Mishna: The Soul of the Nation
The Torah has two parts: a Written Torah and an Oral Torah. The Written Torah consists of twenty-four books that are divided into three groups. The first group is called “Torah,” which contains the Five Books of Moses. The second group is called “The Prophets,”, and are the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micha, Nachum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zecharia and Melachi). The third group is called “The Writings,” which contains the Book of Job (written by Moses), Psalms (written by King David), Proverbs, The Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes (all three written by King Solomon), Ruth (written by the prophet Samuel), Lamentations (written by the prophet Jeremiah), Esther and Daniel (by the Men of the Great Assembly), Ezra-Nechemia (written by the Prophet Ezra) and the Book of Chronicles (also by Ezra).
The Oral Torah is comprised of the Mishna, the Talmud and the many Midrashic works. The Mishna is a far-reaching compilation of the myriad teachings of our Sages. It is made up of sixty-three individual tractates that are divided into six separate sections. Each section is called a “Seder,” or “Order”. Since six is shisha and Orders is sedarim, the entirety of the Mishna is also referred to by the acronym of “Shas”.
The Mishna is as deep as it is wide and it is the primary text that the Sages of the Talmud use in their quest to clarify and codify Jewish Law and theology.
Interestingly enough, when one has the misfortune of having to go to a Shiva house to console those who are mourning, very often there is a printed-out list of the tractates of the Mishna, and many of those people coming to the Shiva volunteer to learn a tractate in memory of the deceased. The goal is to have all sixty-three tractates learned, either by the end of the Shloshim (the thirtieth day after the passing) or by the end of the year.
Why Mishna? What is it about the Mishna that seems to encapsulate the concept of the Shiva and how we are supposed to regard death and bereavement within Judaism? The word “Mishna” in Hebrew is spelled mem, shin, nun and heh, and when the letters are rearranged they spell out the word neshama, which means “soul”. The Mishna is the soul of the Jewish Nation.
What has kept the Jewish People alive and vibrant throughout the countless generations of persecution? It is the Torah. Both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. But it is the Oral Torah in particular that has allowed each community to flourish in so many different and disparate parts of the world. It is also the Oral Torah that connects all the seemingly unrelated Jewish communities spread out throughout the world. And it is the Mishna that is the bedrock of the Oral Torah. In effect, the Mishna represents the eternal continuity of the Jewish Nation. This is why it is the Mishna that is assigned to all those coming to the Shiva.
Judaism teaches that the passing of a person is not the end. Rather, it is the beginning of a new existence for the soul of the deceased. Up until now the soul was partnered together with the body and they existed together in this temporal world. After the passing, the soul exists in the Spiritual Realms — in a state of eternal continuity. Just as the existence of the Jewish Nation is one of eternal continuity.
When we learn Mishna it is not just elevating the soul of the deceased. If we understand why it is Mishna that we are learning — as opposed to anything else — we are internally reinforcing the truth that a person’s neshama is the same eternal component that comprises the Jewish Nation.
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