Sifra and Sifre

Legal midrash on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

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Still others refuse to choose sides in this midrash-Mishnah debate. The discovery of both mishnaic and midrashic texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the two forms of law may have co-existed in the ancient world. Rather than follow or precede one another, midrash and Mishnah may represent two literary forms of the developing Jewish legal canon.

Differences Among the Midrashim

While Sifra, Sifre Bamidbar, and Sifre Devarim all fall into the category of midrash halakhah, and all use many of the same exegetical techniques, the three midrashim also exhibit some important differences. The most significant difference among these collections concerns the assignment of each work to one of the major schools of midrashic interpretation--that of Rabbi Akiva and that of Rabbi Ishmael.

In general, Rabbi Akiva's school employs a maximalist approach to interpretation, in which every word and letter can generate a new law. Rabbi Ishmael's school, on the other hand, is more conservative in its interpretive techniques and likely to explain an extraneous word or letter with the comment "the Torah speaks in the language of human beings." That is to say, the Torah, like human beings, includes stylistic flourishes not meant to be imbued with legal significance.

Many consider Sifra and Sifre Devarim to emerge from the school of Rabbi Akiva and Sifre Bamidbar to come from the school of Rabbi Ishmael. For most scholars, this attribution does not imply that Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Ishmael actually wrote or compiled these midrashic texts; rather, the texts in question demonstrate the exegetical tendencies associated with the schools of the two rabbis. For example, one midrash in Sifra finds legal meaning for a grammatically necessary particle. This midrash concerns the laws for presenting God with an offering of fine flour:

"When you present God with a meal offering that is made in any of these ways, it shall be brought to the priest who shall take it up to the altar (2:8) do we know that this includes all meal offerings? The Torah says v'et hamincha [using the participle "et" which indicates the definite direct object in Hebrew] (Dibbura d'nedava parshah 11)."

The author of this midrash presumably understood that the Hebrew word "et" functions as a grammatical element that has no independent meaning. However, the appearance of this term allows for an expansive understanding of the application of "meal offering."

In addition to probably representing different school of interpretation, the three midrashim differ in the extent to which they include aggadic (narrative) material. In general, Sifre Bamidbar and Sifre Devarim contain more aggadic material than Sifra does. In the cases of both Sifre Devarim and Sifre Bamidbar, many scholars consider the aggadic sections of the midrash to represent a separate layer of text.

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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.