It has taken me a good few years, but I have finally finished the first four sedarim of the Mishna and am now halfway through the forty-first tractate: Masekhet Zevachim.
These remarks of mine are premature, since I am only at the very beginning of Seder Qodshim, but I cannot help but note a qualitative difference between this tractate and every one of the other forty tractates that I have already covered.
As a general rule, the Mishna’s presentation of rabbinic law is haphazard. In Shabbat, for example, it is not until the second mishna of the seventh chapter that we are informed as to what are the primary prohibitions on the seventh day; in Beitza, it is not until the fifth chapter that learn what may not be done on a yontef. For the most part, the Mishna presents us with case law, and it is up to the student to construct around that legislation a system that can reveal its inner mechanics.
There are some notable exceptions to this rule, perhaps the finest being Bava Qama, which commences with theoretical observations about the nature of different torts. But even that tractate quickly devolves into a series of cases. Not so with Zevachim.
With Masekhet Zevachim one finds a tractate that is thoroughly organised around a methodological exposition of its subject matter. It is procedural, systematic and technical, and appears designed as a manual for students seeking to understand the sacrifices. Every other tractate that I have encountered appears geared towards a student who has already studied the Mishna. So far, Masekhet Zevachim is sui generis in regards to its organisational structure, and to the fact that it can be approached in isolation.
And so I wonder (and prematurely): is this due to the sacrificial procedure having been already entirely theoretical at the time of the Mishna’s composition? While in other areas of legislation one might be able to presuppose a certain familiarity with cultural and ritual norms, and therefore utilise an abundance of cases in a presentation of the relevant law, perhaps this area is one in which a general ignorance is to be expected, and in which cases are rare if they are remembered at all.
I look forward to seeing whether or not this observation holds true throughout the rest of this seder, and throughout the following as well (which, in dealing with purity law, is of a similarly esoteric nature). But if I am correct, it would seem that it is specifically in relation to the arcane that the rabbis felt most at home in developing a system from the ground up and in presenting that system methodically.
In my opinion, it’s a welcome change; the careful delineation of theoretical principles is always so much more interesting than the arbitration of individual cases – even if the latter is more rewarding to the cultural historian.