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The Sdarim of the Shas are (in general) by subject. That is, in each Order, there are discussions on a general topic and its ramifications.

But in each one of them (I think) there is a tractate that seems to be out of order (although there are a few exceptions). For instance, Zeraim deals primarily with agricultural laws, but one tractate (Berachot) concerns the rules for prayers and blessings. Nashim deals with the laws related to marriage and women, but Nazir is also there. Nezikin deals largely with Jewish criminal and civil law and the Jewish court system, but, again, there is Avot with no apparent connection in there. Is there any take on that?

PS: I'm not advocating an Order that would fit better, but an explanation for why they are in these places.

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First for Avot and Berachot, see Rabenu Yona on Avot 1.1/

ארז”ל (ב"ק ל.) האי מאן דבעי' למהוי חסידא לקיים מילי דאבות ואמרי לה מילי דנזיקין ומפני שאדם משיג אל מעלת החסידות בעשותו אחת מאלה הדברים שמוה בסדר נזיקין. ואע"פ שגם כן אמרו לקיים מילי דברכות והוא מסדר זרעים מפני שמדברת מברכות הזרעים והפירות שמוה בסדר ההוא (אמר המעתיק עיין במדרש שמואל מה שכתב בענין זה בשם רבי יוסף נחמיאש ז"ל) . ועוד מפני שהם דברי הסנהדרין שמוה בסדר הדינים וכן כל החכמים הנזכרים עד רבן יוחנן בן זכאי כלם מן הסנהדרין

Rabbenu Yona quotes the Gemara in BK 30a Rab Judah said: He who wishes to be pious must [in the first instance particularly] fulfil the laws of [Seder] Nezikin.But Raba said: The matters [dealt with in the Tractate] Aboth; still others said: Matters [dealt with in] Berakoth. Rabbenu Yona assumes that the Chachamim wanted to group the three in Seder Nezikin because this common feature.But since the tractate of Berachot deals with the brachot of vegetals they include it in Seder Zerayim. {an example of the importance know good Zerayim to know what to bless is the use of Masechet Maasrot for goats}. Avot has an additional reason to be in Nezikin, its link with Sanhedrin.

Nedarim and Nazir are in Nashim because of they address Hafara from the Husband, the father, and all this need knowledge in Nashim and is relevant for the Hilchot Nashim. I will further give more sources.

Gemara Sota 2a.

Now that the Tanna has finished [Tractate] Nazir, what is his reason for continuing with [Tractate] Sotah? - It is according to the view of Rabbi; for it has been taught: Rabbi says, Why does the section of the Nazirite adjoin that of the suspected woman? To tell you that whoever witnesses a suspected woman In her disgrace should withhold himself from wine. But [the Tanna in the Mishnah] should treat of [Tractate] Sotah first and afterwards that of Nazir! - Since he treated of [Tractate] Kethuboth [marriage-settlements] and dealt with the theme, 'He who imposes in vow upon his wife', he next treated of [Tractate] Nedarim [Vows]; and since he treated of [Tractate] Nedarim, he proceeded to treat of [Tractate] Nazir which is analogous to Nedarim, and then continues with Sotah for the reason given by Rabbi

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Rambam in his Introduction to the Mishnah gives an explanation for the order of every Seder and reasons of inclusion of various masechtot. For example, Brachot in Zraim:

And he divided the material in the Order of Seeds, as I will say: He began with the Tractate of Blessings (Berakhot). And the reason that required him to begin with it is that when an expert physician wants to preserve the health of a healthy person upon the state that it is in, he begins by ordering the dietary regimen at the beginning of his medical prescriptions. And therefore, this sage saw [fit] to begin with Blessings, as anyone who eats does not have allowance to eat until he recites a blessing. And [so], he saw fit to order Blessings at the beginning of his words, so that he would order the food in a regimen that has substance to it. Afterward he saw [fit] to organize his words so that it would not be lacking any matter of all the matters, and therefore he spoke about the [entire] category of the blessings that a person is obligated about for nourishment and for the commandments. And the only commandment that a person is obligated about every day is the recital of Shema alone. And it is not correct to speak about the blessings over the recital of Shema before he speaks about the recital of Shema itself. Therefore, he began, "From when do we recite the Shema," and everything that is connected to it. And afterwards, he went back to the topic of the Order, and that is to speak about the commandments of the seed of the earth. Etc.

Nazir in Nashim:

And after Ketubot is Nedarim (Vows); as the whole section of vows (in the Torah) and its examination is [about] the vows of women, as it is stated (Numbers 30:17), " between a man and his wife, between a father and his daughter." And when the marriage is complete and the woman enters the marriage canopy, her husband has the authority to abrogate her vows. And because of this he made Nedarim adjacent to Ketubot. And after Nedarim, he arranged Nezirut (Nazirite Separation), because 'nezirut' is also in the category of vows, and when a woman vows to be a nazirite, her husband can abrogate [it]. And therefore, he arranged Nezirut after Nedarim.

and Avot in Nezikin:

And when he finished everything that the judge would need, he started with Avot (Fathers). And he did this for two [reasons]: The [first] one is to inform that the consensus and the received tradition are true and correct; and that it was received [one generation] from [another]. And therefore, it is fitting to honor a sage of [the tradition] and to place him in an honored status, since the teaching came to him; and he is in his generation like those [sages of the tradition] in their generations. And so did they say (Rosh Hashanah 25a), "If we have come to call the court of Rabban Gamliel into question, etc." They said, "Shimshon in his generation was like Aharon in his generation; Yiftach in his generation was like Shmuel in his generation." And about this matter, there is a great ethical teaching for people: that they not say, "Why should we accept the judgement of x or the ordinance of Judge y?" And the matter is not like this, as judgement does not belong to Judge y, but rather to the Holy One, blessed be He, who commanded us about it, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 1:17), "for judgment is God’s." Hence it is all one judgement, and they received it one man from another through the passing generations. And the second matter is that he wanted to remember in this tractate the ethical teaching of each sage among the sages, peace be upon them, so that we learn the virtues from them. And there is no man that needs this thing more than the judges – as when unlearned people would not be masters of virtue, damage would not accrue to the masses, but rather only to [the person in question], but when a judge would not be a master of virtue and modest, he would damage himself and damage [others]. Therefore the start of his words in Tractate Avot was judicial ethics, as he said, "Be deliberate in judgment." And the judge must be restrained by all of the matters that are in Tractate Avot – for example, that he be deliberate in judgement, and not be quick to execute a legal decision, as it is possible that there be a hidden matter in that case, as they said [about such a case], peace be upon them, "A deceitful case." Etc.

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Interestingly R Sherira Gaon was asked a very similar question by the Rabbis of Kairouan (see his Iggeret of R Sherira Gaon): why are the tractates arranged the way they are? What for instance does Kippurim (Yoma) come before Shekalim or Succah before Yom Tov (Beitzah)?

R Sherira Gaon answers that Rebbi (who composed the Mishna) did not lay down a particular sequence of tractates at all, however the order of Mishnayot within tractates comes from him (see also Baba Kama 102a where Rav Huna writes we accept the order of mishnayot across tractates is not sequential).

He goes on to explain that in his yeshiva they have a different order of tractates in places (actually very much like the order we know today) but writes that anyone may change the order if he wishes.

He concludes that there are places in the gemara where the order is obvious, e.g., Nazir-Sotah (see Sotah 2a) or Makot-Shevuot (see Shevuot 2b) as there are statements to that effect.

So it appears a certain order got solidified over time but is not necessarily the only order possible.

  • Are you suggesting that R Shereira would be ok with moving masechtot between sedarim? He seems to me to only be discussing the order of masechtot within a given seder? – Joel K Jan 22 at 9:25
  • If I understand out of the statements of the Gemara you cited, the order inside a seder is free – kouty Jan 22 at 11:14
  • @JoelK he doesn't discuss this so I do not know whether he would have been OK or not – mbloch Jan 22 at 11:19
  • @kouty R Sherira Gaon explicitly writes "This is the order we are used to but anyone may change the order if he wishes" – mbloch Jan 22 at 11:20

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