Mishnah & Tosefta

Which came first?

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History of the Debate

According to a number of rabbinic sources, the canonization of the Mishnah started when Rabbi Akiba began organizing legal material into categories and requested all students to report to him on differing opinions. According to the Talmud, anonymous statements in the Mishnah were formulated by Rabbi Meir, while anonymous Toseftot are attributed to Rabbi Nehemiah, both students of Rabbi Akiba (Sanhedrein 86). Rabbi Judah the Prince is credited with the final editing of the Mishnah, likely based on the earlier collections. The Talmud hints that that Tosefta was edited by Rabbi Hiyyah and Rabbi Oshaya, who lived in Israel during the transition between the tannaitic and amoraic periods (Sanhedrin 33a), though it is unclear whether this comment refers to a text identical to our own.

Another source of information is the Letter of Rav Sherirah Gaon, a responsum concerning the history of rabbinic texts. Rav Sherirah explains that the Tosefta was compiled later to fill in questions that arose from the brevity of the Mishnah. He presents the Tosefta as less authoritative than the Mishnah, yet originating from the same central voice.

Modern scholars are skeptical about the history advanced in the Talmud and in Rav Sherirah Gaon's letter, since both have an ulterior motive to strengthen the authority of the Mishnah from which the Talmud and all subsequent Jewish law stems.

The picture academics paint today is a bit more complicated. While the basic question of which text influenced which is ultimately a mystery, most contemporary scholarship agrees with Epstein, Friedman, and Hauptman, that the structure of the Mishnah and Tosefta were set by a proto-Mishnah from which both drew material.

From this proto-Mishnah, it is believed that Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishnah we have, making many editorial decisions, including changing language, format, and voicing support for specific positions that fit his worldview. But earlier versions were preserved and eventually compiled into the Tosefta. Therefore the final editing of the Tosefta is later than the Mishnah, but the Tosefta preserves early source material--more varied and representing more diverse opinions--that wasn't subject to the red pen of Rabbi Judah.

On Canonization

Jewish discourse continually swings between formulating an authoritative canon and fostering open debate. While the Tosefta ostensibly preserves many voices excluded from the Mishnah, the Tosefta too does not record everything. Indeed the Talmud quotes many tannaitic teachings absent from the Mishnah; some are recorded in the Tosefta but others appear nowhere else in rabbinic literature.

For the curious minds of the talmudic Rabbis, these uncanonized opinions were not out of bounds, even though they were named baraitot- outsiders - because they were located outside of the Mishnah. The talmudic conversation continued beyond the Mishnah's attempt to streamline legal authority, just as the commentary on Jewish texts has continued to flourish throughout the centuries.

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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.