Wednesday, June 20, 2001

The World Of Midrash


The classical Rabbinical sources contain many types of non-legal passages, which will be broadly referred to as midrash in this study. The goals of midrash are varied and complex and consequently may be understood at a variety of levels. While for every midrash it is essential to find an explanation which is consistent with the views and intentions of Chazal, it is legitimate, and in some cases, essential, to offer a conceptual and philosophical interpretation, rather than a strictly literal one. An argument will be mustered from traditional sources for a non-literal approach to understanding some midrashim. The concerns raised by classical sources about literalism are discussed, as are the dangers of teaching midrashim to an audience which may misconstrue their meaning or be unable to properly appreciate them. The rationale behind such non-literal presentations is considered, as is the possibility of their classification.

Non-legal material which appears in compilations, such as Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma, is usually referred to as midrash, whereas similar material in the Talmud is often referred to as agadah or agadta. Sometimes, the word agadah is used to describe a wider range of material than the term midrash; midrash would be used to describe amplification of the Biblical story, whereas agadta would also refer to philosophical, medical and eschatological aphorisms in the Talmud. In this study, midrash will be used to cover the whole gamut of material intended by both terms.


Midrashic interpretation is a specialised area of Jewish study, which demands skills which are different to those needed by halachic experts. When the great Rabbi Akiva, whose halachic influence is present on every page of the Talmud, attempts to explain a textual anomaly using a midrashic style, he is asked by his colleague Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, 'Akiva, what are you doing delving into agadah?' Rabbi Akiva is further advised to stop discussing this subject and return to the laws of leprous marks and tents.(1) Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah considers Rabbi Akiva an expert in halachah, but not in agadah.(2) Fortunately, many of the foremost Jewish authorities have written on this subject and we are able to draw on their thoughts in determining legitimate styles within midrashic analysis.

Whatever style of rendition we choose to adopt, we need to be aware of the dangers of stepping beyond the boundaries of interpretation which have been bequeathed to us by Torah tradition, as formulated by Chazal and by the writings of the greatest Jewish minds. We must always be cognisant of the fact that the notions expressed by midrash are a division of the Oral Tradition - that part of God's revelation to Moses at Sinai which is indivisibly linked to the Written Torah. It is a fundamental principle of Judaism that the ideas therein, while originally passed orally from generation to generation, are now encoded in the Talmud, various midrashic sources and the mystical literature. Thus the midrash, far from being mere stories, legends or fanciful images, in fact conveys the word of God as part of the Oral Torah. It is critical that we approach this unique form of Jewish literature with the trepidation and respect that it deserves as part of our holy legacy, and remain constantly aware of the risks of desecrating the revelation which its misinterpretation or trivialisation must imply.

The perils inherent in trivialising the content and meaning of midrash are mentioned in a number of key sources. A student who mocked the words of the sages was reduced to a pile of bones by the harsh gaze of Rabbi Yochanan.(3) The Talmud further tells us that 'anyone who mocks the words of the sages is punished by boiling excrement.(4) However, in considering the wide range of valid interpretations which the Torah text can hold, the Midrash Rabbah observes that 'even something which a student in the future would say before his teacher - all was communicated to Moses at Sinai.' (5) Whilst this source may appear to give carte blanche for any interpretation, we note that the Talmud observes that 'one who reveals interpretations of the Torah which are not consonant with the halachah' is amongst those who have no share in the afterlife.(6) We may assume that while a wider range of interpretations of midrash may be permissible, there are nonetheless limitations, as there are for all areas of Torah study.

Regrettably, it is common to find those who do not take midrash seriously. This may be a result of misunderstanding of the purpose of the midrash, or more likely a consequence of misguided instruction in their youth. This subject is starkly addressed by a number of sources. The Midrash Rabbah notes that 'when your students are young, hide the words of Torah from them, but once they grow and become scholars, reveal the secrets of Torah to them.' (7) We are concerned that a child who hears a simple and naive explanation of a midrash will remain attached to this level of interpretation as an adult. Unable to progress from his childhood perception of the midrash, he will consider it trivial and hardly worthy of adult consideration. This concept is underscored by the following fascinating Talmudic excerpt: 'Rabbi Simlaiy went to Rabbi Yochanan and said to him, "teach me agadah." He replied, "I have a tradition from my ancestors to teach agadah neither to Babylonians nor to Southerners, for they are arrogant and they have a limited perception of the Torah. You are both a Nehardaiyan(8) and you live in the south."'(9) Apparently, these groups did not learn Torah in the correct manner, and Rabbi Yochanan was concerned that they might explain the verses of the Torah in a peculiar fashion, or come to mock them.(10) The Sefer Chasidim of Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid(11) expands this notion to include children and observes, 'do not reveal a strange agadah to children, lest they say that there is nothing to it, and from there extrapolate to everything else.' This applies equally to ignoramuses and indeed to anyone whom we fear may mock the agadah. (12) Unfortunately, children are often taught midrash in such a way that when they reach adulthood, they are not equipped to consider the possibility of other layers of meaning which would enhance and mature their understanding. The consequences of this, eloquently expressed by the aforementioned sources, are painful and may never be fully rectified.

The Importance Of Agadah

The strength of feeling expressed in the above excerpts about the incorrect interpretation of midrashic sources leaves us in no doubt that the midrash, when expertly construed, is somehow vital to our Torah study and personal growth. Indeed, the Sifri notes that 'if you wish to recognise the one who spoke and brought the world into being, then learn agadah, for through it, you will recognise the one who spoke and brought the world into being and cleave to His ways. If you do what is incumbent upon you, then I will do what is incumbent upon Me.'(13) The Avot DeRebbi Natan compares the virtues of studying halachot and midrash: 'Anyone who has midrash in his hand, but not halachot, does not taste wisdom. Anyone who has halachot in his hand, but not midrash, does not taste the fear of sin.'(14) It is clear that the midrash is seen as a tool for reaching beyond the observance mandated by the halachah, into the dimension of human God-awareness. The Rambam, in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, remarks, with respect to agadah in the Talmud, 'it is not appropriate to think that their worth is small and aim limited; rather they contain great wisdom, for within them are the most astonishing and delightful secrets. For when one examines them intelligently, one will find within them some of the greatest truth and one may reveal Godly things from them.'(15) Indeed, the Maharal of Prague, one of the truly great interpreters of midrash, advises the teacher of halachot that 'if during of a class on agadah, one exhorts the community to words (halachot) of Torah, they (agadot) draw the matter (halachot) into the hearts of the listeners, are accepted by them and remain with the people to guard and observe.'(16) The Gaon of Vilna, commenting on the verse 'I passed by the field of a lazy man and by the vineyard of a heartless man',(17) notes that the vineyard and its owner refer to 'the expert in agadot, for there lies concealed all the secrets of the Torah.'(18) In further praise of the value of midrash, he observes on the verse 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink',(19) that agadot are called water, for they shatter the inclination for lust.'(20) (Presumably, in the same way that water slakes one's thirst). We are to understand that midrash and its correct exposition is a central pedagogical tool, which, when used properly, can further devotion to Torah observance, both in the legal sense and also in the arena of one's attachment to the Divine. It appears that the study of midrash, through its contemplation and internalisation, is an important route provided us by Chazal to an adult commitment to intellectual and emotional dedication to God and His Torah.

This notion is emphasised by what is perhaps the most significant source on the value of midrash and the like. Although we have not yet examined in detail the legitimate parameters of midrashic interpretation, we will assume here that conceptual explanation is generally the alternative to literalism. It is understood that King Solomon, the wisest of all men, was the master of the use of allegory and imagery. He was the author of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, both works replete with aphorisms on life, man and God. His most famous opus, the Song of Songs, tells of an intense relationship between a man and his lover, which is universally agreed to be an allegory for the affinity between God and the Jewish people. These works can reasonably said to be the forerunners of the later midrashic style. It is in considering the contribution of King Solomon that the Midrash Rabbah notes:

'More than that Kohelet (King Solomon) was wise, he also taught knowledge to the people. He listened and investigated; he established many proverbs.'(21) 'He listened' - to the words of Torah and 'he investigated' - the words of Torah - by making 'handles'(22) for the Torah, for one finds that until Solomon arose, there was nothing comparable.(23) .... Rabbi Yosi said, '[It is comparable] to a large barrel filled with fruit, which had no handles, and it could not be carried. A clever man came along and made handles for it and people began to move it about using the handles. Similarly, before Solomon appeared, people were unable to understand the words of Torah, but once Solomon appeared, everyone began to appreciate the Torah.' .... Rabbi Chanina said, '[It is comparable] to a deep well filled with water; the waters were cool, sweet and good, but no-one was able to drink from them. Someone came along and tied some ropes together. He drew from the well and drank and then everyone started to draw water and drink from the well. Similarly, by linking one thing to another, one parable to another, Solomon plumbed the secrets of Torah.' As the verse says, 'The parables of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.'(24) Through the parables of Solomon, he comprehended the words of Torah.(25)

If we apply this beautiful midrashic idea to the issue of parable and allegory in general, we conclude that Solomon invented a literary form which revolutionised Torah study and its accessibility to the common man. His contribution to the Biblical canon forms the prototype for a style of presentation used by Chazal, as well as inspiring and influencing other great Jewish thinkers throughout history.

The case for non-literalism

We have thus far considered the significance and impact of midrash. We must now investigate the acceptable parameters of its interpretation. We have already observed that care must be exercised in our attitude to these sources, but we will nonetheless observe that the spectrum of legitimate approaches is quite broad.

The Rambam tackles this subject in a number of places. In his introduction to Moreh HaNevochim, he uses the following verse as the starting point for his discussion: 'Like golden apples enmeshed in silver, so is an appropriately spoken word.'(26) He explains that the golden apples mentioned are covered in a silver mesh, so that the mesh follows the contours of the apples. From a distance, the apples appear to be made of silver, but on closer investigation, one observes the small spaces in the mesh, through which the golden apples may be seen underneath. So too, the appropriately spoken word, which may even seem attractive on the surface, on closer examination will yield a much deeper intent.(27) This is the paradigm for all study of midrash. Thus, according to the Rambam, the deeper, real meaning is never the superficial one, however appealing it may be. He refers again to this theme in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, in which he notes, with reference to the midrash contained in the Talmud, that 'if one considers it at a simple (literal) level, one will see in it matters further removed from the intellect than anything.' He advocates a non-literal understanding of midrash, based on an allegorical or conceptual approach.(28) In the Moreh itself, the Rambam extends this principle into more halachic midrash. He quotes a Talmudic dictum based on a verse in Deuteronomy:(29) 'to teach us that should one hear something disgusting, one should stick one's finger in one's ear.'(30) He observes that no-one of reasonable intelligence would believe that the verse mentioned really refers to fingers and ears, nor that the Talmud actually requires us to put our fingers in our ears when we hear something horrible. Rather, it is a graphic and pleasing way to emphasise the importance of avoiding listening to inappropriate comments.(31)

From the viewpoint of the Rambam, it is quite clear that a non-literal reading, at least of some midrashim, is not only acceptable, but the only reasonable one. This view is supported by the Ramban in his commentary on the Song of Songs, where he writes, 'they [the Talmudic Rabbis] expressed this wisdom in midrashim and agadot in the form of parables and riddles, to obfuscate and conceal them. They sprinkled them here and there to obscure their locations. Someone who does not understand them and takes them superficially, does not consider the inner significance of their detail.'(32) In his famous disputation with the apostate Pablo Christiani, the Ramban was challenged to explain a source in Chazal which seems to indicate that the Messiah was already living at the time of the destruction of the second Temple. He responded by claiming:

there is a third book [of Torah literature] which is called midrash - that is to say, stories. .... As for this book, those who believe it, good, but those who do not, will not be harmed. There are those of our sages who say that the Messiah will not be born until close to the time when he will come and take us from this exile. Therefore, I do not believe in the book when it states that he was born already at the time of the destruction. Also, we call this the book of agadah .... which means they are merely comments which one relates to his friend.(33)

Despite the obvious relevance of these comments, it is important to note that they were made by the Ramban in the context of a fight about the validity of Judaism as a whole, when a great deal more than the correct interpretation of midrash was at stake. Hence there is some controversy as to whether they truly represent his view, or were tailored to meet exceptional circumstances.(34) Irrespective of this, it is clear that according to the Ramban, a literally true reading of the midrash is not the only possible one.

An even earlier text, the Mavo HaTalmud of Rabbi Shmuel HaNagid, can be mustered to support the view of the Ramban. He observes that one need only extract from the study of agadah what one is able to understand, whereas the rest need not be of concern.(35) We will surely observe that these sources do not mean to belittle the words of the midrash, but intend to demonstrate, by comparison to halachic material, that there is no dogma in its interpretation. It is clear that the statements of Chazal were made with intent, but that this intent may be unclear to the reader and certainly not the type of literal truth conveyed by the halachah. In contrast to the halachah, we are not bound to fully comprehend the midrash, and are at liberty to leave any difficulties or inconsistencies we find in it unexplained.

There are many other authorities who discuss the issue of literalism in midrash. They include Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam,(36) the Shelah HaKadosh(37) and the Ramchal.(38) Each in his own way demonstrates that the true meaning behind many midrashim is not necessarily the literal, superficial one. In a later section, when discussing the possible categorisation of midrashim, we will mention these sources in more detail.

Before discussing possible justifications for the style of midrash, a little-understood idea must be explained. Literalism, in the context of our study, is not inextricably linked to truth. A midrash may be true, but not literal. Whatever, after consideration, we consider to be its correct interpretation, the midrash certainly conveys a true idea. As the Maharal indicates, 'there is not one exposition in the Talmud and midrashim, great or small, which does not express the profound meaning of the verse, according to its truth and when one delves into the meaning of the verse, one will find it.'(39) A simple comparison can be made to modern journalism in which sensational headlines are used to attract sales and give import to an idea. It is common to find statements in newspapers which are clearly not intended to be taken literally. We can imagine finding a disgraced politician described in a newspaper headline as a 'pig'. Were we to insist on a literal reading, we would dismiss it as false, for the subject is not actually a pig; he shares none of the physical characteristics of a pig. But this is a mistake - the author of the headline intended the reader to summon up a porcine image when thinking of the politician. Whatever negative ideas we associate with the pig - lack of integrity, dirtiness, etc. - this is what we are to bring to mind with reference to him. Hence the image of a pig is accurate, for at a metaphoric level, he is indeed a pig. But neither dismissing the headline as false, nor accepting it as literally true is appropriate, for it is true, but not literal. Once thing is clear - the impact of such allegory is immeasurable. This style of presentation has a much greater and long-lasting impression on the reader than any literally true comment could ever have.

Another troubling issue is the apparent contradiction between midrashic sources. However, it seems from the mystical literature that this is a misconception and that at deeper level, the two or more sides in the discussion in fact express different facets of a subject or a variety of possible manifestations thereof. This notion is discussed in detail by Rabbi E. E. Dessler in a letter to students in a Yeshivah, which he wrote while travelling by boat to America in 1948.(40) He quotes as an example the Talmudic notion of a two messiahs, one the scion of Joseph, the other the scion of David.(41) While superficially, it seems that the roles of these two figures contradict each other, Rabbi Dessler refers us to the writings of the Gaon of Vilna, who understands that the Messiah from Joseph will save the Jews from physical troubles, whereas the Messiah from David will rescue them from spiritual depravation.(42) By extension, if properly understood, all midrashim can be understood in this light; for the superficial disagreements really reveal the multifaceted attitude with which Chazal approach every subject.

The interaction between different layers of meaning in midrash is also worthy of consideration. We have seen that the Rambam compares the relationship between the simple reading of a verse and its deeper meaning to that between the mesh covering a golden apple and the apple itself.(43) This seems to mean that each layer of meaning must follow the same contours as every other. Hence each level of meaning offered in a midrash is essentially a different or a deeper perspective on the same issue. In his commentary on the Genesis story, the Abarbanel comments that:

this is the amazing thing about the Torah of God which distinguishes it from all other learned works and law books, for among them there are those which focus on revealed wisdom, but contain no mention of any other field of knowledge, and there are those which focus on the inner truth, but the external meaning is empty and devoid of content. But this Torah, brought by Moses, is not like that, rather the external manifestation is truthful and accurate, and that which is hinted at is supernal wisdom. .... The mystics explain every terrestrial matter as a projection of that which is celestial.(44)

Every dimension of meaning found by Chazal within a verse is linked to every other, building a complete picture of an idea, story or event, from simple to intensely mystical. The mechanism behind this is explained by the Ramchal in one of his mystical works:

In truth, the Torah may be explained in many ways - some according to the simple meaning and some totally divorced from the simple meaning, so much so that they seem alien when compared to the simple meaning, as they explain the words differently from the simple meaning. All of these explanations are true. This is because the Torah joins everything in a fundamental way. .... For everything was created in Torah.... Even though there may be many purposes or paths within a single thing, all of them come from a single root.(45)

It is sometimes very hard to discover the common theme in disparate Rabbinical aphorisms about a single subject. On many occasions, they seem to have very little to do with each other or appear to contradict each other entirely. Often, Rashi will quote one midrashic idea to explain a verse and then offer another, which seems to be unrelated. Nonetheless, the classic sources indicate that Torah study which is true to the original intentions of Chazal will attempt to find a linkage between these differing statements and thereby enable us to forge a broad understanding of a multifaceted theme. This should be born in mind when studying and teaching these important sources.

One small example may help to illustrate these ideas. In the Biblical story, when Jacob finally encountered his estranged brother Esau, after many years of animosity, we learn that 'Esau ran to meet him and hugged him; he fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept.'(46) The word vayishakeyhu - and he kissed him - is written in the Torah scroll with a dot above each letter. The Rabbis agree that this indicates something extraordinary about the word, but the precise nature of the peculiarity is subject to disagreement.(47) The first view offered is that on this occasion, despite the fratricidal rage which had previously characterised Esau's attitude to Jacob, his kiss was genuine. The other view is that despite the superficial camaraderie of the kiss, Esau intended not to kiss Jacob, but to bite him. Jacob's neck turned to marble and Esau's teeth were blunted. Hence they both wept; Jacob for his neck and Esau for his teeth.(48) In his Torah commentary, the Rebbe of Sokatchev cleverly uncovers from within Jacob's own prayer that he is frightened both of a physical assault from his brother, but also of a more subtle spiritual attack.(49) If so, there is no dispute as to how to treat the word vayishakeyhu at all, rather one opinion focuses on Esau's designs against Jacob's physical persona, the other against his spiritual persona. Esau decided not to attempt to kill Jacob and his family and in that respect, the kiss was genuine. On the other hand, he still intended to pollute him with his ideology and lifestyle, and in that respect, he came to bite Jacob, rather than to kiss him. Each view in the midrash, far from contradicting each other, actually enhance our overall picture of the event described. As for Jacob's neck turning to marble, this is an image designed to indicate that Jacob was able to resist Esau's spiritual advances. Although the attack was subtle, Jacob was prepared for it and completely impervious. Containers made from marble, in common with all types of stone, are not subject to ritual defilement.(50) So too, Jacob was not susceptible to Esau's attack in any way.(51)We see in this masterful exposition two themes which we have already mentioned - the importance of seeing different views of an event reported in the midrash as complementary, rather than contradictory and the non-literal, albeit truthful, rendition of its content.

Justification of non-literalism

We have already mentioned a simple justification for the presentation of conceptual ideas in midrashic, rather than literal form. It is clear that the impression given by an image can be stronger and more long-lasting than that of a simple idea. We have also noted the dangers of trivialising midrash and the long-term consequences that this may have. This is one of a number of concerns which the Rambam feels that Chazal were addressing when they decided to couch their ideas in this way:

They did this thing [wrote in allegorical style] for remarkable reasons. Firstly, to sharpen the minds of the students and to awaken their emotions. Secondly, to confuse the foolish people so that they will never have their emotions awakened .... for they are not intellectually able to understand the truth properly. .... Perhaps the verses contain supernal secrets, and when God wishes to removes the veil of foolishness from the heart of someone He chooses, then after he has struggled and accustomed himself to wisdom, he will understand according to his ability. .... Further, teaching to the simple people must be in the style of parables and riddles, in order to include women, youths and children, until they have developed their intellects, for then they will be able to contemplate and comprehend these secrets. .... And for these reasons, the sages arranged their words in allegorical presentations, which repel the mind of the fool, according to his view.(52)

We see delineated here several classic explanations for the choice of style in midrash. In the order mentioned by the Rambam, they are: a) intellectual and emotional stimulation of the student, b) preventing the fool access to the true meaning, c) acknowledgement of the need for effort and trust in God to succeed in study and d) opportunity to provide different layers of meaning suitable for students of varied abilities. The Ramchal(53) elaborates on the need to obscure the ideas to ensure that they are only available to a worthy student. He recognises the problem of reprobates gaining access to the esoteric parts of the Torah. This could only happen were the ideas therein too easily available, so to prevent this from occurring, they were couched in obscure terms. They would remain essentially a closed book without the keys to unlock their meaning and these would not be available to everyone. For while the midrashim themselves, and even the mystical literature would be accessible, the keys to their comprehension would only be taught by a scholar to someone worthy to hold them. Indeed, the various admonitions in the literature concerning their wrongful explanation are aimed at those who attempt to understand midrash without the proper keys. This contrasts drastically with a worrying modern trend in which so called 'teachers of mysticism' instruct all manner of people in what is loosely termed kabbalah. It is held up as a panacea for all of us and consequently taught to ignorant people, who are often hardly versed in the basics of Judaism. This clearly contradicts the intention of the sages who wrote down these ideas and can only lead to misunderstanding, confusion and frustration.

The leitmotif of investing effort in Torah study to properly reap its spiritual and intellectual rewards is a common one in the Rabbinical and later literature. There is, as we have seen, a considerable likelihood of misunderstanding midrash through superficial analysis, whether by accident or design. This danger may be more acute in the sphere of midrash than that of halachah as the concepts therein are often more complex, less clearly defined and more far-reaching in their theological ramifications. Thus we understand the need for additional layers of obfuscation in the literature and also the extra stress placed on careful and wise analysis of it by the Rambam and the Ramchal. Nonetheless, we should not think that halachah can be distilled from the sources all that easily. The prophet Isaiah proclaims, 'And it will happen that he will eat butter because of the abundance of milk, for everyone who is left in the land will eat butter and honey'.(54) On this, the Gaon of Vilna makes a most apposite comment: 'eat butter and honey - agadot are compared to honey and halachot to butter, for they can only be extracted [from their sources] with effort and serious study.'(55) Both agadah and halachah demand expertise and dedication, each of a different nature, to achieve proper results.

Categorisation of midrash

We have recognised the validity of non-literal interpretation in midrash and have attempted to justify their style of presentation. In the final section of this study, we will tackle the issue of midrashic classification. A number of important authorities endeavour to categorise the midrashic sources. We refer back to the Rambam's introduction to the Moreh HaNevochim. In it, he notes that there are two types of metaphor used in the writings of the prophets. In the first, each detail of the story has an individual, albeit allegorical purpose. Midrashim of the second type convey a general meaning, although it may not be possible to detect specific meaning in each of its details.(56) This simple demarcation may not be in agreement with the opinion of the Maharal and others of his ilk, who are most insistent that every detail in every metaphor which appears in the classic Jewish texts conveys specific and carefully planned meaning.

The Rambam's son, in his Maamar al odot Drashot Chazal,(57) offers a broader system of categorisation. He firstly splits the relevant material into two groups. The first he calls drashot - expositions, which he roughly subdivides into five sections: a) those to be understood literally, b) those which have both inner and outer levels of meaning, c) those which may not have an inner meaning, but are nonetheless hard to comprehend, d) those which offer explanations which make understanding the relevant verses more agreeable and e) those which are not intended to be understood literally. The second he calls midrashim which explain events, and these he subdivides into four groups: a) straightforward true stories, b) dreams, c) stories which are not intended to be understood literally and d) real events whose description is shrouded in parable or riddle. The first of these, which we have called straightforward true stories, have one of four possible purposes: i) the derivation of a law, ii) the derivation of a desirable (or undesirable) character trait or piece of information, iii) inspiration to enhanced trust in God or iv) the description of an amazing event. Just in case this system is not complicated enough, the writer notes that a midrash may exhibit the characteristics of just one of these types, or a combination of two or more of them!

The Shelah HaKadosh offers a briefer description of the system of midrashim. In his introductory essay to the subject of agadah, Darchey HeAgadot VeHaDrashot,(58) he claims that there are three types of agadah: a) sources which exaggerate the details of the story, just as people do when speaking to each other, b) completely accurate, but miraculous events, which are intended to display God's might to His devotees and c) sources which extract every possible meaning from the text. Within this third category, he observes that one will find explanations which are very close to the simple meaning of the text and those with midrashic meanings, which seem hardly linked to the meaning of the text at all.

The final breakdown of midrash types offered here comes from the Ramchal, in his aforementioned essay.(59) He observes three types of agadta: a) those expressed as metaphor or parable, b) those presented in obscure terms and which thus require additional information to explain the limits of their applicability and c) those which are clothed in trivial terminology and are therefore liable to be dismissed without a thought in the absence of proper guidance. He further points out that the Rabbinical literature also contains allusions to important concepts through the medium of popular science. There are three threads of interpretation which one may identify: a) direct and literal interpretation, b) traditional explanation and c) multifaceted interpretation which demonstrates the genius of the Divine.

This complex swathe of sources leave us in no doubt that the legitimate parameters for midrashic analysis are broad, although, as we have seen, not unlimited. Many sources are clearly and indisputably intended to be rendered literally, others are certainly allegorical, and still others are subject to a number of possible interpretations. One of the hardest things to determine is the boundaries between the different categories, as many, perhaps the majority of sources, fall into this third category. Two observations should be made here. The first is that the importance of mesorah - tradition - should not be underestimated. Judaism has always been a great advocate of a mode of practice and interpretation based on that of the previous generation, who in turn received it from earlier generations. We trust in our heritage, and in issues such as these, where the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable interpretation as well as the guidelines governing literal and non-literal exposition are often unclear, we can and should, where possible, rely on the guidelines of analysis which it has bequeathed us. The second observation is that the underlying question which often besets the student of any particular midrash, may, as a result of this lengthy study, cease to be significant. This question - is a midrashic source meant to be understood literally or non-literally - will fade as the student recognises that whatever interpretation he finds suitable, (provided that it is a legitimate one as qualified by the classic sources), it express profound and important concepts. Hence, literal or not, perhaps it no longer matters - for the source is true and valuable regardless.


Midrash is a complex and beautiful style of literature which has been devised with awesome ability by the great sages of Israel. It can teach us esoteric concepts, enhance our trust in God, reveal the secrets behind the Biblical stories and impress upon us our obligations and duties to a degree unmatched by other material. Indeed, in this context we can understand a comment of the Gaon of Vilna on the verse, 'Thus My people shall be exiled because they lack knowledge, its honoured ones shall die from hunger and its multitude shall be dried out from thirst.'(60) The Gaon understands the last phrase of this verse to refer to the public who thirst for the words of agadah.61 It is the present author's personal experience that a carefully chosen midrash, with an inspiring and conceptual explanation behind it, is one of the most potent tools available to the modern Jewish teacher. It is unparalleled in its ability to draw the hearts of our people towards God and His holy Torah. It is hoped that this small contribution to the subject will facilitate heightened understanding of the function of midrashim and create a broader appreciation of their remarkable flexibility and potential.

(1) Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 67b
(2) Commentary of Rashi, loc. cit.
(3) Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 90a
(4) Talmud Bavli, Gittin 57a
(5) VaYikra Rabbah 22:1
(6) Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 99a
(7) Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2
(8) An important Jewish town in Babylon.
(9) Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim ch. 5, halachah 3
(10) Korban HaEidah, loc. cit.
(11) Sefer Chasidim 297
(12) Ibid.
(13) Sifri, Deuteronomy 11:22, s.v. uldovkah bo
(14) Avot DeRebbi Natan 29:7
(15) HaKdamah LePirush HaMishnah, Mosad HaRav Kook edition, section 7
(16) Netivot Olam vol. 2, Netiv HaTochachah, ch. 3, s.v. vehitbaer lecha
(17) Proverbs 24:30
(18) Commentary of Gaon of Vilna, loc. cit.
(19) Proverbs 25:21
(20) Commentary of Gaon of Vilna, loc. cit.
(21) Ecclesiastes 12:9
(22) The word izain in this verse means to listen, or to make ear-like. The 'ear' can also refer
to a handle for a container. Hence the midrash understands the verse to refer to the fact that Kohelet made 'handles' for the Torah.
(23) Until the time, nothing functioned as this 'handle' to enable the common person to
understand the Torah.
(24) Proverbs 1:1
(25) Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:8
(26) Proverbs 25:11
(27) Moreh HaNevochim, Kapach edition, Petichah, s.v. amar hechacham
(28) Vide note 15
(29) Deuteronomy 23:14
(30) Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 15a
(31) Moreh HaNevochim, Kapach edition, section 3, ch. 3, s.v. aval arbaat
(32) Kitvey Ramban, Kook edition, vol. 2, intr. to commentary on Song of Songs, p. 479
(33) Ibid., vol. 1, ViKuach, pp. 307, 308
(34) Ibid., p. 308, footnotes s.v. shehaadam magid lechavero
(35) Mavo HaTalmud, end Talmud Bavli, Brachot, p. 45b s.v. vehadagah hu
(36) Milchamot HaShem, Kook edition, Maamar al odot Drashot Chazal
(37) Darchey HeAgadot VeHaDrashot, Torah SheBaal Peh, start of Ein Yaakov, vol. 1
(38) Maamar al Agadot Chazal, start of Ein Yaakov, vol. 1. See also Aharon Feldman, The Juggler and the King (Israel: Targum Press 1990) pp. 203-211
(39) Beer HaGolah, Beer 3, p. 44, s.v. umayatah. The whole of Beer 3, as well as much of Beer HaGolah itself, is dedicated to explaining this theme.
(40) Michtav MeEliyahu, vol. 3, p. 353
(41) Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 52a
(42) Even Shleimah 11:6
(43) Vide note 27
(44) Commentary of Abarbanel to Genesis 2:4, s.v. vaasher aaminhu
(45) Adir BaMarom p. 6
(46) Genesis 33:4
(47) BeReishit Rabbah 75:9
(48) Playing on the similarity of the words lenashko (to kiss him) and lenashcho (to bite him)
(49) See Genesis 32:12 and commentary of Ohr HaChaim, loc. cit.
(50) Rambam, Yad, Hilchot Keilim 1:6
(51) Shem MiShmuel, BeRereishit vol. 2, vayishlach, 5676, s.v. vayaratz esav
(52) Vide note 15
(53) Vide note 38
(54) Isaiah 7:22
(55) Commentary of Gaon of Vilna loc. cit.
(56) Vide note 27, ibid., s.v. veda ki hameshalim
(57) Vide note 36
(58) Vide note 37
(59) Vide note 38
(60) Isaiah 5:13
(61) Commentary of Gaon of Vilna loc. cit.
A version of this article appeared some years ago in L'Eylah.