What Does the Term "Midrash" Mean?

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In Judaism, the term Midrash (plural Midrasham) refers to a form of rabbinic literature that offers commentary or interpretation of biblical texts. A Midrash (pronounced "mid-rash") may be an effort to clarify ambiguities in an ancient original text or to make the words applicable to current times. A Midrash can feature writing that is quite scholarly and logical in nature or can artistically make its points through parables or allegories. When formalized as a proper noun "Midrash" refers to the entire body of collected commentaries that were compiled in the first 10 centuries CE. 

There are two types of Midrash: Midrash aggada and Midrash halakha.

Midrash Aggada

Midrash aggada can best be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts. ("Aggada" literally means "story" or "telling" in Hebrew.) It can take any biblical word or verse and interpret it in a manner that answers a question or explains something in the text. For instance, a Midrash aggada may attempt to explain why Adam didn’t stop Eve from eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. One of the best-known midrasham deals with Abraham’s childhood in early Mesopotamia, where he is said to have smashed the idols in his father’s shop because even at that age he knew there was only one God. Midrash aggada can be found in both Talmuds, in Midrashic collections and in Midrash Rabbah, which means "Great Midrash." Midrash aggada may be a verse-by-verse explanation and amplification of a particular chapter or passage of a holy text. There is considerable stylistic freedom in the Midrash aggada, in which the commentaries are often quite poetic and mystical in nature.

Modern compilations of Midrash Aggada include the following:

  • Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) is a compilation of aggada from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, and the Midrash literature. 
  • Legends of the Jews, by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, synthesizes aggada from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, and Midrash. In this collection, Rabbi Ginzberg paraphrases the original material and rewrites them in a single narrative that covers five volumes. 
  • Mimekor Yisrael, by Micha Josef Berdyczewski. 
  • The collected works of Dov Noy. In 1954, Noy established an archive of more than 23,000 folktales collected from Israel. 

Midrash Halakha

Midrash halakha, on the other hand, doesn't focus on biblical characters, but rather on Jewish laws and practice. The context of holy texts alone can make it difficult to understand what the various rules and laws mean in everyday practice, and a Midrash halakha attempts to take biblical laws that are either general or ambiguous and to clarify what they mean. A Midrash halakha may explain why, for instance, tefillin are used during prayer and how they should be worn.

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Pelaia, Ariela. "What Does the Term "Midrash" Mean?" Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-midrash-2076342. Pelaia, Ariela. (2020, August 26). What Does the Term "Midrash" Mean? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-midrash-2076342 Pelaia, Ariela. "What Does the Term "Midrash" Mean?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-midrash-2076342 (accessed May 28, 2023).