Tractate Berakoth, by , by A. Lukyn Williams, , at sacred-texts.com
PRIMITIVE religion, as we know it, consisted almost entirely of ceremonial, the deeper issues, which affect the soul and spirit, being only gradually evolved.
This ceremonial, frequently minute to a degree, with each part considered to be of extreme importance if the favour of the God was to be ensured, was handed down from father to son—the relationship being physical or educational—without more than rudimentary assistance in signs or writing.
The religion of the Hebrews was no exception. But with them in process of time, chiefly through the revelation to Abraham, and afterwards to Moses, together with the movement to which the latter gave an impetus, customs became fixed by written documents, their connexion (certain or inferred) with historical events was recorded, and ancient practices became a fresh code likely to maintain religion in a form purified of abuses and fitted for the new time.
But the need of oral instruction was felt almost as strongly as ever, if the concise rules laid down in writing were to be understood, and the religious life be ordered acceptably to God. For as the inner sense of religion grew, so was it perceived more clearly that no part of human life could be unimportant, but that everything should be regulated in accordance with the Divine will, either expressly declared, or ascertained by legitimate deduction.
Hence with the final codifying that took place in the time of Ezra and his immediate successors the task of formal definition and authoritative application became increasingly urgent, and the more the Written Law was fixed so did the Oral Law increase. For to human conduct the latter was no less necessary than the former.
But the day came when the enormous number of practical directions was too great a burden for the human memory to bear—especially after the guardians of the tradition had been diminished in number by the crushing disaster to the Jewish State—and it was found necessary to use written aids. Yet the historical documents themselves had been canonized for many years, and could no longer be modified or touched. So fresh documents were framed, which indeed made no claim to inspiration, but only embodied the oral teaching of many generations upon the application of the Law to new circumstances, as they had arisen. We know very little of the beginnings of this
new codification. But it is certain that during the whole of the second century of our era, if not earlier, attempts were being made in this direction, and that these were consulted by the compiler of our present Mishna, and even embodied in his work. He himself was in all probability the descendant of the two Gamaliels and of Hillel, R. Judah, the Prince and the Saint, who was born in the year 135 and died about 210 A.D.
This collection, called the Mishna, i.e. the Oral Teaching—the Tosephta will be considered later—embraced the practical side of life, as it was then understood, with divisions well—defined and fairly rigorously maintained. But the author, following his precedents, gave not only the directions themselves which were the outcome of discussions, but, in many cases, also a summary of the discussions which led up to them, often with the names of the disputants and the reasons alleged. Thus the Mishna is a compendium of the practices of the Jews, as ordered by earlier Scholars, and as adopted by the leading traditionalists of the end of the second century of our era.
All life, it will be noticed, was to be ordered on strictly religious lines, It is therefore only fitting that the collection should begin with a series of rules which referred to the conscious service of God by each faithful Israelite, There is no treatise upon doctrine as such—when Maimonides in the twelfth century begins his summary of practical
[paragraph continues] Judaism with a dissertation on the true doctrine of God, he writes for a different age in different surroundings—the Mishna is concerned with practice only. But this was to be religious. Hence it was to be expected that since, of all their practices, none equalled in primary importance that of their formal acknowledgement of God, and their recognition of Him in everything, the first treatise in the Mishna should deal with the reverent attitude of the believer. God is the Giver of all; let His people openly confess Him, and gratefully affirm their dependence upon Him. Hence the title Berakoth, Benedictions, which here means the forms of thanksgiving and acknowledgement proper to various occasions, together with the rules of their observance.
A Synopsis of the Contents of the Tractate will. be found below (p. xx). Here it is sufficient to say that the treatise opens with the consideration of the all—important personal acknowledgement of God in the Shma‘, "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD," the exact time when it should be said both in every evening and in every morning, with the portions of Scripture and the prayers that belong to it. This is followed by two chapters dealing with the need for "intention" and attention in reciting it, and with cases in which the recitation of the Shma‘ is not required (cc. i.-iii.).
Next comes Prayer, particularly that form of it embodied in the Eighteen Benedictions, which follow the Shma‘, including regulations as to the
leader of the congregation who repeats it (cc. iv., v.). Lastly, Benedictions over various kinds of food, with rules for inviting one of those present at a meal to say them, and directions for the proper forms of words to be used; also Benedictions at seeing beautiful or strange sights of nature, and the duty of every true Israelite to recognize God in everything that happens to him (cc. vi.-ix.). Christian people, it is clear, may gain much, spiritually as well as intellectually, from the careful study of this treatise.