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The Hebrew word midrash has three related meanings:

  • As a method: Midrash refers to a particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse. Thus we may say that the ancient rabbis provided Midrash to the Tanach.
The method was to make a point by juxtaposing Biblical verses. The point may not appear in any one of the verses by themselves, but taken together, in sequence, the point is implicit. When the rabbis had a specific proposition in mind, they would first write about the general idea, often implicitly instead of explicitly. Then they would cite the biblical verses, knowing that the careful reader would perceive the common elements, and be lead to the desired conclusion.
Note that interpretation of scripture, in of itself, is not midrash. In fact, most of what people call 'modern midrash' has nothing to do with the classical modes of literary exegesis that guided the rabbis. Commentary is not the same as midrash; fiction is not the same as midrash. Rabbinic midrash uses quotes from scripture to prove a proposition. Anything else should be classified as fiction or biblical commentary.
  • As a verse: Midrash refers to a particular verse and its interpretation. Thus one can say that "The Midrash on the verse Genesis 1:1 really means that...[and some Midrashic interpretation of the verse would go here]. One could technically say that the method by which this midrash was created is known as "midrash".
  • As a book: Midrash refers to a book, a compilation of Midrashic teachings. Thus one can say that "Genesis Rabbah" is a book that compiles midrashim on the book of Genesis.

Historical origin of the midrash genre

After the return of Jewish refugees from their diaspora in Babylon, the Torah was the centre of the life of the Jews at home and abroad. A significant concern of the Jewish authorities was to make sure that the Torah's mitzvot (commandments) be accurately complied with by all; it is from this practical standpoint that the Scribes and after them the Rabbis studied and expounded the contents of their sacred writings.

A part of these contents, viz., the enactments of the Mosaic Law, made of course directly for the purpose of promoting legal righteousness in Israel; yet, as these laws had been framed in view of concrete circumstances of the past, they had to be explained in a more or less artificial way to make them fit the altered circumstances of Jewish life, or serve as Scriptural basis or support of the various traditional observances which made up the oral law. All such explanations of the terms of the Mosaic legislation are legal, or Halakhic Midrashim.

Distinct from this general kind of Midrashim are those called homiletical, or Hagadic, which embrace the interpretation, illustration, or expansion, in a moralizing or edifying manner, of the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible. As the object of this latter kind of Midrashim was not to determine the precise requirements of the Law, but rather to confirm in a general manner Jewish hearers in their faith and its practice. Hagadic explanations of the non-legal parts of Scripture are characterized by a much greater freedom of exposition than the Halachic Midrashim; and it may be truly said that Hagadic expositors have availed themselves of whatever material -- sayings of prominent Rabbis (e.g., philosophical or mystical disquisitions concerning angels, demons, paradise, hell, Messias, Satan, feasts and fasts, parables, legends, satirical assaults on the heathen and their rites, etc.) -- could render their treatment of those portions of the Sacred Text more instructive or edifying.

Both kinds of Midrashim were at first preserved only orally; but their writing down commenced with the second century of our era, and they now exist in the shape chiefly of exegetical or homiletical commentaries on the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible, aka The Old Testament).

The three earliest and in several respects most important Midrashic collections are: (1) the Mechilta, on a portion of Exodus, and embodying the tradition mainly of the School of Rabbi Ishmael (first century); (2) the Siphra, on Leviticus, embodying the tradition of rabbi Aqiba with additions from the School of rabbi Ishmael; (3) the Siphre on Numbers and Deuteronomy, going back mainly to the schools of the same two Rabbis. These three works are used in the Gemaras. (4) The Rabboth (great commentaries), a collection of ten Midrashim on the Pentateuch and Megilloth, which bear the respective names of:

  • (a) Bereshith Rabba, on Genesis (mainly from the sixth century)
  • (b) Shemoth Rabba, on Exodus (eleventh and twelfth century)
  • (c) Vayyiqra Rabba, on Leviticus (middle seventh Century)
  • (d) Bamidbar Rabba, on Numbers (twelfth century)
  • (e) Devarim Rabba, on Deuteronomy (tenth century)
  • (f) Shir Ashshirim Rabba, on Song of Songs (probably before the middle of ninth century)
  • (g) Ruth Rabba, on Ruth (same date as foregoing)
  • (h) Echa Rabba, on Lamentations (seventh century)
  • (i) Midrash Qohelet, on Ecclesiastes (probably before middle of ninth century)
  • (j) Midrash Esther, on Esther (A.D. 940).
Of these midrash compilations, the ones Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are chiefly made up of homilies on the Scripture sections for the Sabbath or festival, while the others are rather of an exegetical nature.

(5) The Pesiqta, a compilation of homilies on special Pentateuchal and Prophetic lessons (early eighth century); (6) Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (not before eighth century), a Midrashic narrative of the more important events of the Penteteuch; (7) Tanchuma or Yelammedenu (ninth century) on the whole Pentateuch; its homilies consist of a Halachic introduction, followed by several proems, exposition of the opening verses, and the Messianic conclusion; (8) Midrash Shemuel, on the first two Books of Kings (I, II Samuel); (9) Midrash Tehillim, on the Psalms; (10) Midrash Mishle, on Proverbs; (11) Yalqut Shimeoni, a kind of catena extending over all the Hebrew Scriptures.

At first sight, one might think that such farrago as the Midrashic literature could be of interest and value only to a Jew as Jew, inasmuch as the Midrashim are thoroughly steeped in the spirit of Judaism, bear distinct witness to the laws, customs, doctrines, aspirations of the Jewish race, and record the noblest ideas, sayings, and teachings of the Jewish sages in early times. The more, however, he examines the contents of these ancient expository works, the more he discovers that they are an invaluable source of information to the Christian apologist, the Biblical student, and the general scholar as well. In this body of ancient literature there is much in the line of ideas, expressions, reasonings, and descriptions, which can be used to illustrate and confirm the inspired records of Christianity and the traditional teachings of the Church, notably concerning the passages of the Old Testament to be regarded as Messianic. The Biblical student will at times notice in the oldest parts of the Midrashim, Scriptural readings anterior to those embodied in the Massoretic text. Again, "when it is borne in mind that the annotators and Punctuators of the Hebrew text, and the translators of the [most] ancient versions, were Jews impregnated with the theological opinions of the nation, and prosecuted their Biblical labours in harmony with these opinions. . . .the importance of the Halachic and Hagadic exegesis to the criticism of the Hebrew text, and to a right understanding of the Greek, Chaldee, Syriac, and other versions, can hardly be overrated." (Ginsburg, in Kitto's "Cyclop. Of Biblical Liter.", III, 173). Lastly the Philologist, the historian, the philosopher, the jurist, and the statesman, will easily find in the Midrashim remarks and discussions which have a direct bearing on their respective branches of study.