Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai
Translated by W. David Nelson
The Jewish Publication Society, 2006, 398 pages
ISBN 13: 978-0-8276-0799-6
ISBN 10: 0-8276-0799-7
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 22, 2010
It is truly amazing. Jews sit in the synagogue and listen to their rabbi teach them a moral lesson or a clever interpretation of the Bible from the Midrash and they haven't the slightest idea what a Midrash is, and therefore are totally unable to evaluate what they are hearing. Is it true? Is it the view of one school of thought? What prompted the author of the thought to say what he said?
Many rabbis are unfortunately similarly disadvantaged. They were taught in the yeshivas and seminaries that Midrash – ancient sermonic and exegetical comments on the Torah, which some mispronounce as medrish – is significant, even holy, even "Oral Torah given to Moses at Sinai." "So what is there to analyze?" they ask. "Our duty is only to hear and accept."
The current volume throws a wrench into this thinking. As its translator David Nelson, who adds an introduction and informative annotation, makes clear, this commentary on the biblical book of Exodus is one of two Midrashim (the plural of Midrash) on Exodus.
There were two rabbis during the first third of the second century who differed radically in how they thought the Bible should be interpreted. Rabbi Akiva was convinced that since the Bible is of divine origin, and since God could certainly say what He wanted briefly and to the point and would not waste words, God purposely inserted every word, indeed every letter, in the Bible and thus every word and letter must be interpreted as teaching a divine lesson.
Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that since the Bible was written for the people who need to understand it, it must have been written in the way that people think and talk, in human, not divine language. Thus whenever the Bible repeats a phrase, it should not be seen as a hint of a new totally different lesson, but a repetition for emphasis or a poetic or rhetorical device.
Thus, people who hear a rabbi quoting a Midrash need to ask themselves, "Is the rabbi quoting a Midrash that follows the thinking of Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Ishmael?" Since most rabbis seem to like the Akivian method, the congregant may want to ask, "How would Rabbi Ishmael understand the passage that the rabbi is quoting? Isn't it likely that Rabbi Ishmael would not see the "problem" that the congregational rabbi is analyzing – 'there is no extra word here; the doubling of the word is there simply for emphasis.'?"
This book offers its readers the Midrash on Exodus from the school of Rabbi Akiva, while the Mekhilta De Rabbi Ishmael does so for his rival.