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Rereading the Mishnah: A New Approach to Ancient Jewish Texts (Texts & Studies in Ancient Judaism)

Rereading the Mishnah: A New Approach to Ancient Jewish Texts by Judith Hauptman (Texts & Studies in Ancient Judaism: Paul Mohr Verlag) An important historical reworking of the development of the tradition.

There are two main arguments to this volume. The first is that not only are individual passages of the Mishnah based on individual, parallel passages of the Tosefta, but even entire chapters of the Mishnah are based on entire chapters of the Tosefta. If one were to line up all the Tosefta paragraphs that give rise to Mishnah paragraphs, they would join together to form a vast net­work. It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that there existed an ordered collection of tannaitic passages that preceded the Mishnah and served as one of its sources. That collection was the Tosefta.

The problem with this understanding of the relationship of the Mishnah and the Tosefta is that many statements in the Tosefta quote the Mishnah and comment on it, thus offering strong evidence that the Tosefta is later, not earlier, than the Mishnah. I therefore propose, as the second main argument of this volume, that not only is the Tosefta a basis of our Mishnah, it is also a commentary on some other, earlier Mishnah or ur-Mishnah. The Tosefta explains many of the ur-Mishnah's phrases, develops further its halakah, and adds related, albeit autonomous aggadah. The Tosefta's order, which di­verges from that of our Mishnah, follows the order of the ur-Mishnah.

The ur-Mishnah and the Tosefta, as text and commentary, evolved in tandem over the years, continually and gradually assimilating new material. In about 200-220 C.E., a redactor came along who, basing himself on both the Tosefta and the ur-Mishnah, and on other material too, produced his own collection, the Mishnah.  This is, thus, a new model of the inter-relationship of the Mishnah and the Tosefta. It shares elements with some of the earlier models but overturns their central thesis of the Tosefta as a commentary on the Mishnah.

Seeing the Tosefta as a source of the Mishnah solves the problem of how there could be so many statements of tannaim who preceded the Mishnah in a collection that follows the Mishnah. The standard answer is that the Tosefta contains much old material but that the collection itself is new, postmishnaic. The problem with this answer is that it does not account for how the old materials, which did not form an ordered collection, were transmitted from generation to generation. That they floated as "bits and pieces" does not satisfy. How could thousands of individual traditions circulate independently of each other for so many years? It is far simpler, and hence more likely, according to the logic of Occam's razor, to say that these old materials, too, were arranged in a collection, i.e., a Tosefta, that accompanied the early Mishnah and preceded our Mishnah.

Another benefit of this new model is that it highlights the role of the redactor. The old model, which saw the Mishnah as the oldest extant tannaitic collection, did not allow for assessing his contribution. One could not know what he was attempting to accomplish vis-a-vis an earlier collection. But if we approach these texts from the perspective that the Tosefta predates the Mishnah, it becomes possible to understand, appraise, and appreciate his role.

We can now read the Mishnah and see how the redactor utilizes his Tosefta sources – which stances he chooses to overlook, which to endorse, and which to modify. Can we determine the editorial program of the redactor of Mishnah and distinguish it from that of previous editor(s)? Only in a limited way. Each text analysis gives rise to conclusions specific to that set of texts. The sample is too small to permit generalization. Even so, I can say, on the basis of studies conducted so far, that the redactor had certain goals – theological, social, economic, and even, in a few instances, "feminist" – that he sought to accomplish. He did not reformulate earlier material only to produce a pithy code but also to implement ideas of his own. Many more studies of rabbinic texts, in as broad a context as possible, need to be carried out to grasp the redactor's objectives more fully and precisely.'

This book provides a strategy for enriched reading. There is no need to wait until the entire corpus is reviewed before putting this model into the public domain. In a sense, we all become co-investigators as we read Mishnah and Tosefta from this perspective and discover new interpretations of ancient texts. In addition to being of use to rabbinics researchers, who are always chasing the elusive peshat, the plain-sense meaning of the words, this reading strategy should also benefit historians. If they, too, see the Tosefta as earlier than the Mishnah, they stand on the brink of reassessing the history of Jewish religion and culture.

This book is not, and does not purport to be, a systematic study of, or a commentary on, the Mishnah and the Tosefta. The materials analyzed herein were chosen for how well they illustrate a point. It is not clear that a system­atic study of a tractate or even an order would yield conclusive proof that the Tosefta precedes the Mishnah.' One could always suggest that the materials be read and interpreted in some other way. At the same time, there exists no contradictory evidence, i.e., there are no texts that prove that the Tosefta, as a collection, followed the Mishnah.

As for the Tosefta, one notices almost immediately that it contains many radical disjunctures. It thus gives the impression that it is not a unitary document but a haphazard assemblage of texts. If it is not a coherent work, then one cannot draw conclusions about its evolution over time. But that concept of the Tosefta is wrong. It does have clear order. Its frequent disconti­nuities are a function of its nature: the Tosefta comments on an ur-Mishnah. For that reason, it jumps from topic to topic without its audience being able to follow what is being said unless the hearer has the ur-Mishnah "open" to the right place in his or her head. The same might be said for the collections of midrash halakah and the Aramaic targums on the Torah. They can only be understood in conjunction with the text upon which they comment.  The Tosefta thus "reads" like the commentary that it is.

Seeing the Tosefta as older than the Mishnah reveals a number of the ways in which the redactor of Mishnah shaped the materials at his disposal. The first is that he felt free to alter his sources. The ur-Mishnah and the Tosefta seem to have been transmitted in a more or less fixed form from one genera­tion to the next. But in producing a new work, the redactor of Mishnah per­mits himself to rewrite earlier material extensively.

A second practice of his is to make only an oblique reference to an aggadic narrative or ethical teaching and leave it to the hearer to find out the story in full. To a certain extent, this editorial practice undermines the conclusion that the Mishnah emerged later than the Tosefta and sought to be an independent statement of Jewish law and practice. But this is not so. The redactor of Mishnah could assume, when it came to aggadah, that his work did not have to contain all the necessary information. By just hinting at the story, the redactor could push a reader to go elsewhere to obtain it. By limiting aggadic references to few words and to a minimum, the redactor of Mishnah could preserve the halakic tenor of his collection and keep it relatively short. In this way he deviates from the Tosefta which frequently takes off on a flight of aggadic fancy.6 The tendency toward compression may also have implications for the study of the synoptic gospels. Rather than seeing Matthew's shorter version of the Jesus stories and sayings as earlier than Mark's and Luke's longer versions, as was standard for years, it now becomes possible to regard the longer versions of Mark and Luke as the basis for Matthew's later, shorter version.?

A third editorial practice of the redactor of Mishnah is to introduce summary statements and mnemonic devices, often in the form of lists, often preceded by a number, like "there are four bailees" (M Baba Mezia 7:8; M Shevuot 8:1). The insertion of such numbers and lists makes it possible for someone committing much material to memory to recapitulate more easily the substance and the order of many and diverse items that follow. The comparison of parallel units of Mishnah and Tosefta shows that the Mishnah has many more summary lists and paragraphs. It is not true that the Tosefta has none. It is possible that the Tosefta's practice of occasionally presenting such lists and statements led the redactor of Mishnah to adopt it and develop it further. There is no question that these materials assist in understanding the Mishnah.

The redactor of Mishnah produced a work that could stand on its own.8 The Mishnah, for the most part, aside from aggadic references, can be understood without consulting another source. Even so, in many places the halakah of the Mishnah needs the corresponding Tosefta paragraph to elucidate its terms. Is the Mishnah free-standing? Yes. Does it make better sense when read with the Tosefta? Also yes. Although the Mishnah is not dependent on the Tosefta in the same way and to the same extent that the Tosefta is dependent on the Mishnah, the Mishnah makes better sense when read with the Tosefta.

Below is a brief list of the new interpretations that resulted from reading the Mishnah as a response to the Tosefta and the ur-Mishnah. In most cases it is possible to see why the redactor altered the materials he was working with.

Chapter 1, Rethinking the Relationship between the Mishnah and the Tosefta:

  • The redactor of Mishnah creates a new view of how to pray on the road, redefining, in the process, the term "directing the heart."
  • The redactor of Mishnah adds a fourth new year to the ur-Mishnah's three. He gives new meaning to Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment.

Chapter 2, The Tosefta as Commentary on an Early Mishnah:

  • The redactor of Mishnah is more liberal than the Tosefta and the ur­Mishnah in allowing ownership of dogs in Israel.
  • The redactor of Mishnah forces men who become physically impaired to divorce their wives, whereas the Tosefta and the ur-Mishnah recommend but do not compel divorce.
  • The redactor of Mishnah alters the rules of the unpaid bailee in Baba Mezia 8 for mnemonic reasons but preserves the older formulation of the rule elsewhere in the same tractate, in chapter 3. The Tosefta knows only the older formulation of the ur-Mishnah.
  • The redactor of Mishnah slightly rewrites the rules of acquiring a wife, a slave, a field, and so on, as presented in the ur-Mishnah. He significantly reduces the Tosefla's aggadah.

Chapter 3, Rewriting Tosefta's Halakic Paragraphs for Inclusion in the Mishnah:

  • The redactor of Mishnah transforms the late night study session of laws of Pesah, following the seder meal and Hallel, into an early evening dialogue between child and father about the Exodus. In other words, the redactor of Mishnah adds a haggadah to the seder, something totally absent from the Tosefta. He also moves the appetizers to early in the evening, infusing each with symbolic meaning.
  • The redactor of Mishnah reduces the level at which Tooth pays for damages. Rather than full damages, as the Mishnah prescribes for a muad, the redactor stipulates proportional assessment.
  • The redactor of Mishnah awards women direct payment for assault. The moneys would not be invested for them in land with the income accruing to their husbands, in some cases the very men who assaulted them, but rather be placed in their own hands, to do with as they pleased.
  • The redactor of Mishnah outlaws cooking on a festival for after the festival, a practice permitted in certain circumstances by the Tosefta. The redactor of Mishnah rules stringently with regard to several other details of eruvei tavshilin.
  • The redactor of Mishnah alters a collective memory of the omer harvesting ceremony, changing it from an occasional public, dramatic ritual on a Friday night into a yearly one, performed on any night of the week.

Chapter 4, Condensing Aggadah:

  • The redactor of Mishnah tones down and condenses the Tosefta's fanciful aggadic description of the blessings and curses at the mountains. He takes a stand, in the process, on several disputed matters.
  • The redactor of Mishnah condenses the lengthy dispute in the Tosefta about ongoing gratitude for the Exodus to a brief statement about incorporating reference to the Exodus in the blessings recited after the Shema at night.
  • The redactor of Mishnah expands and interprets the Tosefta's obscure statement about the eglah arufah.
  • The redactor of Mishnah conceals the stories behind separating men and women at the Bet Hashoevah celebration, punishing the Bilgah priestly watch, and leaving Niqanor's gates without a coat of gold. The Tosefta relates these episodes in detail.
  • The redactor of Mishnah obligates the assailant to ask the victim for a pardon whereas the Tosefta requires the victim to seek mercy from God for the assailant.

Chapter 5, Editing for Ease of Memory:

  • The redactor of Mishnah augments the list of a husband's responsibilities to his wife to make it comprehensive, even though these rules are listed else­where in the Mishnah.
  • The redactor of Mishnah adds a new paragraph to the beginning of Baba Qamma in order to establish a midrashic basis for the old, second mishnah, thereby changing its meaning somewhat. This new paragraph gives an over­view of the first seven chapters of the tractate.
  • The redactor of Mishnah interpolates a list of instances of muadin into a mishnah that defines tam and muad. This addition gives the reader a "heads up" on the topics to be discussed in the next chapter.
  • The redactor of Mishnah reorganizes the material on the men who return home from war, adding summary statements to make the details easier to remember.
  • The redactor of Mishnah reorganizes the paragraphs on rituals that must be recited in Hebrew, adding several more, and composes a list of all eight to help the reader remember them.
  • The redactor of Mishnah creates a list of Hag rituals, and the number of days each is performed, in order to help the reader remember all seven. He adds a mishnah about giving Day Eight its due. He rewrites the Tosefta materials in order to address the interface of Hag and the Sabbath.

Chapter 6, From Tosefta to Mishnah to Talmud:

  • The redactor of Mishnah converts several Tosefta stories about fathers requiring children to eat on Yom Kippur into a rule that parents are forbidden to force their children to fast. The Bavli shifts the focus of the Tosefta baraita from the requirement to feed children on Yom Kippur to the requirement to wash one's hands before feeding children on Yom Kippur.
  • The redactor of Mishnah raises the bar of testimony based on childhood memory but at the same time expands it to include several cases involving money that the Tosefta had excluded. The redactor of Mishnah does not accept the testimony of women in cases in which the Tosefta does accept it. The Bavli significantly limits the range of cases in the Tosefta baraita in which testimony based on childhood memory may be accepted.

These new understandings result once one approaches the Mishnah from the perspective that the Tosefta and the ur-Mishnah are its base documents. As studies of this sort proliferate, it will become possible to grasp better the meaning and message of the Mishnah and the Tosefta and the nature of their interrelationship. Just as separating the anonymous voice of the gemara (the stama degemara) from the amoraic and tannaitic passages continues to give rise to new insight into the talmudic pericope, so too, this model of the interrelationship of these two tannaitic works will yield more accurate comprehension of both. I place before the reader a stratagem for reading the Mishnah, the cornerstone of rabbinic Judaism, and its companion volume, the Tosefta, in ways that accord with their evolution as collections. The possibilities for new interpretations are vast.


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