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Midrash is a Hebrew word referring to a method of reading details into, or out of, a Biblical text.

All forms of scriptural interpretation are not necessarilly midrash. Much of what has been termed "modern midrash" has little to do with the classical modes of literary exegesis that guided the rabbis. Rabbinic midrash uses quotes from scripture to prove a proposition.

Table of contents
1 Examples of short midrashim
2 Origin of the midrash
3 Midrash collections and compilations
4 Midrash halakha

Examples of short midrashim

The following examples of shorter midrashim on Biblical verses.

Verse: "And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day." (Genesis 1:31)

Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel's name: "Behold, it was very good" refers to the Good Desire; "And behold, it was very good" refers to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: "Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man's rivalry with his neighbour." (Kohelet IV, 4) (Source Midrash collection Genesis Rabbah, section 9:7, Translation from Soncino Publications)

Verse: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Leviticus 19:17)

Midrash: Our masters taught "You shall not hate your brother in your heart"; you might suppose that Scripture bids you not to strike him, not to slap him, not to curse him. But in saying "In your heart," Scripture also bids you to have no hatred in your heart. (Source Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin 16b)

Origin of the midrash

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 commandments be accurately complied.

The enactments of the Mosaic Law made for the purpose of promoting righteousness in Israel; yet, as these laws had been written in view of concrete circumstances of the past, they had to be explained in a way to make them fit the new circumstances of their life. 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 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. Hagadic expositors availed themselves of whatever material -- sayings of prominent Rabbis (e.g., philosophical or mystical disquisitions concerning angels, demons, paradise, hell, Messiahs, 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 Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, aka The Old Testament).

Midrash collections and compilations

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 Sifra, on Leviticus, embodying the tradition of Rabbi Akiva with additions from the School of Rabbi Ishmael; (3) the Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy, going back mainly to the schools of the same two Rabbis. These three works are used in the Talmud.

(4) Widely studied are the Rabboth (the great commentaries), a collection of ten Midrashim on different books of the Bible. However, despite the similarity in their names, these are not a cohesive work. They were written by different authors, in different locals, in different historical eras.

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.

Midrashic literature is worthwhile reading not only for its insights into Judaism and the history of Jewish thought, but also for the more incidental data it provides to historians, philologists, philosophers, and scholars of either historical-critical Bible study or comparative religion.

Midrash halakha

Midrash halakha was the ancient rabbinic Jewish method of verifying the traditionally received laws by identifying their sources in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and by interpreting these passages as proofs of the law's authenticity. The term is applied also to the derivation of new laws, either by means of a correct interpretation of the obvious meaning of scriptural words themselves or by the application of certain hermeneutic rules.

The phrase "Midrash Halakah" was first employed by Nachman Krochmal (in his "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 163), the Talmudic expression being "Midrash Torah" = "investigation of the Torah". These interpretations were often regarded as corresponding to the real meaning of the Scriptural texts; thus it was held that a correct elucidation of the Torah carried with it the proof of the Halakah and the reason for its existence. See the article on Midrash halakha for more details.

See also: Rabbinic literature, Judaism