Mishnah Mornings with The Lyons Learning Project

Over the summer Rabbi Neil Janes has started teaching some wonderful people as part of the Lyons Learning Project. This is his reflection from a couple of weeks ago. For information about Mishnah Mornings groups click here.

Once a fortnight on a Wednesday at 7:45am over a freshly made coffee, we meet at a café near Bond Street to study the Mishnah on Rosh Hashanah. And at 8:30am, we make our way to our respective places of work. Our conversation in just three meetings has covered such questions as tithing, taxation and poverty, the setting of the calendar and the role of volunteers to testify that they had seen the new moon. The intention of the group is our encounter with one another and with our texts. But more than that, we are also committing to fixing a regular time for study, a ritual in and of itself.
The Mishnah is a text edited, according to tradition, in 200 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the purpose of which is somewhat unclear. It reads in part like a legal code, but more often than not it also has the guise of a library of teachings and a pedagogical text for the nascent rabbinic community in the Land of Israel. It is organised thematically in orders and tractates and contains both legal materials and debates, but also some legends of the sages.
In our last breakfast meeting, we encountered a particularly famous text that is found in our High Holy Day liturgy in the additional service of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are told in the Mishnah that on Rosh Hashanah, everyone passes before God for judgement ‘Kiv’nei Maron’. What is the meaning of ‘Kiv’nei Maron’? There are a number of suggestions – perhaps like sheep being counted by their shepherd or perhaps like climbers on a narrow path to the heights of a mountain. Both images are reflections of how the sages imagined seeing themselves in relation to God. In the 19th and 20th century, with scholarship of these religious texts developing the suggestion was made that ‘Kivn’ei Maron’ was actually ‘Kivnumeron’ – like a Roman army troop (numeron being a loan word from Greek). Lo and behold, manuscripts were uncovered that found just this reading as the earliest form. The Mishnah intends to describe our judgement as if soldiers before their King.
I’m not sure either readings sit wholly comfortably and perhaps that’s the point of metaphorical language, it does not fully express the reality of life because we are pushed and pulled theologically and emotionally in occasionally contradictory ways.
Why do I mention this? Well the season of repentance and self-scrutiny is nearly upon us and these questions about how we view our relationship with each other and God is a worthwhile subject to reflect upon. But also because this conversation is part of the tradition in which we encounter one another and our texts, to which I warmly invite you. If you would like more information or would like to support this work, do let me know – neil@lyonslearning.org.uk

A longer essay on this subject is found here.

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