What is a Midrash?


Besides the outright lies about what is said by our Rabbis, the missionaries attempt to deceive people by twisting the meanings of the teachings of the Rabbis and ignoring the methodology of the Rabbis. This has led to a large amount of supposed proofs or support drawn from Rabbinic works. We will look at what a Midrash is, a few examples of Midrashic teachings and an example of their distortions.


It is well known to those familiar with Rabbinic writings that, in general, the Rabbis wrote in a style which was NEVER meant to be taken literally. We need not look to Rabbinic writings to confirm this.  In Introduction to the Talmud by Moses Mielziner[1] it states: “Where the Midrash does not concern legal enactments and provisions, but merely inquires into the meaning and significance of the laws or where it only uses the words of Scripture as a vehicle to convey a moral teaching or a religious instruction and consolation, it is called a ‘Midrash Agadah’ Interpretation of the Agadah, homiletical interpretation.” (Emphasis mine) This is well known to missionaries. For example Dr. Brown in his work ‘Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus’[2] states: “Talmudic citations are not meant to be precise interpretations of the biblical text but are often based on free association and wordplays.” And yet we find in his books and other books by missionaries, outright misuse and distortion.


These missionaries take the words of the Rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash in its most literal meaning even when it is obvious that it is not meant that way. And then they have the chutzpah to come and accuse US of ignoring what the Rabbis say, or denying their beliefs and interpretations.  This seems to be one of those cases of using unequal weights and measures.  Should we do such things to their books, they would throw all types of accusations at us, but when they distort our Holy Rabbis' words, they consider it, to be proper.


The Rambam (Maimonides) discussed the traditional Jewish view of the Midrash a number of times and especially their allegorical style. In his commentary on the Mishnah in the introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, he discusses three classes of people and how they look at the Aggados.[3] The first are those who only think that there is the simple meaning, and that there is no meaning ascribed to these passages more than that. These people do this because of their lack of wisdom that makes it impossible for them to come to the deeper meanings of the texts.  The second are like the first but they do have the capabilities to come to the true meanings.  However both of these groups are filled with mistakes and foolishness. The third group is those who understand that the words of the sages are very deep and not what they seem to be.  These are the truly wise men who are knowledgeable in the words of the sages. According to the Rambam, these are the ones who truly understand the words of our sages.


With that in mind we must realize that not all Midrashim are the same, nor do they all follow the same style or methods. Even the different works of Midrashic material follow different methods.  The Midrashic works can be divided into two classes:  The Halachic Midrash and the Non-Halachic Midrash. A Halachic Midrash is one that deals with legal material, while a non-halachic Midrash deals with moral or theological issues.


For example the Midrash Rabbah is a non-halachic Midrash as most of its material is not halachic in nature, but the Mechilta is a halachic Midrash as it covers various laws including the laws of Passover. Some of the more important of the Midrashic collections are: Talmudic Aggadahs (non-halachic), Midrash Rabbah (non-halachic), Mechilta (halachic), Sifri and Sifra (halachic), Zohar (non-halachic), Piskta De Rav Kahana and Piskta Rabbosei (non-halachic), Yalkut Shimoni (non-halachic).


How do these methods look at the verses differently? 


A halachic Midrash tells us the halachic implications, or the laws that come from that verse.  It may be based on a tradition and not what the simple reading would seem to mean. (An eye for an eye is an example where we learn from the verse that it applies to monetary payment.) It should be remembered that Judaism historically never subscribed to the concept of Sola Scriptura, or explaining scripture by scripture only as some call it, but was always imbued with oral tradition. Every group that tried to understand the Tenach without a tradition developed their own oral laws and traditions that they claimed were part of the text.[4]


A non-halachic Midrash will at times deal with the verse according to its literal meaning but usually it sees a verse as a symbolic parable. What do I mean by this?  First they view the verse symbolically, and the simple meaning is secondary. The simple meaning is sublimated to the point that the Midrash is trying to teach.  Secondly, it is a parable, because just as a parable has a purpose, the Midrash has one.  Just as a parable is not extendable beyond its limited purpose, so the Midrash is not. (The most famous example of this is the comparisons of G-d to the soul.  In the points of comparison they are comparable beyond that they are not.) In essence there is no validity of using a Midrash to show the simple meaning of a verse.


Since we are discussing Rabbinic/Midrashic interpretations it would seem important to understand the different levels of interpretation used in the Midrash and why they exist. These four classes apply equally to Jewish commentaries and not just to Midrashim.


1. The simple meaning or Pshat. This is what the verse says and what the ‘true’ understanding of the verse is. This could be a statement about historical facts, or the details of a legal matter. No matter what other interpretation is given to a verse this pshat is the 'real' meaning. The Rabbis have themselves said, 'Ayn Mikra Yotzei MiYadai Peshuto' ('a verse is not removed from it's simple meaning').  That is to say that although there is truth and great value in those non-literal interpretations, we cannot, however, claim that the ‘true meaning’ is anything other than the simple meaning.


An example of the pshat is in the halachic Midrash, Sifra (Emor 8.1.1) "'G-d said to Moshe, "speak to the priests the children (sons) of Aaron, and tell them they should not become unclean for any person"'. The sons of Aaron should not become unclean. The daughters of Aaron could become unclean for the dead." The verse is understood in its simplest meaning as differentiating between the male descendants of Aaron and the female.


2. Remez is the next level and refers to hints of other ideas that we know already either from other verses, or from other clear traditions (or even from scientific investigation). A type of remez that is common in both Halacha and in Midrash is the 'asmachta' (literally support). This is where we know some law, moral point, or historical idea, by a tradition, and the verse is used to give a Biblical support or hint to this idea.


An example of the remez is in the Midrash Bereishis Rabbah (60.6.) We see that Eliezer gave to Rivka "two hand bracelets for the two stones, of ten golden shekels for the ten commandments". This Midrash is telling us that this marriage that is being arranged is not some normal everyday marriage, but that this pair would be those who would merit bringing into the world that people which would accept the Torah.


3. Drash is the next and refers to moral or ethical teachings that can be inferred from a verse. As the name would indicate, Midrash is from the word Drash, and that reflects on the fact that most of the Midrashim are of this form. Jews have always understood that the stories in the Torah are not just statements regarding the past affairs of our ancestors, but also they had many lessons for us. The Drash brought out many of these.


For example, in Bamidbar Rabbah (36.4) "Rabbi Brachia said 'heaven and earth were not created except in the merit of Israel as it says, "In the beginning (be'reishis) G-d created (Gen. 1.1)". The word 'first' (reishis) only means Israel as it says, "Israel is holy to G-d, his first (reishis) fruits. (Jer. 2.2)" The point of this Midrash is that since the world was created for the Torah and the people who keep it (Israel), the whole creation can be said as having been for those who follow the Torah (i.e. Israel)


4. Sod is the last and deals with mysteries that are hidden in the verses. These Midrashim deal with subjects such as creation, the souls of men, and mystical matters relating to the mitzvahs.


An example is what we see in the Sefer HaBahir (#27): "His students asked him, 'What is dalit?' He said to them: 'what is this like? It is like ten kings that were in one place all of them rich.  And one of them is rich, but not like the other ones. Even though he is very rich, related to the other kings he is called poor.'" There is a hidden point being made that is not obvious.


Before going further, let me state this clearly: EVERY MIDRASHIC INTERPRETATION IS TRUE, even if it is not the simple meaning of the verse, and even if that verse is not really a support for it.


With this said, we must ask how can one objectively tell if the verse is being explained in a manner other then the pshat. This is in fact simple. There are a few things to check.


1. Is this Midrash explaining the verse in question?  I.e. is it of the form. Its says X, this means Y. The verse is quoted and then it is explained. Many times the Rabbis will give a non-pshat meaning to a verse.  They will introduce it by saying, 'X is the case as it says Y', and upon looking at Y it is clear that the simple meaning is not intended but that it is just an asmachta. The verse is used to support an idea, and not the idea being the explanation of the verse.


2. Are all the verses used in this Midrash understandable as the simple meaning?  For example if there are 5 verses in the Midrash and it is clear that 3 cannot be understood as the simple meaning, it is certain that none of the verses are intended to be used in their simple meaning in THIS MIDRASH. It just reflects some tradition, or known interpretation from another verse and this verse is being used Midrashically.


3. As I have previously stated there is a principle mentioned in the Talmud - Ayn Mikrah Yotzei Meydai Peshuto - a verse cannot be understood other than it's simple meaning. If a Midrashic teaching is not the pshat of the verse (which can usually be seen when reading the verses in context) than that is not the pshat of the verse.


4. When it comes to the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works, in almost every case the interpretation is following a non-literal meaning. Even those sections that deal with Halacha, are rarely, if ever, following the simple meaning of the verse. (Likewise with non-halachic Midrashim on needs to assume they are not literal.)


Why should the Rabbis spend time finding other verses that support ideas even when they admit that they are not teaching the simple meaning of a verse? There is, of course, the pedagogical advantage. Many of these teachings are easier to remember then simple explanations of verses. But also there is the traditional understanding of two verses in Psalms. Psalm 62:12 says, "G-d has spoken once and two things have I heard." Psalms 119:18 says, "Open my eyes that I may see the wonders of your Torah." From these two verses we understand that there are alternate interpretations that are true, and that can be expounded from the verses even though they are not the simple meaning.


The Rambam said on the Midrashim in his introduction to the Mishnah, "It is not worthy for one to consider them (the Midrashim) of lower value and little purpose. But they have in them great wisdom because they are full of wondrous riddles and precious treasures. All of the drashos if you look into them with your understanding you will discern in them from the true good of which there is nothing greater than them. And they will reveal to you from the G-dly principles and truthful things which the wise men have hidden in them and not desired to openly reveal...” There are many works from great rabbis that are devoted to giving explanations to these teachings.


This will be all become clear if we analyze a few Midrashim.


The first is from Leviticus Rabbah 13.5 at the very end.  The interpretation is based on Lev. 11:4-7, dealing with the four types of animals forbidden to be eaten, camel, hare, badger, pig. To understand this Midrash I must explain a few things. The Torah says that the camel, hare, and badger may not be eaten because they chew their cud (Heb. maalah gerah) but they don't have split hoofs. The pig however has split hoofs, but does not chew its cud. The word for ‘cud’ ‘gerah’ is similar to the word in Hebrew ‘gerirah’ meaning ‘to follow after’.


This is the Midrashic interpretation:  "The camel, this is Babylon 'because if chews it's cud' means that another kingdom will follow it. The hare, this is Greece, 'because it chews its cud' because another kingdom will follow it. The badger this is Media, 'because it chews it's cud', because another kingdom will follow it. The pig this is Edom, 'because it doesn't chew it's cud', because there will be no other kingdom after it. Why is it called Chazor (pig)?  Because it will return (chazor) the crown to its master, as it says, 'And the saviors will go up on Mount Zion, and they shall judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom will be to G-d.' (Obadiah 1:21)


Now let us examine this Midrash and see what it is teaching us.  First we should ask: is the theological point it is making true?  And then second, is it telling us what the simple meaning of the verse REALLY is? 


A look at the prophet Obadiah shows that according to that prophet (and the Talmud mentions it in many places), the kingdom of Edom is to be the last, and after it falls the rulership will return to G-d, and his people the Jews. So we see that they have spoken truthfully and in agreement to what is said in the Tenach. The kingdoms of Babylon, Greece, Media and Edom ruled over the Jews, the first three gave over to other kingdoms, but not the third. So it is in fact TRUE.


Now is the Midrash saying what the simple meaning or even the intention of the verse is? NO! The simple meaning is only that certain things are forbidden because of certain physiological reasons. These verses are neither prophecy, nor descriptions of what will happen at a later time. If some one would come to you and say, the Rabbis hold that these verses are Messianic. What would you answer? OF COURSE NOT!  That is absurd.


The same could be said about a number of other Midrashim like Berachos 57b where a verse in Isaiah 53 is used to prove medical information. It is very important to have this in mind whenever the topic of Midrash comes up and missionary interpretations of it are given.


We will now look at a few examples:


In Sotah 14a, Isaiah 53 is interpreted as referring to Moses. The ancient Jewish view and that which appears continually in the words of the commentators (as we will discuss later) are that the Servant is Israel who is called Servant throughout Isaiah.  Clearly Isaiah when he was prophesying was talking of someone in the future and not Moses who had been in the past, so the question is what lessons are the Rabbis trying to teach by relating Moses to this chapter, and why specifically to this chapter.  We all know that Moses was the greatest of the prophets and was know as the 'servant of G-d'.  Sotah is showing us that many of the great qualities that Moses had, are likewise there in the Servant, Israel. So, for example, where the servant of Isaiah prays for sinners, so Moses prayed for those who were guilty of the sin of the golden calf, and effected their atonement. By so doing the Midrash allows us to look at the greatness of Moses, and his work. (BTW this commentary of Sotah appears in the famous commentator Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, who is often quoted by missionaries.) In a similar vein Rabbi Saadiah Goan explained it to mean the prophet Jeremiah, and one of the explanations of Don Yitzchok Abarbanel is that it refers to Josiah.


Let's look at another one. Psalm 22 is basically about David and his tribulations. David had many difficulties including a revolt led by his own son. Anyone reading the Psalms is struck by David's expression of his emotions about these difficulties and his unwavering faith that G-d would always stand by him. However the Midrashim find a hint to Esther in the words of this Psalm. To understand what the relationship is that the Rabbis are pointing out we must look at the Psalm itself. In this Psalm David has three themes:

  1. Enemies surrounded him. This appears in verse 8, 13 and 14 (for example)
  2. His depression in feeling abandoned. (Verses 2, 3)
  3. His strong faith and calls to praise G-d. (Verse 5-6, 24-)


The Rabbis of the Midrash see reflected here the same emotions that Esther felt when faced with the destruction of her people.

  1. Even though she was Queen she felt surrounded by those who would kill her.
  2. Her fear and depression as she stands in the hall waiting to see if the king will extend his staff and accept her (and not kill her).
  3. She has strong faith in G-d.


By associating this with Esther (who could have even been saying this Psalm and meaning herself) they are showing that the Psalms have a universal aspect that applies to many people in many situations. One of these being Esther.


From the last two Midrashim we see two principles of the Midrashic method. The first is that many times verses that deal with categories of people are used to apply to individuals. It's pretty much like the concept of set inclusion. Something is a member of the set, and then it has all the properties that the set has. In the case of Sotah, we see that Isaiah 53 is applied to Moshe. Since the Jewish understanding is that Isaiah is about Israel (and specifically the righteous of Israel), any individual of exceptional personality could be compared to some of the verses there with valid results. This is the reason for the interpretation in Sotah for Moses, by Saadiah Goan for Jeremiah, and by Abarbanel for Josiah.  That there are obvious reasons as to why they do not apply literally does not take away from the insight that they do in some way relate to parts of it.


The second is that when we see similarities between the life situation of a Biblical character and another person, the verses that this character used, or that refer to this person, can be applied to the other person who is in the same situation. We see this clearly with Esther, who was in a similar position as David in that Psalm. By the same logic the Messiah is many times compared to David (this in fact has a Biblical sources in Jer. 30:9; Ez. 34:23-24; 37:24). We will see many times that verses are applied to people to whom they are not meant because of the similarities of their situation.


Many times the same Midrash will appear in a number of different places with slightly different wordings. When this occurs it is important to look at all the different versions, or find the most reliable one, as that will aid in understanding what the purpose of the Midrash really is. Also at times, in the Talmud, teachings will not appear completely in one place, but they will be split up and appear in multiple places. The first part of the Midrash appears on one page and the other part on another page. Usually there is no practical difference, but at times it is helpful to know this to understand some point that is being made.


To summarize the main points:

  1. A Midrash, while relating something, which is true, is not a literal interpretation and is not meant to be.
  2. A Midrash doesn't usually explain a whole passage, but various verses in a passage (and sometimes only one verse). 
  3. There is a method to Midrash even when it is not literal.


Let’s now take an example of one Rabbinic teaching that is misused and distorted by missionaries. It is one that appears in a large number of Messianic sources.[5] Usually it is used to support a claim that Jews no longer could get atonement from the temple service.[6] It is from Yoma 39b.  To understand the true meaning and importance of the teaching here, we must examine the first half of this Aggadah (which is never quoted by missionaries) and understand what it is telling us.


The Talmud says, "Our Rabbis taught, 'During the forty years that Shimon HaTzaddik was Kohen Gadol the lot (for the scapegoat) always fell on the right side, from then on, sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left. The tongue of gold (a red string tied to the horns of the scapegoat) became white, from then on sometimes it became white and sometimes not. The western lamp remained lit (all night), from then on sometimes it remained lit and some times it went out. The fire on the alter burnt strong enough that the Priests did not have to bring wood except for the two required portions of wood in order to perform the mitzvah. From then on at times it was strong and times it was not, forcing the priests to bring wood the whole daylong. There was a special blessing in the Omer offering, the two loaves of bread (for Shevous) and the (weekly) bread offerings so that any priest that received an olives worth was full. They would eat and leave over. From then on there was a curse in the omer, the two breads, and the bread offerings and the priests did not get even an olive so that the modest priests refused to partake of it."


We have to consider a few points to understand this Aggadah. Who was Shimon HaTzaddik that there should be miracles like this in his time?  Why these miracles and why did they stop?


According to the first Mishnah in Avos, Shimon HaTzaddik was of the last of the Anshei Knesset HaGadolah, the Congress of religious leaders who were in Babylonia during the exile there. As his name indicates he was known for his righteousness, and these miracles that occurred during his reign as High Priest are indicative of that. However, he was an exception during the second temple period. In fact one of the main differences between the first and second temple period is that in the second temple the priesthood was totally corrupted for much of the time. We see this clearly in the ancient sources. The Dead Sea Scrolls have diatribes against the wicked priesthood. Josephus tells us graphically about the evil of the house of the Hashmonians who where both priests and kings. The Talmud also talks about the wickedness of the priestly class towards the end of the temple period. When we look at these miracles we see EVERY ONE of them has to do with the priests and their temple service. When the priests were righteous and led by a righteous High Priest they had many miracles.  BUT, as they degraded, and failed to fulfill their duties properly, they failed to have miracles performed for them. They were no longer considered worthy of seeing these miracles.  They occasionally were judged worthy of these miracles, but not continually as they were in the time of Shimon HaTzaddik.


With this understanding we can now look at the Aggadah that appears after this one that the missionaries have tried to distort. "The Rabbis taught, 'Forty years before the destruction of the temple the lot failed to come up on the right side, the tongue of gold did not become white, and the western light did not burn the whole night. The gates of the hechel opened by themselves until Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai rebuked them...'"


If one looks at the historical sources we see that by that time Jerusalem looked like a decadent modern city, with random acts of violence being common.  Josephus describes the Sicarii, who used to mingle with the crowds and stab people with short knives killing them.  Those behind the lawlessness were the priestly class who had close relations with the Roman overlords.  Clearly no miracles could be performed for such people. The end was sealed when the Sanhedrin could no longer keep up a facade of law and order under such circumstances. They removed themselves from their usual place of judgment and stopped judging capitol cases, as the Talmud relates in Avodah Zarah 8b. All this occurred because murder was so common. The wickedness of the priesthood and the ruling parties brought an end to the miracles that were common in the time of Shimon HaTzaddik.


When one understands the Aggadah, it seems ridiculous how the missionaries can claim that this Aggadah has some relationship to a loss of royal power (which had long disappeared in Palestine), or as some others claim to an end to the atoning power of the temple (which only ended when there was no temple). How does this explain all the miracles? How does this explain why these did not occur BEFORE Jesus? This is even ignoring that historically we cannot prove that Jesus died 40 years before the destruction.


This simple example indicates how little regard missionaries have for the Rabbis, and their teachings. It shows how they wish to distort the simple meaning of their words. It is not a question of asking them to agree to the validity of the methodology of the Rabbis. We only seek for them to stop misusing and distorting what they teach. It seems that they realize that they cannot win by arguing from the Tenach, and so they need to make a different battlefield.


© Moshe Shulman 2003 http://www.judaismsanswer.com

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at outreach@judaismsanswer.com.

[1]    Page 118.

[2]    Vol. II page 225.

[3]    This is the name used for Talmudic Midrashic teachings.

[4]    This is not the place to delve into this subject, I state it as a fact that is historically provable, and not something that originated after the destruction of the Temple, or in the 1st century CE.

[5]   For example, in the work by Rachmiel Frydland, ‘What the Rabbis Know about the Messiah on page 118’ this discussion of Yoma 39b appears.

[6]   Frydland associates this Midrash with the loss of royal power.