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MIDRASH (, from the root , "to study," "to investigate"):

A term occurring as early as II Chron. xiii. 22, xxiv. 27, though perhaps not in the sense in which it came to be used later, and denoting "exposition," "exegesis," especially that of the Scriptures. In contradistinction to literal interpretation, subsequently called "peshaṭ" (comp. Geiger's "Wiss. Zeit. Jüd. Theol." v. 244), the term "midrash" designates an exegesis which, going more deeply than the mere literal sense, attempts to penetrate into the spirit of the Scriptures, to examine the text from all sides, and thereby to derive interpretations which are not immediately obvious. The Talmud (Sanh. 34b) compares this kind of midrashic exposition to a hammer which awakens the slumbering sparks in the rock. The divergence between midrash and peshaṭ increased steadily; and, although the consciousness of this divergence may not have increased in a proportionate degree, contrary to the view of Geiger (l.c. pp. 53 et seq., 234 et seq.; comp. Weiss, "Dor Dor," i. 167 et seq.) and others, it was never wholly obscured. The confession of Rab Kahana (Shab. 63a), that although he knew the entire Talmud by the time he was eighteen, it was many years later before he learned the principle that a Bible verse can never lose its evident and literal meaning, is not to be taken as an indication of the general state of Bible study in his time; on the contrary, Rab Kahana wishes to indicate thereby that he was an exception to the rule. Raba's statement in Yeb. 24a likewise proves that a distinction was made between midrash and peshaṭ. At the most it can be proved that in some cases the Midrash was based on a peculiar interpretation of the literal meaning; thus, Sifra, Tazria', Neg. ix. 14 remarks in regard to the sentence "We-im be-'enaw 'amad ha-neteḳ" (Lev. xiii. 37), "En li ella be-'ene'aẓmo be-'ene beno," etc.; this shows that "be-'enaw" was explained as "in his eyes," an interpretation which certainly does not contradict the statement that the difference between midrash and peshaṭ, was recognized.

The Bible exegesis of the Rabbis which had a moralizing or edifying tendency must be distinguished from that which was of a legal nature: the former is known as Midrash Haggadah; the latter, as Midrash Halakah. Exegesis from an ethical or devotional point of view admits of more freedom than hermeneutics aiming at the determination of legal maxims. This is true not only because the imagination has freer play in the former, and reason in the latter, but also because halakic exegesis, since it is intended for practical guidance and is more far-reaching in its results, is bound more closely by certain laws and principles (comp. the different view of Hirschfeld in "Halachische Exegese," p. 13).

Origin of the Midrash.

As concerns the origin of the Midrash, Maimonides ("Sefer ha-Miẓwot," Hilkot "Shoresh" 2) held that the Midrash was a product of the Halakah; Naḥmanides, on the contrary, that the former was the source of the latter. It is impossible to decide whether either one was correct. Only this much can be saida priori, that there are certain expositions which could not have been evolved through mere theoretical speculation. Any other conclusions on the subject must be based on a consideration of the various circumstances which favored the origin and development of the Midrash. In the first place, any application of theory to practise demands a more recondite interpretation than does the mere explanation of the literal meaning. A general law demands special exposition in order to deal with the complications which frequently arise in daily life. Even Moses was obliged to seek instruction in several instances (Lev. x. 16, xxiv. 12; Num. xv. 34; the expressions "to expound unto them according to the mouth of the Lord" and "because it was not declared what should be done unto him" in the second and third of these passages respectively being especially noteworthy; see Krochmal, "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 13). But even if the Midrash gave rise to the Halakah in certain cases in which an "investigation" of the Law became necessary for a practical decision, there were in all probability many more instances in which a legal basis, often difficult to find, was sought for certain rules which had arisen from the exigencies of life. That there were many such cases in which the Halakah was a subsequent justification of an accomplished fact, though they are not always specifically noted, is shown by the well-known sentence of the Mishnah (Ḥag. 10a), "Miḳra mu'aṭ, halakot merubbot," by the sentence of R. Johanan (Yer. Ber. 4c), "Kol milla di-la meḥawwera mesammekin lah min atrin saggin," and by the remark "Ḳera asmakta be'alma," which is frequently found in connection with very important rules, such as the determination of weights (Ber. 41b; Yer. Pes. 15a). Retroactive justification is to be seen in many of the cases when one and the same halakah is variously deduced by different tannaim ("mishma 'ot dorshin"), and where the Amoraim feel themselves compelled to assume a material difference, as in Pes. 84a, where no less than eight explanations are attempted.

Great as was this twofold influence of actual practise on the origin and development of the Midrash, it must be borne in mind that speculation for its own sake in the obligatory study of the Law (Deut. vi. 7; Josh. i. 8) was likewise a factor; for this exclusive and continued study probably contributed much to the search for other interpretations than the merely literal one. The exegetes endeavored to find everything expressed in the Law; and Philo's view that there were no superfluous words in Scripture, and that everything had a meaning ("De Profugis," § 458), dominated not only the allegorical exegesis of Alexandria, but also to a large extent the Midrash, even though no other connection existed between the two. On the rules by which the exegetes were guided in making these deductions see Midrash Halakah and Talmud.

Historical View.

The history of the Midrash may be divided into three periods: (1) of the Soferim; (2) of the Tannaim; and (3) of the Amoraim.

  • (1) Midrashim ascribed to Biblical persons (Ber. 31b; Yeb. 77a et passim) are haggadic aphorisms and may be recognized as such. Noteworthy is Sheḳ. vi. 8, "Zeh Midrash she-darash Yehoyada' Kohen Gadol" (This is the Midrash which Jehoiada the High Priest taught), a statement which, however, can not lay claim to historical value. The real date of the origin of the Midrash in question appears to be the period of the Soferim, the writers or scribes (Ḳid. 31a; Yer. Sheḳ. 48c), whose activity is summed up in the sentence, "So they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly, and made them to understand" (Neh. viii. 8); however this verse is to be explained (Ned. 37b; Yer. Meg. 74d; "Responsen der Geonim," ed. Harkavy, p. 217), it certainly indicates that the Soferim were much more than mere translators. Alleged traces of their Midrash, closely based upon the Bible, are Neg. xii. 5 et seq.; Sotah viii. 1 et seq. ; Ma'as. Sh. v. 7 et seq. According to Krochmal. (l.c.), the Soferim indicated which were their interpretations by means of peculiar script and certain signs (dots, ḳere and ketib, full and defective writings); accordingly such midrashim as Sifra, Emor, ix. 3; ib. Shemini, v. 8; ib. Behar, iv. 4; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 3, would belong to them; and even though the later explanations of these signs and this peculiar script are not established by tradition, but are in general controvertible and doubtful (comp. Sanh. 4a), the great age of some of the interpretations is indicated by the Septuagint; e.g., Ex. xxii. 7; Lev. xxiii. 11, xxxiii. 40; Deut. xxv. 5 (comp. Frankel, "Ueber den Einfluss der Palästinensischen Exegese auf die Alexandrinische Hermeneutik," pp. 89 et seq.; Hoffmann, "Zur Einleitung in die Halachischen Midraschim," p. 74).
  • (2) The beginning of the second period likewise is shrouded in obscurity. Of the "zeḳenim harishonim," whose date can not be definitely determined, three midrashim have been preserved, Sifra, Wayiḳra, Ḥobah, xii. 1; ib. Meẓora', ix. 12; Mek., Amalek, 2; likewise a few midrashim by Judah b. Ṭabbai and Simon b. Sheṭaḥ, both of whom lived in the first century B.C. (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 20; Tosef., Sanh. viii. 3; Mak. 5b; Yer. Sanh. 22b). The opposition of the Sadducees, who rejected the oral law, and who were attacked by Ṭabbai and Sheṭaḥ, naturally led to an attempt to base the oral law on Scripture, thus encouraging midrashic exegesis. The well-known interpretation of the passage "an eye for an eye" (Ex. xxi. 24), contradicting the view of the Sadducees, who wished to apply the Law literally, gives evidence of a free and profound conception of the Biblical text even at that early date. In the following period Shemaiah and Abṭalion are mentioned as "darshanim gedolim" (Pes. 70; comp. Mek., Beshallaḥ, 3). The seven rules of exposition propounded by Hillel-of whom, as of his opponent Shammai, only a few midrashim, all simple in character, have been preserved (Sifra, Shemini, ix. 5; ib. Neg. ix. 16; Yer. Pes. 33a; Tosef., 'Er. iv. 7; Shab. 19a; Ḳid. 43a)-presuppose a very extensive Midrash; and a like inference is to be drawn from the attempt of Hananiah b. Hezekiah b. Garon to harmonize the contradictions between Ezekiel and the Pentateuch. The explanation in Sifre, Deut. 294, transmitted in the name of Hananiah's son, and also mentioned in the passage Mek., Baḥodesh, 7, is perhaps a fragment of thissame Midrash. On the Mishnah of R. Akiba see Jew Encyc. s.v.
  • (3) In regard to the Midrash of the Amoraim the Babylonians employed more simple methods than the Palestinians, as Frankel correctly says ("Mebo," 31b), though Weiss objects to this view ("Bet ha-Talmud," i. 69, note 4). But the exegesis of the Palestinian Amoraim was more simple than the Palestinian. For the midrashim of this period which have been preserved see Midrash Halakah.
Bibliography:
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J. S. Ho.
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