Introduction To Rabbinic Midrash – It Is All A Matter Of Words

Rabbinic interpretation or “midrash” is founded upon the presumption that the sages saw themselves as the heirs of the Oral Torah, known in Hebrew as Torah sh’baal peh” and that this oral tradition itself had been transmitted by God along with the Written Torah – Torah sh’bihktav.

At this juncture, we should take a look at the broader picture which will provide the context for our studies together. The process of Jewish learning which we will be studying is known as midrash – the Rabbinic interpretation of the Bible. The Hebrew word, MiDRaSH, comes from the root letters Dalet, Resh, Shin which means “search out”. In Biblical times it was used as a term for inquiring of God, primarily by way of a prophecy, but later became the term used for the process of interpreting the Biblical text.

When we use the word, “midrash”, we may be referring to either of two things – the first, as we have just mentioned refers to the process of interpreting; the second refers to a corpus of literature that represent collections of interpretation. There are different kinds of midrash but before we can deal with them we have to answer some crucial questions. The most important of these questions concerns the “why” of midrash – what caused the development of this kind of interpretive literature and what made it so important to the Jewish tradition?

A couple of important definitions are in order. First of all, we want to refer to the Bible by its Jewish name, TaNaCh, which is an acronym, for the three parts of the Bible – Torah (the Five Books of Moses), N’vi’im (the Prophetic books), Ketuvim (Writings). Since we will be talking about the major force in the creation of midrash, the rabbis of the Talmudic period, we also want to call them by their traditional name, HaZaL, an acronym which stands for Hachamenu Zichronam Levracha (our Sages of Blessed Memory).

Finally, we have to distinguish between two types of traditional Jewish literature: halachah and aggadah. Halachah refers to the type of Jewish literature which deals with legal issues both civil and ritual. It can deal with issues as varied as fasting on Yom Kippur, the relationship of parent to child, tithing, and criminal procedure. Aggadah, on the other hand, is the term used for traditional rabbinic literature that is of a non-legal nature whether it be narrative literature, parables, theological statements or homilies. Of course, anyone who has had an opportunity to study any rabbinic literature, whether it be Talmud or midrash, knows that these definitions are a bit artificial since any legal text found in the Talmud is likely to be spiced with anecdotes and stories as well as midrashim. Similarly, one can find stories and anecdotes which contain legal pronouncements.

Midrash – the process of interpretation, operates within both the halachic and the aggadic framework. The TaNaCh, the sacred text of the Jewish people, serves as the basis for HaZaL to derive law as well as to make theological statements, stories and parables. In this way, legal sections of the TaNaCh can serve as the source for aggadic material and narrative sections as a source for law.

What prompted HaZaL to create midrash? The rabbis of the formative period of rabbinic literature recognized as a given the divine nature of the Bible. This assumption led them to see in every word and nuance of the Biblical text, no matter how difficult or obscure, a divine purpose which was for them to discover. Every question posed by the Biblical text provided the rabbis with an opportunity not only to answer the question, but also to explore the depths of meaning hidden in the words of the Bible.