What is Midrash?

Dave the Web

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I have heard the word Midrash various times before now but I do not know what it means. I think it relates to a certain type of Jewish story. But what does it mean? Is it related to parable, or allegory?
Namaste Dave,

sorry, i didn't see this one earlier... besides... i thought that bananabrain would have replied :)

in any event....

Dr. Jacob Neusner explains that the word 'Midrash' is based on a
Hebrew word meaning 'interpretation' or 'exegesis'. He shows that the
term 'Midrash' has three main usages:

1. The term 'Midrash' can refer to a particular way of reading and
interpreting a biblical verse. Thus we may say that the ancient
rabbis provided Midrash to Scripture. This does not mean that any
interpretation of scripture is automatically true rabbinical
Midrash. In fact, most of what people call 'Modern Midrash' has
nothing to do with the classical modes of literary exegesis that
guided the rabbis. Commentary and Midrash are two different
things! In order to get a good idea of what classical rabbinic
Midrash really is, one has to actually study it; No two or three
sentence definition can accurately define the structure of

2. The term 'Midrash' can refer to a book - a compilation of
Midrashic teachings. Thus one can say that "Genesis Rabbah" is a
book that is a compilation of Midrash readings on the book of

3. The term 'Midrash' can refer to a particular verse and its
interpretation. Thus one can say that "The Midrash on the verse
Genesis 1:1 says that...[and some Midrashic interpretation of the
verse would go here].

Dr. Charles T. Davis (Appalachian Statue University, Philosophy and
Religion Department, NC) has prepared a [5]summary of the definition
and features of Midrash, based on Rabbi Burton Visotzky's "Reading the Bible". This summary says that once a canon (i.e., approved scriptural text) is closed, the problem facing the community is the problem of "searching out" the canon. Midrash is a method of reading the Bible as an Eternal text, and is the result of applying a set of hermeneutical principles evolved by the community to guide one in reading the canon, in order to focus one's reading. The ultimate goal of midrash is to "search out" the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.

In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to
handle the language of Torah. One is that the language is the language of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation. The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of G@d, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.

Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text as
communication, normal language. It places the focus on the reader and the personal struggle of the reader to reach an acceptable moral
application of the text. While it is always governed by the wording of
the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner
struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving
interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have
very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this
method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an
outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the
presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.

for more information, please visit this link:
The is a good collection of midrashes in the book "Hebrew Myths" by Robert Graves and Raphael Patai
Midrash is a way of retelling a scriptural story so that it has impact now, so that we realise (essentially) that the story is not just about them then but also about me now, that is,
Midrash is a technique which makes the scripture come alive with meaning for us in the here & now.

vajradhara's answer is pretty comprehensive. i would not recommend starting with either robert graves or raphael patai, the latter being easy to misinterpret and the former being a little careless with his source material by all accounts. but then again, as a traditional jew, apparently it's OK to call me a liar.


Bananabrain, do you have a recommended starting point for those of us with small libraries for a "Midrash for Dummies" to add?. I agree that something labelled "Myths" is unlikely to be conducive to finding out about a pattern or reasoning or belief.
Thank you for the replies. I understand better now.
Bananabrain why do you feel so offended so easily around here? Has somebody actually called you a liar?
i believe ginzberg's "legends of the jews" is a good place to start, but there are other ones.

dave - never mind my comment, here isn't the place. i should probably not have said anything.


What is good about "Hebrew Myths" is that in addition to presenting the stories, it also compares the tales to other religions or myths in the footnotes. This makes for a more interesting read when one can compare the castration of Noah to that of Uranus. It compares the similarities of Iapetus to Japheth.

You can also see the similarities between the birth saga of Abraham and that of Jesus. In the Abraham story it was Nimrod who performed the slaughter of the innocents.

The midrashes bring the stories of the Old Testament more in line with classical mythology- and Oh yes- astrology.