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The Hebrew word midrash has three related meanings:

As a method: Midrash is a particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse. Thus we may say that the ancient rabbis provided Midrash to the Tanach.

This is done by juxtaposing Biblical verses. The point may not appear in any one of the verses by themselves, but taken together, in sequence, the point is implicit. When the rabbis had a specific proposition in mind, they would first write about the general idea, often implicitly instead of explicitly. Then they would cite the biblical verses, knowing that the careful reader would perceive the common elements, and be lead to the desired conclusion.

Note that interpretation of scripture in of itself is not midrash. Much of what has been termed "modern midrash" has little to do with the classical modes of literary exegesis that guided the rabbis. Commentary is not the same as midrash; fiction is not the same as midrash. Rabbinic midrash uses quotes from scripture to prove a proposition. Anything else could more exactly be classified as fiction or biblical commentary.

As a verse: Midrash is a particular verse and its interpretation. Thus one can say that "The Midrash on the verse Genesis 1:1 really means that...[and some Midrashic interpretation of the verse would go here]. One could technically say that the method by which this midrash was created is known as "midrash".

As a book: Midrash is a book, a compilation of Midrashic teachings. Thus one can say that "Genesis Rabbah" is a book that compiles midrashim on the book of Genesis.

Origin of the midrash

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 make sure that the Torah's commandments be accurately complied.

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.

Distinct from this general kind of Midrashim are those called homiletical, or Hagadic, which embrace the interpretation in a moralizing or edifying manner, of the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible. As the object of this latter kind of Midrashim was not to determine the precise requirements of the 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 the Halachic 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 on the heathen and their rites, etc.) -- could render their treatment of those portions of the sacred text more instructive or edifying.

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 Tanach (the Hebrew Bible, aka The Old Testament).

Midrash collections and compilations

The three earliest and in several respects most important Midrashic collections are:

(1) the Mechilta, on a portion of Exodus, and embodying the tradition mainly of the School of Rabbi Ishmael (first century); (2) the Sifra, on Leviticus, embodying the tradition of Rabbi Akiva with additions from the School of Rabbi Ishmael; (3) the Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy, going back mainly to the schools of the same two Rabbis. These three works are used in the Talmud.

(4) Widely studied are the Rabboth (the 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 locals, in different historical eras.

  • (a) Bereshith Rabba, on Genesis (mainly from the sixth century)
  • (b) Shemoth Rabba, on Exodus (eleventh and twelfth century)
  • (c) Vayyiqra Rabba, on Leviticus (middle seventh Century)
  • (d) Bamidbar Rabba, on Numbers (twelfth century)
  • (e) Devarim Rabba, on Deuteronomy (tenth century)
  • (f) Shir Hashirim Rabba, on Song of Songs (probably before the middle of ninth century)
  • (g) Ruth Rabba, on Ruth (same date as foregoing)
  • (h) Echa Rabba, on Lamentations (seventh century)
  • (i) Midrash Qohelet, on Ecclesiastes (probably before middle of ninth century)
  • (j) Midrash Esther, on Esther (A.D. 940).

Of these midrash compilations, the ones 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.

(5) The Pesiqta, a compilation of homilies on special Pentateuchal and Prophetic lessons (early eighth century); (6) Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (not before eighth century), a Midrashic narrative of the more important events of the Penteteuch; (7) Tanchuma or Yelammedenu (ninth century) on the whole Pentateuch; its homilies consist of a Halachic introduction, followed by several proems, exposition of the opening verses, and the Messianic conclusion; (8) Midrash Shemuel, on the first two Books of Kings (I, II Samuel); (9) Midrash Tehillim, on the Psalms; (10) Midrash Mishle, on Proverbs; (11) Yalqut Shimeoni, a kind of catena extending over all the Hebrew Scriptures.

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

Midrash halakha was the ancient rabbinic Jewish method of verifying the traditionally received laws by identifying their sources in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and by interpreting these passages as proofs of the law's authenticity. 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.

The phrase "Midrash Halakah" was first employed by Nachman Krochmal (in his "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 163), the Talmudic expression being "Midrash Torah" = "investigation of the Torah". These interpretations were often regarded as corresponding to the real meaning of the Scriptural texts; thus it was held that a correct elucidation of the Torah carried with it the proof of the Halakah and the reason for its existence. See the article on Midrash halakha for more details.

See also: Rabbinic literature, Judaism

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