One might suppose that after receiving and studying the Torah — both the written and oral Torah — and then spending the first half of the first millennium promulgating the Talmud (the Mishna and Gemara), Judaism would have sufficient material to last the lifetime of even its most dedicated and erudite scholars. You would think ample questions had been raised regarding the text of the Bible and enough dialogue and answers developed. But, of course, there is always more. Between the third and twelfth centuries, rabbis and religious scholars compiled their ideas and arguments in the form of stories that sought to explicate and probe even deeper the underlying truths and meanings of the biblical text. These stories, or midrashim (interpretations), eventually became known as the Midrash.
Jewish religious texts
In the Midrash, each interpretive story is designed to expand on incidents in the Bible, to derive principles and laws, or to offer moral lessons. Moreover, because of their nature, midrashim can be used to gain a glimpse into the way the rabbis read the biblical text and into their thinking processes.
The Hebrew word midrash translates as “commentary” or “interpretation.” It is based on a Hebrew root meaning, “to investigate” or “to study.” Midrash is a method used to inquire into what a biblical text might mean.
Many midrashim deal with the story of Creation. For example, when God was ready to create man, He said, “Let us make man.” But who is “us”? Wasn't God alone? The midrash explains this by concluding that, indeed, God was not alone and that God consulted with the ministering angels.
In contemporary times, there is much controversy over the matter of capital punishment. But the issue is raised much earlier, in the biblical story of Cain killing his brother Abel. While the Bible does allow for capital punishment, God does not inflict this penalty upon Cain. Why not?
The midrash addressing this question suggests that since Cain had never witnessed death, he could not possibly have known how his physical assault on Abel would culminate. Therefore, it would not be just to have taken Cain's life — that's why he was sentenced to permanent exile instead. In modern legal jargon, this equates to American and English jurisprudence, where there is a distinction between involuntary manslaughter and voluntary manslaughter as well as among other degrees of murder.
What is the difference between a midrash and any other analysis?
The midrash purports to penetrate the “spirit” of the material in question and reach a conclusion that is not necessarily obvious. There is no hesitancy to use poetic license, and the customary rules of logic are not always relied upon.
Or consider this example. In Exodus 4:10, the Bible portrays Moses as being a very poor speaker, but it doesn't say why this is so. Hence, a midrash provides an explanation that this goes back to when Moses was a child. It was decided that he be tested to determine if he harbored ambitious desires against Pharaoh's throne. The young Moses was to choose between sparkling jewels and hot coals placed before him. If he opted for the precious stones, it would mean he might prove a threat to Pharaoh. Naturally, his eyes focused upon the gems, but a divine interdiction guided his hand to the burning coals. After touching the hot embers, the young lad put his hand in his mouth to cool it off, resulting in a lifelong speech impediment.
As you might guess after looking at these examples, the Midrash has become a major literary component of Judaism. Yet there is even more. Still not completely satisfied, the rabbis and scholars wrote other great texts of Judaism. Let us consider some of these.