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In Judaism, the midrash (//; Hebrew: מִדְרָשׁ; pl. Hebrew: מִדְרָשִׁים midrashim) is the genre of rabbinic literature which contains early interpretations and commentaries on the Written Torah and Oral Torah (spoken law and sermons), as well as non-legalistic rabbinic literature (aggadah) and occasionally the Jewish religious laws (halakha), which usually form a running commentary on specific passages in the Hebrew Scripture (Tanakh).
The purpose of midrash was to resolve problems in the interpretation of difficult passages of the text of the Hebrew Bible, using Rabbinic principles of hermeneutics and philology to align them with the religious and ethical values of religious teachers.
Gesenius ascribes the etymology of midrash to the qal of the common Hebrew verb darash (דָּרַשׁ) "to seek, study, inquire". The word "midrash" occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible: 2 Chronicles 13:22 "in the midrash of the prophet Iddo", and 24:27 "in the midrash of the Book of the Kings".
The word is translated in the Septuagint as βίβλος, γραφή, i.e., “book” or “writing,” and it is likely that it refers to an account of, or the result of inquiry into, the events of the time, i.e. what would now be called a history. In Second Temple Jewish literature it began to be used in the sense of education and learning generally.
According to the PaRDeS approaches to exegesis, interpretation of Biblical texts in Judaism is realized through peshat (literal or plain meaning, lit. "plain" or "simple"), remez (deep meaning, lit. "hints"), derash (comparative meaning, from Hebrew darash—"to inquire" or "to seek") and sod (hidden meaning or philosophy, lit. "secret" or "mystery"). The Midrash concentrates somewhat on remez but mostly on derash (Some thinkers divide PaRDeS into pshat, remez, din (law) and sod. In this understanding, midrash aggada deals with remez and midrash halakha deals with din).
Many different exegetical methods are employed in an effort to derive deeper meaning from a text. This is not limited to the traditional thirteen textual tools attributed to the Tanna Rabbi Ishmael, which are used in the interpretation of halakha (Jewish law). The presence of words or letters which are seen to be apparently superfluous, and the chronology of events, parallel narratives or what are seen as other textual 'anomalies' are often used as a springboard for interpretation of segments of Biblical text. In many cases, a dialogue is expanded manifold: handfuls of lines in the Biblical narrative may become long philosophical discussions. It is unclear whether the midrash assumes these dialogues took place in reality or if this refers only to subtext or religious implication.
Many midrashim start off with a seemingly unrelated sentence from the Biblical books of Psalms, Proverbs or the Prophets. This sentence later turns out to metaphorically reflect the content of the rabbinical interpretation offered. This strategy is used particularly in a subgenre of midrash known as the "Petikhta".
Some Midrash discussions are highly metaphorical, and many Jewish authors stress that they are not intended to be taken literally. Rather, other midrashic sources may sometimes serve as a key to particularly esoteric discussions. Later authors maintain that this was done to make this material less accessible to the casual reader and prevent its abuse by detractors.
Forms of Midrashic literature
In general the midrash is focused on either halakha (legal) or aggadic (non-legal and chiefly homiletical) subject matter. Both kinds of midrashim were at first preserved only orally; but their writing down commenced in the 2nd century, and they now exist in the shape chiefly of exegetical or homiletical commentaries on Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).
Midrash halakha is the name given to a group of tannaitic expositions on the first four books of the Hebrew Bible. These Midrashim, which are written in Mishnahic Hebrew set out a clear distinction between the Biblical texts that they discuss, and the rabbinic interpretation of that text. They often go well beyond simple interpretation and derive or provide support for halakha. This work is based on pre set assumptions about the sacred and divine nature of the text, and the belief in the legitimacy that accords with rabbinic interpretation.
Although this material treats the biblical texts as the authoritative word of God, it is clear that not all of the Hebrew Bible was fixed in its wording at this time, as some verses that are cited differ from the Masoretic, and accord with the Septuagint, or Samaritan Torah instead.
With the growing canonization of the contents of the Hebrew Bible, both in terms of the books that it contained, and the version of the text in them, and an acceptance that new texts could not be added, there came a need to produce material that would clearly differentiate between that text, and rabbinic interpretation of it. By collecting and compiling these thoughts they could be presented in a manner which helped to refute claims that they were only human interpretations. The argument being that by presenting the various collections of different schools of thought each of which relied upon close study of the text, the growing difference between early biblical law, and its later rabbinic interpretation could be reconciled.
Midrashim which seek to explain the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible are sometimes referred to as aggadah or haggadah.
Aggadic discussions of the non-legal parts of Scripture are characterized by a much greater freedom of exposition than the halakhic Midrashim (midrashim on Jewish law.) Aggadic expositors availed themselves of various techniques, including sayings of prominent rabbis. These aggadic explanations could be philosophical or mystical disquisitions concerning angels, demons, paradise, hell, the messiah, Satan, feasts and fasts, parables, legends, satirical assaults on those who practice idolatry, etc.
Some of these midrashim entail mystical teachings. The presentation is such that the Midrash is a simple lesson to the uninitiated, and a direct allusion, or analogy, to a Mystical teaching for those educated in this area.
An example of a Midrashic interpretation:
- "And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day." (Genesis 1:31)—Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel's name: "Behold, it was very good" refers to the Good Desire; "AND behold, it was very good" refers to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: "Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man's rivalry with his neighbour." (Kohelet IV, 4).
- Mekhilta. The Mekhilta essentially functions as a commentary on the Book of Exodus. There are two versions of this midrash collection. One is Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, the other is Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. The former is still studied today, while the latter was used by many medieval Jewish authorities. While the latter (bar Yohai) text was popularly circulated in manuscript form from the 11th to 16th centuries, it was lost for all practical purposes until it was rediscovered and printed in the 19th century.
- Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael. This is a halakhic commentary on Exodus, concentrating on the legal sections, from Exodus 12 to 35. It derives halakha from Biblical verses. This midrash collection was redacted into its final form around the 3rd or 4th century; its contents indicate that its sources are some of the oldest midrashim, dating back possibly to the time of Rabbi Akiva. The midrash on Exodus that was known to the Amoraim is not the same as our current mekhilta; their version was only the core of what later grew into the present form.
- Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. Based on the same core material as Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, it followed a second route of commentary and editing, and eventually emerged as a distinct work. The Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai is an exegetical midrash on Exodus 3 to 35, and is very roughly dated to near the 4th century.
- Sifra on Leviticus. The Sifra work follows the tradition of Rabbi Akiva with additions from the School of Rabbi Ishmael. References in the Talmud to the Sifra are ambiguous; It is uncertain whether the texts mentioned in the Talmud are to an earlier version of our Sifra, or to the sources that the Sifra also drew upon. References to the Sifra from the time of the early medieval rabbis (and after) are to the text extant today. The core of this text developed in the mid-3rd century as a critique and commentary of the Mishnah, although subsequent additions and editing went on for some time afterwards.
- Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy, going back mainly to the schools of the same two Rabbis. This work is mainly a halakhic midrash, yet includes a long haggadic piece in sections 78-106. References in the Talmud, and in the later Geonic literature, indicate that the original core of Sifre was on the Book of Numbers, Exodus and Deuteronomy. However, transmission of the text was imperfect, and by the Middle Ages, only the commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy remained. The core material was redacted around the middle of the 3rd century.
- Sifre Zutta (The small Sifre). This work is a halakhic commentary on the book of Numbers. The text of this midrash is only partially preserved in medieval works, while other portions were discovered by Solomon Schechter in his research in the famed Cairo Geniza. It seems to be older than most other midrash, coming from the early 3rd century.
- Midrash Qohelet, on Ecclesiastes (probably before middle of 9th century).
- Midrash Esther, on Esther (940 CE).
- The Pesikta, a compilation of homilies on special Pentateuchal and Prophetic lessons (early 8th century), in two versions:
- Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (not before 8th century), a Midrashic narrative of the more important events of the Pentateuch.
- Tanchuma or Yelammedenu (9th century) on the whole Pentateuch; its homilies often consist of a Halachic introduction, followed by several poems, exposition of the opening verses, and the Messianic conclusion. There are actually a number of different 'Midrash Tanhuma' collections. The two most important are Midrash Tanhuma Ha Nidpas, literally the published text. This is also sometimes referred to as Midrash Tanhuma Yelamdenu. The other is based on a manuscript published by Solomon Buber and is usually known as Midrash Tanhuma Buber, much to many students' confusion, this too is sometimes referred to as Midrash Tanhuma Yelamdenu. The fact is even though the first one is the most widely distributed today, when the Medieval authors refer to Midrash Tanchuma, they usually mean the second one.
- Midrash Shmuel, on the first two Books of Kings (I, II Samuel).
- Midrash Tehillim, on the Psalms.
- Midrash Mishlé, a commentary on the book of Proverbs.
- Seder Olam Rabbah (or simply Seder Olam). Traditionally attributed to the tannaitic Rabbi Yose ben Halafta. This work covers topics from the Creation of the universe to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
- Yalkut Shimoni. A collection of midrash on the entire Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) containing both halakhic and aggadic midrash. It was compiled by Shimon ha-Darshan in the 13th century CE and is collected from over 50 other midrashic works.
- Tanna Devei Eliyahu. This work that stresses the reasons underlying the commandments, the importance of knowing Torah, prayer, and repentance, and the ethical and religious values that are learned through the Bible. It consists of two sections, Seder Eliyahu Rabbah and Seder Eliyahu Zuta. It is not a compilation but a uniform work with a single author.
- Alphabet of Akiba ben Joseph, a midrash on the names of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet
- Midrash Tadshe (called also Baraita de-Rabbi Pinehas ben Yair):
- Midrash Rabbah — widely studied are the Rabboth (great commentaries), a collection of ten midrashim on different books of the Bible (namely, the five books of the Torah as well as the Five Scrolls). However, despite the similarity in their names, these are not a cohesive work. They were written by different authors, in different locales, in different historical eras. The ones on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are chiefly made up of homilies on the Scripture sections for the Sabbath or festival, while the others are rather of an exegetical nature.
- Bereshith Rabba, Genesis Rabbah. This text dates from the sixth century. A midrash on Genesis, it offers explanations of words and sentences and haggadic interpretations and expositions, many of which are only loosely tied to the text. It is often interlaced with maxims and parables. Its redactor drew upon earlier rabbinic sources, including the Mishnah, Tosefta, the halakhic midrashim the Targums. It apparently drew upon a version of Talmud Yerushalmi that resembles, yet was not identical to, the text that survived to present times. It was redacted sometime in the early fifth century.
- Shemot Rabba, Exodus Rabbah (tenth or eleventh and twelfth century)
- Vayyiqra Rabba, Leviticus Rabbah (middle seventh century)
- Bamidbar Rabba, Numbers Rabbah (twelfth century)
- Devarim Rabba, Deuteronomy Rabbah (tenth century)
- Shir Hashirim Rabba, Song of Songs Rabbah (probably before the middle of ninth century)
- Ruth Rabba, (probably before the middle of ninth century)
- Eicha Rabba, Lamentations Rabbah (seventh century). Lamentations Rabbah has been transmitted in two versions. One edition is represented by the 1st printed edition, 1519 Pesaro; the other is the Buber edition, based on manuscript J.I.4 from the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome. This latter version (Salomon Buber) is quoted by the Shulkhan Arukh, as well as medieval Jewish authorities. It was probably redacted sometime in the fifth century.
- Esther Rabbah
- Kohelet Rabbah
A wealth of literature and artwork has been created in the 20th and 21st centuries by people aspiring to create "Contemporary Midrash". Forms include poetry, prose, Bibliodrama (the acting out of Bible stories), murals, masks, and music, among others. The Institute for Contemporary Midrash was formed to facilitate these reinterpretations of sacred texts. The institute hosted several week-long intensives between 1995 and 2004, and published eight issues of Living Text: The Journal of Contemporary Midrash from 1997 to 2000.
According to Carol Bakhos recent studies that use literary-critical tools to concentrate on the cultural and literary aspects of midrash have led to a rediscovery of the importance of these texts as methods of finding insights into the rabbinic culture that created them. Midrash is increasingly seen as a literary and cultural construction, responsive to literary means of analysis.
Frank Kermode has written that midrash is an imaginative way of 'updating, enhancing, augmenting, explaining, and justifying the sacred text'. Because the Tanakh became to be seen as unintelligible or even offensive, midrash could be used as a means of rewriting it in a way that both makes it more acceptable to later ethical standards and renders it less obviously implausible.
James L. Kugel, in The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), examines a number of early Jewish and Christian texts that comment on, expand, or re-interpret passages from the first five books of the Tanakh between the third century BCE and the second century CE. Kugel traces how and why biblical interpreters produced new meanings by the use of exegesis on ambiguities, syntactical details, unusual or awkward vocabulary, repetitions, etc. in the text. As an example, Kugel examines the different ways in which the biblical story that God's instructions are not to be found in heaven (Deut 30:12) has been interpreted. Baruch 3:29-4:1 states that this means that divine wisdom is not available anywhere other than in the Torah. Targum Neophyti (Deut 30:12) and b. Baba Metzia 59b claim that this text means that Torah is no longer hidden away, but has been given to humans who are then responsible for following it.
- "midrash". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
- ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 14, pg 182, Moshe David Herr
- Brown–Driver–Briggs: midrash
- ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 14, pg 181
- ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 14, pg 193
- ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 14, pg 194
- ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 14, pg 195
- ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 14, pg 183
- (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications)
- Narratology, Hermeneutics, and Midrash: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Narratives from the Late Antique Period Through to Modern Times, ed Constanza Cordoni, Gerhard Langer, V&R unipress GmbH, 2014, pg 71
- Kermode, Frank. "The Midrash Mishmash". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
- "Review of J. L. Kugel, The Bible as It Was". www.jhsonline.org. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
- Midrash Section of Chabad.org Includes a five-part series on the classic approaches to reading Midrash.
- Sacred Texts: Judaism: Tales and Maxims from the Midrash extracted and translated by Samuel Rapaport, 1908.
- Midrash—entry in historical sourcebook by Mahlon H. Smith
- "Midrashim". Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913.—An early twentieth century Christian commentary
- "Midrash". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- Full text resources