Carol Bakhos

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:


In its broadest sense, midrash is interpretation of any text; in its strictest sense, it designates rabbinic biblical interpretation, the modes of exegesis, as well as specific corpora of rabbinic literature from Antiquity to the early medieval period. Through the midrashic process, rabbis made the Bible relevant to their contemporaries, taught moral lessons, told fanciful stories, and created and maintained a sense of Jewishness. Since the rise of literary theory in the 1970s, studies in midrash and aggadah have reflected a focus on the literary features of rabbinic literature. Current studies demonstrate an interest in the literary earmarks of legal texts. Midrash also provides artifacts of rabbinic culture, yielding insights into the milieu of those who recorded, transmitted, and lived by them. Rabbinic literature is also commonly divided along chronological lines according to genre. Midrashim are either halakhic (dealing with legal portions of the Bible) or aggadic (dealing with the nonlegal biblical passages); tannaitic (covering 70–200 ce in Palestine) or amoraic (covering 200–500 ce in Palestine or Babylonia); or exegetical or homiletical. The tannaitic midrashic corpora explicate verses in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Compilations include Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 12:1–23:19; 31:12–17; 35:1–3; the Sifraon Leviticus in its entirety; and the Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy. They also cover nonlegal passages, but because they primarily address legal verses, they are designated as midresheihalakhah (legal rabbinic interpretation). Tannaitic collections are further divided according to two rabbinic “schools,” that of Rabbi Akiva, the other of Rabbi Ishmael, both of whom lived in Palestine in the first half of the 2nd century ce. Scholars assign collections to either rabbi based on exegetical terminology and hermeneutical methods employed, teachings attributed to named rabbis, and fundamental exegetical approaches to scripture. The amoraic midrashim are almost entirely aggadic (narrative), and also almost entirely of Palestinian provenance. They are ordered either according to a verse-by-verse exegesis or, homiletically, as sermons based on the verse at hand. Premier examples of aggadic midrashim are Genesis Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah, two of the Midrash Rabbah collections of the books of Torah, and the five megillot (scrolls)—Lamentations, Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Homiletical compilations include Leviticus Rabbah, Deuteronomy Rabbah, and Numbers Rabbah, as well as Peskita de Rab Kahana on selected passages or sections read on special Sabbaths or festival days. The homilies are all organized around proems (petichtot), the body (gufa) of the homily, and an eschatological ending or peroration. The proem is usually a verse from the Writings, especially Psalms and the Wisdom Literature. Through a chain of interpretations, this seemingly extraneous verse is connected to the verse under discussion. This structure exemplifies a fundamental aspect of midrash, namely, the desire to unite the diverse parts of the tripartite canon—Torah, Prophets, and Writings––into a harmonious whole that reflects the oneness of God’s Word.

Article.  7177 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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