“Before engaging in any dialectic analysis, the Tosafists engaged in a close reading of the local passage,…”

Before engaging in any dialectic analysis, the Tosafists engaged in a close reading of the local passage, providing further elucidation of the talmudic discussion. Indeed, the early Tosafists were likely seeking to complement, and not replace, the commentary of their ancestor Rashi, and it could be that for this intention they received the name Tosafot, meaning additions.

With a more corpus-wide perspective, the early Tosafists pored over the Talmud, seeking to identify difficulties in talmudic passages or Rashi’s explanations based on parallel, or at least relevant, discussion in other locations in the talmudic corpus. These difficulties were often seeming contradictions that demanded resolution. Sometimes the contradictions between passages related to issues of a technical nature, but more often the contradictions related to fundamental talmudic principles and placed key passages at loggerheads with one another. While earlier schools of talmudic analysis had surely noticed contradictions, their approach was often to discern which passage was the primary talmudic approach and which was to be presumed the non-authoritative passage. But the Tosafists operated with a different principle, and they sought out contradictions not in order to identify which passages were primary and which non-authoritative, but to resolve and unify the entire corpus. The resolution of contradictions often yielded a broadening of initial perceptions and led to a deeper understanding of the issues. Similarly, other relevant passages, not only contradictory ones, were noted by the Tosafists to broaden the talmudic discussion. Tosafist dialectics consisted of cross-referencing, resolving contradictions, and suggesting innovative readings of talmudic passages.  They represent the most creative element of Tosafist scholarship and were the primary focus of the early Tosafists. The growth of this approach to Talmud study in the early Tosafist period was encouraged by a strong intellectual independence of the early Tosafists.

The systematic study of the Talmud from a dialectic perspective comprised the first stage, chronologically, of the Tosafist enterprise. In addition, it laid the structural foundation for future Tosafist works.

Aryeh Leibowitz, “The Emergence and Development of Tosafot on the Talmud”, Hakirah 15 (Summer 2013), 147-148.