Family Structure, Kinship, and Life Course Transitions: Social Science Explorations of the Mishnah
The Mishnah text, the foundational document of an emergent Rabbinic Judaism, is organized around the functioning of an imagined and constructed community. Among the core themes and theoretical frameworks that a social scientist invokes to study any society include particular attention to family values, generational relationships and the dynamics of family networks. Family themes are complex in their details since these are connected to social stratification—how social groups within societies are ranked, group boundaries and ‘otherness’—exclusion and inclusion, and the study of culture and values. Exploring the evidence in the 63 volumes that comprise the corpus of the Mishnah, this paper outlines a conceptual framework and reviews evidence to focus on how the Mishnah constructs family structure, family relationships, and life course transitions. We examine the Mishnaic construction of family transitions as well as the structure and variation of family processes; we address issues of adulthood and the transitions to adulthood and older age; ideals and images of marriage and divorce and the transitions to these statuses; the dynamics of parenthood and childrearing along with childbearing and family size. Thus, we explore how the Mishnah formulates ideals of generational continuity, the formation of families and family relationships (e.g., which family members are included in the extended family; who may marry whom), the core values and ideals associated with family, how families are sustained, and how they change over the life course.
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The Mishnah was originally transmitted orally over several generations and became part of the established Judaic canon in the third century. Part of the text developed from a period before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Hence, the text available relates to an image of community that did not exist at the time the Mishnah was completed and likely never existed. I refer to this as an “imagined” or “socially constructed” com-munity. On Orality see among others M. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism 200 BCE-400 CE. Oxford University Press, 2001.
This paper is part of a larger project that analyzes all four core themes. On hierarchy and stratification in the Mishnah see Calvin Goldscheider, “Inequality, Stratification, and Exclusion in the Mishnah: An exploratory social science analysis” in Jeffrey Stackert, Barbara Porter, and David Wright (eds.) Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch, CDL Press, 2010, p. 565–84. Also, Calvin Goldscheider, “Inclusion and Exclusion in the Mishnah: Non-Jews, Converts and the Nazir,” Journal for Studies in Judaism, Humanities and the Social Sciences, vol. 1, 2017. See also the paper I presented on “Religious Holidays, Values and Rituals: Mishnaic Perspectives” at the annual meetings of the European Association of Biblical Studies, Berlin, 2017.
There are seven tractates in Nashim, comprising seventy-one chapters. Unlike the other orders of the Mishnah, all tractates of Nashim have both the Bavli and Yerushalmi Talmudim attached to them underlining the centrality of family issues in Rabbinic discourse. I refer to each of the tractates by name followed by chapter number and by the Mishnah number. Thus, Gittin 4, 1 is the fourth chapter and first Mishnah of the tractate Gittin dealing with divorce.
See among others Judith Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Michael Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 2001); M. Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (Brown Judaic Studies, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995); M. Friedman, Jewish Marriage in Palestine (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1980); Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed., The Jewish Family in Antiquity, (Brown Judaic Studies, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993).
On the issue of households see Haim Lapin, “The Construction of Households in the Mishnah.” In
J. Neusner and A. Avery Peck, eds., The Mishnah: Contemporary Perspectives, Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming, p. 55–80. Lapin’s review centers on the head of the household and changes in the composition of households. His comprehensive review essay closely foreshadows many of the arguments that I make in this paper as I focus on the family unit. Note that the word for family “mishpacha” is rarely used in all of the Mishnah. The broader term used is Beit Av or patriarchal household or kinship group. We review below the consequences of the failure of women to carry out their domestic “obligations” and their interactions in the public sphere—particularly the role the latter plays in the Sotah accusations.
We do not know how extensive polygamy was but given demographic constraints in the marriage market and the costs of maintaining the children of several wives, polygamy likely involved a relatively small proportion of marriages and may have been limited to the wealthy.
The term “Get” is used in the Mishnah to designate a divorce document as well a general business contract.
The details are outlined in the sixteen chapters and 123 mishnayot of the tractate of Yebamot. This is an extensive presentation and is indeed longer than any other tractate in the order of Nashim. In contrast, the tractate Kiddushin that focuses directly on marriage is the shortest in the Nashim division, containing only four chapters and forty-seven mishnayot.
For some definitions and attention to stratification see Calvin Goldscheider, “Inequality, Stratification, and Exclusion in the Mishnah: An exploratory social science analysis” in Jeffrey Stackert, Barbara Porter, and David Wright (eds.) Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch, CDL Press, 2010, p. 565–84.
The reference is to Deuteronomy 23, 4. Three generations implies the grandchildren of the prohibited union.
Alternatively, but less convincingly, these may be viewed as purely theoretical concerns, not reflecting any reality in Mishnaic times.
Mamzer is often translated as bastard or the child of an illicit relationship defined in the Mishnah (Yebamot 4, 13) where there is an explicit biblical prohibition excluding the child from the community.
See the comprehensive review by Adiel Schremer, “Men’s Age at Marriage in Jewish Palestine in the Second Temple Period, Mishnah and Talmud, Tzion” vol. 61, 1995/96, p. 51–64 (Hebrew). The suggestion in Mishnah Avot (5, 25) of an ideal marriage age of eighteen for young men is likely to be an ideal only for the elite.
There is another set of calculations about the ages of women that are not chronological. The Mishnah defines “virgin” (first time menstruate, even if she was married); pregnant woman (when recognized as pregnant—Gemara notes that this is three months); nursing women (when she finishes nursing—twenty-four months); old woman (when three period of time pass without menstruating—the Gemara elaborates that it means someone who is defined by others as an old woman or who call her “Emah” (Niddah 1, 4; 1, 5). It is important to recognize the explicit subjective component of this classification.
Other conditions that are grounds for divorce were noted earlier.
It is unclear what she speaks about, but the implication is that she disrespects her husband publicly. The Gemara says: Sex or anything that might embarrass her husband.
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