Midrash Rabbah

One name, many books.

Print this page Print this page

"My love is a bundle of myrrh." What does "a bundle of myrrh” mean? Rabbi Azariah, in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, explained that this verse refers to Abraham. Just as myrrh is first among the spices, so too is Abraham first among the righteous..."all night between my breasts." For he was considered to be halfway between an angel and the divine presence (1:14).

Thus, what seems at first like a sexy bedroom scene is transformed into a lesson about the righteousness of Abraham who, according to this midrash, achieves near-divine status.

Some have suggested that Kohelet Rabbah, written between the sixth and eighth centuries CE, may originally have served as a school textbook. Through a verse-by-verse commentary on the book of Kohelet, this midrash addresses an unusually wide range of topics, ranging from business practices to the cycles of nature to the character and limits of wisdom. This collection includes a significant amount of material taken from other midrashim and from the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds.

The volume known as Esther Rabbah can be divided into two sections. The first half, compiled around 500 CE, is an exegetical commentary on the first two chapters of the book of Esther. Like other midrashim of its time, this collection begins with a number of petihtaot introducing the first line of the biblical book. Given the notable absence of the name of God from the book of Esther, the midrash makes a special effort to find within the biblical text hidden references to divine intervention.

The second part of Esther Rabbah was composed significantly later, perhaps around the eleventh century. This section comments on the remaining chapters of the biblical book. Most surprisingly, this half of Esther Rabbah includes Hebrew translations of several passages of the Septuagint, the first Greek edition of the Bible, published in the third century BCE.

The Rabbahs include midrashim of a variety of styles, themes, and time periods. Though different from each other in many ways, all of these works help to bring the biblical text to life by adding stories and interpretations, and by drawing out of the biblical text lessons for everyday life. Most importantly, these midrashim remind us that the Bible has infinite meanings, and that each individual and each generation reinvigorates it by developing new interpretations.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.