Midrash Rabbah

One name, many books.

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The history of Torah is one of interpretation. Every seemingly superfluous letter, unclear transition, and difficult phrase invites discussion, explanation, and elaboration. This interpretive tradition has produced volumes and volumes of midrash–stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis based on the biblical text. These texts offer a glimpse of the ways that people of various times and places have grappled to understand the biblical text and to make it meaningful for their own lives.

Midrashic Collections

The body of literature known as midrash is generally divided into aggadic (narrative) and halakhic (legal) midrash. Collections that contain mostly stories, parables, and homilies are classified as midrash aggadah, while collections focused primarily on the derivation of law are called midrash halakhah.

The largest volumes of midrash aggadah are often referred to collectively as Midrash Rabbah. This name is actually a misnomer, as this group of texts comprises ten unrelated collections, compiled over the course of eight or more centuries. Each volume comments on one of the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) or of the five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther).

Some scholars trace the name Rabbah to the first line of B’reishit Rabbah (Genesis Rabbah), which begins, “Rabbi Oshaya Rabbah opened.”

jewish textsJust as books of the Bible often draw their names from the first significant word of the text, this book of midrash also seems to have acquired the name of the first rabbi quoted in it. Others argue that the title Rabbah, which means “great” or “large,” is intended to distinguish this book from a smaller volume that must once have existed. Whatever its origin, the term “Rabbah” later came to be applied to the largest collections of aggadic midrash on each of the five books of the Torah and the five Megillot. In turn, shorter collections of aggadic midrashism on a few of these books acquired the designation, Zuta, which means “small” in Aramaic.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

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