Jewish Words



Rabbi Julian Sinclairs dip into the dictionary

Midrash, a unique Jewish literary genre, is the collective name for the stories and interpretations that have grown up around the Torah. Many are so famous they are sometimes thought of as Torah, e.g. Abraham smashing his fathers idols, or baby Moses reaching for the bowls of gold or coals.

Midrash comes from the word doresh, meaning to seek examine or investigate. It is used in Deuteronomy 13:15 about criminal investigation. Midrash as a noun appears only twice in the Bible, in Chronicles, where it apparently means history. The Prophet Amos repeatedly urges the people in Gods name, Dirshumi vhiyu, Seek Me and live.

The etymology of midrash is evocative for understanding its practice. The rabbis developed midrash from ancient interpretative traditions through a searching reading of the Torah. By listening hard to the gaps and silences in the Torah and reading between the lines, they evolved stories that brought out the fuller sense of the written text.

The oldest midrash we know is probably the Pesach Haggadah, whose core is a midrash on Deuteronomy 26, 5:8. The main collections of midrash that we have today span about a thousand years from 400 CE, though they are based on much older sources.

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