Structure and reflectivity in tannaitic legal homilies, or: How to read midrashic terminology

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Ever since the young Abraham Geiger claimed in 1844 that the rabbis had a “disturbed interpretive sense,” scholars have attempted to decipher the hermeneutic assumptions and principles governing rabbinic Midrash. Why does Midrash deviate so often from the simple meaning of the biblical text? Should we look at the bold midrashic homilies as attempts to read and interpret scripture, or are the basic motivations of Midrash nonexegetical in nature? In this essay I offer a new method of tackling these questions through a systematic examination of midrashic terminology. Though homilies may seem longwinded and arbitrary, there are in fact a quite limited number of variants. The building blocks of homilies, the terms and the structures in which they are situated, repeat themselves in various manners again and again. A mapping of these building blocks reveals a picture that is different from the one apparent from a cursory inspection of occasional examples. I exemplify this through analysis of four terms prevalent in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: kishmu’o, bemashma, eino tzarikh, and ba hakatuv lelamdakh.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-301
Number of pages31
JournalProoftexts - Journal of Jewish Literature History
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2014


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