Jewish Studies Midrash
by
Carol Bakhos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0045

Introduction

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.

Reference Works

There are numerous reference works on midrash. Neusner and Avery-Peck 2005 is the most comprehensive work that focuses specifically on the subject of midrash. Most reference works include midrash under a broader rubric such as rabbinic literature, rabbinic Judaism, or ancient Judaism. Other useful references to midrash and aggadah include Mandel 2011 and the entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica (Bakhos, et al. 2007). Porton 2003 is an excellent introduction to several aspects of the study of midrash, and Bakhos 2009 is a brief overview of the state of midrash and aggadic studies that introduces several sources listed throughout this bibliography. For less specialized works, Porton 1985 and Neusner 2004 offer good introductions that guide readers through translated texts from several compilations. Strack and Stemberger 1992 is an indispensable tool for those interested specifically in midrashic compilations.

  • Bakhos, Carol. “Recent Trends in the Study of Midrash and Rabbinic Narrative.” Currents in Biblical Research 7.2 (2009): 272–293.

    DOI: 10.1177/1476993X08099545E-mail Citation »

    This article surveys several significant developments in scholarship in midrash and narrative (aggadic) rabbinic sources, and thus provides readers with an overview of the state of the field.

  • Bakhos, Carol, Judith R. Baskin, Joseph Gutmann Haim, Z‘ew Hirschberg, Stephen G. Wald, and Dvora E. Weisberg. “Aggadah or Haggadah.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol. 1. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Briefly covers many aspects of aggadah, including content and form, teachings, and women in aggadah.

  • Mandel, Paul, “Midrash and Midrashic Literature.” In Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. 2d ed. Edited by Adele Berlin and Maxine Grossman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Superbly concise yet detailed overview of the forms, functions, and underlying assumptions of midrash. Also explains the relationship between midrash and other forms of rabbinic literature.

  • Neusner, Jacob. Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture: Introduction to the Rabbinic Midrash. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Very basic introduction to the uninitiated. Includes an overview of midrash compilations as well as excerpts.

  • Neusner, Jacob, and Alan J. Avery-Peck. Encyclopaedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism. 2 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    An impressively comprehensive account of biblical interpretation in Judasim from roughly the 2nd century BCE to the 7th century CE.

  • Porton, Gary. Understanding Rabbinic Midrash: Text and Commentary. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excerpts from midrashic corpora (Sifra, Mekhilta, Sifre Numbers, Sifre Deuteronomy, Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah) accompanied by detailed commentary that guide readers through the texts.

  • Porton, Gary. “Rabbinic Midrash.” In History of Biblical Interpretation. Vol. 1, The Ancient Period. Edited by Alan Hauser and Duane Watson, 198–224. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides social and cultural settings to the development of midrash, and introduces readers to a swatch of scholarly opinions on midrashic literature. Also includes useful excerpts to illustrate earmarks of tannaitic midrashic sources, and a useful bibliography of secondary literature.

  • Strack, Hermann Leberecht, and Gunter Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. 2d. ed. Translated by Markus N. A. Bockmuehl. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    An updated and revised version of Strack’s 1921 work, this one-volume comprehensive introduction to rabbinic sources is a useful guide to students with some background in rabbinic literature. The completely revised ninth German edition (Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch) was published in Munich in 2011 by Stemberger.

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