Yeshiva UniversityStern College for Women


Introduction to Midrash

JUDS 1874

Fall 2014

Richard Hidary –

email the whole class


This course surveys the major works and methods of rabbinic midrash, both halakhic and aggadic. We will discuss the historical background of Midrash, inner-biblical exegesis, exegesis in Second Temple literature, the schools of R. Ishmael and R. Akiva, the hermeneutical rules, the petihta and parable forms, literary theory, and the concepts of exegesis, eisegesis, omnisignifigance, polysemy and intertextuality. After this course, students should be able to find and understand a selection of midrash on their own, understand it methodology, appreciate the motivating force behind it, compare parallel sources, and navigate relevant methodological issues.



(1)   Attendance, prompt arrival and class participation are assumed. Anything more than two absences will lower your grade. Three lates are equivalent to one absence.

(2)   Preparation and Participation: Reading assigned primary and secondary texts is essential for you success in grasping the wide survey of history we are covering in this course. Primary texts are important so that you learn the methodology of how historians use these sources to construct the past. Secondary texts help in presenting, organizing and helping us remember important historical data. I may assign written and electronic homework assignments and quizzes based on the readings. Students may also be selected randomly each class to read and explain the required texts or to summarize the assigned reading. (10%)

(3)   Exams. A midterm (35%) and a final (40%) will assess your grasp and retention of material as well as give the class an opportunity to review and notice patterns that recur through many topics.

(4) Written assignments: (15%)

Assignment 1 – due on class 10

Write a translation and comprehensive commentary of Mekhilta d’R. Ishmael, Ba-hodesh, 8: “You shall not steal” (Exod 20:13). You should consult as many editions and commentaries as you can (quote them so I know you saw them). Your analysis should address the following: what hermeneutical method is the midrash using? What is the peshat of the pasuk? Compare the midrash’s interpretation to that of the Talmud and Rishonim. Cite any other source that might be relevant.


Choose one of the hermeneutical rules and find an example of it in Tannaitic midrash or in the Talmud. Find all manuscript variants, parallels, and related material. Address the following, if relevant: What exegetical problem does the midrash face? What is the peshat? Is this a מדרש יוצר or a מדרש מקיים? Does the midrashic argument make sense or does it seem forced? If the latter, what may be motivating such forced interpretation? Does this fit the methodology of R. Ishmael or R. Akiva? Are there significant differences in parallel midrashim? If so, which version is original? Always cite relevant material from the course readings.


Assignment 2 – due on class 25 – Write a translation and comprehensive commentary of Eicha Rabbah, petihta 24, starting from "דבר אחר ויקרא ה' אלקים צבאות." Include an introduction that discusses the main features of Eicha Rabba. Read Shaye Cohen, “The Destruction: From Scripture to Midrash” for relevant data. Address the following in your analysis: What is the significance of this midrash both in terms of content and method? Cite relevant points from class readings. What is the structure of the midrash? What exegetical problems does the midrash face? Is this a מדרש יוצר or a מדרש מקיים? What hermeneutical rules or other rhetorical devices are used in the midrash? What is its overall message?


All readings are available on this website below or as one pdf.  Office hours will be on Thursdays, 12:00-2:00PM in room 523 or by appointment by email.

Please bring a Tanakh to every class.



Unit I – Early Midrash

1. Tuesday, August 26 - Definitions, Books and History

Reading: Moshe David Herr, “Midrash” in Encyclopedia Judaica.

Lawrence Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, pp. 177-200 and 220-239.

powerpoints - what is midrash


2. Thursday, August 28 - Inner-Biblical Exegesis

Reading: James Kugel, The Bible as It Was, pp. 1-23.

Texts: Resolving contradictions: Cooking Passover - Ex 12:8-9, Dt 16:7, 2Chron 35:13, Mekhilta d’R. Ishmael Piskha 6; Passover Animal - Ex 12:5, Dt 16:2, 2Chron 35 7-9, Mekhilta d’R. Ishmael Piskha 4. Narrative: Samuel and Chronicles. Daniel 9. Nehemiah 11.

powerpoints - intro to rabbinic lit, Jeremiah's 70

handout - inner-biblical exegesis examples

3. Tuesday, September 2 - 4. Thursday, September 4 - Early Midrash in Second Temple Sources

Reading: James Kugel, The Bible as It Was, pp. 23-42.

Texts: Septuagint to Megilat Esther, Targum

Powerpoint - Why Didn't Esther Pray?

handout - From Transmission to Interpretation, Fallen Angels


5. Tuesday, September 9 – Early Midrash in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Reading: Moshe Bernstein and Shlomo Koyfman. "The Interpretation of Biblical Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Forms and Methods." In Biblical Interpretation at Qumran, edited by Matthias Henze, 61-87. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.

Suggested Reading: Steven Fraade, “Rabbinic Midrash and Ancient Jewish Biblical Interpretation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee, pp. 99-120.

powerpoints - intro to dead sea scrolls

[Texts: Dead Sea Scrolls, Marriage Laws, Pesher, Rewritten Bible]


Unit II – Midrash Halakha

6. Thursday, September 11 – Introducing Midrash Halakha

Reading: Menahem Kahana, “Midrash Halakha” in Encyclopedia Judaica.

Suggested Reading: Gary Porton, Understanding Rabbinic Midrash, pp. 1-16.

[Text: From Priest to Rabbi]

Powerpoint - Mekhilta on Abortion, Mekhilta


7. Tuesday, September 16 – Midrash Yoser or Midrash Mekayem

Reading: David Weiss  Halivni. Peshat and Derash. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 3-22.

Suggested Reading: Jay Harris, How Do We Know This?: Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism, pp. 251-263.

Halbertal, Moshe. "The History of Halakhah, Views from Within: Three Medieval Approaches to Tradition and Controversy."(HTML) (PDF)

Texts: Rambam Sefer haMisvot, Shoresh 2 and Ramban’s commentary.

 Handout: Asmakhta (long version), Shabbat Laws

8. Thursday, Septamber 18 - Hermeneutical Rules מידות שהתורה נדרשת בהם – Kal va-Homer

Richard Hidary, “Talmudic Topoi: The Hermeneutical Methods of Midrash and Greco-Roman Rhetoric.”

Suggested Reading: Lieberman, “Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture” in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, pp. 47-82.

Text: Talmudic Topoi Powerpoint, WordSifra introduction and examples


9. Tuesday, September 30 - 10. Tuesday, October 21  

Hermeneutical Rules – Gezerah Shavah, Binyan Av

Towner, W. Sibley. “Hermeneutical Systems of Hillel and the Tannaim: A Fresh Look.” Hebrew Union College Annual 53 (1983): 101-35.

Suggested Readings: Yitzhak Gilat. Studies in the Development of the Halakha. Jerusalem: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1992, pp. 365-73.

H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Translated by Marcus Bockmuehl. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, 15-30.

 Text:  Hillel's Hermeneutics Sourcesheet (Gezerah Shavah, Binyan Av)


11. Thursday, October 23

Assignment 1 due.


12. Tuesday, October 28

Two Schools of R. Ishmael and R. Akiva

Progymnasmata and Midrash - Libanius

Reading: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah as Refracted Through the Generations, pp. 29-64.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. "Myth, Inference and the Relativity of Reason: An Argument from the History of Judaism." In Myth and Philosophy, edited by F. Reynolds and D. Tracy, 247-86. Albany: SUNY, 1990.

Suggested Reading: Azzan Yadin, Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash.


Text: Two Schools of Midrash


13. Thursday, October 30 – Updating Torah to Address New Realities

 – Midrash and Ethics

Reading:  Moshe Halbertal, "Halakhah and Morality: The Case of the Apostate City," S'vara 3 (1993), 67-72.

 handout - Apostate City


14. Tuesday, November 4 - Updating Halakha to Address New Realities - Priests

Steven Fraade, “Shifting from Priestly to Non-Priestly Legal Authority: A Comparison of the Damascus Document and the Midrash Sifra,” Dead Sea Discoveries 6, 2 (1999), pp. 109-25. Priests to Rabbis Sources

Reading: Richard Hidary, Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud, pp. 297-333.

Handout: Rebellious Elder


15. Thursday, November 6 – Midterm

Review Sheet


Unit III – Midrash Aggadah

16. Tuesday, November 11– On Interpreting Aggadah

Reading: Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man. New York: Ferrar Strauss and Giroux, 1976, pp. 336-340.

Hananel Mack, The Aggadic Midrash Literature, Tel-Aviv: MOD Books, 1989, pp. 7-29.

Texts: Rambam - Introduction to Perek Helek, Guide III:43, Letter on Astrology

R. Abraham ben ha-Rambam, Introduction to Aggadah. Printed as an introduction to Ein Yaakov. Translation from S.H. Glick, En Jacob (1916).

handout - On Learning Aggadah

Was Rivkah Three Years Old?


17. Thursday, November 13 - Three Year Cycle and the Synagogue Derasha

Reading: Mack, pp. 30-56.

Text: Bavli Shabbat 30a-b

Handout - Triennial Cycle


18. Tuesday, November 18 – The Petiha Format

Reading: Mack, pp. 57-87.

Suggested Reading: Joseph Heinemann, “The Proem in the Aggadic Midrashim – A Form-Critical Study,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971), 100-122.

Text: Rabbis as Orators - Sources

Beresheet Rabbah, Lekh Lekha

(Maccabean Halakha)

19. Thursday, November 20 – Midrash Rabbah

Reading: Mack, 88-118.

Suggested Reading: Heinemann on Lev Rabbah

Text: Vakikra Rabbah, Outline


20. Tuesday, November 25 – Methods of Aggadah

Reading: Mack, 119-144.

Suggested Reading: Yitzhak Heinemann, Darkei ha-Aggadah.

Text: Vayikra Rabbah cont.


Midrash and Literary Theory

David Stern. Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996, ch. 1. (Introduction is suggested reading, ch. 1 is required.)

Text: Vayikra Rabbah cont.


21. Tuesday, December 2 – Passover Haggadah, (The Four Sons, Arami Oved Avi)

Reading: Joseph Tabory, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, pp. 25-46.


22. Thursday, December 4  – The Sea Resists

Daniel Boyarin. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 93-104.

Mekhilta, Enuma Elish

23. Tuesday, December 9 - Midrash and Archaeology

Steven Fine, “From Meeting House to Sacred Realm: Holiness and the Ancient Synagogue” in Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World, 21-47.

Dura Europos and Midrash

24. Thursday, December 11 –

 - Mashal and Dream Interpretation

David Stern, Midrash and Theory, ch 2.

Polysemy in Midrash, Dream Interpretaion and Polysemy

Assignment 2 due.

25. Tuesday, December 16 - No Class

From Priests to Rabbis


26. Thursday, December 18 – Eicha Rabbah

Reading: Shaye Cohen, “The Destruction: From Scripture to Midrash” in The Significance of Yavneh and Other Essays in Jewish Hellenism (Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

Richard Hidary, “Why Are there Lawyers in Heaven?”




Final – Sunday January 4 at 10:00AM

Review Sheet

Editions of Midrashim

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל

*האראוויטץ - רבין

אייזק הירש וייס

מאיר פרידמן

אור יהודה

זה ינחמנו

יוסף שכטר

קו המדה

ברכת הנני"ב - Gottesman Ref BM517.M43 B4 1997

מרכבת המשנה Gottemsn BM517.M43 T7 2003

דפוס ונציה וגם כאן

מכילתא דרבי שמעון בן יוחאי

*אפשטיין - מלמד



*פינקלשטין - בספריה

*א.ה. ווייס - בספריה

*שושנה - בספריה

מאיר איש שלום (פרידמן)

דפוס ויניציאה 1545

עם פירושי הראב"ד ור"ש משאנץ


צבי הירש הכהן רפפורט חלק א, חלק ב

ספרי במדבר


מאיר איש שלום

דפוס ונציה

דוד פרדו

ספרי זוטא


יעקב זאב יאסקאוויטץ חלק ב

ספרי דברים

*פינקלשטין - בספריה

מאיר איש שלום

דפוס ונציה

דוד פרדו