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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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Midrash Tehillim (Hebrew: מדרש תהלים) or Midrash to Psalms is a haggadic midrash known since the 11th century, when it was quoted by Nathan of Rome in his Aruk (s.v. סחר), by R. Isaac ben Judah ibn Ghayyat in his Halakot (1b), and by Rashi in his commentary on I Sam. xvii. 49, and on many other passages. This midrash is called also "Agadat Tehillim" (Rashi on Deut. xxxiii. 7 and many other passages), or "Haggadat Tehillim" (Aruk, s.v. סער, and in six other passages). From the 12th century it was called also Shocher Tov (see Midrash Tehillim, ed. S. Buber, Introduction, pp. 35 et seq.), because it begins with the verse Prov. xi. 27, "שחר טוב יבקש רצון ודרש רעה תבואנו", etc.
The true midrash covers only Ps. i.-cxviii., and this is all that is found either in the manuscripts or in the first edition (Constantinople, 1512). In the second edition (Thessaloniki, 1515) a supplement was added covering, with the exception of two psalms, Ps. cxix.-cl. The author of this supplement was probably R. Mattithiah Yiẓhari of Zaragoza, who collected the scattered haggadot on Ps. cxix.-cl. from the Yalḳuṭ, adding comments of his own. Since Ps. cxxiii. and cxxxi. are in the Yalḳuṭ, the author of the supplement included no haggadic interpretations on these two psalms. This omission has been supplied by S. Buber, in his very full edition of the Midrash Tehillim, by printing, under the superscription of the two psalms, collectanea from the Pesiḳta Rabbati, Sifre, Numbers Rabbah, and the Babylonian Talmud, so that the midrash in its present form covers the entire Book of Psalms.
Nature of the work
The name of the editor and the date of the redaction of the true midrash (Ps. i-cxviii.) cannot now be determined. The assumption that Rav Johanan or Rav Simon, the son of R. Judah ha-Nasi, edited it can not be substantiated (comp. Buber, l.c. pp. 3–4). It may, on the contrary, be shown that the midrash is not the work of a single editor. There are many passages containing the same thought. Substantially the same haggadot appear in different forms in different passages, e.g., Ps. vii., No. 6 and Ps. xviii., No. 13; Ps. xviii., No. 25 and Ps. xcv., No. 3; Ps. xviii., No. 26 and Ps. ciii., No. 2; Ps. xxvii., No. 7 and Ps. xciv., No. 5; Ps. xlv., No. 4 and Ps. c., No. 4; Ps. xci., No. 6 and Ps. civ., No. 3.
It has been said that the date of the redaction of the midrash cannot be determined. Haggadic collections on the Psalms were made at a very early time, and are mentioned several times in the Talmudim and in Genesis Rabbah, e.g., Yer.Kil. ix. 32b; Yer. Ket. xii. 3, 35a; Gen. R. xxxiii. 2; Ḳid. 33a (comp. Rashi ad loc.). But it cannot possibly be assumed that the aggadah collections on the Psalms are identical with the present Midrash Tehillim, since the latter contains many elements of later date.
It can not be denied, however, that much material from those old collections is included in the present midrash. It must therefore be assumed that parts of the old collections had been preserved among the later haggadists. Then, when a midrash to the Psalms was undertaken together with the other midrashim, homilies and comments on single verses were collected from the most diverse sources, and were arranged together with the earlier haggadic material on the Psalms, following the sequence of the Psalms themselves. In the course of time this collection was supplemented and enlarged by the additions of various collections and editors, until the Midrash Tehillim finally took its present form.
Its definitive completion must, according to Zunz, be assigned to the last centuries of the period of the Geonim, without attempting to determine an exact date. But Zunz's assumption, that the midrash was compiled in Italy, cannot be accepted. The work was edited in Palestine, as appears from the language, style, and manner of haggadic interpretations. Nearly all the amoraim mentioned in it are Palestinian rabbis, and the few Babylonian amoraim referred to, e.g., R. Ḥida, are mentioned also in Yerushalmi (comp). Buber, l.c. p. 32, note 131).
The midrash contains homilies on the Psalms and comments on single verses and even on single words. The homilies are as a rule introduced with the formula "as Scripture says." In only a few cases are they introduced as in the other midrashim, with the formula "Rabbi N. N. has begun the discourse," or "Rabbi N. N. explains the Biblical passage." Among the comments on single verses are many which are based on the difference of "ḳeri" and "ketib" (differences of enunciated and written forms, resulting usually from transcription error; see also Masoretes) as well as on the variant spellings of words, plene and defective. Many words, also, are explained according to the numerical value of the letters (Gemaṭria) or by analysis of their component parts (Noṭariḳon) as well as by the substitution of other vowels ("al-tiḳri"; comp. the collation of all these passages in Buber, l.c. p. 10a, b). The midrash is prone to interpreting numbers, contributing likewise thereby important observations on the number of the Psalms and of the sections of the Pentateuch as well as on the number of verses in various Psalms. Thus it enumerates 175 sections of the Pentateuch, 147 psalms (Midr. Teh. to Ps. xix. 22), and nine verses in Ps. xx. (Midr. Teh. to Ps. xx. 2).
Legends and myths
The midrash contains a number of stories, legends, parables, proverbs, and sentences, with many ethical and halakic maxims. Of the interesting myths may be mentioned that of Remus and Romulus, to whom God sends a she-wolf to suckle (Midr. Teh. to Ps. x. 6; Buber, l.c. p. 45a), and the legend of Emperor Hadrian, who wished to measure the depth of the Adriatic Sea (Midr. Teh. to Ps. xciii. 6; Buber, l.c. p. 208a, b). Among the proverbs which are found only in this midrash may be mentioned the following:
- Walls have ears (Midr. Teh. to Ps. vii. 1; Buber, l.c. p. 31b), i.e., care should be taken in disclosing secrets even in a locked room (comp. Rashi in Ber. 8b, who quotes this proverb).
- Woe to the living who prays to the dead; woe to the hero who has need of the weak; woe to the seeing who asks help of the blind; and woe to the century in which a woman is the leader (Midr. Teh. to Ps. xxii. 20; Buber, l.c. p. 96b).
Many a custom may be traced to this midrash, e.g., that of not drinking any water on the Sabbath before the evening (Ṭur and Shulḥan Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 291; comp. Midr. Teh., ed. Buber, p. 51b, note 48).
Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography
- Midrash Tehillim, ed. Buber, Introduction, Wilna, 1891;
- J. Theodor, Ueber S. Buber's Midrasch, Tehillim, reprinted from the Menorah, Literaturblatt, Hamburg;
- Zunz, G. V. pp. 266–268.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wilhelm Bacher and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach (1901–1906). "Midrash Tehillim". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.