Horayot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Eight
The mishnah continues to provide rules of precedence.
A priest takes precedence over a levite, a levite over an israelite, an israelite over a mamzer, a mamzer over a natin, a natin over a convert, and a convert over a freed slave.
When is this so? When all these were in other respects equal.
However, if the mamzer was a scholar and the high priest an ignoramus, the scholar mamzer takes precedence over the ignorant high priest.
According to commentaries, this mishnah deals with precedence in any matter of honor or profit. The mishnah considers certain genealogical lines of Jews to be inherently more holy than others. A priest is holier than a levite and a levite is holier than an Israelite. A mamzer is someone who was born of an illicit sexual union of two Jews, therefore an israelite takes precedence over a mamzer. A natin is a descendent of the Gibeonites who converted during the time of Joshua (see above 1:4). Since a mamzer does not have any foreign descent, he is holier than a natin. A natin is holier than a current convert, because a natin was part of Israel from before his birth, whereas a convert has only just now converted. A convert is holier than a freed slave for a convert was never part of such a lowly occupation.
Up until now the mishnah has stated what must be considered something similar to a genealogical caste system. Each person is born into a certain status, and these separate statuses are ranked. We might think that at least during a persons lifetime, he could not move up or down in status.
The last clause of the mishnah radically undercuts that ideology. While in theory a persons holiness is attributed to birth, a persons true holiness is attained through the study of Torah. A mamzer who studies Torah is higher than a high priest who does not, even though the latter has the highest pedigree of genealogical status. In practice, this will become the only criteria for ranking individuals, for no two individuals will be exactly the same in their Torah learning.
This statement in essence is one of the supreme value statements for the entire Mishnah. The rabbinic social system was a meritocracy, where one merited ones position based on commitment to Torah study, and not based on ones filial connections.
Congratulations! We have finished Horayot and all of Seder Nezikin.
As I have mentioned at the end of every tractate, it is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us to finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives. This time we have not only finished Horayot, but we have finished all of Seder Nezikin, one sixth of the entire Mishnah. This is a great accomplishment and for those of you who have been studying with us from the beginning, give yourselves hearty yasher koach, and a big pat on the back (those who havent been learning since the beginning may do so as well).
The next Seder (order) which we will learn is Nashim. As you will note, we are not learning the Mishnah in its order. In truth, there is not really order between different seders of the mishnah, nor even between different tractates. The only order internal to the Mishnah is inside the tractate. Therefore, there is no reason to learn or not to learn the Mishnah in the order that its tractates appear.
Again, congratulations and good luck with your continuing learning. Tomorrow we begin tractate Yevamot.