July 24, 2024
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The Mishnah: Jewish Oral Traditions in Writing

Library with a Large Number of Books

Protecting the poor and engaging in charity has psychological benefits, but that’s far from the first reason why Jews give tzedakah (charity). It’s a mitzvah (a commandment from G-d)  and a cornerstone of Jewish ethics. The Mishnah teaches that tzedakah is not just about giving money, but about actively participating in tikkun olam – the repair of the world

This ancient wisdom emphasizes that compassionate giving is more than a feel-good activity, it’s a sacred duty and a fundamental expression of Jewish values. Keep reading to learn about the Mishnah’s teachings on compassionate giving and how to apply these principles in your daily life.

An Introduction to the Mishnah

The Mishnah is a comprehensive collection of Jewish legal traditions and teachings. This ancient text forms the core of the Oral Torah, which, in combination with the Written Torah, forms the foundation of Jewish law (halacha).

Its creation around 200 CE marked one of the first attempts to codify Jewish oral traditions in written form. The Mishnah’s compilation was a response to the growing concern that these vital teachings might be lost or distorted over time. This concern was particularly acute following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, which had served as the central institution for Jewish religious and cultural life.

Rabbi Judah the Prince played a crucial role in compiling and editing the Mishnah. He is one of many prominent rebbes in Jewish history who have made significant contributions to Jewish thought and practice. His work involved not only collecting existing teachings but also making critical decisions about which interpretations to include in the Mishnah and how to structure the material.

The Six Orders of the Mishnah

1. Seder Zera’im (Seeds)

Seder Zera’im, meaning “Seeds,” is the first order of the Mishnah. It primarily focuses on agricultural laws and related prayers and blessings that reflect the deep connection between Jewish spiritual life and the natural world. This order also delves into the intricate laws of tithes (ma’aserot) as well as regulations for leaving corners of fields for the hungry (pe’ah). Much like the name implies, Seeds is the point from which Judaism’s practices of communal responsibility, giving to charities for the poor, and humility (anavah) grow. 

2. Seder Mo’ed (Appointed Times)

Seder Mo’ed, which translates to ‘Appointed Times,’ is dedicated to the laws and customs surrounding the Sabbath and religious holidays throughout the Jewish calendar year. In it, readers can find a detailed overview of the observance and related meaning behind Passover, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur traditions. 

3. Seder Nashim (Women)

Seder Nashim, meaning ‘Women,’ addresses laws pertaining to family life and interpersonal relationships. This is where peace in one’s home starts, mutual obligations between spouses create positive conditions for raising children and make it easier to notice the good both within and outside the household. This order lays the groundwork for trust (bitachon) in strong family units, which in turn build well-connected community synagogues and support networks across the entire Jewish diaspora

4. Seder Nezikin (Damages)

Seder Nezikin, or ‘Damages,’ serves as a guide for maintaining a society driven by ethics and justice (tzedek). The order discusses an array of moral issues, ranging from tort law and compensation for damages to laws concerning lost and found objects, regulations for business partnerships, and fair business transactions. 

5. Seder Kodashim (Holy Things)

Translated as ‘Holy Things’ in English, Seder Kodashim represents the intersection of the physical and spiritual in Jewish life. It details how Jews can and should engage in beautiful rituals of worship through self-sacrifices (mesirus nefesh) and offerings. It provides intricate details on the Temple service, including the proper procedures for various sacrifices and duties.

6. Seder Tohorot (Purities)

Seder Tohorot, meaning ‘Purities,’ is an order dedicated to the intricate laws of ritual purity and impurity – concepts that were central to Temple-era Judaism and continue to influence Jewish practice today. The section begins by outlining the various sources of ritual impurity (tumah) and their levels. This structure may have later inspired famous Jewish philanthropist Mamoindes’ Eight Degrees of Giving, which similarly rank levels of philanthropy and charity. Seder Tohorot explains procedures for purification like mikveh (ritual bath), as well as those for handling the dead. 

What the Mishnah Says About Compassionate Giving

The Mishnah has lots to say about compassionate giving. It teaches us to value community through both everyday acts of loving-kindness and ongoing engagement in giving traditions like tithing (ma’aser kesafim), money for wheat (maot chitim), visiting the sick (bikur cholim), hospitality towards others, and the sanctification of G-d’s name (kiddush hashem) in empathy and meaningful compassion.

This work and service are encouraged by the well-known Hebrew phrase ‘All Israelites are responsible for one another’. While Jewish history is full of stories of struggle and persecution, the Jewish diaspora’s mere existence today proves communal responsibility can sustain us through anything. We have the Mishnah’s written directives to thank for that. 

The Mishnah Guides Colel Chabad’s Charitable Programs

The Mishnah guides modern Jewish philanthropy and social justice efforts at Colel Chabad. Our historic organization leads Israel’s most established charities as envisioned by the original Chabad leaders of the Chabad movement in 1788. Today, male and female Jewish philanthropists from all walks of life help us administer a wide range of non-profit programs across the country.

Pantry Packers

This innovative food distribution program embodies the Mishnah’s teachings on feeding the hungry. Volunteer sign-ups and regular donations enable us to help thousands of Israeli families every year.

Daycare Centers

Colel Chabad daycare centers are a safe and stimulating after-school environment for children of working parents. While quality care for young children is expensive and hard to come by, this initiative provides it free of cost.

Retreats for Widows

Retreats for widows exemplify our commitment to healing and community. Through group activities, counseling sessions, and spiritual guidance, we honor the Mishnah’s teachings on supporting those in mourning and fostering community support during difficult times.

Help Israel’s Needy, Donate Online

Don’t limit yourself to giving on Chanukah or in support of one-time art fundraisers. Online donation platforms make it easier than ever to give regularly. Consider setting up recurring donations to organizations that align with the Mishnah’s teachings on tzedakah. 

There are plenty of great Jewish charities worth supporting, from nonprofits against hunger and orphans’ charities to groups for widows, community healthcare projects, and initiatives for children’s education. You can also get involved by signing up to volunteer. Contributions of every size and nature have the potential to make a difference

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