Who’s in Charge of Understanding the Mishnah?

BY: Joshua E. Broyde.

One of the primary cornerstones of Jewish law is the principle that the Gemara is the authoritative source in deciding Halakhah.  If the Gemara hands down a ruling, later scholars cannot disagree with it. However, outside of Halakhah, there is considerably more leeway. Thus, we find many Rishonim (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Ramban, to name a few) who do not necessarily interpret biblical passages in accordance with the Gemara’s exegetical understanding. This is allowed because the authority of the Talmud, while carrying huge weight, does not fully bind us in terms of how we understand the text of the Torah. Similarly, we find that some Rishonim think that the Gemara’s aggadic portions are not authoritative like the halakhic sections are. This rule is summarized in Shemuel ha-Nagid’s Introduction to the Talmud: “One learns from [the aggadic sections] only those parts that are logical and does not rely [on those aggadic sections] that are illogical.”

I would like to explore this concept in a different arena: the interpretation of the Mishnah. As I said before, we already know that the Tanakh can be interpreted against the Gemara.[i] On the surface, it would seem strange to say that one may interpret the Mishnah against the Gemara. After all, given the fact that the Gemara is a halakhic work and the Mishnah deals with Halakhah, it would appear that one must always defer to the Gemara’s understanding of the Mishnah. However, I will try to show that, in fact, the Rishonim sometimes go against the Gemara when interpreting Mishnayyot.

The first Torah scholar to lay out principles guiding how we explain the Mishnah was the author of the Tosafot Yom Tov, R. Yosef Lipmann Heller. In an attempt to defend Rambam’s interpretation of Massekhet Nazir 5:5, he writes as follows:

“Even though in the Gemara they did not explain the Mishnah [the same way Rambam did], since for practical purposes there is no difference, one may explain the Mishnah in any way one wants. Because I do not see a difference between explaining a Mishnah and explaining the pesukim […] as long as one does not explain any law in a way that contradicts the Gemara.”[ii]

Thus, it is clear that the same rule that applies for the text of the Torah also applies to the text of the Mishnah. However, one example does not form a rule, and I would like to bring a few examples of this concept as applied to various Mishnayot.[iii]

In Shabbat 7:1, the Mishnah begins with the phrase “Kelal gadol ameru be-Shabbat,” “[The Rabbis] formulated a great rule (kelal gadol) regarding the laws of Shabbat.” The Gemara that follows has a lengthy explanation as to why it is called “kelal gadol,” a great rule, as opposed to most other places in the Mishnah that state “ha-kelal,” the rule, without using the word “gadol.” Rambam, however, in his commentary to the Mishnah,[iv] seems to largely ignore the discussion in the Gemara and instead simply says that it is called a “great rule” because the punishment for intentionally violating Shabbat is stoning, and since stoning is the harshest punishment that can be meted out,[v] the Mishnah calls this rule “gadol.” Note that Rambam’s approach here to Mishnaic interpretation accords with the rule set out by Tosafot Yom Tov. Since “gadol” is completely irrelevant to Halakhah and is just a linguistic discussion, Rambam does not feel bound by the Gemara’s explanation.

Another example of this type of interpretation of the Mishnah is in Shabbat 3:5. The Mishnah there goes as follows: “R. Shimon says: One may move any candle on Shabbat except a candle that is currently lit.” Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, explains that the reason for R. Shimon’s view is that one may accidentally extinguish the candle if it is moved while lit. However, this explanation is just a hava amina, an initial assumption, in the Gemara, and is eventually rejected in favor of a different explanation. It seems as if Rambam thought that the hava amina of the Gemara, even though it is ultimately rejected, fits better with the Mishnah, and therefore explains it in that fashion.

However, unlike the previous example, this is a halakhic discussion with real practical differences! Therefore, what right does Rambam have to explain this Mishnah in a way that is inconsistent with the maskanah (conclusion) of the Gemara? The answer seems to be that since we do not paskn like R. Shimon, one may interpret his opinion against the maskanah of the Gemara. Thus, we emerge with an important principle: not only does the topic have to be halakhic in order for the Gemara’s opinion to be binding, but the opinion has to be accepted la-halakhah (as halakhah). From this interpretation of Rambam, one sees that one is free to analyze rejected opinions in the Mishnah even against the maskanah of the Gemara.[vi] In general, it is not uncommon for Rambam to explain Mishnayyot according to the hava amina when he is explaining a rejected shittah.[vii]

It is also possible to argue that Rambam is driven to this explanation for the sake of simplicity. According to this understanding, one is bound to the Gemara’s interpretation of rejected opinions, but Rambam simply does not bother to give the correct explanation. The Gemara’s explanation of R. Shimon relies on a deep analysis of the concept of muktseh. Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, does not want to delve into these complexities. Therefore, since this view is rejected anyway, he explains it in the simplest fashion possible.

Interestingly enough, Rashi also presents the rejected explanation found in the Gemara.[viii] However, since Rashi’s perush is primarily a commentary to the Gemara and not the Mishnah, it is possible that he is working with the hava amina with the assumption that the reader will reject it when the Gemara does.

Another example of an interpretation of the Mishnah that differs from that of the Gemara can be found in Bava Batra 4:9: “R. Shimon says: One who gives his field to the Temple as hekdesh (consecrated property) has only given the grafted carob tree and the mature sycamore tree.” Rambam, followed by R. Ovadiah mi-Bartenura, explains this Mishnah as a presentation of R. Shimon’s opinion. According to the Gemara, however, this is a misrepresentation, as the Gemara explains that R. Shimon is only saying this opinion in accordance with the Rabbis, but that it is not really his own opinion. Therefore, how can Rambam and Bartenura contradict the Gemara by presenting this as R. Shimon’s opinion?

The Tosafot Yom Tov, in response to this problem, says, “Rav Ovadiah mi-Bartenura explains our Mishnah like its simple and basic meaning.”[ix] From reading the Mishnah, it appears as though R. Shimon stands by this position. Since R. Shimon is rejected la-halakhah, Bartenura does not feel compelled to say that R. Shimon is speaking according to the Rabbis. However, I would submit that if R. Shimon’s actual opinion (as set forth in the Gemara) was accepted la-halakhah, then R. Ovadiah would have explained it in accordance with the Gemara and noted that R. Shimon’s opinion presented in the Mishnah does not really belong to R. Shimon.

To summarize, we now have examples of interpretations where the Rishonim explain a rejected opinion of the Mishnah against the opinion of the Gemara. This seems to result from one of two concepts. Either these Rishonim do not feel that the Gemara’s explanation of the Mishnah is authoritative, or, for practical reasons, they would prefer to give an incorrect but simple explanation of the Mishnah.

However, as noted above, this type of simplification does not happen when Halakhah is involved. To further emphasize this point, I know of no place where Rambam or Bartenura sacrifice accuracy for the sake of simplicity when they are discussing Halakhah. When Rambam is discussing an opinion that is accepted la-halakhah, he always includes the okimta’ot, the qualifications or restrictions of the case, found in the respective Gemaras, to the extent that the reader fully understands the Mishnah la-halakhah.  This is true even when the Gemara’s okimta’ot are not clear from the literal meaning of the Mishnah.

Bava Metsi’a 1:1 also provides an example of where some commentaries ignore the view of the Gemara. The Mishnah there says: “Two people are holding a garment: one says, ‘I found it,’ and the other says, ‘I found it.’ This one says, ‘It is all mine,’ and this one says, ‘It is all mine.’ They both swear that they each have no less than half and split it.”

The Gemara there says that the phrase “This one says, ‘It is all mine’ and this one says, ‘It is all mine’” is completely separate from the first part of the Mishnah and is discussing a sale. Me’iri, on the other hand, explains that the first phrase is a general rule, and that the second phrase (and the third phrase that follows in the Mishnah) are all dealing with different permutations of cases where people make different claims of ownership on the items that they find.[x]

Note that Me’iri’s view is not against Halakhah, as the Mishnah, in his opinion, is simply talking about finding an object, but is silent on the halakhot regarding a sale. The Gemara, on the other hand, thinks the Mishnah is discussing both a sale and the finding of an object. It seems that Me’iri would be of the opinion that even though the Gemara’s analysis of a sale regarding a garment is correct, it is simply not explicit in the Mishnah.

These are only a few examples out of many. Nevertheless, they demonstrate a point: there is a concept, at least according to Rambam, R. Ovadiah mi-Bartenura, and Me’iri, that one has the right to interpret Mishnayyot against the Gemara within certain constraints.

It seems that not only the Rishonim, but even the Aharonim agree with this principle. The Gra, in his commentary to the Mishnah, does not always agree with the Gemara’s interpretation.  For example, the Mishnah in Berakhot 4:1 says: “Tefillat Arvit ein lah keva – the Ma’ariv prayer is not set.” The Gemara there explains that the Mishnah means that Ma’ariv is optional. However, the Gra, in his commentary to that Mishnah, explains that the Mishnah’s statement means that Ma’ariv has no time limit.[xi] This example is not an aberration for the Gra. R. Yehudah Leib Maimon, in his Sefer ha-Gra,[xii] gives many examples of places where the Gra disputes the Gemara’s understanding of the Mishnah and other Tannaitic material such as the Tosefta.

It would seem to me that this opinion of the Gra can be connected to another one of his puzzling views. The Pe’at ha-Shulhan, in an effort to explain the concept of “hassurei mehassera ve-hakhi ka-tanei,”[xiii] notes in the name of the Vilna Gaon:

“There are no words missing in the Mishnah that Rabbi (R. Yehudah ha-Nasi) wrote, and it is not Rabbi’s style to omit words. Rather, Rabbi holds like a certain Tanna and wrote the Mishnah like him. The Gemara, on the other hand, holds like a different Tanna, and, according to that other Tanna, gives the answer of hassurei mehassera.”[xiv]

This approach fits very well with the principle above. On a purely analytical level, the Mishnah makes perfect sense on its own and can be understood completely independently of the Gemara. However, since the Gemara holds by a different opinion than the Mishnah, it must reconcile the plain reading of the Mishnah with the accepted law.[xv] The bottom line of this approach is that the Mishnah can be correctly understood according to its basic meaning, just as long as it is not understood la-halakhah. The Gra seems to have accepted this approach in his commentary to the Mishnah.

It appears that there is a strong tradition of understanding the Mishnah not in accordance with the final conclusion of the Gemara. However, everyone agrees with the final conclusion of the Tosafot Yom Tov mentioned above: that the alternative interpretation of the Mishnah must not disagree with the final halakhah found in the Gemara.

It would seem to me that while this type of interpretation or explanation does not lead to a halakhic nafka minah (practical difference), it does lead to a tremendous nafka minah in terms of how we should think about and even learn Gemara. When I learn Gemara and encounter a halakhah, I never think to myself, “Josh, do you agree with the halakhah that the Gemara just stated?” The question simply never enters my mind. If the Gemara states a halakhah, the halakhah, by definition, must be true. To assert the opposite would seem to border on the heretical.[xvi] However, based on the above analysis, it would appear that one may ask oneself, “Does the okimta of the Gemara actually fit with the Mishnah?” If the okimta does fit, then the Gemara’s okimta is to be accepted. However, based on the final example that I gave, one is perfectly allowed to say, “Even though the din (legal ruling) presented in the Gemara is correct and true, it is not the case that the Mishnah is talking about.” This type of analysis also allows the student of the Talmud to appreciate the bridge between the halakhah of the Gemara and the original text of the Mishnah.

Joshua E. Broyde is a junior at YC majoring in Chemistry.

[i] See, for example, Rashi to Bereshit 3:8, s.v. va-yishme’u; Rashbam to Bereshit 37:2, s.v. elleh toledot. The Gemara itself (e.g. Shabbat 63a) occasionally invokes the principle that the plain interpretation of the verse is not superceded by the Gemara. This could be taken to mean that even when the Gemara gives an interpretation of a verse, one is not bound by it.

[ii] Tosafot Yom Tov to Nazir 5:5.

[iii] Most of these examples come from Massekhet Shabbat. When I learned Massekhet Shabbat, I specifically was looking for places where the mefareshim explain the Mishnah against the Gemara. The other examples are ones that I found incidentally while learning.

[iv] Rambam, Perush ha-Mishnayyot to Shabbat 7:1.

[v] Sanhedrin 49b.

[vi] The Tosafot Yom Tov stakes out a similar view of Rashi in his commentary to Pe’ah 2:2.

[vii] For another example, see Shabbat 21:1.

[viii] Rashi to Shabbat 44a, s.v.o cite this.ng view . the article, skneh can still buy the kefel.be as if the sons had mde the statement “or their f huts min ha-ner ha-dolek be-Shabbat.

[ix] Tosafot Yom Tov to Bava Batra 4:9.

[x] Me’iri, Beit ha-Behirah, Bava Metsi’a 2a.

[xi] Gra to Berakhot 4:1.

[xii] R. Yehudah Leib Maimon, Sefer ha-Gra (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1953), p. 47.

[xiii] Literally translated as: “[The text] is missing words and this is what [the text] says.” This is the phrase the Gemara uses to introduce an interpretation of the Mishnah that involves inserting missing words into the text.

[xiv] R. Yisrael of Shklov, Pe’at ha-Shulhan, Introduction.

[xv] Since, in general, the Mishnah reflects the final law, the Gemara would rather create a forced reading of the Mishnah than simply say that the Mishnah is not la-halakhah.

[xvi] This is, of course, barring cases where there is another Talmudic source that impacts the final halakhic decision.