Biblical Studies Midrash and Aggadah
Burton Visotzky, Benjamin Haber Kamine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0185


Midrash (Hebrew: מדרש) is ancient rabbinic interpretation of scripture. Aggadah (Hebrew: אגדה) is rabbinic narrative. The two terms are, however, often used interchangeably to refer to those many aspects of rabbinic literature that are not related to Jewish behavior or law (Hebrew: הלכה). Rabbinic literature here refers to works composed by the rabbis in Late Antiquity, from approximately 70 CE (Common Era) up to 1000 CE (an arbitrary end point). From the time that Y. L. Zunz addressed the literature in 1832, academic study of Midrash and Aggadah has been ongoing. In the earliest years it was part of the great project of Wissenschaft des Judentums (Scientific study of Judaism), and it included historical-critical studies, philological inquiries, anthologies, translations, and critical editions of texts. More recently, scholars have compared midrashic and aggadic methods of interpretation and narration with those of religious and cultural groups contemporary with the rabbis: Hellenism and Roman paganism, patristic and Syriac Christianity, and early Islam. Throughout the study of Midrash and Aggadah, scholars have written on the theological significance of the field. Current scholarship focuses on literary interpretation of Midrash and Aggadah and the implications of their oral performance and on sensitivity to the discursive structures of rabbinic narrative, as well as the very methodologies used to study the field. Feminist and gender criticism, particularly focused on placing rabbinic narrative within the values and culture of the rabbis and their contemporaries, has also been applied to the study of these literatures, and the growth of such criticism has expanded scholarship to include work in disability studies and queer studies. The mid-20th century to date, in particular, has been a time of ferment and, since the 1970s, the study of Midrash and Aggadah has expanded broadly.

General Overviews

For 180 years, scholars have written broad overviews of the variety of genres of rabbinic interpretive and narrative collections. These range from broad general surveys to detailed investigations. The Oxford Bibliographies article “Rabbinic Judaism” by Rivka Ulmer includes resources on Midrash, Aggadah (narrative), rabbinic texts, and translations of rabbinic texts. Stemberger and Strack 1989 offers a broad overview, solely focused on Midrash. Stemberger 1996 lays out a more technically detailed introduction, set within the broader context of rabbinic literature as a whole. While Kugel 1990 takes an evolutionary approach in this study of Midrash, Aggadah, and the poetics of their creation, Kasher 1988 treats rabbinic modes of scriptural interpretation in a volume that considers Christian and other exegeses of the Hebrew Bible. Goldin 1987 is a combination survey of midrashic process and scholarship in the field. In addition to overarching studies that serve as introductions to Midrash and Aggadah in general, there are introductions to smaller subgroups of rabbinic midrashic works or individual works, such as Kahana 1987–2006 on the earliest (Tannaitic) Midrash and Hirshman 1987–2006 on the somewhat later (Amoraic) narrative Midrash.

  • Goldin, Judah. “Midrash and Aggadah.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 9. Edited by Mercea Eliade, cols. 509–515. New York: MacMillan, 1987.

    Basic guide to texts and modern studies. Updated in second edition published in 2005.

  • Hirshman, Marc. “Aggadic Midrash.” In The Literature of the Sages: Second Part. Edited by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 107–132. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987–2006.

    A broad overview of rabbinic nonlegal interpretations from the 5th century and beyond.

  • Kahana, Menahem. “The Halakhic Midrashim.” In The Literature of the Sages: Second Part. Edited by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 3–105. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987–2006.

    Kahana masterfully offers the most up-to-date survey of the Tannaitic Midrash, taking into account his own extensive research in manuscripts of these earliest rabbinic interpretations of Exodus through Deuteronomy.

  • Kasher, Rimon. “The Interpretation of Scripture in Rabbinic Literature.” In MIKRA: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Edited by Martin J. Mulder, 547–594. Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2:1. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1988.

    Introduction to basic methods of rabbinic interpretation set within the broader context of other Late Antique scriptural exegesis.

  • Kugel, James. In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.

    A traditions-historic guide (see Traditions-Historical Studies) to understanding the evolution of rabbinic and other Jewish interpretations of biblical tales.

  • Stemberger, Günter. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. 2d ed. Translated and edited by Markus Bockmuehl. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.

    An exhaustive introduction to rabbinic literature describing almost every work, its editions, translations, and manuscripts. Includes essays on rabbinic history and hermeneutics. The classic guide to the literature. A revision of Strack’s original introduction (first published in English in 1931 [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America]).

  • Stemberger, Günter, and Hermann L. Strack. Midrasch vom Umgang der Rabbinin mit der Bibel: Einführung—Texte—Erläuterungen. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1989.

    A basic introduction to the origins and development of the classical Midrash, with select text translations and historical essays. Now somewhat dated.

  • Zunz, Y. Leopold. Haderashot Bayisrael. Edited by Chanoch Albeck and translated by Moshe E. Zhernensky. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1946.

    Originally published in German in 1832. The study that set the curriculum for critical study of Midrash and Aggadah for almost 150 years. Zunz’s work was expanded in the 1946 Hebrew translation, revised by Chanoch Albeck.

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