The ‘Midrash’ is a generic term for a group of approximately 60 collections of rabbinic commentaries, stories, metaphors and ethical essays arranged around the books of the Torah, Prophets and Writings. It also includes various commentaries on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Most of the Midrashim date back to the time of the Mishnah and many authors of the Midrash appear in the Mishnah and vice versa. Many of the central concepts and commentaries of the Midrash are part of the Oral tradition from Sinai.
The most famous collections of Midrashim are the Midrash Rabba, the Midrash Tanchuma, Yalkut Shimoni, Sifri, Sifra and Mechilta.
The Maharal of Prague wrote, regarding the Midrashim of the Sages, that “most of the words of the Sages were in the form of metaphor and the analogies of the wise… unless they state that a particular story is not a metaphor, it should be assumed that it is a metaphor. The matters of great depth were generally expressed by the Sages using metaphors, and should be understood as metaphors unless they are explicitly indicated to be taken literally. And therefore one should not be surprised to find matters in the words of the Sages that appear to be illogical and distant from the mind.”
Rabbi Avraham, son of Maimonides, in a famous essay on the Midrash categorises the midrashim of the Sages into five categories:
1. A drasha meant to be understood according to its simple meaning
2. A drasha that has both an external and superficial meaning as well as an internal, hidden meaning
3. A drasha that has no hidden meaning, but whose simple meaning is complex and requires effort and information to understand fully
4. Drashot that are used to explain a verse without claiming to represent the simple meaning of the words, rather than one of many possible ideas that are expressed in the verse. Similar to poetic interpretations, and use of the verse to illustrate or teach a moral idea
5. Drashot that use hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point
There are four types of stories told by the Sages:
1. A story from which legal conclusions may be derived
2. A story from which a moral lesson may be derived
3. A story that teaches an idea in philosophy or in faith
4. A story that tells of a wondrous or miraculous event
These stories could be one of three types:
1. A story that happened in a dream or in a prophetic vision, but that did not actually take place in the physical world
2. A story that actually happened but that is related in an exaggerated fashion to emphasise certain ideas
3. A story that actually happened, but that is related as a metaphor so that the way in which it is related and every word chosen is not chosen for the accuracy of the story, but to convey the essence of the metaphor
Of course, any drasha may be a combination of all of the above.
Tales & Maxims from the Midrash
Ask Moses: What is the Midrash?
FAQS.org : What is a Midrash?