Question: "What is the Mishnah? What is a midrash?"
Answer: The Mishnah is the oral law in Judaism, as opposed to the written Torah, or the Mosaic Law. The Mishnah was collected and committed to writing about AD 200 and forms part of the Talmud. A particular teaching within the Mishnah is called a midrash.
Orthodox Judaism believes that Moses received the Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) from God and that he wrote down everything God spoke to him. However, they also believe that God gave Moses explanations and examples of how to interpret the Law that Moses did not write down. These unwritten explanations are known in Judaism as the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah was supposedly passed down from Moses to Joshua and then to the rabbis until the advent of Christianity when it was finally written down as the legal authority called halahka (“the walk”). The two main sections of the Oral Torah are the Mishnah and the Gemara.
The Mishnah (משנה, “repetition”) essentially records the debates of the post-temple sages from AD 70—200 (called the Tannaim) and is considered the first major work of “Rabbinical Judaism.” It is composed of six orders (sedarim), arranged topically:
• Zeraim (“seeds”) – discussions concerning prayer, diet, and agricultural laws
• Moed (“festival”) – discussions about holidays
• Nashim (“women”) – discussions about women and family life
• Nezikin (“damages”) – discussions about damages and compensation in civil law
• Kodashim (“holy things”) – discussions regarding sacrifices, offerings, dedications, and other temple-related matters
• Tohorot (“purities”) – discussions regarding the purity of vessels, foods, dwellings, and people
After the Mishnah was published, it was studied exhaustively by generations of rabbis in both Babylonia and Israel. From AD 200—500, additional commentaries on the Mishnah were compiled and put together as the Gemara. Actually, there are two different versions of the Gemara, one compiled by scholars in Israel (c. AD 400) and the other by the scholars of Babylonia (c. AD 500). Together, the Mishnah and the Gemara form the Talmud. Since there are two different Gemaras, there are two different Talmuds: the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud. The Talmud can be thought of as rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, just like there are commentaries written on the Bible from a Christian perspective.
In Judaism the Talmud is just as important as the Hebrew Bible. It is used to explain the laws that may not be clear in Scripture. For example, Deuteronomy 21:18–21 is the law governing the punishment of a rebellious son. But what behaviors make a son “rebellious”? The Scripture only mentions gluttony and drunkenness. Are there other behaviors that would be classified as rebellious? What if only one parent thinks the son rebellious? How old does a son have to be to be held accountable for his rebellion? There are many questions that are not directly addressed in the Law, and so the rabbis turn to the Oral Law. The midrash on Deuteronomy 21:18–21 states that both parents must consider the son rebellious for him to be presented to the elders for judgment. The Talmud also states that in order to be considered rebellious the son must be old enough to grow a beard.
A second type of writings in the Talmud is called the Aggadah (also spelled Haggadah). Aggadah are not considered law (halakha) but literature that consists of wisdom and teachings, stories, and parables. The Aggadah are sometimes used with halakha to teach a principle or make a legal point.
For example, one Aggadah tells the story of baby Moses being held by Pharaoh at a banquet. As baby Moses is sitting in Pharaoh’s lap, he reaches up, removes Pharaoh’s crown, and places it on his own head. Pharaoh’s advisors tell him that it is a sign that Moses will one day usurp the king’s authority and that he should kill the baby. But Pharaoh’s daughter, insisting that the baby is innocent, offers a test. She tells her father to place the baby on the ground with both the crown and some hot coals. If the baby Moses takes the crown, he is guilty; but if he takes the hot coals, he is innocent. The Aggadah goes on to say that an angel pushed Moses’ hand to the coals. Moses then burned his mouth with the coal, and that is why Moses was “slow of speech and tongue” as an adult (Exodus 4:10).
There are many Aggadah in the Talmud that are prophetic about the Messiah. One such is the story of the White Ram. It is said that God created a pure White Ram in the Garden of Eden and told him to wait there until God called for him. The White Ram waited until Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son of promise, Isaac. When God stopped the sacrifice of Isaac, God brought the White Ram to be substituted for Isaac. The White Ram, created before the foundations of the earth, was slain, and this anecdote presents a picture of our Messiah as the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20; Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8). The White Ram willingly laid down his life for Isaac. Also, the ram’s two horns were made into shofars (trumpets). According to Aggadic tradition, one shofar sounded when God announced Himself to Moses (Exodus 19:19), and the other horn will sound at the coming of the Messiah (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Different sects of Judaism have different views on the Talmud. The Orthodox sect holds that the Oral Law or Talmud is just as inspired as the Bible, but Conservative and Reform Jewish sects do not. Reform and Conservative sects believe they can interpret the Talmud as written by rabbis but are not necessarily required to follow it. Karaite Jews do not follow the Talmud or rabbinic teachings at all but only the Hebrew Bible.
While Christians can certainly study the Talmud for background information, we should not take it as inspired Scripture.