The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. eliminated Judaism's national religious center. Long sections of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, describing the priestly system and its requirements were now inoperative, and in danger of being irrelevant. Midrash halakhah enabled the rabbis to fashion new practices to replace sacrificial worship and to connect those practices to the words of the Torah.
Jews came to encounter many of the Torah’s passages regarding law and practice in light of halakhic midrashim. It is almost impossible to read Deuteronomy today and not think of the Shema and the mezuzah.
Collections of Midrash Halakhah
The two centuries after the destruction of the Temple were the heyday of midrash halakhah. As noted above, midrash halakhah from this period was collected in three books--the Mekhilta on Exodus, the Sifra on Leviticus, the Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy--known as the tannaitic midrashim. (The tannaim were the rabbis from the time of the Mishnah, the legal code edited around the year 200.)
While the Sifra and the Sifrei are almost entirely works of halakhah, all three tannaitic midrashim contain aggadic midrash as well. They present many of the same laws found in the Mishnah, in order of their connection to the Torah text (in contrast with the Mishnah, which is organized by topic and contains relatively few quotations from the Torah).
The Schools of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiba
Two styles or schools of midrash halakhah were associated with particular sages. The dictum "The Torah speaks in the language of human beings" is attributed to Rabbi Yishmael; that is, that Torah's use of language reflects the way that people customarily converse. Consequently, when a sage is interpreting a verse or deriving a practice, he should assume that the text is making use of human conventions (such as digressions, repetitions, etc.) rather than assigning significance to each textual quirk. Thirteen interpretive principles were attributed to Rabbi Yishmael, such as noting when a general law and a particular specific application are both supplied in the Torah.
Rabbi Akiba, by contrast, held that the Torah's language was divine in character, and thus no letter or word in the Torah could be dismissed as a mere redundancy or convention. Even the smallest element of the text, such as the particle et (which in ordinary language is merely a frequent grammatical indicator), had its own unique, even mystical, significance. What Rabbi Ishmael might interpret as simply a feature of human language, Akiba would view as having deliberate significance and meaning. In one talmudic story, Moses himself is shown in Akiba’s classroom, where Akiba links particular laws to calligraphic flourishes on the letters in the Torah scroll, and attributes the laws to traditions received from Moses at Sinai.
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