Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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Vayelech 5765

Midrash and Sermon

And Moses went and spoke these words unto all Israel (Devarim 30,1).

It is natural to suppose that homiletic Midrash represents a written record of sermons delivered in the synagogue by Tannaim and Amoraim. Highly refined literary structure, the compositional similarities between medieval sermons and midrashic form and the final editing of many midrashic collections in early medieval period argue for this connection [1]. A long scholarly tradition dating to Zunz and Geiger, who based themselves on earlier sources, claims that aggadic midrash, with its pesichtos, its convention of starting with a verse from Kesuvim and working its way back to the portion of the week, and its extravagant similes and abundant parables, can be nothing other than a record of public preaching. Among contemporary scholars, Joseph Heinemann, a noted expert on Aggadah, among others, strongly supported this view [2]. On the other hand, many of the references to public preaching in Rabbinic literature can be explained away, albeit with difficulty, and non-Jewish writers who have so much to say about Jewish rituals that they observed seem to pass over preaching in the synagogue in relative silence.

The parallels between medieval sermonizing and midrashic literature are striking. While it is possible that the latter influenced the former, in 13 th and 14 th century, sermons often opened with a verse form Kesuvim, commonly Proverbs, and worked their way gradually to the portion of the week. A generally accessible example are the commentaries of R. Bachya on the Torah, that of Ralbag, Abarbane,l and Akeidas Yitzhak of R. Yitzhak Arama [3].

To me the deciding argument for this contention is the clearly alliterative and even rhyming nature of certain midrashic passages that clearly belong at a public recitation or performance. This topic deserves a more elaborate treatment and we will, please Hashem, take up specific examples within a few weeks when we discuss Parshas Bareishis.

Lshana Tova. May this year bring with it blessings, health, success, spiritual growth, success in Torah study and peace for all readers of this series and all of Israel .

1Relationship between preaching and translating the Torah reading in the synagogue requires farther clarification. There are similarities between many passages in various non-literal targumim and midrashic passages and it is quite possible that the two activities were inter-related. Even in our day, sermons usually follow the Torah Reading in the place occupied in ancient times by Targum .

2 For a more detailed discussion of this topic and various contentions for and against this view, see G. Porton, Rabbinic Midrash:Public or Private, Review o fRabbinic Judaism, 5, 2002.

3 On the other hand, Menoras Hamaor argued that a sermon should start with a citation from the Torah itself so that any rebuke included therein is more easily accepted. See M. Saperstein, Jewish Preaching 1200-18000: An Anthology, (New Haven/ London, 1989)