Sunday 18 April 2021


Midrash Rabbah, printed in Cracow 1609.


When the Midrash Rabbah was first printed in the sixteenth century it contained ten collections[1] of Midrashic works which were collated largely at the discretion of the printers themselves without much rabbinic input. No similar anthology had existed before in manuscript form.[2]

This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Benjamin Williams[3], traces the development of this new anthology of Midrash Rabbah from its first printing to the format we have today.


The Midrash Rabbah was first printed in Constantinople in 1512 and then in Venice in 1545. This was followed by editions printed in Cracow and Salonica.

Then an interesting development took place. Various rabbis began writing commentary on this new anthology of ten Midrashim and added details and some extra material, “…producing comprehensive volumes of notes and glosses…”[4]

However, at the same time as commentary on these ten Midrashim was being produced, some rabbis expressed their criticism of various textual errors in these early printings which contained, “…obscure (and, in particular, non-Hebrew) vocabulary.”

This created the need to produce even more exposition and commentary in order to remedy these mistakes, resulting in the original form and structure of Midrash Rabbah beginning to change.


Williams explains just how “flexible” the Constantinople printers were:

“The Constantinople printers of these volumes…seem to have enjoyed considerable freedom with regard to the texts they printed… Furthermore, despite the printers’ assurance that ‘the work of heaven was completed, refined and purified and distilled seven times over’, they edited these texts with considerable flexibility, both adding and omitting passages.”

This created a knock-on effect with regard to the future printings of Midrash Rabbah. Williams explains:

“The limited editing carried out by printers who relied heavily on recent editions led to the perpetuation of textual errors from print to print…

The would-be reader of the new books of Midrash Rabbah, hindered by textual corruption, obscure vocabulary, and the lack of appropriate commentaries, was helpless as he faced the unfathomable riches contained in the words of the sages.”


Because of the difficulties relating to the printed editions of Midrash Rabbah, some sixteenth century rabbis began to object and protest, calling for a revision of the text.


R. Meir Benveniste of Salonica responded to the difficulties in Midrash Rabbah by publishing his commentary, Ot Emet in 1565. This work contained lengthy critical lists of mistakes in the printing of the Midrashic texts in Midrash Rabbah.

In the preface to his Ot Emet, Benveniste describes an apparently common practice at that time, which was to emend[5] printed editions of these Midrashim with handwritten corrections over the original printed text. These corrections would be copied from other printed texts which were already hand corrected.

Benveniste labelled his annotations and emendations in a systematic manner corresponding to the page and line, making it easy for the reader to also do the same to his own printed edition.

Benveniste writes:

“All these annotations are necessary for whomsoever might wish to write them down in the margin of the midrashim, each at its place. A unit of text is often incomprehensible without my annotation at the beginning of it. Therefore, anyone who finds the point of the text difficult [to understand] does not need to set out in search of the annotation, but only needs to look in the place where the difficulty arose.”[6]

But Benveniste cautions:

“Do not rely or depend on the few annotated midrashim found in this city that were copied from books of my annotations. It was some time since they were copied and, without a doubt, they do not even contain half of the annotation[s].”[7]

An industry of sorts began to emerge because the printed books with handwritten annotations were in great demand and people were prepared to pay a premium for such works, especially when corrected by a known scholar.

This faith in handwritten corrections did not only apply to printed Midrashic works, but to other works as well. The printed version of the Zohar Chadash in 1597 proudly advertises that it was based on the hand written annotations; “found in the house of . . . Judah Gedaliah (of blessed memory).”


Another commentator who did similar work to Benveniste was the author of Matenot Kehuna, R. Issachar Berman ben Naphtali Hakohen of Szczebrzeszyn, apparently a student of R. Moshe Isserless. R. Issachar wrote in his preface to his critical commentary[8] on Midrash Rabbah completed in 1588:

“The copyists’ errors and mistakes are myriad in number. If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand. They are innumerable, too many for someone to straighten what has been made crooked. The sins [of the copyists] are many. They have wronged us, and who can comprehend the errors?

Marc Shapiro describes Matenot Kehuna as the text which "actually presents the peshat, the literal meaning of the midrashic text". [14]


Williams explains that “the most distinctive transformation of the appearance of Midrash Rabbah” were the works of the commentators Avraham ben Asher of Safed (Or haSechel) and Shmuel Yafeh of Constantinople (Yefeh To’ar).

Until then, the Midrash Rabbah had been a single volume. With these two commentators, Midrash Rabbah became a multi volume compendium.

The reason why these two editions grew so enormously was because, instead of occasional corrections to difficult texts such as in Benveniste’s Ot Emet and Issachar Berman’s Matenot Kehuna – now Or haSechel and Yefeh To’ar:

“…aimed to guide readers towards correct and harmonious understandings of each midrash by means of extended, discursive comments…[with][9] the text of Midrash Rabbah surrounded by their extensive discursive interpretations, expounding the minutiae of rabbinic discussions, questioning their consistency, and reconciling any apparent discrepancies by means of multiple expositions.”


Williams explains the intriguing reason why rabbis like Avraham ben Asher (Or haSechel) wanted to expand the Midrash Rabbah. In the preface to his Or haSechel, R. Avraham writes that he wanted to introduce a contrast to the standard genre of Torah study of his era, particularly in Safed at that time, which was Halacha (Law).

R. Avraham’s was a student of R. Yosef Karo, the author of the code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch. He was also later active as a Halachic decisor, serving as a rabbi in Safed, Damascus and Aleppo and evidenced in various responsa.[10] It seems, according to R. Avraham’s own writing, that he was ‘satiated’ with Halacha and wanted to introduce another perhaps more entertaining aspect of literary engagement to his study regimen. R. Avraham wrote:

“Now when I saw my brothers and companions. . .I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure,’ to feed in the gardens and to gather lilies. Let us go forth into the field to gather the lights of the sayings of the rabbis…”[11]

This view may have been reflected in the writing of R. Moshe Alshich (1508-1593) in the preface to his commentary on the Torah. He complains that his study schedule is almost entirely dominated by Halachic matters and that he only has time to look at Midrashic matters on Fridays in preparation for his Shabbat sermon:

“From my childhood the extensive study of the Talmud in the yeshiva nurtured me … thrusting and parrying in the disputes of Abbaye and Rava … speculative analysis [iyun] by night and [talmudic] halakhah by day … thereafter [turning] to the posekim until sunset, replying according to the halakhah to those who ask what is relevant …

I only appointed a fixed time for [the exposition of] midrashic and plain explanations when the Lord sent me good fortune … and lightened me with time to find rest … from halakhah on the sixth day. For every sabbath the people would come to me to expound to them according to the Torah, the Holy Scriptures, which they would read, each parashah at the appointed time.”[12]

For both R. Abraham ben Asher and Moses Alshich, it seems that excursions into Midrash provided what Williams refers to as:

“a felicitous side-track in a curriculum otherwise devoted to halakhic enquiry.”

This “side-track” was not insignificant because R. Avraham, through his Or haSechel, was attempting to a bolster if not create a new and serious genre of Torah study:

“To this end, he undertook to provide a new edition of Midrash Rabbah in which the text was surrounded by commentary. He thereby sought to promote and facilitate the detailed study of the Midrash and to uphold Midrash Rabbah as a weighty and authoritative work requiring thorough investigation with the guidance of learned commentators.”

R. Shmuel Yafe, in a similar fashion through his Yefeh To’ar, wrote:

“When I came to the threshold of the gates of Midrash Rabbah on the Torah, the father of all collections of aggadic Midrash, I found the door locked, as I found no interpretation except for the briefest pamphlet of difficult words derived from the Arukh. And even though some writers adduced some section of this midrash in their homilies … not even one out of sixty aggadot was cited. As for those which were mentioned, they were not careful to explain the true meaning of the text, but rather explained its general sense according to the lesson they wanted to get across, even if it were for rhetorical use.”

These rabbis were attempting to publicise and elevate the status, seriousness and importance of studying Midrash Rabbah by producing volumes of copious commentary to the work.

Williams sums up the novel contribution of Or haSechel and Yefeh To’ar:

“In publishing their commentaries as part of new editions of the text of Midrash Rabbah itself, their concerns intersected with a wider desire to add to books of Midrash Rabbah every resource needed by the reader to understand the midrashim correctly.”


An interesting dynamic had developed. The earlier Constantinople printers freely and flexibly compiled their first edition of Midrash Rabbah from the ten Midrashim originating in somewhat random manuscripts. For this they were criticised. The rabbis who followed, instead of seeking out more authoritative manuscripts and starting afresh to collate a new and perhaps more accurate anthology of Midrashim, seemed content to rely on what was already printed and even consolidated those very printed editions by their extensive commentaries, and brought the study of Midrash to a level not seen before.

To illustrate how the Midrash Rabbah began to grow in size, consider that the entire early edition printed in Venice in 1545 had about 300 folios. Issachar Berman’s edition (Matenot Kehuna) had 430 folios. The Avraham ben Asher (Or haSechel) and Shmuel Yafeh (Yefeh To’ar) commentary - just on Bereishit Rabbah alone – numbered 190 and 540 folios respectively!

One wonders why there were no attempts to rather reconstruct the foundational text of Midrash Rabbah based on sound manuscripts - instead of expounding on the problematic printed material that all the commentators themselves had already clearly acknowledged.

This, especially in light of R. Issachar Berman’s (Matenot Kehuna) criticisms of the printed Midrash Rabbah whose mistakes, as mentioned earlier, were  “too many for someone to straighten what has been made crooked”.[13]






[1] These include the ten Midrashic works whose titles end with Rabbah, such as Bereishit Rabbah, Shemot Rabbah, Vayikra Rabbah, Bemidbar Rabbah, Devarim Rabbah, Shir haShirim Rabbah, Ruth Rabbah, Esther Rabbah, Eicha Rabbah and Kohelet Rabbah.

[2] The various Midrashic works had existed as separate units and were sometimes joined with other Aggadic manuscripts making a mix of Rabbah Midrashim and Mekhilta deRabi Yishma’el, Sifra and Sifrei. But Midrash Rabbah was the first time that then ten “Rabbah” groups were collated as one anthology.

[3] Benjamin Williams, 2003, The Ingathering of Midrash Rabba: A Moment of Creativity and Innovation.

[4] See the preface to Naphtali Hertz, Perush leMidrash Chamesh Megilot Rabbah (Kraków, 1569), 2a, and Abraham b. Asher, Or haSechel (Venice, 1567), 1a.

[5] Emend means to correct, while amend means to change or modify.

[6] Ot Emet, 3a.

[7] Benveniste, Ot Emet, 2a.

[8] “His Mattenot Kehunnah (completed in 1584, printed in 1587–88) was a critical edition of the Midrash Rabbah with commentary. It became among the most influential works on the Midrash Rabbah, and has been included in almost every edition on account of its textual accuracy and the clear, concise manner in which it explains the simple/straightforward meaning of the text. He put great effort into determining and preserving the correct wording of the text, making use of multiple texts, both printed and manuscript, to determine the most accurate wording, and insisting that the printers take care not to introduce new errors. He also sought out individuals familiar with other languages such as Arabic and Latin to clarify certain points where foreign words were used; however, it appears that the information he received was not always so accurate.” (Wikipedia).

[9] Parenthesis mine.

[10] Or haSechel 1b.

[11] Or haSechel 1b.

[12] Moshe Alshich, Torat Mosheh (Venice, 1601) 1b.

[13] Perhaps there is some significance in the fact that R. Avraham ben Asher (Or haSechel) was a student of the Mechaber R. Yosef Karo – and R. Issachar Berman (Matenot Kehuna) was a student of the Ramah R. Moshe Isserless. There may have been some form of ‘rivalry’ between the two. 

In R. Yosef Karo’s mystical diary, Maggid Meisharim, his Maggid or “angelic being”, encouraged R. Karo to finish his book as soon as possible, before a ‘certain’ Rabbi in Krakow would finish his. This rabbi was R. Moshe Isserless (1530 -1572) who wrote a parallel work for Askenazim, which corresponded to R. Karo’s work which was created for Sephardim. According to this account, there appears to have been some rivalry between the two. [See Kotzk Blog: 153) A MYSTICAL SIDE TO R. YOSEF KARO:

This rivalry may have been perpetuated by their students R. Avraham ben Asher and R. Issachar Berman - and thus the former did what the latter said could not be done.

[14] Marc. B Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press; 1st edition (August 25, 2011), 99.

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