Skip to main content



SIFRA (Aram. סִפְרָא), is a midrash halakhah from the school of R. Akiva on the Book of Leviticus. The Aramaic word sifra means "book" or "The Book." This name was commonly used in Babylonia, and most likely attests to the centrality and importance of this Midrash. In the Land of Israel this Midrash was called Torat Kohanim, corresponding to the name given to the Pentateuchal book. According to most scholars, Sifra from the school of R. Akiva contains Midrashim on Lev. 1:1–7:38; 10:8–18:6; 18:19; 18:24–20:5; 20:22–27:34 (the attribution of the Midrashim in Beḥukotai (Lev. 26:3 ff.) is doubtful). Several textual versions contain additional expositions from the school of R. Ishmael on Lev. 8:1–10:7; 18:1–7; 18:18; 18:28; 20:6–22 (see below).

As is indicated by the statement of the tanna R. Simeon, the son of R. Judah ha-Nasi, to Bar Kappara (tb Kiddushin 33a), and by the testimony of geonim and rishonim, Sifra was originally divided into nine sections. However, in the extant textual versions, the original portion of Sifra, which derives from the school of R. Akiva, is divided into eleven or twelve "megillot" or "dibburim": "Nedavah" or "Vayikra" (Lev. 1:1–3:17); "Hovah" or "Nefesh" (4:1–5:26); "Ẓav" (6:1–7:38); "Sheraẓim" (10:8–12:8); "Nega'im" (13:1–59); "Meẓorah" (14:1–57); "Ẓavim" (15:1–33); "Aḥarei Mot" (16:1–18:30, with omissions); "Kedoshim" (19:1–20:27, with omissions); "Emor" (21:1–24:23); "Sinai" (25:1–26:2); "Be-Ḥukotai" (26:3–27:34, with omissions). The introduction of a secondary division, corresponding to the weekly Torah portions according to the Babylonian custom, is probably responsible for the increase in the number of units in Sifra. Several proposed reconstructions of the original nine parts of Sifra were put forth in the past, but this question was satisfactorily resolved only recently, by S. Naeh, who based his precise definition of the boundaries of the nine sections on the division that is at the shared foundation of the manuscripts, and which is accurately preserved in ms. Parma. He also showed that the key to the division is not dependent on the content of the smaller units, but rather is determined by the more or less equal size of these nine units known as "megillot" (literally, scrolls). This, along with the name of the work as a whole: "Sifra," attests to its relatively early commitment to writing in a book. Each megillah or dibbur is divided into "parashot," that are further split into "perakim" (chapters), and these, into "halakhot," with a numerical total at the end of each unit of the parashot, perakim, and halakhot that it contains.

Sifra is quoted at the present in accordance with the edition of I.H. Weiss, that was published some one hundred and forty years ago (1862) in Vienna. The Weiss edition is based on the Venice printing and corrections in accordance with Yalkut Shimoni, along with a section of references to the parallels and short interpretive notes. In the absence of a complete scientific edition of Sifra, great weight must also be given to two photocopy editions of Sifra manuscripts: the photocopy of ms. Vatican 66, published with an introduction by Finkelstein, and the photocopy of ms. Vatican 31, published by Makor (Jerusalem, 1972).

A commentary on Sifra, almost to the end of dibbura de-Nedavah, was published in Breslau in 1915, from the posthumous legacy of R. Meir Friedmann (Ish Shalom), who drew upon several manuscripts. In 1983–1990 L. Finkelstein published a four-volume scientific edition of the first two dibburim of Sifra (Nedavah and Hovah), consisting of an introductory volume, the text volume that included references to the parallels and a concise interpretation, a volume of textual variants, and a volume with a lengthy commentary. A fifth volume, that was sent to press close to Finkelstein's death in 1992, contains indexes to the four preceding volumes, along with a collection of Finkelstein's scholarly articles on halakhic Midrash.

The text of Finkelstein's critical edition is based on ms. Vatican 66, unquestionably the best text of Sifra, and, in fact, the most accurate extant midrash halakhah codex. This manuscript is of Eastern origin, most likely Babylonia, and is dated to the tenth or ninth centuries. It preserves many remnants of pure Tannaitic language, original terminology, traces indicative of the incorporation of the foreign units from the school of R. Ishmael, and mainly, an abundance of good textual readings. The manuscript has "Babylonian" vocalization above the letters written by another scribe, who in many instances also corrected the writing of the initial scribe, to adapt its tradition and textual version to his method. In the textual variants volume Finkelstein listed the changes in all the manuscripts of Sifra: ms. Breslau 108 (currently in the Jewish Theological Seminary library in New York: jts Rab. 2171), that is relatively close to ms. Vatican 66; the Constantinople 1523(?) printed edition, that comprises most of the portion of Vayikra, and that apparently also reflects an Eastern textual tradition; the Italian mss. Vatican 31 and Parma 139; the Venice printed edition; the Franco-German ms. Oxford 151 and ms. London 341, that present the Franco-German textual tradition; pages from a Yemenite ms. possessed by Rabbi J.Y. Kafiḥ; many Genizah pages (photo reproductions of which appear at the beginning of the Introduction volume); and the versions of the major indirect textual witnesses in the Yalkutim and medieval commentaries and Midrashim. To complement this edition, attention should also be paid to a considerable number of Genizah fragments and other Sifra pages, mainly from Eastern Europe, that were identified after the publication of the edition.

Three commentaries on Sifra by rishonim have been published: the commentary of R. Abraham ben David of Posquieres, that of Rabbenu Hillel, and the commentary attributed to R. Samson of Sens; and a relatively large number of commentaries by Aḥaronim. To these we should add commentaries on Sifra still in manuscript form, several of which are being published in the Shoshana edition, and many testimonies of nonextant Sifra commentaries. All in all, we have evidence of fifty copies of Sifra and more than 40 commentaries on the Midrash. These figures, that greatly exceed the number of copies and commentaries for the other midrash halakhah, reflect the premier standing during the medieval period of this midrash, that was very commonly studied in the past, and was an unparalleled tool for the comprehension of difficult topics relating to sacred objects and the purity laws. The fate of the scientific publication of Sifra, on the other hand, has not been as positive, and it is to be hoped that this failing will be remedied in the not too distant future.

Sifra is singular in the paucity of aggadic material it contains, the lengthy deliberations characteristic of many of its midrashic expositions, the extensive use made of the extant Mishnah, and in the great proximity of its expositions to their parallels in the bt, that apparently possessed a Midrash very similar to the extant Sifra. According to Finkelstein, the redactors of the extant Sifra made use of an early Midrash on Leviticus, that had been used by the Torah scholars who instructed the priests in the work of the Temple and the sacrifices. Based on this assumption, Finkelstein attempted to resolve a long line of difficult expositions, in which the redactors cited the early Midrash verbatim, and added to it a later stratum, so that it would conform to their approach. This view suits Finkelstein's general stance in midrash halakhah research, but it seems that many of his proofs can be refuted. Brown, on the other hand, asserts that along with the ancient Midrashim, Sifra also contains exegeses reflective of a version later than their parallels in the two Talmuds, but his proofs are unconvincing.

The core midrash of Sifra is from the school of R. Akiva, but in a later period it was augmented by several lengthy passages from the school of R. Ishmael, that apparently came from another halakhic midrash from the latter school that has not survived:

(1) the baraita of thirteen exegetical methods by which the Torah is expounded, at the beginning of Sifra. This baraita appears in all the textual versions, and there is evidence that it was already in this opening position in the geonic period. The positioning of this baraita at the beginning of Sifra might possibly reflect the ancient practice of beginning the study of the Pentateuch with the Book of Leviticus. The baraita is composed of several sources: (a) the count of the thirteen hermeneutical methods, according to R. Ishmael; (b) the exemplification of these rules in the Scholion that does not always correspond to the original meaning of these principles in the initial baraita; (c) the seven hermeneutical methods of Hillel that were inserted in the middle of the rule of shenei ketuvim.

(2) Mekhilta de-Milu'im, that includes exegeses regarding the narrative of the dedication of the Tabernacle at the end of the portion of Ẓav and the beginning of Shemini (Lev. 8:1–10:7). Several textual versions of Sifra lack this Mekhilta, or include only a portion of it. The inner division signs of the Mekhilta de-Milu'im in the reliable manuscripts vary from the main body of Sifra, and the Mekhilta contains several terms from the school of R. Ishmael, and several matters whose content is characteristic of this school. The full version of Mekhilta de-Milu'im comprises two cycles of interpretations on Lev. 9:1 ("On the eighth day"), and two such cycles on Lev. 9:22–10:7. Several manuscripts, however, lack the first cycle of expositions on 9:22–10:7, and the beginning of the second cycle does not appear in one manuscript. The second cycle of exegeses on Lev. 9:22 ff. is markedly associated with the school of R. Ishmael, while the first set of exegeses on these verses lacks any clear indicators of its origin.

(3) Mekhilta de-Arayot. The original Sifra, from the school of R. Akiva, does not expound the prohibitions of incestuous and other forbidden sexual relations in Aḥarei Mot (Lev. 18:7–18, 20–23) and in Kedoshim (Lev. 20:10–21). This omission is understandable in light of R. Akiva's opposition to publicly expounding the passage containing these prohibitions. Several textual versions of Sifra add a second set of interpretations of Lev. 18:1–7, from Aḥarei Mot, and interpretations of the sexual prohibitions in Lev. 20:6–22 in Kedoshim. In the conclusion of this unit is an exposition of Lev. 18:18 and 28, not in the order in which they appear in Scripture. These hermeneutical units obviously did not originally belong to Sifra of the school of R. Akiva, as is attested by their absence from most of the textual versions, and from their inclusion, not in their proper place, in other textual versions. The usual division markers of Sifra are missing from these sections in MSS. Vatican 66 and Oxford. The hermeneutical method, the names of the rabbis, and the midrashic terms in these two units patently teach of their origin in the second Midrash on Leviticus, from the school of R. Ishmael, that apparently adopted R. Ishmael's permissive stance regarding the public exposition of the sexual prohibitions.

Along with these large units, Sifra also incorporates several short Midrashim from the school of R. Ishmael. All these remains indicate the past existence of a tannaitic Midrash from the school of R. Ishmael. This conclusion is also supported by a lengthy series of halakhic Midrashim from the school of R. Ishmael that are preserved in the Talmuds, and the paytan Yannai probably possessed such a midrashic work. At the present time, unfortunately, no direct remnant of this lost Midrash has been found.


English: J. Neusner, Sifra: An Analytical Translation, Atlanta 1988. German: J. Winter, Sifra Halachischer Midrasch zu Leviticus, Breslau 1938.


Ch. Albeck, Introduction to the Talmuds (Heb., 1969), 113–123; idem, Untersuchungen ueber die Halakhischen Midraschim (1927), 97–105; R. Brown, "A Literary Analysis of Selected Sections of Sifra," in: Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, (1990), 3, vol. 1, 39–46 (Heb.); J.N. Epstein, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text (Heb., 1948), 729–31; idem, Prolegomena ad Litteras Tannaiticas (Heb., 1957), 634–702; idem, in: E.Z. Melamed (ed.), Studies in Talmudic Literature and Semitic languages, vol. 2 (Heb., 1988), 108–24; L. Finkelstein, "The Core of the Sifra: A Temple Textbook for Priests," in: jqr, 80 (1989), 15–34; idem, Sifra According to Codex Assemai lxvi (1957); idem, Sifra on Leviticus, vols. 1–5 (Heb., 1983–1992); S.D. Fraade, "Scripture, Targum and Talmud as Instruction: A Complex Textual Story from the Sifra," in: J. Magness and S. Gitin (eds.), Hesed ve-Emet: Studies in Honor of Ernst S. Frerichs (1998), 109–21; M. Friedmann, Sifra der alteste Midrasch zu Levitikus (Heb., 1915); A. Geiger, Kevuẓat Ma'amarim (Heb., 1885), 165–72; A. Goldberg, "The Dual Exegeses in Mekhilta de-Milu'im," in: Sinai, 89 (1981), 115–18 (Heb.); G. Haneman, "On the Linguistic Tradition of the Written Text in the Sifra Ms. (Rome, Codex Assemani 66)," in: E.Y. Kutscher, S. Lieberman, and M.Z. Kaddari (eds.), Henoch Yalon Memorial Volume (1974), 84–98 (Heb.); Kahana, "The Development of the Hermeneutical Principle of Kelal u-Ferat in the Tannaitic Period," in: Studies in Talmudic and Midrash Literature in Memory of Tirza Lifshitz (2005), 173–216 (Heb.); idem, "Halakhic Midrash Collections," in: The Literature of the Sages, vol. 3b (2006); idem, Manuscripts of the Halakhic Midrashim: An Annotated Catalogue (Heb., 1995), 22–26, 60–88; S. Lieberman, "Ḥazanut Yannai," in: Sinai, 4 (1939), 221–50 (Heb.); E.Z. Melamed, The Relationship Between the Halakhic Midrashim and the Mishnah & Tosefta (Heb., 1967), 9–78; S. Naeh, "Did the Tannaim Interpret the Script of the Torah Differently from the Authorized Reading?," in: Tarbiz, 61 (1992), 401–48 (Heb.); idem, "Notes to Tannaitic Hebrew Based on Codex Vat. 66 of the Sifra," in: M. Bar-Asher (ed.), Language Studies, 4 (1990), 271–95 (Heb.); idem, "The Structure and the Division of Torat Kohanim, A: Scrolls," in: Tarbiz, 66 (1997), 483–515 (Heb.); idem, "The Structure and the Division of Torat Kohanim, B: Parashot, Perakim, Halakhot," in: Tarbiz, 69 (2000), 59–104 (Heb.); idem, "The Tannaitic Hebrew in the Sifra according to Codex Vatican 66" (Heb., Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1989); J. Neusner, "Sifra and the Problem of the Mishnah," in: Henoch, 11 (1989), 17–40; idem, "Sifra's Critique of Mishnaic Logic," in: Hebrew Studies, 29 (1988), 49–65; A. Shoshana, Sifra on Leviticus, vols. 1–3 (1981–1988); G. Stemberger, "Sifra-Tosefta-Yerushalmi: Zur Redaktion und fruhen Rezeption von Sifra," in: jsj, 30 (1999), 271–311; idem, "Zu Eigenart und Redaktion von Sifra Behukotai," in: Frankfurter Judaistische Beiträge, 31 (2004), 1–19; E. Wajsberg, "The Difference Between the Midrashic Terms 'Talmud' and 'Talmud Lomar,'" in: Leshonenu, 39 (1975), 147–52 (Heb.).

[Menahem I. Kahana (2nd ed.)]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sifra." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . 14 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Sifra." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (August 14, 2018).

"Sifra." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.