We recently hosted a Mishna Fair, namely an evening for 5th/6th graders and their parents to delve into Torah learning. Mishna is part of the oral tradition that explains the Torah, passed down in the Talmud. Our Mishna Fair served as an introduction to a deeper level of learning that involves more questioning and critical thinking than you usually find in the elementary grades.
We began the evening with dinner; afterwards parents and children learned together from prepared source sheets that were color coded according to level of difficulty. Those new to the idea of studying Torah could choose the easier yellow sheets; the pink sheets offered a medium level of difficulty, and the blue sheets were for those looking for a challenge. One parent was even observed picking up all three colors!
Participants addressed issues of legal definitions of acquisition, ritual details of the Sukkah, the parameters of damaging speech, and the history and structure of the Talmud. It was a joy to see the overwhelming enthusiasm as families engaged in meaningful discussions. Soon their conversations took on a life of their own and moved in many different directions.
The Mishna-learning part of the evening wrapped up with parents and students gathering according to their study sheet's color and learning with one of our Mishna teachers. Parents actually got a taste of the Mishna classroom!
A wall display showed the "chain of tradition," beginning with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, moving on through various generations that made significant contributions to Jewish tradition, until the chain reached the generation labeled "The Akiba Kids!" Thus the display mirrored the inter-generational learning, that was taking place at that very moment.
After the parent-child learning session, the students moved on to present the various topics they had researched in class. One function of the Mishna (and Talmud in general) is to give us a deeper understanding of the Torah so that we can understand the reasoning and apply it in everyday life. Students had been tasked with showing how Torah law can be applied to modern legal situations, highlighting the timelessness of Torah throughout the generations.
In the Torah we read of an agricultural society where court cases involved oxen and sheep, water cisterns and wheat fields. Nevertheless the outcomes of those cases can be applied to modern-day litigation involving corporations, cars, sky-scrapers and tickets to the World Series.
Studying Mishna brings with it a broadening of perspectives that also serves to expand our understanding of Judaism in general. When students were asked what they thought of when they heard the word "Judaism," they mentioned prayer, Shabbat, holidays and rabbis. But Judaism involves so much more, and the Mishna helps us see that it can bring deeper meaning and enrichment to all aspects of our lives. An evening devoted to the riches of Mishna can be eye opening.