Midrash Rabbah

One name, many books.

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Sh'mot Rabbah and Bamidbar Rabbah

The Rabbah midrashim on the books of Exodus and Numbers were probably compiled in the early medieval period, though each also includes older material and, in some cases, the vestiges of a previously-edited work of midrash.

Most scholars understand Sh'mot (Exodus) Rabbah to be a combination of two separate works, each probably written sometime between the ninth and eleventh century CE. The first half of the midrash offers a line-by-line commentary on the first ten chapters of the book of Exodus, and the second half consists of a series of homilies on chapters twelve through forty. Similarly, Bamidbar (Numbers) Rabbah comprises an exegetical commentary on the first seven chapters of the book of Numbers and a homiletic commentary on the rest of the book. The first part of Bamidbar Rabbah is notable for its inclusion of esoteric material and for its apparent familiarity with Sefer Yetzirah, an early work of Jewish mysticism. The second half of Bamidbar Rabbah is essentially identical to Midrash Tanhuma on the book of Numbers. The development of the first half of this text may have taken place as late as the twelfth century CE, while the second half may have existed as early as the fourth century CE.

The Five Megillot

Between the fifth and eighth centuries, a Rabbah developed for each of the five Megillot--the biblical books read on the holidays of Passover (Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs), Shavuot (Ruth), Tisha B'av (Eicha/Lamentations), Sukkot (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes), and Purim (Esther).   

In keeping with the themes of the book of Eicha, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, Eicha Rabbah (fifth century) offers a series of homilies that elaborate on the themes of displacement, suffering, and hopelessness. Most striking are the midrashim that depict God as actively destroying Jerusalem in order to punish the Jewish people, and then mourning for the loss of the city and its people. In some of these midrashim figures including the angels, the Torah, and various biblical characters plead with God to save the Jewish people; in others, God retreats into a private mourning, refusing any consolation.

Like Eicha Rabbah, Ruth Rabbah, also composed around the fifth century, amplifies the themes of the book on which it is based. The book of Ruth includes numerous examples of tzedakah (monetary gifts to the poor) and g'milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), and the midrash spends significant time expounding on these themes. This midrash also spends some time locating the story of Ruth within the larger biblical context by reading references to Ruth and her family into verses from the book of Chronicles.  

Shir Hashirim Rabbah (sixth century)is most notable for its allegorical interpretation of the biblical text. Read literally, Shir Hashirim consists of some fairly racy poetry describing the relationship between two lovers. In the hands of the midrash writers, the book becomes a G-rated description of the love between God and the Jewish people. Consider, for example, the midrashic interpretation of the verse, "All night between my breasts my love is a bundle of myrrh (1:13)":

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.