Methodology and Method in the Teaching of Tannaitic Literature

May 2, 2005

This article originally appeared in Studies in Jewish Education 8 (2002), pp. 53-71. Appears here with permission.

In an earlier study, I presented an approach to the teaching of Oral Tradition (OT) literature which varies from existing educational practice in two critical ways. Firstly, it is based on modern academic research in the field, and secondly, it organizes OT textual study in the primary and secondary levels in a spiral curricular framework, crafted according to defined skills-based teaching strategies. Although this approach to curriculum development is already a matter of course in most general disciplines, it has not yet been utilized, or even entertained seriously, in OT studies in the schools. The effect of this delay in the professional development of the discipline is staggering. Despite the disproportionate allocation of learning time and resources to the study of these texts in religious schools, Bar Lev (1991) has demonstrated that current approaches are still so unsuccessful that educators and students alike deem them counterproductive in the extreme. OT learning materials published in the last two decades, and presently in use in Jewish schools in the Diaspora and Israel, ignore the implications of modern academic research in OT literature and cognition. On the whole, they attempt to facilitate OT learning by simple quantitative controls, or by extensive workbook companions to specific texts. Existing materials, which try to teach method, deal only with “micro” skills: standard expressions in Mishnaic Hebrew and Babylonian Aramaic, simple grammar, syntax, and the like. True, these aspects of the study are certainly important to the pupil and should be regularly and consistently applied. However, students also require training in “macro” issues of method (which are the stuff of modern academic research), including the overall organizational systems of OT literature and its components, the relationship between the various sources and books, and the dynamic processes behind OT literary development. Without these “macro” skills, the student is likely to feel abandoned, adrift in a sea of disjointed data without the essential tools to process and master them. Yet worse, the student may feel unable to “connect” effectively to the field and may become detached from the topic and its basis in thought and values. In this article, I propose an alternative curricular framework: a methodological, skills-based study of Tannaitic materials.

Current practice in both Diaspora and Israeli Jewish schools divides OT study into two stages: the study of Mishnah (generally commencing in the third or fourth primary grade), and study of Talmud (generally commencing in the fourth to sixth primary grade), with the first taken primarily as preparatory for the second. The intervening stages of literary development are untreated. As presented in my earlier article, the present practice is roughly akin to teaching calculus immediately after simple arithmetic. I propose a new conception: OT sources should be organized into four literary levels, from which derive four curricular “stations.” Each learning station represents a defined level of sophistication in the learning of OT material and provides for review of previous stations and integration of acquired cognitive skills. Together, the four stations constitute a totally integrated spiral curriculum. However, these stations are also designed to allow for presentation as independent modular units, so that students with less motivation or skill can learn OT sources without being taxed beyond an appropriate level, while more highly motivated or skilled students can proceed apace. At any given level of learning, however, stress is placed on the achievement of independent learning capability at that level of sophistication. This new OT didactic is ideal for modern heterogeneous classrooms, enabling the teacher to concentrate on demonstration of learning skills and example sources, followed by supervision of guided individual, cooperative, or group studies on a variety of levels. In addition, this new approach allows the autodidact to achieve fluency in learning without inordinate dependence on external referents and is thus ideal for computerized or long-distance learning.
The first two learning stations deal with the study of Tannaitic texts, and the latter two with the study of Talmudic texts:

  • Station 1: Mishnah Texts
  • Station 2: Parallel Tannaitic Sources
  • Station 3: Amoraic Sources and Sugyot (Units)
  • Station 4: “Stammaic” Sources and Sugyot

Each learning station subdivides into methodological “phases,” which present the various learning skills needed in the station, and each phase into “levels” of complexity in the specific skill. Each phase consists of initial sources which demonstrate the literary phenomena or learning skill to be mastered, followed by transfer of the student into “unseen” sources in the successive levels of the phase, presented according to degrees of difficulty and complexity. In this article, I will summarize the goals and skills of the first two stations. The latter two stations will be treated in a separate work.

Station 1 – Mishnah Texts

The objective of the first station is to train the pupil for independent study of the Mishnah and is comprised of three phases. The first phase of this station deals with the relationship between WT and OT. Halakhic Tannaitic materials have come down to us in two distinct literary forms: Midreshei Halakhah presents the Halakhic Tannaitic material in the form of interpretations of the verses of the written tradition (WT), while the Mishnah and Tosefta are legal traditions organized topically. In either case, however, Tannaitic texts complement the written Torah conceptually and legally, and therefore the first step in the study of OT texts is the skills-based study of WT itself. This matter will be treated extensively elsewhere, but suffice it to say at this point that study of WT which properly prepares the pupil to understand OT should include:

  • separation of peshat and drash,
  • identifying the boundaries of the data included in a given verse by asking accurate and pointed questions,
  • recognition of text division systems and their significance,
  • fundamentals of the Masorah Gedolah and Masorah Ketanah,
  • cantillation marks and their importance for proper reading, punctuation and interpretation of the text
  • fundamentals of biblical canonization, and
  • fundamentals of biblical narrative and poetry.

These skills were of importance in the Tannaitic approach to WT, and are of equal importance in empowering the student to accurate and independent textual study of Tannaitic texts. After this preparation in WT texts, the student is ready to understand how the Mishnah functions as the halakhic companion to WT. The pupil learns to appreciate this relationship between OT and WT through study of verses of the Torah which deal with halakhic issues treated in the Mishnah, clarifying the informational boundaries of each literature. Does the verse provide enough information on its own to establish practical halakhic guidelines? Since verses never do, the student is trained to ask questions on the verse in order to realize its informational boundaries and delineate those areas in which further information is needed.30 Subsequently, the student examines Mishnaic selections which provide this “further information,” training the pupil to see Mishnah as the companion of WT. In some cases, Mishnaic selections represent OT as ancient and of Torah authority, while in other cases the Mishnaic selections represent various forms of subsequent rabbinical interpretations and/or legislation. In any event, the OT sources reflect interpretation and implementation of WT. This first phase subdivides into three levels:

  1. Mishnayot which quote verses as antecedents: In such texts, the student concentrates on comparison of the literal meaning of the quoted verse to the legislative “use” of the verse in the mishnayot. The relationship between the literal meaning and the legislative use of the verse is basically one of three types. Either the OT has adopted the literal meaning of the verse as the basis for legislation, or it has interpreted it in a discernible fashion and created legislation from the verse, or the OT has begun its discussion with a halakhic imperative which is not derived from the verse itself. In the latter case, the verse is utilized only as a support for existing law. Attention to these points defines the WT-OT relationship.”
  2. Mishnayot which deal with halakhic information without quotation of relevant verses as antecedents: In such texts, the student relates the mishnayot to the informational boundaries of the verse, categorizing the halakhic data according to the questions arising from a preliminary study of the verse.
  3. Mishnayot in which the halakhic information provided does not relate to specific verses, or which is not represented at all in WT: In these mishnayot, care must be taken to delineate the legislative context for the mishnayot in lieu of WT antecedents.

In the second phase of the first station, the student moves from the study of OT as a companion to WT to the study of OT as independent literature. The academic method asserts that understanding the literary history of Mishnah is a prerequisite for the understanding of Mishnah content. One of the main instruments in the study of Mishnaic literary history is the examination of the topical, associative, or stylistic codices in Mishnah. Although the Mishnah is popularly seen as a topical halakhic code, it is also (primarily?) an anthology of earlier Tannaitic codices organized by a variety of devices, styles, and methods. Codices may be topical, organizing an array of sources and opinions on a given subject. Codices may be entirely associative or stylistic, organizing material that shares a common author, or location of composition, or merely a common word or literary formula. Students with experience only in Western literature generally see these codices as odd, a-contextual, even bothersome, since they conform to no literary format familiar to them. Many ill-trained teachers of Mishnah skip associative and stylistic codices entirely, considering them irrelevant to the subject matter at hand. Others may actually devote entire lessons to futile attempts to discover a topical connection between elements of an associative series, or between the series and the topical context! However, the initial goal in studying codices is not content-oriented, but gestalt-oriented. The pupil must develop the scanning skill that facilitates the organization of the Mishnah text into its original learning units. When presented with a chapter or section of Mishnah, the pupil first checks for groups of mishnayot which are distinct from the overall context, either due to their content or their form. Once the connecting devices which bind the unusual mishnayot together are identified, the student can proceed to understand the relationship between the various series of mishnayot which, once edited together, constitute the whole text studied today. Context is presented as a pre-determinate of content, and the text is studied in a manner consistent with its initial composition. Once the Mishnah is seen in this way, it is studied as a reader in OT sources, not only as a legal code, and the student can understand how oral traditions are formed, distributed, and preserved. This approach, by teaching texts as the repositories of oral materials older than the text itself, sets the stage for the study of parallel Tannaitic sources in the second station of the curriculum.

Four levels are apparent in this second phase:

  1. Codices of mishnayot organized solely by topic: For instance, all the special rabbinical legislation for the promotion of social order may be grouped together, even though the various laws dealing with different halakhic issues. Instead of “filing” the individual mishnayot according to their various issues in separate topical tractates, the Mishnah presents them together, grouped by an overall, mnemonic binder, e.g., “enactments for social order.39 The whole group is then “filed” in the Mishnah tractate and chapter relevant to the first element of the group. The balance of the group is thus “decontextualized” from a topical perspective, but maintained in its original literary framework.
  2. Codices of mishnayot organized solely by the name of the sage: For instance, a group of mishnayot on various topics all taught by a given scholar may be grouped together for no reason other than the mnemonic convenience of the common author. The group is “filed” in the tractate location which matches the topic of the first element of the group, as above.
  3. Codices of mishnayot organized solely by linguistic or stylistic mnemonic device: For instance, a group of mishnayot all beginning or ending with the same word or phrase may be taught together despite their disparate topics. The group will appear in the Mishnah location relevant to the first element in the group, as above.
  4. Complex collections of mishnayot, in which more than one of the above or other codex devices are present: This may include codices that are attached one to the other, or in which both a topic and an associative device are active.

The third phase of the first station adds further sophistication to the study of Mishnah. If in the first phase Mishnah is studied as a companion to WT, and if in the second phase Mishnah becomes independent literature, the third phase presents the Mishnah as a dynamic, evolving legal system. Mishnayot are often historically layered, and the stratification generally reflects stages of halakhic development in response to changes in circumstances or social needs. Although generally in chronological order, textual strata can also appear to be non-chronological until the relationship between the strata is clarified. For students of Mishnah, stratification is of cardinal importance in the perception of the dynamic potential of Jewish law and legislation. In most cases, the individual layers will represent the products of a dynamic legal and social process not reflected in the words of the Mishnah itself. By studying the layers and analyzing the movement from one layer to the other, the Mishnaic product is seen as the result of the legal process, and the student can begin to study rabbinical thought and jurisprudence.

To aid comprehension, the generations of Tannaitic sages are outlined to the pupil, including biographical sketches of the main teachers in each generation. A variety of mishnayot are presented: some entirely anonymous, some with one or more layers. Generally, named layers to appear after the earlier anonymous layer. Operative questions include the following: What is the contribution of each named layer to the anonymous layer? Is the named opinion a clarification of the anonymous opinion, an example of it, or a different opinion altogether? Is the relationship of the layers that of majority-minority opinions, or that of historical layering? What circumstances have changed from period to period that required the addition of the new layers? The levels of this phase are as follows:

  1. Wholly anonymous mishnayot,
  2. Mishnayot with an anonymous layer followed by one named opinion, in which the relationship appears to be that of majority-minority opinions within one historical layer, without historical stratification,
  3. Mishnayot with an anonymous layer followed by one, two, or three named opinions, in which the named opinions reflect historical strata in which the halakhah is being adapted to new sets of circumstances.

The study of Mishnah according to the three phases described above may constitute a curriculum unto itself, in which the specific Mishnaic material studied is selected entirely according to the skills being presented. Alternatively, the three phases can constitute a skills unit added to a standard topical Mishnah curriculum. In either case, skills in Mishnah study are most relevant to a school culture in which independent study of OT texts by pupils is an educational objective. For other school cultures, in which the study of selected mishnayot has chiefly experiential or simple informational purposes, there is obviously less need for methodological detail.

For many parents, teachers, and school administrators, the decisive question, is that of the “efficiency ratio” of text learned per lesson of textual study. That is, what is the “yield” of the text learning hour? Clearly an “upwardly-mobile yield curve” is desirable as long as a pleasant learning atmosphere and reasonable depth of textual understanding are not affected. How can this upward curve be created in Mishnah study? Two techniques, ignored by the vast majority of Jewish schools today (due to their absence in general educational technique), are most appropriate for Mishnah: learning with cantillation, and learning by heart. Each deserves a few lines.

In Jewish communities worldwide, biblical texts are learned with cantillation in accordance with the Massoretic marks and local melodic customs in the preparation of Jewish youth for Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. However, the discovery of cantillation marks on OT manuscripts makes it evident that the intoning of Mishnah is much more than a “shtetl schoolhouse” method. Tannaitic scholars apparently intoned their teachings and often formulated their remarks in codices (as discussed above) to aid the mnemonic process. I am not suggesting the use of the biblical cantillation systems for OT study, but rather “free” cantillation of Mishnah in which the melody has a pattern that can itself be learned and applied independently by pupils. Such an intoning pattern should differentiate statement from the question, fundamental from derived opinions, etc. The pupil becomes the carrier and, therefore, the trident of the OT by the very recitation and oral mastery of the intoned texts. Learning of mishnayot with cantillation is performed initially in a fashion similar to that utilized in audio-lingual applications of foreign-language instruction, then reviewed with an audio recording, not a printed book. This method allows the instructor to include facial and hand gestures as part of the Mishnah transmission, and has the side benefit of deepening the personal bond between teacher and student.

Learning by heart has virtually disappeared from Western education, being identified with authoritarian and impersonal instructional systems. However, Mishnah was intended to be memorized: students learned mishnayot as part of their personal relationship with their master and repeated given source tens, if not hundreds of times before considering themselves as having learned it. A teacher’s exact language was a genuine part of classical learning, even when the distinct expression or vocabulary utilized by the scholar had no impact on the halakhah under discussion. Memorization allows for the continual study of the material, without regard for available texts or learning aids. Internalization of the material through memorization also tends to give the student “ownership” over the material and even endears the material to the student. In one preliminary experiment conducted by this author in an average Israeli religious primary school, three out of four groups of fourth-grade pupils were randomly selected, and presented with a program based on the above techniques, without alteration of the number of hours devoted to the learning of Mishnah. The teachers, all female, had never learned Mishnah systematically and were trained and instructed to put aside all printed texts, to sing the Mishnah, and to repeat each section until most students could recite it by heart. After only two weeks of such study, it was found that the experimental classes had accomplished nearly three times the quantity of material as the control group, and the pupils and teachers registered significant upgrading of their enjoyment of the topic. Yet more intriguing was the residual impact discovered among siblings and parents of the experimental groups. Students in the experimental groups began teaching the mishnayot they had learned to their families, with the melody and gestures they had learned in school!

Station 2- Parallel Tannaitic Sources

The objective of the second station is to train the pupil to compare and contrast the Mishnah with the wider range of extant Tannaitic sources. Within the totality of Tannaitic literature, the Mishnah is retrospectively considered primus inter pares and, as such, Mishnah has become the sole focus of prevalent pre-Talmudic study. However, the proposed didactic stresses comparative study of the Mishnah and other Tannaitic sources before any study of Talmud. This intermediate stage yields rich dividends in our spiral conception of OT learning:

  • The Mishnah learned in the first station is now set in a wider context, as the pupil begins to encounter other Tannaitic statements that impact directly on the content and form of materials familiar to him/her.
  • The distinction between texts and oral traditions is sharpened since the student sees how given oral traditions appear in different texts in slightly but significantly different ways.
  • The study of parallel sources demands fuller historical background, which reinforces the interdisciplinary approach to the Mishnah text.
  • The study of parallel sources exposes the student to linguistic variety, since the various sources may utilize variant dialects or terminology for the same idea or oral tradition. This exposure helps the student to develop flexibility of comprehension, as he/she learns to see the same concept in various forms.
  • The comparison and contrasting of various Tannaitic sources prepares the pupil for the study of the literature of the Amoraim in the third station of the curriculum, since a significant component of the Amoraic enterprise was the parallel analysis of Tannaitic sources.

In this station, the phases are more functional than methodological, since they all consist of similar skills of comparison and contrast. However, the student learns to differentiate the phases from each other by the various types of parallels in the extant Tannaitic literature. In all of the “compare and contrast” operations described below, similar critical questions may be asked. What are the exact points of topical and/or stylistic similarity and difference between the sources? Do the same Tannaim appear in the various parallel texts? Do the Tannaim seem to be saying the same thing in different texts varying one from the other only in style, terminology, etc., or are their very opinions reported differently by the various sources?

In the first phase, students compare and contrast specific mishnayot learned, in the first station, with parallel sources from the Tosefta. The pupil learns how to find Tosefta parallels to the Mishnah by tractate and chapter. (Usually, parallels are within a chapter of each other in the two texts). While parallel sources in Mishnah and Tosefta often quote the same scholars on similar topics, the materials are presented in variant readings that often affect their meaning. Three types of relationships between the Mishnah and Tosefta are apparent:

  1. The Tosefta can present the sources of the discussion and/or opinions in the Mishnah.
  2. The Tosefta can present commentary on or interpretation of the discussion and/or opinions in the Mishnah.
  3. The Tosefta can present material parallel to but different from the Mishna.

In the second phase of the station, comparative study skills are utilized for Mishnah and beraita. The pupil learns that in a discussion of a given Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud, or in the Talmud Yerushalmi, beraitot which are relevant to the understanding of the Mishnah are often presented. This beraitot are marked and presented by technical introductory words and are also identified by their Hebrew language composition, and by the scholars appearing in various strata within the beraita. Beraitot are derived from extinct Tannaitic codices and may be complete units or partial phrases. They can be sources of the Mishnah, commentary on the Mishnah, or parallel to the Mishnah, as with the Tosefta above. The beraitot, once excerpted from the Talmudic discussion, are then compared directly with the Mishnah under discussion, as above in the case of Tosefta. Mishnah-beraita analysis differs from Mishnah-Tosefta analysis, however, in that the relevance of a given beraita to the Mishnah under discussion is often ambiguous or forced, and understood only in light of the Talmudic discussion itself. These characteristics form the basis of the levels of the second phase in this station.

In the third and last phase (generally only appropriate for the latter semester of the sixth primary grade due to the unique qualities and complexities of the Midreshei Halakhah), Mishnah and Midreshei Halakhah are compared. On a given Mishnah, relevant verses of the Torah are identified as in the first phase of the first station above. The Midreshei Halakhah on the verses are then consulted in order of chapter and verse of the Torah. Since the various Midreshei Halakhah are from Tannaitic schools of biblical interpretation which differ radically from each other in legal thought and practice, one of the critical questions of this phase will be: according to which school are the legal opinions presented in the Mishnah? Even when the Mishnah and Midrash Halakhah are seen to be in a fundamental legal agreement, there are a number of critical issues to be explored by the student:

  1. Does the legal opinion in the Mishnah flow from the interpretation of the verse as reflected in the midrash, or does the midrash seem to be providing textual support for an accepted legal decision?
  2. If the legal opinion of the Mishnah does flow from the interpretation of the verse, what interpretive techniques are being utilized by the Midrash? Do these techniques reflect the simple meaning of the verse (peshat) as learned in the first phase of the first station above?

Two additional benefits are realized through the three phases of this comparative study: Firstly, since the student receives a broader perspective on Tannaitic literature and a more complete picture of the background of the Mishnah itself, the student may now ask questions pertaining to the editorial approach of the Mishnah author(s). Why were given topics, opinions, examples, or applications included or excluded from the Mishnah? Does such inclusion or exclusion reflect conscious editing, or does the Mishnah simply reflect the traditions of a certain Tannaitic school? Secondly, the student is challenged to suggest ways to resolve difficulties in the comparison of the sources. For example, contradictions between sources may be resolved by the suggestion that the different sources are dealing with varying circumstances, or that the varying sources are using different terms for the same idea, or even that the varying sources are really interpreting, not contradicting, one another. Training the pupil to compare and contrast sources in order to identify such areas of potential compatibility, or even to discover that specific sources are in irreconcilable conflict with each other, pre-disposes the pupil to the foundations of Talmudic analysis, which will be the topic of our next study.