Mishnah and Tosefta

These two texts both shaped Rabbinic Judaism. But which came first?

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.

Differences in Size, Structure

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 that 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 led 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 the 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.

Which Came First: Mishnah or Tosefta?

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 University 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 Jewish Theological Seminary 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.

History of the Debate

According to a number of rabbinic sources, the canonization of the Mishnah started when Rabbi Akiva 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 Akiva (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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