Shiur #01: What is Midrash?
Welcome to “Reading Midrash Aggada”!
In this class you will gain the tools necessary to study classical midrashic texts on your own. You will learn to understand the logic behind Chazal’s interpretations of individual verses and passages in the Bible and to recognize the important literary forms through which Chazal formulated their ideas. We will do all this through a careful study of Midrash Vayikra Rabba, one of most poetic yet accessible of the classical midrashim. Before jumping into the text, we will devote this first lesson to some preliminary comments about midrash in general and Vayikra Rabba in particular.
Midrash as method of thought and style of writing
The term “Midrash” is oft used, but seldom defined. The term indeed has several different meanings, which need to be distinguished. First and foremost, Midrash is a way of thinking and a mode of self-expression. Midrash is Chazal’s way of talking about, around, and through the text of Tanakh. Ultimately, a midrashic text is any passage in the literature of Chazal in which a Biblical text is cited. This broad definition suggests that there are in fact a wide range of possible texts that might be classified as midrashic. However, the category of midrash, in the traditional sense, is limited by fact that midrashim share a set of common methods and concerns. These can be defined as follows.
I. Textual concerns:
Central to Chazal’s spiritual and intellectual endeavor were their efforts to understand the biblical text and explicate its difficulties. Studying and understanding God’s Word was for Chazal, one of the primary ways of establishing a relationship with Him. However, there is no one right way of reading and understanding the Tanakh or any text for that matter. The methods, rules, and assumptions that Chazal use when approaching the biblical texts are quite different from those of the great pashtanim (advocates of a grammatically oriented literal method of interpretation) of the Middle Ages, such as Rashi or Ibn Ezra and are also distinct from the modern literary approach to stories and poetry that many of us learned in our high school and college literature classes. In these classes we will learn to understand the distinctive aspects and inner logic of Chazal’s interpretive methods. Three of most important elements of Chazal’s method are:
a. Omnisignificance: This term, coined by the biblical scholar James Kugel, refers to the notion that every detail of the Biblical text contains meaning. Any word or even letter that might seem superfluous must be assigned a meaning. Unusual usages or word forms must be explained. This leads to an exceedingly meticulous scrutiny of every verse that comes Chazal’s way. Any perceived redundancy or potentially non-essential element of the text will be assigned special meaning. Though medieval and modern critics also read the text with great care, they are more likely to explain apparent superfluities or anomalies as being required by grammatical conventions or literary style. Chazal prefer to find specific meanings in the details of the text that have broader moral or spiritual ramifications.
b. Gap filling: Closely connected to the principle of omnisignifcance is the practice of filling gaps. All narrative texts have “gaps,” or, details of the story that are missing. A narrator must always choose which details to put into the story and which to leave out. This is especially true of Biblical narrative, whose sparse style often leaves out information of interest to the reader, such as a character’s motivation. Filling in these gaps is indeed essential to any successful reading of a story. However, the rabbis are particularly aggressive in their efforts to fill in the gaps in the biblical texts. The rabbis seek to provide us with as rich and detailed an image of the Biblical events and characters as they can.
c. Dialogue between distant verses: Modern reading strategies tend to emphasize understanding a word or a sentenced in terms of its immediate context. They direct us to read an entire passage or poem as a whole and to read the individual elements of the text with in this context. While Chazal were also aware of the value of such readings, they generally preferred to read individual verses not in light of their immediate neighbors but in light of a distant verse elsewhere in the Bible. This practice can be further broken down into two different reading strategies.
i) Resolving contradictory verses: The Bible not infrequently contradicts itself, or at least appears to. It will present two different accounts of the same event or two conflicting laws regarding the same situation. For Chazal, the Bible is a unified book which can not contain any contradictions. Hence these conflicting verses must be reconciled. Chazal will produce a reading of the verses that harmonizes the two accounts or rulings. Sometimes they will re-interpret one verse in light of the other. In other cases they will re-interpret both verses, creating an entirely new meaning, which synthesizes the two texts.
ii) Creating thematic or linguistic connections: The rabbis will also juxtapose two or more verses not because the conflict but because they see a deeper connection between the two. Often the rabbis will see a common theme between them. In other cases, it is a common word of phrase. By placing these texts next to each other, the rabbis call attention to and emphasize aspects of both verses that are not apparent when each verse is examined individually.
Underlying all of these rabbinic reading strategies is a common underlying assumption about the biblical texts, and perhaps texts in general, that is quite different from modern conventional wisdom. We tend to think of texts as containing specific meanings. The act of reading a text is then the process of decoding this meaning and revealing it to ourselves and others. The rabbis do not understand the process of reading the Bible in this way. For them the text contains only the potential for meaning. In their view, in reading the biblical text we actually generate meaning from out of the raw material that is the Bible. In principle any given verse can produce infinite meaning. Indeed, Chazal tend to seek as much meaning as possible from each and every verse. This does not of course mean that the biblical text may mean anything we want it to. Quite the contrary, only rabbis who are trained in the traditions and ways of Midrash know the proper way to “grow” the meaning of the text.
II. Ideological concerns:
We have already noted that Chazal tend to favor readings that direct the reader toward issues of broader significance. When a rabbi delivered a midrashic discourse in a beit midrash (study house) or a synagogue, he was not interested merely in explicating the text at hand. The derasha (midrashic sermon) was the rabbi’s primary method of communicating rabbinic ideas about a wide range of issues to his followers. These include theological ideas about the nature of God and our relationship to Him, ethical and social positions regard the conduct of the individual and the community and even political positions regarding the ruling powers of the day. Often these positions emerged from their study of the biblical texts. However, the rabbis also relied on received oral traditions as well as their own powers of reason in formulating their positions. In their midrashim, however, the rabbis did not systematically distinguish between the various sources of their teachings. Rather they wove them all together into a single fabric. In our studies we will seek to pull apart these strands, to the extent possible, so that we can better understand the midrash and its workings.
III. Aesthetic-Artistic concerns:
Midrashim are carefully constructed works of art that are designed to be beautiful and pleasing to read. They often present dramatic stories and poetically constructed passages. Chazal did this, in part, to make their teachings more accessible and interesting. I also believe that Chazal valued literary beauty as an end in and of itself. These literary and aesthetic concerns often shape the words and the structure of the Midrash. At times they choose a given formulation or direction, at least in part, out of desire to create a more perfect and harmonious composition. An understanding of the various literary forms and conventions that we find in midrashic texts will often help us to understand the logic and meaning of Chazal’s words.
In most midrashim, these three concerns, the textual, the ideological and the aesthetic are woven together into a single text. In some cases, however, only two or even one of them comes into play. In our readings of midrashic texts our goal will be to identify these different concerns and objectives and to understand how they operate individually as well as how they interact with one another.
Works of Midrash
The term “Midrash” can also be used to refer to specific books. Generally speaking, the works of Chazal as they have come down to us can be divided into three categories: Mishna (including the Tosefta), Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi) and Midrash. In truth, the first two of these texts also contain sections which might be classified as “midrash” according to the way we defined it above. However, when referring to a complete work, the term “Midrash” is reserved for only those texts that present a set of Midrashim on a particular biblical book.
Rabbinic literature can also be classified as either “halakhic” or “aggadic.” Halakhic texts deal with Jewish law and practice. Aggadic, on the other hand, is a catch-all phrase that defines rabbinic texts that are non-legal in nature. This leads to a division of Midrashic texts into two categories: “midrash halakha” and “midrash aggada.” Midrash halakha interprets and expounds upon the legal texts of the Torah, in order to clarify and establish the principles and applications of God’s law. Midrash aggada, which will be the focus of this class, relates to the narrative, poetic and theological parts of the Tanakh.
The first collections of Midrashim to be compiled were the “tannaitic” midrashim. As this name implies, these texts present the work of the tannaim, the rabbis who are featured in the Mishna. Like the Mishna, these midrashim were probably edited around the year 200 CE. The midrashim in this group are the Mekhilta (on Shemot), Sifra (on Vayikra), and Sifrei (on Bamidbar and Devarim). These books are often referred to as the halakhic midrashim. These are the only midrashim which contain a significant amount of halakhic material. However, with the exception of the Sifra, all of these texts have significant amounts aggadic material as well.
With the period of the Amoraim, the rabbis associated with the Talmud, a new type of Midrash emerged: Midrash aggada. These are works which have minimal or no halakhic content. Not surprisingly, one of the first such Midrashim to be compiled was Bereishit Rabba. The book of Bereishit, of course, has almost no halakhic material and, apparently for this reason, it did not merit a tannaitic midrash of its own. Bereishit Rabba can thus be seen in some ways as completing the work of the Tannaim. When Bereishit Rabba was produced, it meant that there were Midrashim on all five books of the Torah.
Both the Tannaitic Midrashim and Bereishit Rabba are what we call midrashim parshaniyim or interpretive Midrash. In the terms we laid out above, these works give primacy to textual concerns. They go through the biblical text line by line, offering insights and discussion.
Around the same time as the Talmud Yerushalmi was completed (about 400 CE), a Midrash aggada on Vayikra was completed in the land of Israel, entitled Vayikra Rabba. The choice of Vayikra over the other books of the Torah might at first seem surprising. Vayikra is a book that is made up almost exclusively of laws. It is largely lacking in stories. This why the Sifra, the earlier Midrash on Vayikra, has very little aggadic material.
Why would there be a demand for an aggadic midrash on Vayikra, specifically in the Amoraic period? According to most contemporary historians, the rabbis of Land of Israel had a relatively small number of followers through much of the Tannaitic period. Most Jews, though they may have respected the rabbis, did not view them as the authoritative religious leaders of the Jewish people. It was only in the Amoriac period that the rabbis began to enter the mainstream. One way in which they asserted their influence and spread their teachings was through the giving of sermons on the weekly Torah readings in the synagogues. Rabbis were thus faced with a problem: how were they to present the technical laws of Vayikra to a wider audience?
It was apparently in response to this challenge that a new form of midrash emerged. Vayikra Rabba presents an alternative to the midrash parshani (interpretative Midrash), known as midrash darashni or homiletical Midrash. Midrashim darshani’im place less emphasis on textual concerns. They focus more on ideological and artistic concerns. In this genre, the darshan (i.e., the rabbi who engages in Midrash) focused on only one, or at most several, verses selected from weekly Torah reading. Out of this small piece of text, he constructed an extended derasha that followed a carefully crafted form and developed a particular theme or idea. This new method allowed the rabbis to expound the book of Vayikra without getting bogged down in its technical laws. They would carefully select individual verses which could serve as springboards for larger themes and for relating to other Biblical texts.
Editions of Vayikra Rabba
Though the VBM will supply you with a copy of the texts to be studied in both Hebrew and in English, I encourage you also to explore these sources using an actual book. To this end, I present a brief summary of the major editions of Vayikra Rabba. As we have previously noted, the “Rabba” in “Vayikra Rabba” signifies the fact that since the Middle Ages, the book has circulated as part of a larger work known as “Midrash Rabba.” Midrash Rabba is an anthology of Midrashim, one for each of the five books of the Torah and the five Megillot. The individual Midrashim were edited at different times and in different places and reflect a variety of midrashic styles. As such, most of the editions we will survey here are of the entire Midrash Rabba.
The Vilna Midrash Rabba (Romm, 1878):
From the people who brought you the Vilna Shas, the Vilna Midrash Rabba is the classic, most widely available and inexpensive edition of Midrash Rabba. It contains the “Rabbot” on all five books of the Torah, and on the five megilot in two compact volumes. Along with the text of the Midrash, it also presents the work of some of the most important traditional commentators on the Midrash from the Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century. Though invaluable, these commentaries are generally quite terse. They are not always helpful to the beginning student of midrash and they often do not address the sort of broader issues that we will deal with in the course.
Recently, the text and commentaries found in the Vilna Midrash Rabba has been reset in an edition called “Midrash Rabba Zekher Chanokh Ha-mefoar.” It is much easier to read than the original edition and includes a pointed and punctuated text of the Midrash.
Margoliot’s edition of Vayikra Rabba (JTS, 1993, First published in the 1950’s)
The great scholar of rabbinic literature, Mordechai Margoliot, put out his own edition of Vayikra Rabba, currently published in two volumes. This is a “critical” edition. Margoliot presents what he thinks is the most accurate text of Vayikra Rabba on the basis of his study of the surviving manuscripts. He also presents a comprehensive survey of the differences between the various manuscripts as well as a separate commentary on the text. This is the standard edition of Vayikra Rabba among academic scholars. We will refer to this edition and manuscripts it cites where relevant.
Merkin’s commentary on Midrash Rabba (Yavne, 1957):
Moshe Areyeh Merkin wrote a comprehensive commentary on Midrash Rabba on the Torah in 11 volumes. His commentary is aimed at the non-specialist and is quite helpful. He translates all of the Aramaic passages into Hebrew. His knowledge of ancient languages and history often gives him insights not found in the traditional commentators. Finally, he presents a pointed and punctuated text of the Midrash.
Midrash Rabba Ha-mevo’ar (Machon Ha-midrash Ha-mevo’ar, 1983-1999)
This series is meant to present Midrash Rabba in a manner that is both traditional and accessible to a broad audience. It covers all of Midrash Rabba on the Torah and the Megillot in a 17 volume set. Like Merkin, it presents a pointed text and a commentary that translates all Aramaic. The commentary is drawn from traditional commentators.
The Soncino Translation (Soncino, 1939; also available in CD-ROM format from Davka Software)
Like its big sister, the Soncino Talmud, the Soncino Midrash is the standard translation of the Midrash Rabba. It contains helpful notes and indexes as well. The English texts used in this course will be based on the Soncino translation.
 “Chazal” is an acronym for “chakhameinu zikhronam li-vrakha”- our Sages of blessed memory. It is generally used to refer to the rabbis who authored the classical works of rabbinic literature such as the Mishna and Talmud. They lived in the land of Israel and Babylonia during the first 5 centuries C.E. I will use this term interchangeably with “the rabbis,” which is also meant to refer specifically to the rabbis of this era.
 Tanakh is an acronym for “Torah,” the five books of Moses, “Neviim,” the works of the prophets, and “Ketuvim,” the “Writings,” the collection of miscellaneous, poetic and historical texts that are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. Collectively the term “Tanakh” thus refers to the entire body of Hebrew Scriptures, the collection known to the Christian world as the “Old Testament.”
 The various midrashim that comprise “Midrash Rabba” are actually independent works composed at different times and places. Only later were they brought together into the collection we know today.