Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah

December 4, 2020 0 By admin

When I first began my Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah Project nearly a decade ago,[1] I was curious to see which rabbis appeared the most frequently throughout the Mishnah. That is: I was wondering could one tell what the temporal perspective of the editor/editors of the Mishnah, as in were there particular generations who appeared more frequently, or were there just certain figures who got mentioned more frequently? I was astounded by how far and away above all of the rest of the rabbinic sages in their appearances in the Mishnah that Rabbi Yehudah was. I was surprised because he’s not someone who is regularly spoken about as being a particularly more sagacious rabbinic sage or somehow more popular or more influential and, yet, here he was positioned as the most frequently-appearing rabbi in the entirety of the Mishnah.

And it wasn’t like it was just in one particular order (סדר) that he was the most popular, or even a few of them, no, it was clear that, in all six of the orders of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehudah was not only the most frequently mentioned, but, by far, the most frequently mentioned. It was clear to me that he was somehow special. In taking a broader perspective, it turns out that it wasn’t just a few, but actually there was, out of the top 10, a fair amount of his contemporaries that frequently appeared, as well: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yossi. It was astoundingly clear that this generation of sages was the most frequently referenced in the Mishnah, as far as named sages are concerned.

Yes, the Mishnah features Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and the Academies of Shammai and Hillel significantly, who laid the foundations for the Mishnah, but it appears that whomever edited/arranged the Mishnah was in the generation that followed them, which makes a lot of sense that it would be Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi (not to be confused with Rabbi Yehudah, who appears the most frequently in the Mishnah).

In the Mishnah, there are ten sages named who appeared more than a hundred times throughout the entirety of the Mishnah and there are still yet another four that get 50-plus mentions. Far and away number one is Rabbi Yehudah with 649 mentions, with the next closest being Sages (חכמים) sitting at number two with 451 mentions. Rabbi Meir is the third-most mentioned sage in the Mishnah with 352 mentions, closely followed by Rabbi Shimon, with 349 mentions, and nearby is Rabbi Yossi, with 343 mentions. Rabbi Eliezer is the sixth-most frequently named rabbi in the Mishnah, with 336 mentions, with Rabbi Akiva following him with 308 mentions. The eighth-most frequently-mentioned sage is Shammai’s Academy, with 233 mentions, closely followed by Hillel’s Academy, with 228 mentions. Rounding out the top ten is Rabbi Yehoshua, with 168 mentions.

There are four other sages who are mentioned between 50 and 100 times in the Mishnah. There are 96 appearances for Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who is then followed by 92 appearance for Rabban Gamliel. Rabbi Yishmael receives 72 responses, and Rabbi Tarfon has 57 appearances.

What is really fascinating about this is, aside from number one being far and away the most mentioned beyond anybody else sage in the Mishnah is where the third, fourth, and fifth-most mentioned sages are clustered in their similarity in both their frequency, as well as being in the same generation. Also, unsurprisingly, numbers eight and nine are fairly close, since they usually get mentioned in tandem.

This is not the definitive writing on this topic, as these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was not a perfect system, for a few reasons. The first of these reasons is that I only went through them once over and, occasionally, I would go back and catch a missed tally or an extra tally, so it was an imperfect system to begin with regarding the tallies. On top of that, there may, in the course of my tallying up, have been some missing of a name here or there. Finally, a third issue with this present set of data is that it is not derived from working off of critical texts and that there may be better texts out there of the Mishnah than what I used for my tallying.

However, it is my hope that, at the very least, this helps further the study and understanding of the Mishnah and the various sages. The clear take away is that far and away the most mentioned sage in the Mishnah is Rabbi Yehudah. Also, quite curious are the frequency of mentions of his colleagues Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yossi, who are also in the top five of the mentions (and the second-most mentions of Sages most likely encompasses this generation of sages). While there are earlier sages with still hundreds of mentions, such as the earlier academies of Hillel and Shammai, as well as Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua (and, yes, Rabbi Akiva), they are not mentioned as frequently as the fifth generation of sages. Clearly, this generation loomed largely for the editor of The Mishnah.

[1] See my “Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah I: סדר זרעים”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (28 March 2011) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2011/03/rabbinic-popularity-in-mishnah-i.html], “Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah II: סדר מועד”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (29 March 2011) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2011/03/rabbinic-popularity-in-mishnah-ii.html], “Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah III: סדר נשים”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (30 March 2011) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2011/03/rabbinic-popularity-in-mishnah-iii.html], “Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah IV: סדר נזיקין”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (4 April 2011) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2011/04/rabbinic-popularity-in-mishnah-iv.html], “Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah V: סדר קדשים”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (29 April 2011) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2011/04/rabbinic-popularity-in-mishnah-v.html], “Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah VI: סדר טהרות”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (27 June 2011) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2011/06/rabbinic-popularity-in-mishnah-vi.html]