Midrash מדרש (pl. midrashim מדרשים) is the way that the classical Jewish sages interpreted the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), especially those in the Land of Israel in the first six centuries of the common era.
The word comes from the Hebrew root drsh (דרש) meaning “to search, examine.” The word midrash can refer to:
a process: the method by which one interprets the text
a teaching: the result of this method may be an interpretation of a verse, or a lesson drawn from it.
a book: a collection of midrash statements by an author(s), on a particular book of the Bible.
There are many different midrash collections (e.g. Genesis Rabbah, Sifre Numbers, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, etc.) Each was written by a different authorship, for a different purpose.
Just as an artist creates an original pictures with different paints, the rabbis wrote midrash with different verses of Scripture.
Jacob Neusner writes:
…when our sages of blessed memory proposed to compose their statements… it was an appeal to serve a purpose defined not by Scripture, but by a faith under construction… Scripture formed a dictionary, providing a vast range of permissible usages of intelligible words. Scripture did not dictate the sentences that would be composed through the words found in that (limited) dictionary. Much as painters paint with a palette of colors, authorships wrote with Scripture. The paint is not the picture….”The Midrash” is a vast painting, begun in the age in which the Judaism of the dual Torah took shape, continued from then to now. But the painting is made up of a large collection of completed paintings, a collage of perfect compositions. [p. x, xi]
– Jacob Neusner “The Midrash: An Introduction”, Jason Aronson Inc, 1990
Why engage in midrash?
Once a canon (approved scriptural text) is closed, the problem facing the community is the problem of “searching out” the canon. Midrash is a method of reading the Bible as an Eternal text, and is the result of applying a set of hermeneutical principles evolved by the community… The ultimate goal of midrash is to “search out” the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.
In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to handle the language of Torah:
One is that the language is the language of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation.
The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.
Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text… It places the focus on the reader… While it is always governed by the wording of the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.
– from Charles T. Davis, Appalachian Statue University, Philosophy and Religion Department, NC
Are Midrash literally and historically true?
No, and they clear were written in such a way to make this clear. Rabbi Moshe Shamah writes:
Rab Hai Gaon also stated: “You should know that aggadic statements are not like those of shemu‘ah (“heard,” a passed-down statement). Rather, they are cases of each individual expounding what came to his mind, in the nature of ‘it can be said,’ not a decisive matter. Accordingly we do not rely on them” (Otzar ha-Ge’onim to b. Haggigah, Siman 67).
Rab Shemuel ben Hofni Gaon (960–c.1034, head of the Sura Academy), in his Introduction to the Talmud (published in the Vilna edition at the end of Massekhet Berakhot, erroneously attributed to Shemuel Hanagid, translated and abridged by Rab Shemuel ben Hananya in the 12th century), stated: “Aggadah constitutes all the explanations in the Talmud on any subject that does not refer to a mitzvah. You do not learn from them except what seems acceptable to the mind…. Concerning the expounding on scriptural verses, each [sage] expounded what chanced to him and what he saw in his mind, so what is acceptable to the mind we learn from and the rest we do not rely upon.”
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) in his Bible commentary often alludes to the importance of recognizing the inapplicability of Midrash to understanding the intention of the Torah. For example, concerning the variant between the two Decalogue passages in the Torah, wherein one states “zakhor (remember) the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while the other has “shamor (observe) the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” he comments:
…The sages said that “zakhor and shamor were said in the same pronouncement” (b. Shebuot 20b)… Heaven forbid saying that they did not speak correctly for our minds are meager in comparison to their minds, but people of our generation think that their words were intended to be taken literally which is not the case…
The formulations of the sages teach all sorts of valuable lessons. Frequently, they use the Torah text as a springboard to elaborate an idea or as a mnemonic device to anchor an insight and assist in its being remembered. In doing so they are often engaging in moral education and inspirational edification that in their days would have been difficult to accomplish in a straightforward manner. As long as the reader or listener realizes that a proposed interpretation of a text is not necessarily its true meaning, the interpretation often having no genuine (peshat) connection to the actual intention of the relevant verses, and that the highly improbable, often fantastic and sometimes impossible realities portrayed are not literal, no harm is done and a benefit is derived from the lesson.
Moshe Shamah, Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah, Ktav, 2011. On Interpreting Midrash.
What was the mindset of the Midrash authors?
In chapter 3 of “The Midrash: An Introduction” Neusner proposes that we can discern the unstated assumptions of the midrash authors:
“What premises can validate my intervention, that is, my willingness to explain the meaning of a verse of Scripture? These seem to me propositions that must serve to justify the labor of intrinsic exegesis as we have seen its results here:
1. My independent judgement bears weight and produces meaning. I – that is, my mind – may therefore join in the process.
2. God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai requires my intervention. I have the role, and the right, to say what that revelation means.
3. What validates my entry into the process of revelation is the correspondence between the logic of my mind and the logic of the document.
Why do I think so? Only if I think in accord with the logic of the revealed Torah can my thought processes join issue in clarifying what is at hand: the unfolding of God’s will in the Torah. To state matters more accessibly: if the Torah does not make statements in accord with a syntax and a grammar that I know, I cannot understand the Torah enough to explain its meaning. But if I can join in the discourse of the Torah, it is because I speak the same language of thought, syntax and grammar at the deepest levels of intellect.
4. …Since a shared logic of syntax and grammar joins my mind to the mind of God as revealed in the Torah, I can say what a sentence of the Torah means. So I too can clarify, amplify, expand, revise, rework: that is to say, create a [midrash collection] document. [p.105/106]
Example of a midrash
Katz, Michael, and Gershon Schwartz. Searching for Meaning in Midrash: Lessons for Everyday Living. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002.
Go forth and learn
How Does Midrash Work? A library of articles from MyJewishLearning
Filling in the Gaps: Midrash allowed the rabbis to explain and expand on the Torah–and in doing so, they revealed much about themselves. By Rabbi Iscah Waldman http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/filling-in-the-gaps/
Midrash article from the Encyclopaedia Judaica
Midrash reading list from the Soc.Culture.Jewish FAQ