Home>Historical Jewish Sources – Midrash

Historical Jewish Sources
Mishnah:  Judaism’s First Major Canonical Document Following Torah

 Torah – Or “TaNaKh”, an acronym denoting these three sections:
    –  Torah (Teaching)
–  Nevi’im (Prophets) –  Former (Deuteronomic Code); Latter (Literary)
– Ketuvim (Writings) Canonical Collection From Post-Prophetic Age
 Talmud – Documents that Comment and Expand Upon Mishnah
– Mishnah 1st-2nd Century Rabbinic Study Book of Laws/Values
– Gamara (Agadah – Tales and Morals ; Halacha – Code of Jewish Law)
          – Babylonian (“Bavli”) Gemara (200-600)
– Palestinian (“Yerushalmi”) Gemara (200-500)

 Midrash Exegetical Interpretation of the Torah’s Text
– Halakhah – Interpreting Law and Religious Practice
– Aggadah – Biblical Narrative ; Ethics, Theology, Homily (200-1000)
 Targums – Translations of the Bible into Jewish Aramaic
 Dead Sea Scrolls – Collection of Materials Found in Judean Desert
 Josephus – One of World’s All-Time Greatest Non-Biblical Historians
 Apocalyptic Genre – “Turn of Era” Lit. Exploring Eschatological Salvation
 Liturgical Texts – Routine Prayers Said Spontaneously
 Reference Works – Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Concordances

Primer: Midrash

Midrash is an interpretive act, seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by plumbing the meaning of the words of the Torah. (In the Bible, the root d-r-sh is used to mean inquiring into any matter, including occasionally to seek out God’s word.) Midrash responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text.

Midrash falls into two categories. When the subject is law and religious practice (halakhah), it is called midrash halakhah. Midrash aggadah, on the other hand, interprets biblical narrative, exploring questions of ethics or theology, or creating homilies and parables based on the text. (Aggadah means”telling”; any midrash which is not halakhic falls into this category.)

Midrash Halakhah: It is often difficult to determine, simply from reading the biblical text, what Jewish law would be in practice. The text of the Torah is often general or ambiguous when presenting laws. Midrash halakhah attempts to clarify or extend a law beyond the conditions assumed in the Bible, and to make connections between current practice and the biblical text. It made possible the creation and acceptance of new liturgies and rituals which de facto replaced sacrificial worship after the fall of the Second Temple, and the maintenance of continuity by linking those practices to the words of the Torah.

Midrash halakhah from the two centuries following the fall of the Temple was collected in three books–the Mekhilta on Exodus, the Sifra on Leviticus, and the Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy–known as the tannaitic midrashim.(The tannaim were the rabbis from the time of the Mishnah, edited in approximately 200 C.E.)

Midrash Aggadah: The type of midrash most commonly referred to (as in, “There is a midrash which says…”) is from the collections of midrash aggadah, most of which were compiled between about 200 and 1000 C.E. (Many midrashim circulated orally before then). Midrash aggadah may begin its exploration with any word or verse in the Bible. There are many different methods of interpretation and exposition.

Written by rabbis both steeped in Bible and absorbed by the Jewish questions of their time, works of midrash aggadah often occupy the meeting ground between reverence and love for the wording of the fixed text of the Torah, and theological creativity. Midrashic writings thus often yield religious insights that have made Torah directly applicable to later Jewish realities, especially the concerns of its authors. Some of what midrash aggadah yields is insight into the burning, sometimes time-bound questions of those who wrote it,. Still, the interpretations produced often have more universal and timeless application to our, or any, generation.

In addition to works devoted to midrashic compilations, midrash aggadah also appears throughout the two Talmuds. Midrash Rabbah, the “Great Midrash,” is the name of the collections linked to the five books of the Torah and the “Five Scrolls” (Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes) read on holidays. Some of these works read like verse-by-verse commentaries. Others may have originated in sermons linked to the weekly Shabbat Torah reading.” (source: myjewishlearning.com)

Ruth 2:14 in the Midrash Rabbah it states:

He is speaking of the King Messiah: “Come hither” draw near to the throne “and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,” this refers to the chastisements, as it is said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”


Pesikta de-Rab Kahana (A collection of discourses for special Sabbaths and festival days compiled and organized during the fifth century)
“God beginning to make a Covenant with him (the Messias) thus bespake him.  Those whose iniquities are hid with you, will put you into an iron yoke, with which they’ll make you like an heifer almost blind with labour, and strangle you ; for the cause of their iniquities your Tongue shall cleave (with grief and drought) to the rook of your Mouth.  Do such things as these like you?  To which the Messias answers, Perhaps those afflictions and sorrows may last for many years. God tells him, That he had decreed him to suffer them for a whole week of years, but if he did not consent thereto he would presently remove thee.  To whom the Messias returns, That he would most willingly undergo them upon condition that not one Israelite should perish, but that all of them should undergo them upon condition that not one Israelite should perish, but that all of them should be saved.  Those who lived and dyed in his days, those who were hid in the Earth, those who were dead since Adam, even all embryo’s and untimely births, finally all who had been or should be created.”  (Quoted in Jalkut on Isa. LX.1., Translated by J. Lightfoot)