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Midrash and Mishnah

Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

There were two forms of study in the tannaitic period, respectively termed mishnah and midrash. There is a long-standing and important debate about which method of study came first. Mishnah is the study of abstract, apodictic principles of law (apodictic laws are unconditional legal prescriptions unaccompanied by reasons or biblical sources) which only later were organized into collections according to either literary form, attribution (the name of the sage reported to have said it), or subject. Ultimately, the method of organization by subject became most prominent and led to the organization of the text known as the Mishnah. Some remnants of earlier systems of organization are still visible in the Mishnah, however. In the mishnaic method, scholars are assumed to have stated their legal principles and the decisions of their predecessors without making reference to their scriptural or traditional basis or explaining, in most cases, the reasons behind them.

The midrashic method is a technique of scriptural exposition. It concentrated primarily on the Torah, which was the supreme authority for the midrashic method and was studied as the basic text. Scholars and students explained how specific laws derived from biblical verses or words and how the laws were to be applied.

Can we determine which of these methods actually came first? There is evidence from the very end of the biblical period, i.e., the Persian period (Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles), that midrashic exegesis for legal purposes (midrash halakhah) was already becoming popular and being used for arriving at legal decisions. Non-rabbinic sources, including material from the Qumran sect and some other groups, give evidence that scriptural interpretation was used as the basis for law in the Second Temple period. Finally, while it is possible to suggest a logical progression from the midrashic method to the mishnaic, no sufficient explanation can be offered for how the reverse would have occurred. For all these reasons, the view that originally the study of the Bible was the primary method and then, secondarily, the method of mishnaic, apodictic formulation developed, is most likely to be historically correct.

The history of these methods of study may be traced as follows. After the close of the biblical period, the midrashic approach found in the later biblical books was taken over by the Pharisees. Other Second Temple groups used similar methods of biblical exegesis, as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls. As the midrashic approach developed in Pharisaic circles, the amount of material supplementary to the Bible itself became greater and greater until at some point the laws themselves were formulated independently and concisely. These mishnah-like, apodictic laws began to be studied as a separate subject side by side with midrashim as the tradition developed. By the time Pharisaism gave way to tannaitic Judaism, the two were coexistent, and the tannaim practiced both methods.

Both methods of study were utilized in the tannaitic academies, and, hence, the materials which emerged from the academies all bear a common mark, that of accretion over a long period of time. Each generation of scholars began with the work of its predecessors and augmented and modified it. The amalgamation of the old tradition with the new was then passed down, so that constant development was taking place. Further, as the generations continued this chain, midrashic and mishnaic materials intermixed so that one influenced the other, and each sometimes quoted the other. Later mishnaic formulations emerged from continued study of the Bible, and even in the Mishnah one finds midrashic expansion.

Often, instead of the original pattern in which the midrashic method yielded laws or at least legal statements, entire midrashic sections of our texts are sometimes built retrospectively on mishnaic selections. With time, each corpus was filled out by the other, until they began to conform to a common, consistent tradition. By the close of the redaction of the tannaitic texts, the midrashic and mishnaic collections were, therefore, largely in agreement. Whereas mishnaic tradition was eventually distilled and redacted by the end of the second century C.E. by Rabbi Judah the Prince, the results of midrashic inquiry were not collected until much later, in fifth-century Palestine.

Posted in: The Talmud

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