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Midrash (pl. Midrashim) is a Hebrew wordreferring to a method of reading details into, or out of, a Biblical text. The term "midrash" also can refer to a compilation ofMidrashic teachings, in the form of legal, exegetical or homiletical commentaries on the Tanakh .

  • "Midrash" can be used as a verb, i.e. as a way of interpreting a biblical verse. Acommon way of doing this is by juxtaposing Biblical verses. The point may not appear in any one of the verses by themselves, buttaken together the point is implicit. When the rabbis had a specific proposition in mind, they would first write about thegeneral idea, often implicitly instead of explicitly. Then they would cite the biblical verses, knowing that the careful readerwould perceive the common elements, and be lead to the desired conclusion. (All forms of scriptural interpretation are notnecessarilly midrash. Much of what has been termed "modern midrash" has little to do with the classical modes of literaryexegesis that guided the rabbis . Rabbinic midrash uses quotes from scripture to prove aproposition.)
  • "Midrash" can be used as a noun; in this sense it can refer to a particular verse and its interpretation. Thus one can saythat "The Midrash on the verse Genesis 1:1 really means that...[and some Midrashicinterpretation of the verse would go here].
  • The term "midrash" also can refer to a book, a compilation of Midrashic teachings. Thus Genesis Rabbah is a bookthat compiles midrashim on the book of Genesis.


Midrashic literature

In general the Midrash is focused on either Halakhic (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 with the second century of our era,and they now exist in the shape chiefly of exegetical or homiletical commentaries on the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, aka The Old Testament). Midrashic literature is worthwhile reading not only for itsinsights into Judaism and the history of Jewish thought, but also for the more incidental data it provides to historians,philologists, philosophers, and scholars of either historical-critical Bible study or comparative religion.

Aggadic Midrashim

The homiletical, or Hagadic, Midrashim embrace the interpretation of the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible in amoralizing or edifying manner. As the object of this latter kind of Midrashim was not to determine the precise requirements ofthe Law, but rather to confirm in a general manner Jewish hearers in their faith and its practice.

Hagadic explanations of the non-legal parts of Scripture are characterized by a much greater freedom of exposition than theHalachic Midrashim. Hagadic expositors availed themselves of whatever material -- sayings of prominent Rabbis (e.g.,philosophical or mystical disquisitions concerning angels, demons, paradise, hell, Messiahs , Satan , feasts and fasts, parables, legends, satirical assaults onthe heathen and their rites, etc.) -- could render their treatment of those portions of the sacred text more instructive oredifying.

Many of these Midrashim entail mystical or Kabbalistic teachings. The presentationis such that the Midrash is a simple lesson to the uninitiated, and a direct allusion, or analogy, to a Mystical teaching forthose educated in this area.

Examples of short Aggadic Midrashim

The following examples of shorter midrashim on Biblical verses.

Verse: "And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixthday." (Genesis 1:31)

Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel's name: "Behold, it was very good" refers to the Good Desire; "And behold, itwas very good" refers to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without theEvil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: "Again, I considered alllabour and all excelling in work, that it is a man's rivalry with his neighbour." (Kohelet IV, 4) (Source Midrash collectionGenesis Rabbah, section 9:7, Translation from Soncino Publications)

Verse: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Leviticus 19:17)

Midrash: Our masters taught "You shall not hate your brother in your heart"; you might suppose that Scripture bids you notto strike him, not to slap him, not to curse him. But in saying "In your heart," Scripture also bids you to have no hatred inyour heart. (Source Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin 16b)

Halakhic Midrashim

Midrash halakha are the works in which the sources in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) of the traditionally received laws are identified. These Midrashim oftenpredate the Mishnah . The Midrash linking a verse to a Halakha will often function asa proof of a law's authenticity; a correct elucidation of the Torah carries with it the proof of the Halakah and the reason forthe rule's existence. The term is applied also to the derivation of new laws, either by means of a correct interpretation of theobvious meaning of scriptural words themselves or by the application of certain hermeneutic rules. See the article on Midrashhalakha for more details.


After the return of Jewish refugees from their diaspora in Babylon , the Torah was the centre of the life of the Jews at home and abroad. A significant concern of theJewish authorities was to ensure compliance with the Torah's commandments. The enactments of the Mosaic Law made for the purpose of promoting righteousness in Israel; yet, as these laws had been written in view ofconcrete circumstances of the past, they had to be explained in a way to make them fit the new circumstances of their life. Allsuch explanations of the terms of the Mosaic legislation are legal, or Halakhic Midrashim. (Relatedly, the Mishna does not generally cite a scriptural basis for its laws; connecting the Mishnaic law with theTorah law is also undertaken by the later Midrash (and Talmuds).)

Classical rabbinic midrash compilations

  • Mekhilta. The Mekhilta essentially functions as a commentary on the book of Exodus. There are two versionsof this midrash collection. One is Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, the other is Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai.The former is still studied today, while the latter was used by many medieval Jewish authorities. While the latter (ben Yohai)text was popularly circulated in manuscript form from the 11th to 16th centuries, it was lost for all practical purposes until itwas 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 to35. It derives halakha from Biblical verses. This midrash collection was redacted into its final form around the 3rd or 4thcentury CE; its contents indicate that its sources are some of the oldest midrashim, dating back possibly to the time of RabbiAkiva. The midrash on Exodus that was known to the Amoraim is not the same as our current mekhilta; their version was only thecore of what later grew into the present form.
  • Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. Based on the same core material as Mekhlita de Rabbi Ishmael, it followed a second routeof commentary and editing, and eventually emerged as a distinct work. The Mekhlita de Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai is an exegeticalmidrash on Exodus 3 to 35, and is very roughly dated to near the 4th century CE.
  • Sifra on Leviticus . The Sifra work followes the tradition ofRabbi Akiva with additions from the School of Rabbi Ishmael. References in the Talmud to the Sifra are ambiguous; It is uncertainwhether the texts mentioned in the Talmud are to an earlier version of our Sifra, or to the sources that the Sifra also drewupon. References to the Sifra from the time of the early medieval rabbis (and after) are to the text extant today. The core ofthis text developed in the mid-3rd century as a critique and commentary of the Mishnah, although subsequent additions and editingwent 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 halakhicmidrash, 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 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 middleof the 3rd century.
  • Sifre Zutta (The small Sifre). This work is a halakhic commentary on the book of Numbers). The text of thismidrash is only partially preserved in medieval works, while other portions were discovered by Soloman Schecter in his researchin the famed Cairo Geniza. It seems to be older than most other midrash, coming from the early 3rd century.
  • The Midrash Rabbah. Widely studied are the Rabboth (great commentaries), a collection of tenmidrashim on different books of the Bible. However, despite the similarity in their names, these are not a cohesive work. Theywere written by different authors, in different locals, in different historical eras. The ones on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, andDeuteronomy are chiefly made up of homilies on the Scripture sections for the Sabbath or festival, while the others are rather ofan exegetical nature.
  • Bereshith Rabba, Genesis Rabbah. This text dates from the sixth century CE. A midrash on Genesis, it offersexplanations of words and sentences and haggadic interpretations and expositions, many of which are only loosely tied to thetext. It is often interlaced with maxims and parables. Its redactor drew upon earlier rabbinic sources, including the Mishna,Tosefta, the halakhic midrashim the Targums. It apparently drew upon a version of Talmud Yerushalmi that resembles, yet was notidentical to, the text that survived to present times. It was redacted sometime in the early 5th century.
  • Shemot Rabba, Exodus Rabbah (eleventh and twelfth century)
  • Vayyiqra Rabba, Leviticus Rabba (middle seventh Century)
  • Bamidbar Rabba, Numbers Rabba (twelfth century)
  • Devarim Rabba, Deuteronomy Rabba (tenth century)
  • Shir Hashirim Rabba, Song of Songs Rabbah(probably before the middle of ninth century)
  • Ruth Rabba, (same date as foregoing)
  • 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 Casanata in Rome. This latter version(i.e. Buber) is quoted by the Shulkhan Arukh , as well as medievalJewish authorities. It was probably redacted sometime in the 5th century.
  • Midrash Qohelet, on Ecclesiastes (probably before middle ofninth century)
  • Midrash Esther, on Esther (A.D. 940).
  • The Pesiqta, a compilation of homilies on special Pentateuchal and Prophetic lessons (early eighthcentury)
  • Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (not before eighth century), a Midrashic narrative of the more important events of thePenteteuch
  • Tanchuma or Yelammedenu (ninth century) on the whole Pentateuch; its homilies consist of a Halachicintroduction, followed by several proems, exposition of the opening verses, and the Messianic conclusion
  • Midrash Shemuel, on the first two Books of Kings (I, II Samuel)
  • Midrash Tehillim, on the Psalms;
  • Midrash Mishle, a commentary on the book of Proverbs; (11) Yalqut Shimeoni, a kind of catena extending overall the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • Seder Olam Rabbah, aka Seder Olam. Traditionally said to be written by the tannaitic RabbiYose ben Halafta. This work covers topics from the Creation of the universe to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem .

See also

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