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Midrash

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The title page of a two-volume Midrash published by the Venetian printer Daniel Bomberg in 1545 and 1546
The title page of a two-volume Midrash published by the Venetian printer Daniel Bomberg in 1545 and 1546

The Midrash is a collection of commentaries on the Bible composed by prominent Jewish rabbis between 400 and 1200 CE. The word “midrash” originates from the Hebrew word for “look with care” or “enquire,” and essentially means "to study, interpret, and expound on a text." Included in this term is an implication that a specific method, technique, or system of analysis is employed. Because Midrashic Biblical interpretations are essentially inquisitive rather than doctrinal, multiple differing understandings of a text are possible. Some of the authors who wrote Midrashic texts are Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yose ben Halafta.

Taken as a whole, the Midrashic texts include tractates or treatises on various books of the Bible, examining theological, philosophical, folkloric, and magical concepts, such as prophecies, laws, folk medicine, incantations, and the quotidian vanities of life. Halakhic Midrashim interpret the religious law and practices contained in the first five books of the Bible, attributed to the authorship of Moses. Midrashic texts that deal with the non-legal portions of the Bible are known as Aggadah or Haggadah ("tales" or "lore") Midrashim, and their interpretations are often supported by quoting the writings of prominent rabbis. Among the theological topics covered in the Midrashim are discussions among the various authors of angels, demons, Satan, the Messiah, Hell, and Paradise. In one writing, the soul of a person is said to resemble a winged grasshopper chained by one foot; when sleeping, a person’s soul roams around the world and these adventures are the sleeping person’s dreams (Midrash Psalms 11:6). Medical prescriptions found in the Midrash are in accord with Jewish folkloric medicine of the era. For instance, wine used during a particular weekly Jewish ceremony is listed as a remedy to heal eye diseases (Midrash Psalms 32). Prophetic Midrash readings approach the text of the Bible as a metaphor for current or impending events about to happen in the reader’s lifetime. Jewish folk magic in the Midrash includes Biblical incantations against the evil eye (Numbers Rabbah 12).

The Midrashic style of interpretation is characterized by a focus on the analysis of individual words in the sacred text, including their etymology, their occurrence and meaning in other portions of scripture, and even the meaning attributed to the specific letters which comprise a given word. This focus is so important that it sometimes changes or replaces the contextual meaning. A similar method of analysis is mirrored in more mystical Jewish treatises, such as the Zohar, Bahir, and other books in the Kabbalah and the Jewish grimoire tradition. The Midrashic etymological approach to scriptural meaning has also been taken up by some Christian scholars, especially in the Protestant tradition. An exemplary work of this type is the famed Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible by James Strong (1822–1894), which analyzes the etymology of every single word in the King James version of the Bible. In addition to its religious or scriptural value, this ancient sacred text has long found popular favour for use in bibliomancy, which is a form of divination or fortune telling conducted by means of a book.

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