Rabbi Gamliel's tomb in Yavneh, Israel. (Wikimedia Commons)

What Midrash Teaches About the Rabbis

Midrash allowed the rabbis to explain and expand on the Torah--and in doing so, they revealed much about themselves.

Midrash is commonly defined as the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah. It is a literature that seeks to ask the questions that lie on the tips of our tongues, and to answer them even before we have posed them.

What made Cain kill Abel: Was it jealousy over his own rejected sacrifice? Why would God choose the sacrifice of one brother over another? Did Isaac know that his father intended to sacrifice him on that altar? Did Sarah know what was going on? These are only a few out of thousands of questions for which the rabbis searched for answers.

But is exegesis — the attempt to understand, most accurately, the meaning of a sacred text — what midrash is about? In the world of midrash, can there be only one answer to these questions?

Let us examine the issue of Cain and Abel: In Bereishit Rabbah, the rabbis interpret an ellipsis from Genesis 4:8: “And Cain spoke to Abel his brother… and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” The midrash is as follows:

“AND CAIN SPOKE UNTO ABEL HIS BROTHER… (4:8). About what did they quarrel? ‘Come,’ said they, ‘let us divide the world.’ One took the land and the other the movables. The former said, ‘The land you stand on is mine,’ while the latter retorted, ‘What you are wearing is mine.’ One said: ‘Strip’; the other retorted: ‘ Fly [off the ground].’ Out of this quarrel, CAIN ROSE UP AGAINST HIS BROTHER ABEL” (Breishit Rabbah 22:7).

Window into the Rabbis’ Minds


A close reading of this midrash tells us not only about Cain and Abel, but also about the rabbis who struggle to understand them. Notice that in this midrash, Cain and Abel are equally to blame. Cain is the one who commits fratricide, yet Abel was a willing participant in the quarrel. The rabbis interpret the ellipsis in the biblical text as a mutual disagreement, representing the unfortunate tendency for humans — even (or especially) siblings — to become greedy about family property, and to hate each other, even to the point of violence.

If midrash is a literature that seeks simply to fill in the gaps, then the above midrash certainly does the job. And yet, the rabbis continue to consider other scenarios that might have led the brothers to murder:

“… about what was their quarrel? Said R. Huna: An additional twin was born with Abel, and each claimed her. The one claimed: ‘I will have her, because I am the firstborn’; while the other maintained: ‘I must have her, because she was born with me'” (Breishit Rabbah 22:7).

Following on the heels of the first midrash, therefore, is Rav Huna’s understanding of what transpired. In this midrashic scenario, each child born to Adam and Eve was born with a female twin, who, we suppose, did not warrant a mention in the biblical text itself. And further, Abel had an extra twin (triplet?).

This time, the missing dialogue from Genesis 4:8 is about who gets the “contested woman,” adding a component of sexual rivalry to the story. In this version, too, it seems that both brothers are to blame, for there are solid arguments on either side. Cain does technically deserve ‘Pi Shnayim’–that is two times the inheritance of his brother, since he is the first-born. If we assume the brothers saw these women as inheritable property, then Cain’s claim has value.

And yet, Abel was “given” two sisters at birth – -perhaps a foreshadowing of God’s preference for the younger sibling that will repeat itself countless times in the beginning stories of the Torah. Just as in the first midrash, Rav Huna has also interpreted the ellipsis as representing humanity’s basest desires — but the details are quite different.

Multiple Interpretations

Cain and Abel
Cain and Abel

But, which story is more correct?

Both. Midrash is a literature that allows for multiple interpretations. It is a kind of poetry that demands that we explore every shade of God’s intended meaning. While one might argue, logically, that the first midrash did not agree with the second simply because they are composed by different authors, that is the very point!

The goal of the rabbis was, precisely, in the exercise of “drashing”, seeking and finding meaning in, the text, to come up with their own interpretations. Each one adds something new to the mix, bringing out small details that answer the basic questions of human nature.

This is, after all, no mere story. The Cain and Abel text recounts the first example of a horrible reality of human life: brother turns against brother. Besides, perhaps, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (which itself has multiple interpretations), this act is the most grievous which one can imagine at humanity’s beginnings — in fact, one can read it as shorthand for the first of many acts of human violence against other humans.

These midrashim, then, are not merely interpretations; they are rabbinic responses to the failure of humanity that this biblical story represents. The interpretations may indeed speculate as to what Cain and Abel were thinking, but, more importantly, they tell us what the rabbis believed to be the nature of humanity’s weaknesses.

If we look beyond Breishit Rabbah, we find many more rabbinic responses to this story. In Midrash Tanhuma, a compilation completed between 300 and 500 years after Breishit Rabbah, another aspect of the reasons for violence between brothers is explored.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” and he said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper? (ha-shomer achi anokhi?)” (Genesis 4:9-10)

A parable: To what is this similar? To a thief who stole things in the night and was not caught. In the morning the gatekeeper caught him. He said to the thief, “Why did you steal those things?” He said, “I am a thief and I didn’t let down my profession, but you, your profession is to guard the gate, why did you let down your profession? And now you ask me this?”

And this is what Cain said (to God): “I killed him [because] you created in me the evil inclination. But You — You are the keeper (haShomer) of all things, why did you allow me to kill him? You are the one who killed him — You who are called I (Anokhi), for if you had accepted my sacrifice as you did his, I wouldn’t have been jealous of him!” (Tanhuma Bereishit).

Here, the biblical retort in which Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has been turned on its head. The word in the text is Anokhi, a somewhat uncommon form of the word meaning ‘I,’ which is, strikingly, also used at the beginning of the 10 commandments, as in, “I am the Lord your God….”

The rabbis understand Cain’s use of the word ‘Anokhi’ here not as first person singular, but as another name of God. “Isn’t Anokhi (God) the guardian of my brother?” he retorts in response to God’s question, thereby proving, as it were: “It is God (and not I, Cain) who had the task of watching over my brother Abel, and therefore God who failed him.”

Superficially, it sounds like the last-ditch retort of a condemned man, but Cain’s response is actually quite ingenious. The world has scarcely begun, and the first human-on-human attack has just taken place, but does Cain accept the blame for this crime? Not only does he liken God to a guard (a shomer) who failed his duties, but he also reminds God that since God created the inclination to commit evil, then God is ultimately responsible!

Theology Behind Midrash

What can we learn about the authors of this midrash? Here they construe the words of the biblical text in such a way that their own theological issues are placed in Cain’s mouth. The biblical text seems to have Cain accept guilt, evidenced by his desire to hide from God’s wrath. Yet, in the midrash, Cain is quite brazen, and reminds God of God’s own role in the further downfall of humankind. Cain is ultimately flawed, but human, and therefore his accusation becomes, in essence, the collective human voice, crying out to God to ask why evil is allowed in the world.

In the three midrashim cited above, the rabbis attempt to illuminate the evil that takes place when one brother kills the other. In each, a textual “gap” is certainly filled, and the motivation of the killer is pinpointed. Yet in each, there is a different explanation found for the hatred one brother feels toward the other. Each midrash brings its readers a different nuance to the biblical characters, and each ends by helping us understand the authors as well. Midrash is commentary, but it is so much more than that.

In Jewish tradition, one depiction has particular verses of the Torah cry out, “darsheni” – “interpret me.” The ancient rabbis were only too happy to oblige.

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