The Shema for the Mishnah

On August 20, 2015, on Facebook, I saw this announcement from the Archives Bookshop in Pasadena:

“A professor once told me, ‘If you want to read the Gospels, sell your shirt and buy a Mishnah.’
Well, we’re running a SPECIAL on Danby’s classic translation of the Mishnah in Hendrickson Publishers paperback for a blowout price of $25! At $79.99 retail, that’s the best price on the market. If you recite the Shema at the register, we’ll give you an extra 10% off. And if you can say it in Hebrew, we’ll give you 20% off! If you’re a student of the Bible, you cannot afford to miss this deal.”

As a student of the Bible who likes to read the Gospels, I could hardly pass up such an offer. So I drove to Pasadena with my wife and went to the Archives Bookshop (which is across the street from the main campus of Fuller Theological Seminary from which I graduated long, long ago.) I walked up to the counter and told the sales associate that I wanted to purchase the Mishnah which was on sale. I asked if he were ready to hear my recitation of the Shema and he nodded, “Okay.” So I said, “Shema, Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai achad.” That was enough to earn me the 20% discount off the $25 price. So I bought the Mishnah for $20 plus $1.80 tax. (For some reason the sales tax in Pasadena is nine percent rather than eight percent where I live.)

In case you don’t know what the Mishnah is, let me share with you two explanatory paragraphs from the back cover of this edition:

“The Mishnah, understood to be the written form of the Jewish Oral Law, was preserved by the rabbis following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE [Common Era], and was completed in approximately 200 CE. More than four centuries of Jewish religious thought and activity are found within this text, and it is as important to the development of Judaism as the New Testament is to the development of Christianity.

Students of the New Testament will find it especially interesting because its contents reflect the Jewish religious tradition during the time of Jesus and the early Christian church. The Mishnah’s historical value in understanding the first two centuries of the common era is comparable in its importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and secular works of that time such as the writings of Josephus.”

Now that I had invested in the Mishnah, I felt compelled to read it. Unlike Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics which extends to fourteen volumes containing upwards of 9,000 pages, the Mishnah is a mere 789 pages. I calculated that if I read ten pages a day, I could knock it off in less than three months. However right now there are other demands on my time. I am taking Arabic 2 at Saddleback College which meets twice a week for two hours each meeting and which demands at least two hours of study for each hour in the classroom; so that’s an additional 12 hours a week to work on Arabic.

After a summer of travel to Russia for a month and hosting a family of four from Russia in our home for another month, I’ve resumed my cello lessons and need to prepare to participate with the Orange County Cello Choir which will give a concert on September 19. For that I should practice about one hour every day.

Taking all this into consideration, I decided on a more modest goal of reading just five pages a day of my $20 Mishnah. As of today I’ve read 30 pages and I can report that it is rather tedious stuff so far consisting mainly of the different opinions of rabbis and sages regarding how to interpret the minutia of the Law (the Torah which is better translated Instruction than Law).

Now I’m beginning to wonder who that professor was who said, “If you want to read the Gospels, sell your shirt and buy a Mishnah.” What were the credentials of this professor? Where did he profess? Why did he make such a claim? Or was this just a sales gimmick to get rid of some unwanted inventory at the bookstore? And I’m beginning to think that I might be better off with a new $20 shirt than a new Mishnah.

But now I’ve got the Mishnah rather than a shirt, and if I can keep up my current pace, I will have read it in less than six months. So all readers of this blog will be delighted to know that I plan to give periodic reports of anything I learn from the Mishnah in addition to my occasional insights from reading Barth. In the meantime I’m hoping that the Archives Bookshop will not run a big sale on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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