The Mishnah is the written form of what Orthodox Jews consider oral explanations of the Jewish Law that God gave to Moses.
When Moses was on Mt. Sinai, God gave him the law He wished the Israelites to follow. We find this law scattered throughout the Torah, which we know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in the Christian Bible. In addition to the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures include the Nev'im or "Prophets" (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel, and all the prophets) and the Kethuvim or "Writings" (Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, and the books of poetry). Together, these Scriptures are called the Tanakh by the Jews and the Old Testament by Christians.
Some sects of Judaism believe that when God gave Moses the Jewish Law, He also gave him the Oral Law. The Oral Law, they say, contains explanations of the written law that clarify and detail the sometimes confusing Torah. This Oral Law was supposedly passed down from generation to generation verbally. Around AD 200, in fear that the Jewish diaspora would leave some communities without access to the Oral Torah, Rabbi Judah the Patriarch took on the task of writing these guidelines in the form of the Mishnah. Now all synagogues would have access to the complete Oral Law.
After the writing of the Mishnah, Jewish scholars continued to add to the commentaries on both the Tanakh and the Mishnah; in the 5th Century, the extra writings were compiled into the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together are called the Talmud. To make matters even more confusing, the Gemara has been added to since its original compilation, and the Gemara plus these additions are often referred to as "the Talmud" without the inclusion of the Mishnah.
The Mishnah is comprised of six sections which apply to different parts of the Law:
Zera'im — "seeds": Prayer, blessings, diets, agriculture, temple offerings, forbidden mixtures;
Mo'ed — "festivals": The Sabbath, feast days;
Nashim — "women": Marriage, divorce, adultery claims, engagements;
Nezikin &mdash "damages": Tort, financial, and criminal law;
Kodashim — "holy things": Sacrifices, excommunication;
Toharot — "purities": Ritual purity and impurity including medical issues.
The acceptance of the Mishnah varies. Orthodox Jews believe the Oral Torah is Scripture handed from God to Moses and passed down until it was compiled into the Mishnah. Conservative and Reform Jews consider the teachings of the Mishnah, but take the freedom to make their own conclusions.
In the age of the New Testament, the Pharisees were the biggest supporters of the Oral Torah. It was the extra rules that the Pharisees used to bind the people to legalism. And it was what Jesus fought against when He healed on the Sabbath. The Sadducees had their own, more literal, interpretation of the Torah, and the Essenes mostly rejected the Oral Law.
Is the Mishnah from God? Some of it, perhaps. More likely, the Oral Law is comprised of clarifications and practical considerations made by priests or teachers and passed down until they carried an authority second only to the actual Mosaic Law. The Mishnah may also include cultural details that would have been obvious to Moses but were in danger of being misinterpreted. Either way, the Mishnah cannot be considered inspired Scripture as even Rabbi Judah made changes to it (some contradictory) as he grew older, as have other teachers throughout the last two-thousand years.
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