Mishnah & Tosefta

Which came first?

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Both the Mishnah and the Tosefta are anthologies that record laws attributed to sages from the tannaitic period (0-200 CE). The Tosefta (which literally means “addition”) has traditionally been characterized as a text that provides explanation for murky sections of the Mishnah–its more dominant and well-studied counterpart. But not all scholars accept this theory, and a few fundamental questions about these two texts remain up for debate: Why were both texts necessary? Which really came first and what was the purpose of the second? Literary comparisons of the Mishnah and Tosefta may shed light on the poetics and politics of their composition.

The Texts

The most obvious differences between the Mishnah and Tosefta are in their length and verbosity. The Mishnah is brief, composed in short sentences, and provides legal opinions with little explication. By contrast, the Tosefta often includes additional details, reasons for laws, or further permutations concerning their application.
Tosefta
While the Tosefta follows the Mishnah’s structure, adhering to the same six sedarim (orders) organized by topic, frequently the Tosefta veers away from the Mishnah’s arrangement to include entire sections by association, which do not appear in the Mishnah. For instance, in the opening of tractate Niddah (1:4), the mention of nursing as an indicator of menstrual purity leads the Tosefta (2:7) to include a collection of laws concerning nursing, remarriage, birth control, and other issues of sexual conduct which are entirely absent from the Mishnah.  

All the extra material in the Tosefta renders it three times as large as the Mishnah. This pattern has lead to the traditional explanation that the Tosefta was composed as a commentary or companion text to fill in details left out by the Mishnah–a theory advanced by rabbis and scholars ranging from Rav Sherirah Gaon (906-1006),  to 20th century Hanoch Albeck.  However, others have contested this belief, suggesting that additional material attests to the Tosefta’s independence from the Mishnah; if the Tosefta is not a simple commentary perhaps it predates the Mishnah.

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Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.

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