Title: The Soul of the Mishna
By Yakov Nagen
Maggid Books, 436 pages hardcover
To be honest, I’ve been looking forward to Nishmat HaMishna’s appearance in English for many years. This is a book that opened up a whole new approach to learning Torah Sh’B’al Peh that I, up to that point, had not been introduced to: finding spirituality in the mundane. After re-reading The Soul of the Mishna now, many years later, it seems that Chazal were so immersed in Torah Sh’Bichtav and what we now term spirituality that when they wrote the Mishna they wrote it using a myriad of allusions to suggest many ideas to the reader.
To put it more simply: The Soul of the Mishna is a masterwork on teaching us how to see what was always there in front of our eyes the whole time. To achieve this lofty goal, Rabbi Nagen uses both traditional and academic perspectives on the Mishna in order to get to the essence of what the Mishna is trying to teach. I would be quite remiss to not mention that Elie Leshem’s translation is amazing. It reads like it was written originally in English while, at the same time, remaining faithful to the Hebrew original. The Soul of the Mishna has 72 chapters covering 21 different masechtot, although it must be noted that 48 of those are in Tractate Berachot and Seder Moed.
To give one fascinating example, Nagen points out that both Masechet Taanit and Masechet Tamid deliberately use linguistic references to Shir haShirim within the Mishna – though the goals of each Tractate are unique. “Tractate Tamid teaches us that the entire nation takes part” in petitioning Hashem for rain, which is highlighted by the story of Honi HaMaagal. “Honi, who has no title – certainly not that of rabbi or priest –is presented as a man of the people. He is not part of the cohort of soil, and yet he is closer to G-d.” Masechet Tamid, on the other hand, through teaching about the daily avoda, teaches us “a crucial point about divine service. The pinnacle of the relationship with G-d, the consumption of the love and intimacy described in the Song of Songs, is attained by way of clearing the ashes, a mundane action seemingly tantamount to taking out the garbage… to pay attention to the small details in life and the needs of one’s partner is to show love.” The smaller the details, the greater the love.
That is the fundamental message that Rabbi Nagen has shown throughout this book. Chazal, by utilizing quotes, hints, allegories, stories, parallels, associations and a myriad of other literary devices, are trying to teach us how to “cleave with our hearts and souls to the root of the Mishna – G-d Himself.” This is not a book about the Mishna, it’s not a history book nor is it a book trying to teach you about the personalities of the Tannaim, although it certainly touches on all of that; both The Soul of the Mishna and the Mishna itself are books about living a life with the Creator present in our daily lives.