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.
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.

Several phenomena suggest that the Mishnah, even in its brevity, is more developed, and hence composed later, than the Tosefta. The Mishnah more frequently includes conceptual statements that summarize concrete laws, a sign of further maturation. For example, on the topic of searching for bread before Passover, both texts record a debate over which rows of a wine-cellar must be searched; only the Mishnah adds the conceptual rule: "Any place that one doesn't store hametz, does not need to be searched" (Mishnah Pesahim 1:1). Further, the Mishnah often picks sides in a debate indicating a majority and minority opinion, while the Tosefta records multiple opinions side by side.

These comparisons suggest that the Tosefta may be older than the Mishnah, and that it preserves a point in history before one legal position became mainstream. Bar Ilan Professor Shamma Friedman has developed Y. N. Epstein's (1878-1942) hypothesis that an earlier draft of the Mishnah served as the source material for both works, and that the Tosefta more closely resembles this earlier draft.

According to a similar theory, advanced by JTS professor Judith Hauptman, the Tosefta was a commentary on this proto-Mishnah and was in circulation when the Mishnah was composed. The two developed simultaneously, yet independently. These theories are compelling, but no text of a proto-Mishnah has been found to confirm them. 

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Alieza Salzberg

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.