Midrash (pl. Midrashim) is a Hebrew word referring to a method of exegesis of a Biblical text. The term "midrash" also can refer to a compilation of Midrashic teachings, in the form of legal, exegetical or homiletical commentaries on the Tanakh (Jewish Bible).
When used as a verb, "midrash" refers to a way of interpreting a biblical verse. Traditionally, understanding of Biblical text in Judaism is divided between peshat (direct meaning), remez (hints), derash (exegesis) and sod (mystical). The Midrash concentrates on remez but even more on derash (the terms share the same root in Hebrew).
Many different exegetical methods are employed to derive deeper meaning from text. This is not limited to the traditional thirteen textual tools attributed to the Tanna Rabbi Yishmael, which are used in the interpretation of halakha (Jewish law). Presence of superfluous words or letters, chronology of events, parallel narratives or other textual anomalies are often a springboard for interpretation of segments of Biblical text. In many cases, a dialogue is expanded manifold: several lines in the Biblical narrative may become long philosophical discussions. It is unclear whether the Midrash assumes these dialogues took place in reality, of if this refers to subtext or religious implication.
The "classical" Midrash starts 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.
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 particularily 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 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 in the 2nd century, and they now exist in the shape chiefly of exegetical or homiletical commentaries on Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Midrashic literature is worthwhile reading not only for its insights 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.
Midrash halakha are the works in which the sources in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) of the traditionally received laws are identified. These Midrashim often predate the Mishnah. The Midrash linking a verse to a halakha will often function as a proof of a law's authenticity; a correct elucidation of the Torah carries with it the support of the halakhah, and often the reason for the rule's existence (although many rabbinical laws have no direct Biblical source). The term is applied also to the derivation of new laws, either by means of a correct interpretation of the obvious meaning of scriptural words themselves or by the application of certain hermeneutic rules.
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 the Jewish 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 of concrete circumstances of the past, they had to be explained in a way to make them fit the new circumstances of their life. All such 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 the Torah law is also undertaken by the later Midrash (and Talmuds).
The homiletical midrashim embrace the interpretation of the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible. These midrashim are sometimes referred to as aggadah or haggadah, a loosely-defined term that may refer to all non-legal discourse in classical rabbinic literature.
Aggadic explanations of the non-legal parts of Scripture are characterized by a much greater freedom of exposition than the Halachic 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 or Kabbalistic 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) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications).
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 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 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 ben Yohai. Based on the same core material as Mekhlita de Rabbi Ishmael, it followed a second route of commentary and editing, and eventually emerged as a distinct work. The Mekhlita de Rabbi Simeon ben 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 followes 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 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 Soloman Schecter 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 ninth century)
Midrash Esther, on Esther (A.D. 940).
- The Pesiqta, a compilation of homilies on special Pentateuchal and Prophetic lessons (early eighth century)
- Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (not before eighth century), a Midrashic narrative of the more important events of the Penteteuch
- Tanchuma or Yelammedenu (ninth century) on the whole Pentateuch; its homilies consist of a Halachic introduction, followed by several poems, 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 over all the Hebrew Scriptures.
Seder Olam Rabbah (or simply Seder Olam). Traditionally attibuted 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 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.
The Midrash Rabbah. Widely studied are the Rabboth (great commentaries), a collection of ten midrashim on different books of the Bible. 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 CE. 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 Mishna, 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 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 (Buber) is quoted by the Shulkhan Arukh, as well as medieval Jewish authorities. It was probably redacted sometime in the 5th century.