Midrash Rabbah

One name, many books.

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One notable characteristic of B'reishit Rabbah, as well as of a number of other aggadic midrashim, is the prevalence of the petihta (known to scholars as a "proem," meaning "preface"), a roundabout method of explaining a given verse. The petihta begins with a citation from elsewhere in the Bible--usually from Psalms or Proverbs--and then explicates this text so that it eventually leads back to the verse in B'reishit.

Vayikra Rabbah is classified as a "homiletic midrash," meaning that the text consists of a series of expository sermons, rather than of a line-by-line commentary. Each of these homilies introduces one parashah (weekly Torah reading) according to the ancient cycle of readings, in which the Torah was read consecutively over the course of three years.

Each homily in Vayikra Rabbah focuses on one theme that emerges from the parashah being introduced. For example, the first verse of Leviticus, "God called to Moses," inspires a long meditation on Moses' qualities and on his special relationship with God. The prohibition against drinking wine before undertaking divine service (Leviticus 10:9) prompts a discussion on the dangers of alcohol. Other verses spark discussions about poverty, reward and punishment, and appropriate interpersonal behavior. With their emphasis on topics of general interest, these homilies help ordinary people to find relevance in the book of Leviticus.

Devarim Rabbah

Devarim (Deuteronomy) Rabbah is made up of twenty-seven homilies, corresponding to the divisions of the book according to the ancient triennial reading cycle. Scholars have dated this text as early as 450 CE and as late as 800 CE. Each homily in Devarim Rabbah addresses a halakhic (legal) question and each generally concludes with a statement about redemption.

For example, the text begins with a reference to the first words of the book of Deuteronomy, "These are the words that Moses spoke," and then launches into a discussion about the permissibility of writing a Torah scroll in a language other than Hebrew. The midrash goes on to consider a range of other subjects, including the importance of rebuke and the value of Torah, and eventually concludes with a promise that, in the messianic era, God will bless the Jewish people directly rather than via religious functionaries.

The last section of Devarim Rabbah consists of a lengthy and sometimes astounding discussion on the death of Moses. In describing the moment of Moses' death, the midrash imagines a powerful battle of wills, in which Moses prays for life and God bolts the doors of heaven lest Moses' prayer enter and overturn the divine will. The angel of death tries and fails to kill Moses, the angels Gabriel and Mikhael refuse to participate in taking Moses' life, and Moses' soul refuses to leave his body. Finally, in accordance with the biblical text, God descends to give Moses the kiss of death and then to bury him.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.