Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The corpus of materials assembled in the Mishnah did not exhaust the oral traditions
of the tannaitic period. Other traditions were intentionally excluded by Rabbi Judah the
Prince, and some were simply not known to him. At the same time, the “tannaitic”
tradition continued to develop in early amoraic times, so that materials continued to be
collected and even transformed as they were handed down and taught. These teachings
eventually were collected in a number of different collections.


Tosefta, meaning literally “the addition,” is a collection of baraitot, “external
traditions,” which are not found in the Mishnah but are attributed to tannaim. This
collection is designed to serve as a supplement to and commentary on the Mishnah,
following its arrangement of orders and tractates, and even, for the most part, the
sequence of chapters. Only a few tractates of Mishnah have no parallel in the Tosefta,
which represents the earliest sustained exegesis of the Mishnah as the canonical
collection of oral law.

The material in the Tosefta relates to that in the Mishnah in a variety of ways. Some
passages are exact parallels, or even quotations, of material in the Mishnah. Others are
restatements of the very same views in different form of using different terminology.
Many statements in the Tosefta are actually supplements to the Mishnah and cannot be
understood independently at all. Often, Tosefta passages contain traditions which provide
material germane to the subject matter under discussion in the Mishnah but which are in
no way directly parallel. Finally, there is material in the Tosefta which is at best
tangentially related to the corresponding sections of the Mishnah.

Although talmudic tradition attributes the redaction of a Tosefta to students of Rabbi
Judah the Prince, it is certain that the Tosefta that has come down to us was not redacted
so soon after the completion of the Mishnah. Careful comparison of baraitot in the
Tosefta and the Talmuds of Babylonia and Palestine indicates that the Tosefta was most
probably not redacted until the end of the fourth century C.E. or later. This explains why
it was not available in its present form to the amoraim.

The dating of the individual traditions in the Tosefta is a matter of greater complexity.
We have already noted that tannaitic” activity continued into the amoraic period, and
this is in evidence in the continued development and redaction of Tosefta traditions. At
the same time, for many statements, careful comparison of Tosefta material with
mishnaic material shows us that the Tosefta versions are earlier than those in the
Mishnah. This is sometimes the case where the Tosefta preserves a tradition with an
attribution and the Mishnah does not. In many cases, this is because the redactor of the
Mishnah removed the attribution to present the statement as halakhah, whereas the
Tosefta preserved the original version. Elsewhere, divergent opinions were reformulated
as disputes in the Mishnah, whereas the original formulations, as separate opinions, are
preserved in the Tosefta.

On the other hand, there are clearly many passages in which the reverse process has
occurred. In such instances statements from the tannaitic period have been reworked in
order to serve as interpretations of the Mishnah or have been used as the basis for entirely
new, post-mishnaic formulations, designed to explain the Mishnah. Where such views
assume rulings not determined until the redaction of the Mishnah, they are evidence of
the continuation of tannaitic activity beyond the redaction of the Mishnah into the
amoraic period.

Thus, the relationship of the Tosefta to the Mishnah is a complex one, and, in fact,
different situations prevail in regard to different tractates. In general, however, we can
say that the Tosefta, as the earliest commentary on the Mishnah, preserves evidence of
tannaitic material not included in the Mishnah, on the one hand, and, on the other, of
materials which evolved after the redaction of the Mishnah and are clearly dependent on
a redacted Mishnah similar to the text in our possession today.

Tannaitic Midrashim

Dating to the same period as the Tosefta are the so-called “tannaitic” Midrashim. These
midrashic expositions of Scripture were in reality redacted in the amoraic period,
probably at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, in Palestine. At
this time, the same tendencies which led the redactors of the Tosefta to collect their
material, namely, a desire to preserve the heritage of the tannaitic period and a need to
assert that the authority of the mishnaic rulings was subject to challenge, also led those
who collected the Midrashim to bring them to final form. Because they preserve much
more halakhic material than do the later expositional Midrashim from the amoraic period
and early Middle Ages, these Midrashim are also called halakhic Midrashim. This
designation has the advantage of avoiding the anachronistic term “tannaitic” (up to 200
C.E.) for texts clearly redacted in the amoraic period (ca. 200–500 C.E.), but it has the
disadvantage of veiling the fact that some of these texts are primarily aggadic. Scholarly
convention has, therefore, chosen to use the term “tannaitic Midrashim,” while remaining
aware of its limitations.

The midrashic method of teaching had been in use since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
It lost prominence to some degree in the tannaitic period as the mishnaic, apodictic
method of teaching became more popular. The redaction of the Mishnah and the
establishment of its authority was for the Midrashim a two-edged sword. On the one
hand, it established for the rest of Jewish history the superior status of the apodictic law
and in this way eclipsed, to some extent, the study of midrashic interpretation. On the
other hand, the very existence of an apodictic code made it necessary for the code itself,
its authority, and its regulations to be justified in light of the commandments of the

Put otherwise, the existence of this digest of oral law led to a renewed need to
demonstrate the nexus of the oral and written laws. There was now a need to show that
the two were in reality one, and this indeed was the main agenda of the tannaitic
Midrashim. Thus they present much of the same halakhic material that is found in the
Mishnah and Tosefta, but arranged in the order of the Torah. Whenever possible, the
Midrashim seek to tie each particular halakhah directly to its scriptural basis, or to what
the redactors argue is its scriptural basis.

The tannaitic Midrashim comprise five texts of central importance and a number of
smaller texts which will not be detailed here. The major texts are the Mekhilta of Rabbi
Ishmael and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai to Exodus, the Sifra to Leviticus,
the Sifre to Numbers and the Sifre to Deuteronomy. These titles themselves need to be
explained. Mekhilta is an elusive term for a set of hermeneutical (exegetical) rules, or a
body of tradition. Sifra means “the book,” as Leviticus was, in priestly circles, the central
book of the curriculum of study. Sifre, meaning “the books,” is most probably an
abbreviation for “the rest of the books of the house of study,” a designation for the
Midrashim on Numbers and Deuteronomy (meaning those other than Leviticus and
Exodus, which are interpreted in the Sifra and Mekhiltatexts, respectively).

These books are sometimes classified into schools, some said to stem from the school of
Rabbi Akiva and some from that of Rabbi Ishmael. This theory claims that the literary
products of each school, as they are now preserved, exhibit characteristic exegetical and
redactional traits. Assigned to the school of Rabbi Ishmael are the Mekhilta of Rabbi
Ishmael, the Sifre to Numbers, and some other texts. To the school of Rabbi Akiva are
attributed the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, Sifra, Sifre Zuta (to Numbers), and
Sifre to Deuteronomy. This distinction has often been called into question, however, and
its usefulness is extremely limited. In fact, despite the parallels that have been cited, the
two groups of texts do not evidence uniform redactional traits, to say the least.

The form of these works may hark back to the techniques of scriptural study practiced in
the tannaitic academies. The Torah, as well as relevant laws, some aggadic homilies, and
a variety of related topics were discussed together. It was this method which provided the
form for the post-tannaitic redactors of these materials. Yet here again, as is the case in
the Tosefta, we are confronted with a mix of material. Some is clearly of tannaitic origin
but not preserved in the other corpora. Other materials are constructed out of a
continuation of “tannaitic” activity and tradition by later scholars in the amoraic period.
Only careful literary and textual analysis allows the separation of the literary strata in
these works. In fact, the Sifra adheres most closely to the Mishnah, and its neatly set out
redaction is based heavily on the Mishnah. Yet even here much earlier material has been
incorporated, including preredactional versions of mishnaic material. Sifre to
Deuteronomy is somewhat less heavily mishnaic thanSifra but is still strongly influenced
by the redacted mishnaic tradition. Much more earlier material is found in the two
Mekhilta texts and in the Sifre to Numbers, which in general are looser agglomerations of
material collected over a much longer period of time.

These Midrashim were intended to convey certain specific messages by those who
labored to redact them. Essentially, in varying degrees, these texts argue strongly for the
unity of the written and oral laws. In an age when mishnaic, apodictic law had become
supreme, these texts sought to remind those who studied them of the inseparable link
between the two Torahs, the oral and the written. Therefore, they derive many of the laws
found in the Mishnah from Scripture, claiming biblical exegesis as their basis. At the
same time, in many cases, these texts preserve the logical and exegetical argumentation
which was indeed the source for the determination of the halakhah by the tannaim. In
texts like the Sifra and Sifre to Deuteronomy, in which the Bible is followed closely, the
point is made over and over that there is nothing superfluous in Scripture, and that each
feature of the text, each apparent duplication, is designed to reveal the will of God. On
the other hand, the Mekhilta texts tend to move much further away from these limited
purposes, collecting many aggadot and often dealing with side issues. Nevertheless, the
basic notion that Scripture and tradition are intimately linked is carried through all these

Many of the traditions included in the Tosefta and the tannaitic Midrashim found their
way, in parallel versions, into the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. Such traditions
are termed baraitot (“external traditions”). While the process by which they were
incorporated in amoraic collections will be taken up later, it should be noted that the
versions of the traditions found there are often different from those in the collections
surveyed here. This confirms the view that these collections were not available to the
rabbis of the Talmuds in their present, edited form. Rather, the Talmuds drew their
versions of the traditions from the same unedited and unredacted sources as did the so-
called tannaitic Midrashim and the Tosefta. To a great extent medieval Judaism inherited
a similar situation. For the tannaitic Midrashim were destined to be stepchildren in the
family of rabbinic texts. Their contents were to be known largely from parallels in the
Babylonian Talmud.