Sifra and Sifre

Legal midrash on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

When we hear the word “midrash,” we usually think about the rabbinic stories that embellish biblical texts. We might remember the tale about Abraham destroying his father’s idols or the story about God prohibiting the angels from rejoicing over the drowning Egyptians. But aside from these narrative midrashim there is a second form of midrash, which concerns itself primarily with legal exegesis. For the sake of simplicity, these two genres are designated as midrash aggadah (narrative midrash) and midrash halakhah (legal midrash). Reality, however, is more complicated–midrash aggadah often includes legal teachings, while midrash halakhah also contains narrative material.

Three Collections

Three of the major collections of midrash halakhah are Sifra–a commentary on the book of Leviticus, and two collections both known as Sifre–one on the book of Numbers and the other on the book of Deuteronomy. The word “sifra” simply means “book” in Aramaic. Traditionally, Jewish schoolchildren began their Torah studies with the book of Leviticus; one text explains this practice by noting that “pure” children are well-suited to study the laws of purity (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). Whatever the reason for this pedagogical choice, the primacy of Leviticus resulted in its designation as “the book.” The major midrashic work on Leviticus also became known as Sifra or “book.” The halakhic midrashim on Numbers and Deuteronomy, though two separate works, were often transmitted together. These books therefore became known as “Sifre,” or “books.”

The legal midrashim on the book of Exodus were probably originally included in the Sifre, but by the Middle Ages, they acquired their own identity as Mekhilta. Because the book of Genesis teaches virtually no laws, there is no collection of midrash halakhah  on Genesis. Sifre Zuta (literally: little books) is a collection of midrashim on the book of Numbers. The text of Sifre Zuta was not preserved, and is known to us only through fragments quoted elsewhere. In modern times, scholars have reconstituted and published these fragments as a unified work.

Biblical Commentaries

All of these midrashim are line-by-line commentaries that tease laws or clarifications of laws out of the biblical text. Like most midrashim, these texts base their interpretations on puns, attention to unusual words or phrases, and specific interpretive techniques. These techniques include the g’zera shava, an interpretation based on the use of the same word in two places, and ribbui u’miut, which expands the biblical text to apply to any situations not specifically excluded by the verse. Based on the exegetical principle that the Torah contains no superfluous words, the midrashim often derive laws from seemingly unnecessary or difficult words. For example, a midrash on the well-known verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue in order that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” begins by explaining the unexpected repetition of the word “justice”:

“‘Justice you shall pursue.’ How do we know that one who is acquitted by the beit din [court] cannot later be convicted? The text says, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.’ How do we know that one who is convicted can go back to court to be acquitted? The text says ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.'” (This midrash equates “justice” with acquittal, and therefore argues that one may go out of the way to pursue acquittal, but not conviction.)

The midrash  continues with an explanation of the word “pursue”:

“Another interpretation: ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.’ Pursue a beit din [court] that rules well…”

Finally, the midrash  wonders why this commandment, to pursue justice, is one of the few biblical commandments whose promised reward is long life:

“‘In order that you may live and inherit the land.’ This teaches that one who appoints appropriate judges brings life to the people of Israel and returns them to their land, and prevents them from falling to the sword (Sifre Devarim pisqa 144:20).”

Through a close reading of a single biblical verse, this midrash derives two legal principles: Jewish law allows for appeals but not for double jeopardy; and one is obligated to seek out a just court. The midrash also makes a homiletic point about the importance of appointing good judges, who, according to this text, may be responsible for the life or death of the community.

Midrash and Mishnah

Sifra, Sifre Bamidbar (Numbers), and Sifre Devarim (Deuteronomy) were probably all compiled around the third century, though all three also show evidence of later additions and edits. Given that these midrashim belong to roughly the same era as the Mishnah, the first layer of the oral law, generations of scholars have struggled with difficult questions about the relationship between the Mishnah and the midrash. Identical laws often appear in the Mishnah and in the midrashim. For instance, like the midrash cited above, the Mishnah permits legal appeals but prohibits the retrial of one who has been acquitted (Sanhedrin 4:1). The Mishnah, however, states this law without reference to a prooftext. The question of which text came first becomes a chicken and egg puzzle: Does the Mishnah record simplified versions of laws previously derived through midrash? Or does the midrash attempt to find biblical proofs for laws already recorded in the Mishnah?

This question is ideological as well as scholarly. According to tradition, God gave both the written law and the oral law at Mount Sinai. In this view, the oral law is no less divine than the Torah, and disobeying a mishnaic law carries the consequences of disobeying Torah law. Those who argue that the Mishnah precedes the midrash sometimes wish to maintain the status of the Mishnah as divinely revealed. Midrash, then, becomes a human attempt to connect the divine oral law to the divine written law, rather than a human effort to derive new laws or clarifications of laws from the biblical text. On the other hand, those who believe that the midrash preceded the Mishnah effectively argue that the early rabbis innovated new laws through the interpretation of biblical text. This latter approach transforms the Mishnah from a record of the divine oral law given at Mount Sinai to a summary of laws that the rabbis teased out of biblical text.

Still others refuse to choose sides in this midrash-Mishnah debate. The discovery of both mishnaic and midrashic texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the two forms of law may have co-existed in the ancient world. Rather than follow or precede one another, midrash and Mishnah may represent two literary forms of the developing Jewish legal canon.

Differences Among the Midrashim

While Sifra, Sifre Bamidbar, and Sifre Devarim all fall into the category of midrash halakhah, and all use many of the same exegetical techniques, the three midrashim also exhibit some important differences. The most significant difference among these collections concerns the assignment of each work to one of the major schools of midrashic interpretation–that of Rabbi Akiva and that of Rabbi Ishmael.

In general, Rabbi Akiva’s school employs a maximalist approach to interpretation, in which every word and letter can generate a new law. Rabbi Ishmael’s school, on the other hand, is more conservative in its interpretive techniques and likely to explain an extraneous word or letter with the comment “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” That is to say, the Torah, like human beings, includes stylistic flourishes not meant to be imbued with legal significance.

Many consider Sifra and Sifre Devarim to emerge from the school of Rabbi Akiva and Sifre Bamidbar to come from the school of Rabbi Ishmael. For most scholars, this attribution does not imply that Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Ishmael actually wrote or compiled these midrashic texts; rather, the texts in question demonstrate the exegetical tendencies associated with the schools of the two rabbis. For example, one midrash in Sifra finds legal meaning for a grammatically necessary particle. This midrash concerns the laws for presenting God with an offering of fine flour:

“When you present God with a meal offering that is made in any of these ways, it shall be brought to the priest who shall take it up to the altar (2:8)…how do we know that this includes all meal offerings? The Torah says v’et hamincha [using the participle “et” which indicates the definite direct object in Hebrew] (Dibbura d’nedava parshah 11).”

The author of this midrash presumably understood that the Hebrew word “et” functions as a grammatical element that has no independent meaning. However, the appearance of this term allows for an expansive understanding of the application of “meal offering.”

In addition to probably representing different school of interpretation, the three midrashim differ in the extent to which they include aggadic (narrative) material. In general, Sifre Bamidbar and Sifre Devarim contain more aggadic material than Sifra does. In the cases of both Sifre Devarim and Sifre Bamidbar, many scholars consider the aggadic sections of the midrash to represent a separate layer of text.

The Why of Jewish Law

When we talk about Jewish legal texts, we generally refer to the Mishnah, the medieval law codes, and other works that present laws with little discussion or explanation. These texts offer us the “what” of the law without giving many hints about the “why.” In contrast, Sifra, Sifre Bamidbar, Sifre Devarim, and other texts of midrash halakhah offer a glimpse of the thought process of the rabbis as they struggle to create or explain laws based on the biblical text.

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