Tosefta, the “other” Mishnah

The Tosefta is a little-studied primary work of classic rabbinic literature, alongside the Mishnah and Talmud, dating from the late 2nd century.

It acts as a supplement to the Mishnah ( משנה) , the basic compilation of the Oral law of Judaism. According to the tradition, the Tosefta was compiled in 189 CE. It closely corresponds to the Mishnah, with the same divisions for sedarim (“orders”) and masekhot (“tractates”). It is mainly written in Mishnaic Hebrew, with some Aramaic.

At times the text of the Tosefta agrees nearly verbatim with the Mishnah. At others there are significant differences. The Tosefta often attributes laws that are anonymous in the Mishnah to named Tannaim. It also augments the Mishnah with additional glosses and discussions. It offers additional aggadic and midrashic material, and it sometimes contradicts the Mishnah in the ruling of Jewish law, or in attributing in whose name a law was stated.

{Adapted from Wikipedia, Tosefta}

Tosefta Vienna Manuscript folio 15 End of Berachot
How does the Tosefta function in Jewish law?
(*to be added*)


Two critical editions have been published. The first was that of Moses Samuel Zuckermandl in 1882, which relied heavily on the Erfurt manuscript of the Tosefta. Zuckermandl’s work has been characterized as “a great step forward” for its time. This edition was reprinted in 1970 by Rabbi Saul Lieberman, with additional notes and corrections.

In 1955 Saul Lieberman first began publishing his monumental Tosefta ki-Feshutah. Between 1955 and 1973, ten volumes of the new edition were published, representing the text and the commentaries on the entire orders of Zera’im, Mo’ed and Nashim. In 1988, three volumes were published posthumously on the order of Nezikin, including tractates Bava Kama, Bava Metziah, and Bava Basrah. Lieberman’s work has been called the “pinnacle of modern Tosefta studies.”

{Adapted from Wikipedia}

The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew With a New Introduction , Jacob Neusner
The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew With a New Introduction , Jacob Neusner

Is the Tosefta really a commentary on the Misnah?

Judith Hauptman writes:

Since 1989 I have been arguing that much of the Tosefta (T) precedes the Mishnah (M) and serves as its basis. I have supported this new model with much textual evidence. Even so, the question naturally arises, how can the Tosefta have been a source of the Mishnah, if the Tosefta, in essence, is a wide-ranging commentary on and supplement to the Mishnah? Certainly there are many passages in the Tosefta that make no sense on their own and can only be understood when read together with the passage on which they comment. But the better question to ask is, to which text do these Tosefta passages respond? Which text do they cite, in part or in whole, and then explain? It is all too easy to conclude that the text is the Mishnah. But it is not necessarily so.
A new answer to this query is that the Tosefta often comments on a Mishnah but not our Mishnah. Careful examination of paragraph after paragraph of Mishnah and Tosefta shows that the Tosefta sometimes quotes a phrase from some other text and explains it, but the quotation, although similar to the Mishnah, does not match word for word. It has long been observed that when the Tosefta asks “X, how so?” (eizehu X, X keizad), X is a phrase from the Mishnah. For instance, T Kiddushin 1:5 asks, “How does a Hebrew slave redeem himself by gera’on kesef (deduction from the purchase price)?,” and this exact phrase appears in M Kiddushin 1:2.
But the Tosefta also says, a little later in the same paragraph, “How does one accomplish hezqat qarqa’ot (taking possession of land)?,” again apparently quoting a phrase from the Mishnah, but the Mishnah says something different, “
” (assets with backing are acquired by means of presumptive ownership). The Mishnah’s phrase “assets with backing,” although it, too, refers to real estate, is quite different from the Tosefta’s qarqa’ot (lands). I don’t think a commentary would cite the source text in very different words.
To say this a little differently: if the Tosefta cites the Mishnah verbatim more than 80% of the time, how do we account for those relatively few places where it does not? Many cases like these made it clear that the Tosefta was not quoting our Mishnah but some other, ordered, older collection. If so, I had found a solution to the problem of the dual nature of the Tosefta. It is both a commentary on an earlier text, which I will dub urMishnah, and also the basis of a later one, our Mishnah…

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