Learning History from the Mishnah

Yoma | Ben-Zion Hain | 17 years ago

Masechet Yoma deals predominantly with the temple service performed by the high priest on Yom Kippur. The name of the tractate, Yoma, is an Aramaic word meaning “The Day” – in other words, the special day or as the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (21a) states “Yoma Raba” (the great day).

The first chapter of Masechet Yoma deals with the preparation of the high priest in the seven days prior to Yom Kippur. The Mishnah teaches us that there are two main reasons for this separation. Firstly, to guard and maintain the purity of the high priest lest he become impure and be unable to perform the temple service and secondly, that the high priest learns about the temple service and internalise every intricate detail.

As we know, during the latter part of the second temple period, the priesthood was no longer a prestigious group of deeply religious and learned people who were unwavering in their dedication to their G-d and their work in the temple. Rather, the priesthood and the job of the high priest in particular, were sold to the highest bidder – a person who was not always religious and rarely learned.

This fact is hinted to in a number of the Mishnayot in the first chapter of Masechet Yoma. For example, the third Mishnah states:

They provided him sages from among the sages of the court who read to him about the service of the day. Then they say to him: My lord, Kohen Gadol, read with your own mouth, perhaps you have forgotten or perhaps you have not learned.

The words “perhaps you have not learned” can easily be attributed to a high priest who has not learnt the sixteenth chapter of Vayikra which outlines the temple service on Yom Kippur, or the relevant laws pertaining to the temple service, due to the fact that he purchased his title with money rather than earning it through religious piety.

However, failing to learn the appropriate section of the Torah was not the only shortcoming of some of the high priests who attained the position. In the forth Mishnah we learnt that the Kohen Gadol was not allowed to eat a large meal on erev Yom Kippur so as not to become sleepy lest he falls asleep and becomes impure and therefore unable to perform the temple service. The sixth Mishnah then states what the high priest did to occupy his time on the eve of Yom Kippur:

If he was a scholar he lectured; but if not, scholars would lecture before him. If he was accustomed to read Scripture, he would read; but if not, they would read to him. And from what did they read to him? From Job, from Ezra, and from Chronicles. Zechariah ben Kevutal says: Many times I read before him from Daniel.

We see from here that not only were there some high priests who were unable to learn Torah by themselves, and others who could not even read the Torah by themselves, but there were even those who did not even understand enough Hebrew to have the Torah read to them and therefore read from the book of Daniel which is written predominantly in Aramaic.

A further example of life in the second temple period influencing the writings of the Mishnah can be found in the fifth Mishnah. As we know there were a number of different sects of Judaism in the first century BCE. The rabbis were mostly Pharisees but another sect was the Sadducees who did not believe in the oral law and were mostly made up of priestly families and wealthy aristocrats living in the area.

The Mishnah explains that the elders of the Beit Din made the high priest swear an oath that he would not change even a small part of the temple service. The Gemara explains that this was due to the possibility that the high priest was in fact a Sadducee who would perform the ritual literally as it is stated in the Torah without incorporating any of the explanations taught by the Rabbis that were passed down from Moshe via the oral tradition.

Although the Mishnah is not a history book and does not aim to teach us the history of the Mishnaic period, we are able to gain a number of interesting insights into Jewish life in the times of the second temple period based on the writings of the Mishnah.


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