Were Ancient Rabbis as Focused on Bible Interpretation as We Think They Were?

March 19 2019

The term midrash refers, loosely, to the style of exegesis practiced by the rabbis of the 1st through 8th centuries CE, a genre that often involves straying far outside the plain or literal meaning of the text. In The Origins of Midrash, Paul Mandel presents a novel theory of how midrash developed and suggests that interpreting the Bible was not the priority of the early talmudic sages. Yitz Landes writes in his review:

Mandel argues [that], for much of antiquity, including during the early rabbinic period, the Semitic root d-r-sh [whence midrash] referred to teaching—textual or otherwise. Mandel thus overturns the [scholarly] consensus that early uses of this root refer to textual interpretation, and that only later was the root’s meaning expanded to encompass teaching more generally.

Mandel’s argument is a philological one, and it starts over a millennium before the rabbis first appeared on the historical stage. . . . In their occurrences in pre-rabbinic texts from the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere, [d-r-sh and related Semitic roots] refer not to activities of textual interpretation but simply to “the disclosure and teaching of the Jewish law.” Similarly, in early rabbinic texts, these words “do not convey a particular mode of textual interpretation and, indeed, are not limited to textual interpretation at all, but rather to public instruction, usually in the realm of laws and custom.” The meaning of d-r-sh changed toward . . . the turn of the 2nd century CE.

While praising the book, Landes suggests that “the distinction between explication of the Torah text and ‘a detailed discussion of the laws based on that text’ is not so clear [as Mandel assumes], particularly given that the discussion of the laws may still have included a recital of the pertinent passages from Scripture.”

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: Judaism, Midrash, Religion & Holidays, Talmud


Iranian Attacks in the Persian Gulf Require a Firm Response

June 17 2019

In the past few days, Iran has carried out several attacks on oil tankers in the vicinity of Persian Gulf, and attempted to shoot down a U.S. observation drone. These attacks follow other recent acts of sabotage on the oil trade in the region—and that’s not to mention the Iran-backed Houthi militia’s missile strike last week on a Saudi civilian airport that injured 26 people. David Adesnik urges the White House to send a clear message to Tehran:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month


Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Fox News

More about: Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy