Methods of Midrash

How this genre gleans deep meaning from the Torah's text

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It is worth noting that halakhic (legal) and aggadic (non-legal) midrash share the same traditional structures and interpretive rules, but because it is focused primarily on narrative and not law, aggadah generally has more freedom to take imaginative liberties with the biblical text.

Examples of Midrashic Modes

Several genres occur repeatedly in midrash, serving as formulaic bases for the interpretative imagination. The "proem"--known in Hebrew as petihah and in Aramaic as petihta—begins with a "far" verse (that is, one seemingly unrelated to the verse which the exegete seeks to interpret), generally from Ketuvim (Writings, the third of three major sections of the Hebrew Bible). This move initiates an exegetical romp that eventually leads to explication of a "near" verse from the Torah. The proem may have social-historical roots in sermons allowing teachers to display their knowledge and rhetorical skill as a supplement to public Torah reading.

The mashal (parable) has been described by scholar David Stern as the intersection of exegesis and narrative, whereby midrash both interprets a verse and presents a concise moral tale within one construct. A mashal from Lamentations Rabbah states, "And He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has devoured the foundations thereof" (Lamentations 4:11). It is written: ‘A song of Asaph. O God, heathens have entered Your domain’ (Psalms 79:1). A song! It should have said ‘A weeping!’ Rabbi Eleazar said: It is like (mashal le) a king who made a bridal chamber…"

The mashal, using the figure of the king common in this form, goes on to explain that just as an enraged father destroys his son’s bridal chamber rather than the son himself, allowing the boy’s pedagogue to sing in gratitude that the boy survives, so too does God destroy the Temple--Israel’s bridal chamber--rather than pouring out God’s wrath on the people themselves. Meanwhile, Asaph still sings, thanking God for Israel’s survival. Hence, "And He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has devoured the foundations thereof."

Additional forms of midrashic genres abound. Midrashic texts overflow with puns, wordplay, and reversal of letters, alliteration, and allegory. Letters of key words shift, taking on related forms with different meanings. The Hebrew letters in a word are assigned their corresponding number value (gematria), revealing a hidden concept or message. For the midrashist, the apparent simple meaning or appearance of a word or phrase is often only the starting point for discussing an idea far beyond it.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.