The term commonly designates ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the plural form of the word Midrash which is found only twice in the Old Testament (II Par. [Chronicles], xiii, 22; xxiv, 27), where it is rendered by liber (book) in the Vulgate, and by "commentary" in the Revised Version. In rabbinical parlance, Midrash has the abstract and general sense of study, exposition of Scripture , while Midrashim are primarily the free and artificial explanations of the Sacred Text given by its ancient expositors, and secondarily the collections of such explanations in the shape of commentaries on Holy Writ .
After the return from Babylon, the Law was the centre of the life of the Jews at home and abroad. Henceforth, the one concern of the Jewish authorities was to make sure that the Mosaic precepts be accurately complied with by all, and under all circumstances, and it is from this practical standpoint that the Scribes and after them the Rabbis studied and expounded the contents of their sacred writings. A part of these contents, viz., the enactments of the Mosaic Law, made of course directly for the purpose of promoting legal righteousness in Israel ; yet, as these laws had been framed in view of concrete circumstances of the past, they had to be explained in a more or less artificial way to make them fit the altered circumstances of Jewish life, or serve as Scriptural basis or support of the various traditional observances which made up the oral law. All such artificial explanations of the terms of the Mosaic legislation are legal, or Halahcic, Midrashim. Distinct from this general kind of Midrashim are those called homiletical, or Hagadic, which embrace the interpretation, illustration, or expansion, in a moralizing or edifying manner, of the non-legal portions of the Hebrew Bible. As the object of this latter kind of Midrashim was not to determine the precise requirements of the Law, but rather to confirm in a general manner Jewish hearers in their faith and its practice, Hagadic explanations of the non-legal parts of Scripture are characterized by a much greater freedom of exposition than the Halachic Midrashim; and it may be truly said that Hagadic expositors have availed themselves of whatever material -- sayings of prominent Rabbis (e.g., philosophical or mystical disquisitions concerning angels, demons, paradise, hell, Messias, Satan, feasts and fasts, parables, legends, satirical assaults on the heathen and their rites, etc.) -- could render their treatment of those portions of the Sacred Text more instructive or edifying. Both kinds of Midrashim were at first preserved only orally; but their writing down commenced with the second century of our era, and they now exist in the shape chiefly of exegetical or homiletical works on the whole or parts of the Hebrew Bible.
The three earliest and in several respects most important Midrashic collections are: (1) the Mechilta , on a portion of Exodus, and embodying the tradition mainly of the School of Rabbi Ishmael (first century); (2) the Siphra , on Leviticus, embodying the tradition of rabbi Aqiba with additions from the School of rabbi Ishmael ; (3) the Siphre on Numbers and Deuteronomy, going back mainly to the schools of the same two Rabbis. These three works are used in the Gemaras. (4) The Rabboth (great commentaries), a large collection of ten Midrashim on the Pentateuch and Megilloth, which bear the respective names of: (a) Bereshith Rabba, on Genesis (mainly from the sixth century); (b) Shemoth Rabba, on Exodus (eleventh and twelfth century); (c) Wayyiqra Rabba, on Leviticus (middle seventh Century); (d)Bamidbar Rabba, on Numbers (twelfth century); (e) Debarim Rabba, on Deuteronomy (tenth century); (f) Shir Ashshirim Rabba, on Canticle of Canticles (probably before the middle of ninth century); (g) Ruth Rabba, on Ruth (same date as foregoing); (h) Echa Rabba, on Lamentations (seventh century); (i) Midrash Qoheleth, on Ecclesiastes (probably before middle of ninth century); (j) Midrash Esther, on Esther (A.D. 940). Of these Rabboth, the Midrashim on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are chiefly made up of homilies on the Scripture sections for the Sabbath or festival, while the others are rather of an exegetical nature. (5) The Pesiqta , a compilation of homilies on special Pentateuchal and Prophetic lessons (early eighth century); (6) Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (not before eighth century), a Midrashic narrative of the more important events of the Penteteuch; (7) Tanchuma or Yelammedenu (ninth century) on the whole Pentateuch ; its homilies consist of a Halachic introduction, followed by several proems, exposition of the opening verses, and the Messianic conclusion; (8) Midrash Shemuel , on the first two Books of Kings (I, II Samuel); (9) Midrash Tehillim , on the Psalms; (10) Midrash Mishle , on Proverbs; (11) Yalqut Shimeoni , a kind of catena extending over all the Hebrew Scriptures.
At first sight, one might think that such farrago as the Midrashic literature could be of interest and value only to a Jew as Jew, inasmuch as the Midrashim are thoroughly steeped in the spirit of Judaism, bear distinct witness to the laws customs, doctrines, aspirations of the Jewish race, and record the noblest ideas, sayings, and teachings of the Jewish sages in early times. The more, however, he examines the contents of these ancient expository works, the more he discovers that they are an invaluable source of information to the Christian apologist, the Biblical student, and the general scholar as well. In this body of ancient literature there is much in the line of ideas, expressions, reasonings, and descriptions, which can be used to illustrate and confirm the inspired records of Christianity and the traditional teachings of the Church, notably concerning the passages of the Old Testament to be regarded as Messianic. The Biblical student will at times notice in the oldest parts of the Midrashim, Scriptural readings anterior to those embodied in the Massoretic text. Again, "when it is borne in mind that the annotators and Punctuators of the Hebrew text, and the translators of the [most] ancient versions, were Jews impregnated with the theological opinions of the nation, and prosecuted their Biblical labours in harmony with these opinions. . . .the importance of the Halachic and Hagadic exegesis to the criticism of the Hebrew text, and to a right understanding of the Greek, Chaldee, Syriac, and other versions, can hardly be overrated." (Ginsburg, in Kitto's "Cyclop. Of Biblical Liter.", III, 173). Lastly the Philologist, the historian, the philosopher, the jurist, and the statesman, will easily find in the Midrashim remarks and discussions which have a direct bearing on their respective branches of study.
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