Sto­ries of the Law: Nar­ra­tive Dis­course and the Con­struc­tion of Author­i­ty in the Mishnah

Moshe Simon-Shoshan
  • Review
By – October 17, 2012

Two rab­bis walked into a bar…” or, as Moshe Simon-Shoshan tells it, Rab­ban Gamliel’s sons came home from a wed­ding feast and con­fessed that they haven’t said the evening She­ma yet. They want­ed to know whether they could say the She­ma even after mid­night and still ful­fill their reli­gious oblig­a­tion. Simon-Shoshan opens this insight­ful book with that inci­dent (and not the joke about rab­bis in a bar) from Mish­nah Bera­chot 1:1 because the Mish­nah, the col­lec­tion of rab­binic law that was redact­ed around 200 C.E. by Rab­bi Judah the Prince, begins with a sto­ry and charts the struc­ture and mean­ing of numer­ous sto­ries about rab­bis, ser­vants, pots, ovens and about the fin­er points of sac­ri­fices.

This excel­lent book method­i­cal­ly reviews the many ways in which the Mish­nah teach­es moral, legal and his­tor­i­cal truths” through nar­ra­tives, hypo­thet­i­cal cas­es, and rul­ings. The Mish­nah can be quirky: it is not based in a sin­gle nar­ra­tive; the Mish­nah allows one to jump into almost any text, learn and hear rab­binic voic­es in dia­logue, deriv­ing authen­tic­i­ty from cit­ing oth­er texts and from bib­li­cal tra­di­tion. As Simon-Shoshan notes, the rab­bis assert­ed their author­i­ty not as prophets but as inter­preters of a legal tra­di­tion that picked up where the legal mate­r­i­al in the Torah left room for new inter­pre­ta­tions. Simon-Shoshan iden­ti­fies three dis­tinct gen­res of Mish­na­ic sto­ry: rab­binic sto­ries in which rab­bis serve as exem­plars, case stud­ies in which there might be a para­ble or oth­er sto­ry, and eti­o­log­i­cal sto­ries that describe halakhic prac­tices by explain­ing their ori­gins.

For teach­ers in Jew­ish day schools, this book makes for excel­lent sum­mer read­ing in prepa­ra­tion for the study of rab­binics; for stu­dents and schol­ars at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el, this is a rare and close look at an impor­tant form of Mish­na­ic lit­er­a­ture that brings the rab­binic dis­course of the Tan­naitic era (0200 C.E.) to life before the more mul­ti-lay­ered dis­course of the Tal­mud and its era (200600 C.E.). Bib­li­og­ra­phy, endnotes.

Judd Kruger Lev­ingston, Ph.D. and rab­bi, serves as Direc­tor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Jack M. Bar­rack Hebrew Acad­e­my in the Philadel­phia area. Lev­ingston is the author of Sow­ing the Seeds of Char­ac­ter: The Moral Edu­ca­tion of Ado­les­cents in Pub­lic and Pri­vate Schools (Praeger, 2009).

Discussion Questions