishnah to be easily remembered, its writers and editors included idioms, word plays and epigrams that repeat themselves, becoming engraved on the reader’s memory. These could appear, for example, at the beginning of a chapter and at its end, and may refer to seemingly unrelated content. The common literary language attests to the homogeneity of the editing and of a single meaning that runs through the various subjects.
Searching for the problem that the text is trying to express (Photo: Lewis Hein)
Another approach to researching the Mishnah combines philological-historical research with that related to cultural criticism. This trend adopts the clarification of the exact version of words through the comparison of manuscripts and the study of the classic sources and languages of that period; however, it does not view the meaning revealed as some kind of “archaeological find” that provides a complete explanation of the text and its linguistic method. The underlying assumption of this approach is that the reading of texts always contains a point of view that rests on certain cultural and ideological theories, outlooks and perceptions of the world and therefore care and a transparent approach must be adopted in an interpretive reading.
I would like to suggest another way of reading the Mishnah, which I call the “larger reading.” The larger reading relates to a tractate of the Mishnah as a kind of story. At the center of each story one can find a problem and its solution, a dilemma and its resolution. In most cases, the story contains a main character who encounters a barrier and a process that he goes through, and finally the barrier is overcome or dealt with. I am suggesting that a halakhic collection be read as a story in the same way and that this will reveal the dilemma that needs to be resolved.
Sensitive readers of texts in any genre – a newspaper article, a law, a novel or a poem – naturally try to understand the text as a unit or as a reflection of a dialectic of ideas that are expressed in the editing of the text. The text’s editing layers or the corrections made to it are important and interesting in themselves; however, for the sensitive reader the real question is as follows: “what is the story being told through the text, what is the question that the text is coming to answer or the problem it wishes to solve.” A halakhic collection is compiled in order to deal with problems that troubled its authors and editors and the halakhot and arguments to be found within it are simultaneously a reflection of the problem and an attempt to deal with it.
The larger reading seeks to understand not only the tendency of one chapter within the tractate but the tendency of the editing of the tractate as a whole. The leading assumption of the larger reading is that the tractate is the basic textual unit within the six orders of the Mishnah. It has within it one main subject and textual development is possible due to its length. These traits make the tractate the most interesting of the Mishnaic units.
The tractate of Sotah is a good example. Only the first six chapters of the tractate deal with the ceremony held for a woman suspected of adultery, while the other three deal with rituals described in Biblical language only. Essentially, these three chapters were included by way of association – the seventh chapter opens with rituals that are stated in any type of language, which include the ceremony held for the Sotah. From here, the Mishnah continues with rituals stated in Biblical language; however, a larger reading requires us to understand the connection between the two subjects and the problem that is being dealt with. We must try to understand the deeper relationship between the process that takes shape in the first chapters of the tractate and that in the later chapters.
This is, therefore, a structuralist approach that uses an overview of the tractate. It does not contradict the close reading of Mishnahs and chapters but rather joins forces with it. By clarifying the central subject dealt with by the tractate we are able to shed light on individual Mishnahs as well. In the case of the tractate of Sotah, the larger reading makes it possible to identify the problem being dealt with by the tractate, which is in fact Messianism. The tractate praises the institutional mediation of the Sages and rules out the identification of the Messiah as a human being living among the community. This reading leads to the following claim: if the tractate of Sotah in its final editing, which includes all nine chapters, is indeed criticizing the Messianic idea (perhaps in response to the Bar Kochba rebellion) and supports the institutional mediation of the Sages, then it is the first text within the literature of the Sages that connects Messianism to idolatry. Thus, the adultery of the Jewish People, which in the literature of the Sages implies idolatry and following other gods, is essentially identical to believing in the Messianic idea. Similarly, the larger reading teaches us that the tractate of Makot does not necessarily deal with the subject of lashes but rather the justification for converting the punishment for criminals and the tractate of Taanit is not about the customs of fasting but in fact is trying to cope with a God who is removed and silent.
The tractates of the Mishnah are a wonderful text. They are written in Hebrew and have constituted the basis for Jewish Halakhot throughout the generations. They contain diverse opinions of various generations, which are spread out over about three centuries. In my book, I seek to introduce the sensitive reader to another window on the Mishnah. The larger reading of the tractates of the Mishnah, alongside a closer reading of the chapters or of individual Mishnahs, reveals the existential problems that concerned the editors of the tractates and bring us closer to their world. The tractates of the Mishnah were edited by an artist, both from a linguistic and structural point of view. They are able to radiate a wonderful world of consciousness, which has the power to speak directly to the contemporary reader.
Dr. Yair Eldan is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law of the Ono Academic College and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His book, “Masechet – The Story of Law,” will soon be published by Carmel Publishing.

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