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I've recently begun a project to memorize the mishna. The technique I am using is surprisingly effective.

This came as a result of my feeling nostalgic for the days when the Oral Torah was truly oral. This makes me curious about the actual process of transmitting the mishna to students. My dilemma is this: in order to memorize the mishna you'd need to have someone who already has the text memorized teach it to you mishna by mishna. And not only this but you need to hear from the mouth of this teacher for a considerable number of years before you actually receive the entire six orders. You need to be a devoted student of a teacher for many, many years to get the whole text.

Presumably then, the text would have to be reviewed constantly in order to keep it in memory, and moreover because not all students come at the same time, different sections would need to be taught concurrently.

Thus I'm wondering how widespread actually were those who actually had the entire six tractates memorized. I am aware that each academy had those specifically designated for memorizing the mishna. But the memorization had to extend beyond these people only for the fact that the mishna's rulings would otherwise not have been retained by the nation at large.

Does anyone have an idea about what it literally took to get this body of knowledge down the generations, in more than the vague "Moshe kibel torah misinai, umesorah leyehoshua, etc." And then the early mishnayot which came from Moshe himself were probably much more numerous than the reduced form we have today (I once heard Rebi Hakadosh had 900 orders of mishna he reduced to six)

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    Just as a side note I'd like to mention that by using a melody one can memorise surprisingly long pieces of text, especially at a young age. This surely had a huge impact on the process. Jul 15 at 5:47
  • Interestion question. I don't know if you saw a book of mishnayot without commentary (e.g., Mishna Sdura in one volume). It actually doesnt take as much space as you would think. I wonder if all of us couldn't memorize it if we could exchange all the crappy stuff in our heads for mishnayot ... not such a stretch when looking how some know Gemara by heart (or lehavdil Koran schools)
    – mbloch
    Jul 15 at 10:56
  • I seem to remember a tiferes yisroel on a mishna saying that the words used were specially meant for it to rhyme better so would be better remembered I cant remember where.
    – interested
    Jul 16 at 8:53
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The Mishna (Avos 5:21) says in the name of Yehuda Ben Teima, sets out a study program for Jewish males:

בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים לַמִּקְרָא

בֶּן עֶשֶׂר לַמִּשְׁנָה

בֶּן שְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְווֹת

בֶּן חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַתַּלְמוּד

From the age of five, the study of Mikra (the Hebrew Bible). From age ten, the study of Mishna. At thirteen, he becomes Bar Mitzvah, and from the age of 15, he begins the study of Talmud.

The presumption is that he has completed a basic knowledge the Mishna by the age of fifteen, and now begins "Talmud", which is an in depth analysis and discussion of the Mishna.

The great academies were for schools of higher education, where the Mishna was expounded upon, and which we refer to as Talmud. The students of the academies were expected to be proficient in the six orders of Mishna.

We must remember that the Yehudim in the early days, did not have that many distractions, which take away a person from Torah study. They didn't have phones, social media, and commercial sports events, which fill up people's time today. So the average preteen and young teenager, that wanted to master the Mishna, would theoretically have access to teachers, who would help him achieve his goal of completing the study of the Mishna by the age of 15.

Note: Even in today’s day and age, there are many boys that complete the study of all six orders of Mishna, in honor of their Bar Mitzvah, at age 13. Granted that today they don't study it by heart, nevertheless, it's not far-fetched to imagine, that in the olden days, a boy devoting themselves full time to the project, could learn the Mishna by heart, in 5 years (from age 10-15).

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  • This doesn't provide any information as to how widespread the memorization was or what it took to memorize it
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 15 at 4:26
  • @Chatzkel Yehuda Ben Teima spelled out, that it takes five years of study to complete the study of the Mishna; which was always done by heart. Do we have reason to assume that the description/directive of Yehuda ben Teima was ignored by the populace? Jul 15 at 4:37
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    The quote predates Rabbi Yehudah haNasi's collection of an official set of mishnayos. Which means, among other things, in R Yehudah Ben Teima's day you couldn't stop looking for mishnayos to study. More likely he is telling you to start teaching your son Tanakh at 5, add mishnayos to the curriculum when he is 10, and finally spend your days learning all three starting from 15. Jul 15 at 11:40
  • Note this quote is not a mishna but a braita, which further questions your assumption that this 'method' was ubiquitous
    – Double AA
    Jul 15 at 12:12
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    There are kids today who memorize all six orders of Mishna according to this schedule. I know some of them. They are not especially gifted, or more removed from the modern world than other Haredim. They just are in a school (Zilberman's ) where this is emphasized.
    – Mordechai
    Jul 15 at 12:32
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From the Gemarah it seems that this was a significant issue and fear.

Kesubos 103b;

והיינו דכי הוו מינצו ר' חנינא ור' חייא א"ל ר' חנינא לר' חייא בהדי דידי מינצת דאם חס ושלום נשתכחה תורה מישראל מהדרנא ליה מפלפולי

And this is the background to an exchange that took place when Rabbi Ḥanina and Rabbi Ḥiyya argued. Rabbi Ḥanina said to Rabbi Ḥiyya: You are arguing with me? If, Heaven forfend, the Torah would be forgotten from the Jewish people, I would restore it through my analyses, i.e., using my abilities of analysis I would be able to rediscover all that had been lost.

א"ל ר' חייא אנא עבדי דלא משתכחה תורה מישראל דאייתינא כיתנא ושדיינא ומגדלנא נישבי וציידנא טביא ומאכילנא בישרא ליתמי ואריכנא מגילתא ממשכי דטביא וסליקנא למתא דלית בה מקרי דרדקי וכתיבנא חמשא חומשי לחמשא ינוקי ומתנינא שיתא סידרי לשיתא ינוקי לכל חד וחד אמרי ליה אתני סידרך לחברך

Rabbi Ḥiyya: I am working to ensure that the Torah will not be forgotten from the Jewish people. For I bring flax and I plant it, and I then weave nets from the flax fibers. I then go out and trap deer, and I feed the meat to orphans, and I form scrolls from the skins of the deer. And I go to a town that has no teachers of children in it and I write the five books of the Torah for five children. And I teach the six orders of the Mishna to six children. To each and every one of these children I say: Teach your order to your friends. In this way all of the children will learn the whole of the Torah and the Mishna.

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  • Rabbi Ḥiyya was referring to towns that had no teachers of children in it. He therefore needed to resort to creative stop-gap emergency measures. This does NOT illustrate how the system normally operated. Jul 15 at 4:14
  • That may be true, but then the inference would be that the other children indeed learned all 6 from a teacher. Regardless, it shows what it took to get the children to know it, and that there was a significant fear that many children won't know it
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 15 at 4:23
  • Rabbi Ḥiyya was dealing with towns that had NO teachers of children in it, therefore, there was a reasonable fear that the Torah would be forgotten. [Otherwise, there was nothing to fear about the Torah being forgotten, provided that people applied themselves to Torah study]. So instead of Rabbi Ḥiyya teaching all six orders, to ALL the children, he maximized his own teaching effect, by teaching each different order to six different children. These six children; were then delegated to spread the teaching. He thus exponentially leveraged his personal teaching, for the maximum benefit. Jul 15 at 4:42
  • It seems he taught each child individually. Each scroll to a different child and only one. It seem the only correct way is to teach one child at a time. And not too much either. It doesnt say he gave the scrolls to the children, if he did he wouldnt be able to teach the next town. And why did he have to write it down and not teach by heart like he expected them to do unless he gave it them which perhaps he did and wrote new ones for the next town.
    – interested
    Jul 16 at 8:51
  • @interested The scrolls were for the Torah the mishna was by heart."I write the five books of the Torah for five children. And I teach the six orders of the Mishna to six children"
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 16 at 10:36

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