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What is the Midrash?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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A. "Midrash" means "exposition." The Midrash (or Medrash) is probably the most referred-to collection of explanatory works on Tanach, next to Rashi. The Midrash, or Midrashim, fills in the gaps behind the oft-times sketchy, skeletal narrative of the Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. It adds meat to its bones, telling us things we otherwise would never know, mainly the dialogues between the Torah's figures and details of their lives. As such, the Midrash is a vital, true part of the Oral Torah.

B. Here's a great definition of "Midrash" by the late great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, author of The Living Torah: "...a generic term, usually denoting the non-legalistic teachings of the rabbis of the Talmudic era. In the centuries following the final redaction of the Talmud (around 505 CE), much of this material was gathered into collections known as Midrashim." So, "the Midrash" is like "the dictionary"--there are many dictionaries, each compiled by a different party at a different time.

The Midrash fills in the gaps behind the oft-times sketchy, skeletal narrative of the Torah... It adds meat to its bones, telling us things we otherwise would never know...
C. The Midrash consists of a large number of individually written books on various sections of Tanach, or on the entire Tanach. A prominent example of a Midrash is the Midrash Rabbah, which adds critical details to the five books of the Chumash. There is also the Midrash Tanchuma on the Chumash (written by Rabbi Tanchuma, a Talmudic sage), the Yalkut Shim'oni, the Midrash Agadah... and Avot D'Rabbi Natan, Mechilta, Midrash Hagadol, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Sifra, Sifri and many more. Each elaborates on all or part of the Written Torah. None, however, should be taken lightly: unfortunately, the misconception exists that midrashim are mere tales or legends. They are not, and the assumption that one can write their own book of Biblical fiction on the assumption that the authors of the Midrash did the same is the most tragic result thereof.

How can I study Midrash?

1. Study Torah

Midrash is part of Torah, and thus studying Midrash is studying Torah. How do you study Torah? See What is Torah? first, and then I'll see you back here.

2. Go Shopping

Perhaps the most popular Midrashic publication is what might be dubbed "Midrash for Dummies": a terrific five-volume, English-language translation of Midrashic commentary entitled The Midrash Says. (There is also The Little Midrash Says, a large-print format of same, just for kids.) Pick up your set at any Jewish bookstore. When you do, don't skip the fabulous Foreword.

3. Remember What you're Doing

Like "Kabbalah," there's a lot of confusion out there when it comes to "Midrash." So here's a golden rule you can't go wrong with: don't rely only on books - go to classes. And since 99 percent of Midrash is on "the Bible" anyway--Tanach--go to a basic Torah class, where your instructor will bring the text to life with ample samplings of Midrashic teachings. Visit www.chabad.com for your nearest one.

TAGS: midrash, medrash

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Torah » Mishnah and Talmud

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Rashi
Acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105). Legendary French scholar who authored the fundemental and widely accepted "Rashi commentary" on the entire Bible and Talmud.
Kabbalah
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
Midrash
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
Avot
"Ethics of our Fathers." A tractate of the Mishna (original rendition of the Oral Law) which discusses Jewish ethics and piety.
Tanach
Acronym for Torah, Nevi'm (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Holy Writings). Tanach refers to the 24 books of the Bible: the 5 books of Moses, the 8 books of the Prophets, and the 11 books of Holy Writings.
Chumash
The Five Books of Moses.
Neviim
1. Prophets. 2. A collective name for eight of the books of the Bible: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of Twelve Prophets.
Ketuvim
The eleven books of Holy Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra (and Nehemiah), and Chronicles.