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Structure and Editing in the Homiletic Midrashim

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Norman J. Cohen
Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, One West 4 Street, New York, NY 10012


Since Leopold Zunz's comments regarding the highly artistic form of the classic rabbinic homily, those involved in the critical study of midrash have concerned themselves with the structure of the derashah. Some nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars recognized that the individual pisqa'ot and parashiyyot of the homiletic midrashim contain a series of petiḥtot (sermonic proems), followed by interpretative comments upon the first few verses of the pericope texts. In addition, research into homiletic forms such as the peroration led other scholars closer to an understanding of the structural unity of the rabbinic homily.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1981

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1. Zunz, Leopold, Ha-Derashot be-Yisra′el, trans, and enl. Albeck, Hanokh (Jerusalem, 1947), pp. 79, 85.Google Scholar

2. For a general discussion about the nature and purpose of the proem form in the homiletic midrashim, see inter alia Bloch, Philipp, “Studien zur Aggadah,” Monatsschrift fur die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums 34 (1885–1886): 166268, 386–99Google Scholar; Maybaum, Siegmund, Die dlteslen Phasen in der Entwicklung der jiidischen Predigt (Berlin, 1901), pt. 1Google Scholar; Bacher, Wilhelm, Die Proomien der alien jiidischen Homilie (Leipzig, 1913)Google Scholar; Baeck, Leo, “Zwei Beispiele midraschischer Predigt,” Monatsschrift fur die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums 69 (1925): 258271;Google Scholar; Schafer, Peter, “Die Petichta–Ein Proomien?,” Kairos: Zeitschrift fur Religionswissenschaft und Theologie 3 (1970): 216–19;Google Scholar and the most recent treatment by Heinemann, Joseph, “The Proem in the Aggadic Midrashim,” Scripta Hierosolymilana 22 (1971): 100–22 and its Hebrew version, “Ha-Petiljtot be-midreshei ha-′aggadah–meqoran ve-tafqidan,” Proceedings of the Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1969), 2: 43–47. It should be noted that simple proems are found as well as in Genesis Rabbah, which is basically an exegetic midrash.Google Scholar

3. For example, see Theodor, Julius, “Zur Composition der aggadischen Homilien,” Monalsschrift fur die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenlhums 29 (1879): 108; Maybaum, Die dltesten Phasen, passim; and Bloch, “Studien zur Aggadah,” passim.Google Scholar

4. See, for example, Stein, Edmund, “Die homiletische Peroratio im Midrasch,” Hebrew Union College Annual 8 (1931–1932); 353723.Google Scholar

5. Heinemann's main contributions in this area are his articles, ‘“Omanut ha-qompozisyah be-Midrash Va-Yiqra Rabbah,” Hasifrut 2 (1971): 808“Profile of a Midrash,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (1971): 141–50; and “The Proem in the Aggadic Midrashim.” In addition, see his work Derashot be-sibbur bi-tequfat ha-Talmud (Jerusalem, 1971), as well as his articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Leviticus Rabbah,” 11: 147–50 and “Preaching in the Talmudic Period,” 13: 994–98.Google Scholar

6. Heinemann, , ‘“Omanut,” pp. 809–11; “Profile of a Midrash,” pp. 143–46; “Preaching in the Talmudic Period,” p. 997 and “Leviticus Rabbah,” p. 148.Google Scholar

7. Modern scholarship dates both Leviticus Rabbah, a compilation of homilies based upon the triennial Sabbath cycle, and the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, a collection of derashot on the holiday cycle, to the end of the fifth-early sixth centuries c.E.

8. Heinemann, , ′“Omanut,” p. 809, n. 1. The Yelammedenu-Tanhuma midrashim, which include the Pesiqta Rabbati, Midrash Tanhuma ha-Nidpas, Midrash Tanljuma Buber and Deuteronomy Rabbah, are dated from the end of the sixth-early seventh centuries and later. They characteristically begin with a halakhic proem, which has the opening proemial text replaced by a rhetorical question/answer generally of a legal nature, followed by a regular proem, sometimes attributed to R. Tanhuma [b. Abba].Google Scholar

9. Goldberg, Abraham, Review of Mandelbaum's edition of the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, Kiryat Sefer 43 (1967): 79. The author vacillates in his categorization of the thematic material, first labelling it as derashot la-′inyan, thematic comments upon the pericope text belonging to the body of the homily, then calling them petifttot shel ′inyan, proems which do not begin with an extraneous verse from the Prophets and Writings, but rather contain material thematically associated with the pericope text. These follow the regular proems in Goldberg's estimation [see his comments in his article, “Ha-Munah ‘Gufah’ be-Midrash Va-Yiqra Rabbah,” Leshonenu 38 (1974): 164]. In both cases, however, the fixed structure of the derashah is clear: regular proems, thematic comments and then exegesis on the first few verses of the pericope text.Google Scholar

10. Parashah 25 (Qedoshim 2) is made up of only a string of proems.

11. This number does not include the seven pisqa′ol designated as nispaftim (appendices) in the Mandelbaum edition. They are not preserved in many of the manuscripts and generally do not maintain the expected tripartite homily form which characterizes the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana.

12. Parashiyyot 22, 23, 27, 30, 32, and 34 seem to have a mixture of proems and pericope comments.

13. Pisqa′ot 9 and 12.

14. The Pesiqta Rabbati is a composite work which incorporates sections with different styles and forms. There are at least four different literary units in this compilation, the most important of which is made up of thirty Yelammedenu-Tanljuma homilies and which gives the entire midrash its overall character.

15. Pisqa′ot 4, 14, 19, 38, and 41 are merely groupings of proems with no body.

16. Of the 163 units in Midrash Tanbuma ha-Nidpas, 75 contain halakhic proems, of which 50 have both proems and pericope comments. Of these, 31 maintain a fixed order.

17. The ten PRK parallels include pisqa′ot 14–18 (PRK 4–8), 29/30A.B (PRK 16), 32 (PRK 18), and 51–52 (PRK 27–28) according to the enumeration in William Braude's translation, Pesikla Rabbati: Discourses for Feasts, Fasts and Special Sabbaths, 3 vols. (New Haven, 1968). In some cases, the material in PR and the PRK is virtually identical. It is quite probable that the compiler of PR, or perhaps even a later copyist, found Yelammedenu-Tanhuma pisqa′ot missing from the work and was forced to fill in the lacunae from parallel pisqa′ot drawn from the earlier Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana. The existence of additional Yelammedenu-Tanljuma homilies (pisqa′ot 48 and 49) for Passover indicates that the Rabbati originally contained different pisqa′ot for some holidays, but these were lost and had to be replaced.

18. The only exception is pisqa 17 (Va- Yehi ba-hasi ha-lailah), which is one of the reasons why Abraham Goldberg concluded that this homily was not original to the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana. See his comments in his article, “Li-Meqoriyyutan shel ha-pisqa′ot ‘Va-Yehi ba-hasi ha-lailah’ ve-‘Shor o Kesev,’” Tarbiz 38 (1969): 184–85.

19. Note, for example, pisqa′ot 5, 6, 10, 49, 33, 42, and 43.

20. The same approximate percentage holds for those units which include halakhic proems (19 of 50).

21. Of the 75 units which contain halakhic proems, 9 have them placed in other than the first position.

22. The sample parashiyyot analyzed include: Lekh lekha, Va-Yese, Ki lissa, Va-Yiqra, Qedoshim, Be-ha′alotekha, Balaq, Mas'ei, Re′eh and Nissavim.

23. In addition to Pesiqta Rabbati, Tanljuma ha-Nidpas, Tanljuma Buber, and Deuteronomy Rabbah, two later compilations, Exodus Rabbah and Numbers Rabbah, contain halakhic proems.

24. The fixed structure of the homily form in DR is seen in the fact that every unit begins with a halakhic proem, with the opening question/answer formula halakhah ′adam mi-yisra′el... kakh shanu ftakhamim, followed by one or more regular proems with the formula zeh she-′amar ha-kaluv. Additionally, the size of the units varies only slightly. Almost all have between 6 and 8 sections.

25. The only unit which does not have a fixed order of elements is found in parashal Zot ha-berakhah and it appears to be defective, since it possesses a second halakhic proem.

26. Heinemann, , Derashol be-sibbur, p. 26.Google Scholar

27. Ibid.

28. It is true that the analysis of one pisqa in each midrash cannot tell us very much about the degree of editing in the total compilation. However, it can give us an indication as to the direction our thinking must take.

29. B.T. Megillah 29b.

30. This comment is clearly apologetic and can be viewed as an anti-Christian polemic. The nations of the world, i.e., Christendom, claimed that the Jewish people was no longer the “True Israel,” God's covenanted partner, because they rejected Him when they built the Golden Calf. In response, the rabbis stressed that even though Israel should have been punished, God ultimately forgave them and the covenant remained in full force.

31. A composite proem is one in which the entire proemial text is applied to a series of events or biblical personages. The last application returns the reader to the pericope text.

32. The presence to some extent of superfluous material in the homily is due not only to the compiler's lack of selectivity of material at his disposal, but also to his tendency not to adapt or change the blocks (Ifativot) of material he drew upon. Heinemann labels this process asgerirah, the inclusion of superfluous material because of the usage of total blocks of tradition by the editor of the homily. In addition, the compiler included popular folk traditions which, even though they were not directly associated with the main theme, added a necessary dramatic element to the derashah. In this regard, see Heinemann's comments in ′“Omanut,” pp. 810–11, 823 and “Profile of a Midrash,” p. 146.

33. Modern scholarship generally assumes that the compiler(s) of the homilies in PR knew and used material in earlier compilations, like Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah, in addition to the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana. See, for example, the survey of scholarly opinion in the introduction to Braude's translation of Pesiqta Rabbati, pp. 21–26.

34. There are only two proems in PR, pisqa 10, which are not found in the PRK parallel. They are sections 10:2 and 10:9.

35. At the end of section 10:6, the Parma MS preserves a better reading than the printed edition, which allows for a more fluid transition to the pericope text:

36. Not only is the application of the proemial verse to Doeg and Ahithophel left out completely, but also note how the play between haramat rosh and lillui rosh, so essential in PRK 2:1, is not included. This is due to the fact that the same point was made already in section 10:7.

37. The connection between this section and the previous one is underscored by the use of the same verse (Exodus 22:19: “He who sacrifices unto the gods, save the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed”) to highlight the fact that Israel deserves punishment.

38. The interpretation here is “ ‘they sat down to eat (le-′ekhol)’ [Genesis 37:25] means that they made it possible for the entire world to eat (le-ha′akhil lehem le-khol ha ′olam).”

39. It is interesting to note that this verse (1 Kings 4:20) is the first proemial text in the next homily (PR 11:2). In addition, in the Parma MS the order of the final sections of this pisqa differs markedly from that of the printed edition. The final sections are arranged in the following order: 10:15, 12, 13, and 14. This would indicate that section 10:14 ended the homily and might have provided a transition to the next pisqa. It should also be pointed out that while section 10:15 continues the comments upon the phrase zeh yiltenu, section 10:14 contains exegesis of the total pericope text. Again, sections 12, 13 and 15 might be better placed together, with the homily concluding with the more generalized comments in section 14.

40. Perhaps this comment was appended here when section 15 was placed at the end of the derashah in the prototype of the printed edition. In this way, it would provide a kind of peroration at the close.

41. See n. 35 above. Parma MS 1240 is the only extant complete manuscript of Midrash Pesiqta Rabbati, and its readings and ordering of material usually are better than those of the printed version.

42. See n. 5 above for a listing of Heinemann's main publications dealing with the nature of the early rabbinic homily.

43. Heinemann, , ′“Omanut,” p. 809, n. 1. There are those, however, who differ with Heinemann's view of the rabbinic homily, chief among them being Abraham Goldberg. Goldberg feels that the derashol do not show a great measure of editing, and that if at times there is a degree of uniformity, it is due only to the chance repetition of certain themes.Google Scholar

44. Heinemann, , ′“Omanut,” pp. 810811 and “Profile of a Midrash,” p. 143.Google Scholar

45. See n. 14 above.Google Scholar

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