Ve-Dibbarta Bam: An Approach to Teaching Mishnah

  • by: Ira S. Kosowsky

This article originally appeared in Ten Daat vol. XII.(1999).
In many schools, the teaching of Mishnah is relegated to the status of introduction to Talmud study. Although that importance cannot be discounted, it ignores the intrinsic value of teaching Mishnah. Students can benefit greatly from seeing the structural and logical makeup of Mishnah while simultaneously surveying the expanse of halakhah found within it.
It is the opinion of this author that a minimum of two years of Mishnah study should be completed prior to beginning the study of Talmud. The goal of this course should be familiarity with and analysis of the material. I have had the opportunity to teach a diverse group of students whose observance levels range from shomer shabbat to non-observant outside of their commitment to a Jewish education. It is my hope to provide a framework for a middle-school level Mishnah course.
Prerequisites: The Type of Course
It is my opinion that Mishnah should be taught as a survey course, as opposed to choosing a masekhet and teaching the mishnahyot in sequence. Compendiums do exist for achieving this task, such as Menahem Becker’s Yalkut Mishnahyot, which was compiled for the mamlakhti dati school system in Israel. The teacher also has the option of creating his/her own survey course.
The benefits of this are as follows. First, not every mishnah, is either appropriate or of interest to the students. Second, doing assorted mishnahyot can break up the monotony of a single subject thus stimulating more interest. Third, teaching Mishnah in this way has the added benefit of affording the opportunity to teach an array of dinim in a topical manner. Finally, since students will generally be indifferent to the fact that many mishnahyot are being skipped, a greater sense of accomplishment is transmitted in the “covering of ground” that does not exist in straight masekhet study.
As teachers, we need to remember that many students need to be “turned on” to Torah study. Varying the topics and subject matter, in addition to the perception of an accelerated pace, will greatly stimulate and maintain student interest. Whenever students are in danger of either being “lost” or becoming disinterested in the current material, we can change the topic. We also need to remember that what is of interest to us may not be of interest to our students;[1] an effective course must endeavor to reach the student’s interest through the topic, the skill being taught, identification with points of view within the mishnah or commentaries, the depth of the subject matter, etc.
It is of paramount importance that students receive a firm grounding in the terminology of Mishnah study in order to be able to recognize individual trees within the forest. [2] From the standpoint of structure, The most important terms, are: mikreh, din, and ta’am. [3] Students need to be trained to constantly look for them.
Mikreh Case – The case or issue with which the Mishnah is dealing.
Din – Law – The decision that is reached or argued about in the Mishnah.
Taam – Reason- The reason for the law. Frequently, this information is not contained in the Mishnah itself. Thus, an opportunity arises for learning the commentaries on the Mishnah, or introducing Talmudic rationale.
Continuing with structural matters, teachers should use the terms reisha and seifa, connoting the beginning and concluding sections of a Mishnah. There is a certain amount of subjectivity to this. It is generally worthwhile to use the terms based on subtle changes within a Mishnah itself. For example, the reisha of a Mishnah may discuss who can do a certain activity, and the seifa would indicate when this thing could be done. Any terms used must be clear so that the students are familiar with each term and to what it refers.
Students should also be familiar with terms such as tanna kamma[4], the (anonymous) first tanna’s opinion and man di’amar (literally, the one who says), referring to a protagonist in the discussion. These terms will help the teacher to explain mahloket—disagreement—in a Mishnah. Legal terms which should be used are mutar, permitted, and assur, forbidden; hayyav, obligated (in Masekhet Shabbat, punishable for transgression), and patur, exempt (in Masecket Shabbat, not punishable for transgression on a de’oraita–Torah level, but forbidden derabbanan–on a rabbinical level).
Likewise, the terms yotzei (or, latzeit yeday hovah), fulfilling an obligation or mitzvah, and oveir, transgressing a sin or not fulfilling a mitzvah, should also be explained. Similarly, levels of fulfillment are expressed through the terms lehatkhila–how a mitzvah should be observed in prospect, and bidi’avad–how a mitzvah is fulfilled in retrospect. Some items may or may not be usable for a mitzvah and are denoted bykasher, suitable, and pasul, not suitable. Similarly, kavvanah, one’s intention when performing either a mitzvah or an aveirah, and shi’ur, the amount necessary to either fulfill a mitzvah or transgress an aveirah, are also important terms, as are mahmir, stringent, and meikeil, lenient.
Finally, in dealing with the ta’am, the term makor, source, is clearly important. In Mishnah, this will usually be referring to a pasuk (Torah Shebikhtav), although at times it can also be referring to the mesorah(Torah Shebe’al Peh), or Jewish tradition on the matter.
Terms for analyzing the Mishnah will be discussed in the Analysis section of this article below.
The Course: Vocabulary
Although vocabulary is an important staple of every discipline, the teacher should be careful not to overdo it in class. At the beginning of each unit, students should be given sheets that list the entire vocabulary that will be used. The sheets should be divided into four columns: the words (the only column which is filled out by the teacher); the shoresh (root); the prefix/suffix (kidomet/siyomet); and the targum (translation).[5]For example (reading from right to left):

Targum P/S Shoresh Milim
That occurs sh hol shehal

Since this sheet is meant as a quick reference for the students, the source mishnah should be clearly labeled. This method obviates the need for teachers to write vocabulary words on the board and for students to copy them.
Utilizing this sheet is not only time-effective, but also builds important skills. The students should be assigned to complete the shoresh and P/S columns at home or in class. The student’s early exposure to these skills will greatly assist future vocabulary capabilities. It is up to the individual teacher’s discretion whether or not it is better to have students look in a dictionary for the translation, or supply them in class. Frequently, it is best to assign a whole mishnah’s vocabulary the night before teaching it and then either provide all translations prior to starting the mishnah or supply them as you teach, insuring that those words which were looked up were translated properly. In this way, students should never need to interrupt a lesson to ask the meaning of a word and they will always have a glossary to review.
Requiring rote memorization of words is pointless since most students will not realistically remember them for more than a day or two. Only basic, recurring words should be memorized. We should remember how often we find ourselves looking in a dictionary and expect that ultimately our students will do the same.
Students at this age crave structure. Mishnah study provides that structure in an easy enough way to satisfy the individual’s need for a sense of comprehensive accomplishment while simultaneously fulfilling the teacher’s goal of supplying greater depth in Torah study.
As indicated above, emphasis needs to be placed on the mikreh, din and ta’am of each mishnah. If students spend enough time identifying the structures of various mishnayot, it will guide them in future study and serve as an excellent introduction to Talmud. By enabling them, in addition, to anticipate the next step in logical analysis, Mishnah study will serve students well in every academic discipline.
The ta’am does not always appear in the mishnah itself. Stating that the Gemara explains the ta’am as such-and-such, informs the students that there is a next and deeper step, serving as an excellent segue to Gemara. Some of the time teachers can also make connections to the mefarshim (commentators) to get the students used to the idea of more sophisticated learning. They need no longer simply accept a din, but are able to understand its purpose and application. 
Analysis is not the most important part of the course; ANALYSIS IS THE COURSE. Breaking down opinions and ideas into their most succinct forms helps build analytical skills. An effective means of achieving this is to teach students to distinguish between their own words and those of the mishnah. Asking questions that specify “in your own words,” or “in the words of the mishnah,” facilitates this type of distinction. For example, in Masekhet Shabbat (12:1), the mishnah indicates that haboneh kol shehu… hayyav. A student asked to supply the words of the mishnah for how much one needs to actually build on Shabbat to be punished should answer– kol shehu; in his/her own words — any amount.
A critical form of analysis I have observed to be well within the grasp of students, is the hevdeil ekroni, or fundamental difference.[6] This exercise is pivotal in teaching students how to think. When a student is able to break down a disagreement to its most basic level, s/he has demonstrated the analytical ability to comprehend the mishnah at a deep level. Additionally, such analysis will prepare the student thoroughly for Talmud study, which clearly operates with advanced levels of reasoning. For example, in Masekhet Pesahim (10:2), there is a disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel concerning the order of the berakhot inkiddush. Examining the commentaries, however, reveals that each opinion is based on a fundamental disagreement over the greater priority of the wine or the festival in requiring kiddush. Thus, the hevdeil ekronibetween them would be, “what is the underlying cause of kiddush?” According to one, the wine; were there no wine, there would be no kiddush. According to the other, the festival; were it not a festival, there would be no kiddush.
Beware that students will often articulate the difference as, “He says this. The other one says that.” We must emphasize that repetition of different points of view does not indicate a difference. Arithmetic provides an effective illustration of this point. The difference between eight and two is six, not that eight is eight and two is two.
Another format for analytical development is dimyon ekroni, or fundamental similarity. Resembling the hevdeil ekroni, this establishes the student’s reasoning by identifying what two or more things have in common, similar to a common denominator in mathematics. This also connects nicely into Talmud study. For example, in the third perek of Masekhet Sukkah, mishnahyot 1, 2, 3, 5 stipulate criteria which would render any of the four minim used on Sukkot unusable, or pasul. Students could be asked to identify the four disqualifications and identify as the dimyon ekroni the similar “things which objectively make one of the species unusable.”
Finally, teachers should seize the opportunity Mishnah gives for teaching dinim — law. The extent to which the teacher does this and to what depth, is subject to individual discretion. However, the halakhic options available should be utilized to give the students a personal association with the material, bringing the information alive by making it relevant. For example, the Mishnah (Shabbat, Perek 13) describes tzad–trapping, via a deer. While few students have deer running near their homes, many have pets. Likewise, everyone has had an experience involving sitting in the sukkah when a bee appears and the effort is begun to trap it under a cup.
Enumerating the benefits of peer exchange (or cooperative learning) far exceeds the bounds of this article and can be researched in numerous educational periodicals. It has two particular benefits for this course. One, by simply using it, the teacher has employed multi-modal teaching techniques.[7]Variety is not only the spice of life, but often times the key to maintaining student interest. Second, the paired off students become accustomed to discuss the material without the teacher, and thereby learn on their own.
Practically, the second benefit can best be achieved (and much of the time can only be achieved) by distributing a handout which provides questions for the students to answer within a prescribed time limit. This serves to maximize both the time used and the education given. The teacher circulating from pair to pair will also help insure that the students will use the time most effectively.
Testing in a Mishnah course needs to accomplish the same goals as the course itself –familiarity and analysis,–and not the rote memorization of facts. Mathematics provides the best example of good testing. In class, students learn skills to solve problems. Homework is given to reinforce proficiency. Testing is not merely a repetition of the class and homework problems, but new problems to solve; new examples upon which to use the hopefully mastered skills.
There need not be a vocabulary section but questions can be asked that test vocabulary. For example, asking a student to identify a phrase, or directing him/her to a particular commentary that contains the vocabulary, forces the students to be aware of the meaning of the words. Similarly, information should be summoned in a way which forces the students to think about it, not just regurgitate it. A good Mishnah test has three sections: beki’ut, iyyun, and she’elot hazarah.
The beki’ut section simply tests the students’ basic knowledge of the current material. Questions are not analytically challenging, but merely expect the students to be capable of identifying the location of ideas in the text. The teacher supplies an idea from a Mishnah, and the student indicates where this concept can be found. Clearly, this can only be done in an open-book format. For example, in a test of Masekhet RoshHashanah, a teacher might write. “The world is judged four times during the year.” The student would indicate that this idea could be found in perek Aleph, mishnah Bet.
The iyyun section of the test should be guided by our earlier discussion of Analysis, utilizing questions similar to those discussed there. One might ask for a hevdeil ekroni not yet discussed in class or new perspectives on mishnayot that were already covered. The teacher will want to include some less analytical questions, too, to allow all students to feel a sense of accomplishment, but these should be interspersed with the more demanding questions. Student fulfillment can be attained in different ways. When students know that they have been challenged, and have risen to the occasion, they will feel that they have accomplished. I frequently tell my students that because I respect both their time and intelligence, I give them more demanding exams.
The she’elot hazarah, or review section, also assumes an open-book test. This part of the exam serves the purpose of encouraging pupils to review the material throughout the year. Students frequently study for a test and forget within a day or two that which they knew so well on the exam. Hopefully, a year of study in this mode will stimulate their recollection of the approximate location of a topic in the future.
Toward that end, questions need to be concise, one or two word answers, and need to elicit the location where the answer can be found. For example, a question can ask for the halakhic status of a certain type ofetrog. The student would answer kasher or pasul and then provide the masekhet, perek and mishnah where the answer can be found. This section of a test is indeed similar to the beki’ut portion. The difference is that it is cumulative. At the end of the year students should expect an exam which comprises only she’elot hazarah. It is unrealistic to expect most students to remember the facts of a course in perpetuity. Nonetheless, this type of study and questioning should ensure that a student, at some later date, could be asked a question from this exam and know, at least, where to look to ascertain the answer.
It is my sincere hope that the reader will find the above article helpful in formulating an effective Mishnah curriculum. It should be noted that the presentation is not theoretical but an actual curriculum used over a number of years with a wide range of students. It has given students a firm grounding in the information contained within many mishnayot and has introduced them to conceptual reasoning. Students who have experienced it have found themselves prepared for Talmudic discussions and able to recall ideas from the course. As with any curriculum, it is constantly being analyzed for areas to improve.
[1] This idea was expressed to me by Dr. Betty Daror, who taught me in elementary school and was kind enough to give me this advice prior to my first model lesson.
[2] This idea is known in educational literature as “core concepts.”
[3] Rabbi Uri Gordon suggested these structural terms to me before I started teaching Mishnah
[4] It is presumed that an introduction has been given to the Mishnah course explaining that the tannaim authored the Mishnah. In addition, students should be familiar with terms like seder, masekhet, perek, mishnah and should be trained to find mishnayot according to the formula: masekhet Berakhot, perek Hey, mishnah Gimmel. As different editions of the Mishnah have different pagination, student use of page numbers should be discouraged.
[5] Rabbi Uri Gordon originally suggested this format to me for Talmud study. It has proven effective wherever it is employed.
[6] Both the term and idea are from Nehama Leibowitz, A “H.
[7] Many pictorial Mishnah texts have been published. These can be used either as handouts or overhead projections to stimulate student interest and comprehension.
Rabbi Kosowsky teaches Judaic Studies at the Beth Tfiloh Upper School in Baltimore, MD.