Mishnah with Meaning: Review of The Soul of the Mishna by Yakov Nagen

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Richard Hidary


One Shabbat afternoon during my gap year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, I joined up with two friends for a chess match at the home of Yakov Genack (now Rabbi Dr. Nagen). The three of us each set up a chess board and played simultaneous matches against Yakov while he was blindfolded. Yakov, who was just a few years ahead of us in his studies, checkmated the other two, but I―in one of my proudest moments ever―was able to achieve a glorious stalemate. Needless to say, us younger students stood in awe of Yakov’s brilliance, a reputation that shines through the pages of his newly translated work, The Soul of the Mishna (Maggid Press, 2021).

The title comes from the identification of the mystical muse of Rabbi Yosef Karo who revealed kabbalistic secrets to the sage by merit of his Mishnah recitation. The alliteration works better in the Hebrew title Nishmat ha-Mishnah, from which this book has been expertly translated into English by Elie Leshem. The volume includes 72 standalone essays ranging from two to nine pages. Each essay opens with a citation of a mishnah in Hebrew and English followed by a concise and creative analysis. Nagen draws on wide-ranging sources from Maimonides to mystics, from the Talmud to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and from Saul Lieberman’s academic scholarship to lyrics by Bob Dylan.

Despite the wide range of citations and methodologies that Nagen employs, and although it spans topics selected from all of rabbinic law, this book nevertheless bears a consistent message: the Mishnah is not a dry manual of rules and regulations but a masterfully deep wellspring of inspiration encoded within a ritual system and legal tradition. While each essay offers a unique self-contained insight, reading the entire book reveals several themes and methodologies, of which I will explore just three: strategies for Jewish continuity without a Temple, relating oral law to Scripture, and the search for meaning in both daily rituals as well as in life’s milestones and tragedies.

After the Temple’s destruction, the sages reconvened at Yavneh to reconstruct Judaism in a form that could withstand exile. Dara Horn highlights the powerful parallelism between the person of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the nation he strove to save:

On the eve of this temple’s destruction, one sage, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, had himself smuggled out of the besieged city of Jerusalem in a coffin, after which he convinced the Roman general Vespasian to allow him to open an academy for Torah scholars in a small town far from Jerusalem. Both Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Judaism faked their own deaths…to survive this cataclysm. The small cadre of scholars in that small town reinvented this religion by turning it into a virtual-reality system, replacing temple rituals with equally ritualized blessings and prayers, study of Torah, and elaborately regulated interpersonal ethics.[1]

Indeed, a simple reading of the Talmud about prayers replacing sacrifices demonstrates how the rabbis reinvented Jewish worship. But Nagen uncovers a deeper stratum in the way the sages subtly embedded this reimagining into the coded DNA of mishnaic legalese. Why does Mishnah Berakhot 1:1 teach that the earliest time to recite Shema in the evening is when the priests go in to eat terumah? Nagen, not one to understate the potential significance of even a small detail, proposes that the answer reveals the Mishnah’s attitude “toward fundamental questions regarding life and the essence of humanity” (2).

The Torah, Nagen explains, calls upon the Israelites to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Mishnah inscribes Temple-based rituals into various daily and holiday commandments so as to elevate each Jew to the level of a priest. Wearing tzitzit democratizes the high priest’s donning of the tzitz on his head. Handwashing before bread derives from priests washing before eating terumah. Recitation of Shema corresponds with the daily tamid offering considering that both are required in the morning and afternoon, thereby bookending the day with acceptance of the yoke of heaven. All of the times proposed in the Mishnah for recitation of Shema, including the terumah allowance at nightfall, derive from the Temple schedule (the Mishnah explicitly relates midnight and dawn to the burning of fats and eating of sacrifices). Nagen demonstrates each point based on prior academic research, literary clues in the Mishnah, and explicit Talmudic and midrashic sources.

Why does the Mishnah mandate blowing shofar specifically during musaf of Rosh Hashanah? Noting the Torah’s instruction to blow shofar over sacrifices, Nagen builds off the Yerushalmi to explain that the musaf shofar blowing highlights the original connection between shofar and all sacrifices (165).

Mishnah Sukkah details categories of etrogim and other leafy species that cause them to be invalid: stolen, withered, from Asherah, with a rash, perforated, discolored, or impure. Some will say that this is the way of the rabbis to turn a simple celebration of vegetation into a set of picayune, magnifying-glass-requiring technicalities. But Nagen demonstrates that each of these requirements derives precisely from laws of sacrifices (216). The Talmud explicitly equates taking the four species with offering an animal sacrifice. Transferring the detailed laws from one realm to the other is the mechanism through which the rabbis symbolically express the power of shaking lulav to appease God for rain, with the added benefit that in this iteration, everyone―not only priests―can participate without any need to shed and sprinkle blood. The legislative and literary project of the Mishnah inspired the sages and their followers to continue their traditions even in uncertain circumstances of loss and exile.

The Mishnah’s project of reconstructing a post-Temple ritual language, legal world, and practicing community necessarily engendered a tenuous distance between the static written Bible and the ever-evolving oral tradition. Indeed, the Mishnah rarely cites verses and seems unconcerned to explain if and how the oral Torah is rooted in or even related to Scripture. Unlike Midrash and the Talmud, which seek to bridge this gap through biblical exegesis, the Mishnah presents itself as a standalone legal code, perhaps in imitation of and as a reaction against Hadrian’s Roman legal codes.

Nevertheless, Nagen traces subtle but convincing scriptural references in unexpected ways throughout the Mishnah and builds on them to discover new meanings. For example, why does Mishnah Berakhot 6:1 include specific blessings before eating fruits, vegetables, wine, and bread, while meat and other foods get only a general formula of thanks “for everything (she-hakol)”? Nagen explains this as a throwback to primordial man’s vegan diet in the Garden of Eden and a reminder of that ideal state (67). Before eating bread, why recite, “Who brings forth bread from the earth,” considering that bread does not grow ready to eat but instead requires so much human effort to prepare? This formula quotes Psalms 104:14, which itself reminds us of the Edenic gatherer society before the original punishment now known as the agricultural revolution (see Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).

In a splendidly inspiring reading, Nagen demonstrates that the narrative telling of the nightly and morning Temple rituals reenacts a drama from Song of Songs (391). Mishnah Middot describes 24 watchers surrounding the Temple. A chief officer would check on each one―and if he found the watchman sleeping, the chief would beat him for being derelict at his job, strip him, and burn his uniform. Meanwhile, the priests serving on the next day would sleep in the chamber of the fireplace all night so as to be ready and present for the morning. Any priest who wanted a chance to perform the first task, the seemingly menial task of sweeping the ashes off of the altar, would awake before dawn, bathe, and dress in his uniform. The superintendent would then knock on the chamber door around dawn and find the priests bathed, dressed, and ready to perform their service. Past commentators have wondered at this detailed narrative―how it lacks any argumentation or legal significance―and would question whether this represents actual events or a rabbinic reconstruction.

Nagen brilliantly points to word parallels in Song of Songs 5:2-7, which narrates the lover sleeping as her beloved knocks on the door on a rainy night. Laziness overcomes her―she is not dressed; she already washed her feet―and she delays getting to the door. When she finally gets the strength to open the door, her beloved is gone. She goes out to seek him only to be beaten and stripped by the city watchman. Nagen argues that the Mishnah’s narrative is a replay of the Song of Songs mishap; but, this time, the watchmen stay awake at ready attention. This time, when the superintendent knocks―indicating the time to begin the divine service and invite the shekhinah―the priests are ready, bathed and dressed with keys in hand, waiting to open the door in anticipation and eagerness.

In yet another learned example, Nagen demonstrates that the order of the Passover liturgy in Mishnah Pesahim 10:3-5 follows the order of Exodus 12:25-27 (138). Furthermore, Rabban Gamliel’s instruction to explain “pesah, matzah, and merorim” corresponds with the order in Exodus 12:8, “meat…roasted with fire, and matzot, with bitter herbs they shall eat it.” In printed editions of the Mishnah, the elaboration of these key terms follows the same order. In manuscripts, however, while the order in the heading remains “pesah, matzah, and merorim,” the last two items are reversed in the elaboration. Nagen insightfully relates this shift to a difference in the next paragraph. In manuscripts, the next line reads, “Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, raise up, [and] exalt Him who did all these miracles.” It would be incongruous to go from an explanation of the bitterness of slavery straight into thanksgiving. Therefore, the manuscript version keeps the order of Scripture when introducing the three terms, but it concludes the elaborations with the redemptive note of matzah so as to prompt the recitation of Hallel.

Printed editions, by contrast, insert a new paragraph after the maror explanation that reads, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt.” In this version, the elaboration section can end with bitterness because it is the reenactment of the Exodus, not the recitation of the three terms, that inspires the gratitude for reciting Hallel. This example neatly combines methodologies of subtle scriptural reliance, manuscript comparison, and literary structure, to appreciate the consistency of two versions of the Mishnah.

In a world where traditional learners hardly ever consult a manuscript and academics rarely consider the spiritual relevance of an ancient text, Nagen integrates these two approaches to the point that each is dependent on the other. When Mishnah Berakhot 5:5 quotes Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa saying that his prayer is fluent (shegurah) in his mouth, Nagen points to manuscripts that read “strongly flowing” (shagrah). The upshot is not just that the prayer is without error but that it flows with its own power, indicating divine inspiration guiding the supplicant. Building on a scholarly debate in the pages of Tarbiz and combining those insights with an idea from Sefer Yetzirah and modern neuroscience, Nagen concludes that the chapter of Mishnah, when read carefully, teaches that: “By quieting one’s speech and thoughts, one arrives at a state that enables right-brain awareness. This consciousness is conducive to mystical experiences, to contact with the Beyond” (59). This demonstrates the potential power of an interdisciplinary approach to produce a sublime interpretation that even has a fair chance of approaching the deep intent of the Mishnah’s authors.

Nagen teaches at Yeshivat Otniel, a large Hesder program south of Hebron that incorporates rigorous Talmud study with Hasidic teachings and artistic expression. The yeshiva welcomes the integration of multiple approaches and methodologies, including traditional, halakhic, historical, scientific, psychological, mystical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. The eclectic nature of Nagen’s personality and his teachings surely resonate in this cutting-edge educational setting. Nagen’s passionate search for meaning in this book and in Yeshivat Otniel’s atmosphere is fueled, at least in part, by its share of painful tragedies. In 2002, after analyzing Mishnah Yoma’s poetic description of the incense smoke in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, one student, Avi Sabag, explained that this requirement teaches us that “our ticket to enter holy places is the understanding that we do not understand” (195). A few days later, a terrorist opened fire on Avi’s car, killing the newly married combat medic and Torah teacher. Later that same year, jihadists entered the yeshiva’s dining room, murdering four students.

In 2005, Aviad, the son of one of Otniel’s teachers, was murdered by a terrorist gunman, leaving the students to search for consolation in the Mishnah’s laws of mourning (39). Why does Mishnah Berakhot 3:1 exempt a mourner from prayer and from wearing tefillin? Perhaps because, as Nagen writes, “When our dead lies before us, we do not need those means for connecting to God, for He is right there in front of us.” This insight was triggered by Aviad’s funeral, where “all of the participants felt, alongside terrible pain, God’s tangible presence.” Like the lesson of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, sometimes only an encounter with death can sprout forth new possibilities of life.

Nagen’s teachings at Otniel cannot afford to be dry academic minutiae because his students depend on the inspiration of their studies to build up, defend, and reconstruct once again Judaism in and for the State of Israel. Nagen powerfully demonstrates that the path back to the national homeland is recessed in the DNA codes of the Mishnah that already gave the Jewish people the tools to survive the long exile.

Nagen’s methodology builds on the literary approach to Mishnah founded by Rabbi Dr. Avi Walfish, another teacher of mine who had a profound impact on my own intellectual and spiritual journey. The Mishnah has classically been studied only in conjunction with the Gemara, causing its concise and poetic profundity to become overshadowed by the Talmud’s ocean of dialectic. Walfish pioneered the literary study of Mishnah as the co-founding editor of the journal Netu’im, in his dissertation on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, and in many articles and lectures (see his Mishnah Project). Drawing on literary approaches to Bible study so popular at Herzog College where he taught for decades, Walfish finds in the Mishnah leitworts, envelope structures, alliteration, anaphora, paronomasia, and other poetic features that help highlight essential but subtle themes and ideas. Walfish and Nagen inspire us to revisit the Mishnah as a standalone masterpiece.

Nagen’s commentaries are at once new and profound but also written clearly without jargon or need for prerequisite knowledge, making this book an enjoyable read for sages, scholars, and novices alike. Readers can argue that many of Nagen’s interpretations are creative “midrashic” extensions that make wonderful reading but that have little grounding in the text and context of the Mishnah. Even so, Nagen certainly offers dozens of rigorous and convincing demonstrations of the legitimacy and power of his approach to recover new “peshatim” in the Mishnah―certainly enough seeds of ideas for several PhD dissertations’ worth of expansion. In his scholarship as in his chess playing, Nagen displays a talent for meditating on what came before to envision several moves ahead. This book lights a path to the possibilities of Torah waiting to be revealed, and it is an invitation to future students to continue drawing new life from The Soul of the Mishna.

[1] Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021), 169.

Richard Hidary is a professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University and a rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue. He was a Starr fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies and a Clal - LEAP fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud (Brown University Press, 2010) and Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is currently writing a commentary on Talmudic discussions of Jewish holidays and recording Daf Yomi classes (available on YouTube). He also runs the websites,, and