Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bamidbar 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Bamidbar 5760/June 3, 2000

Midrash Rabbah on Numbers: An Introduction

Dr. Hananel Mack

Dept. of Talmud

The anthology of aggadic comentaries on the Pentateuch known to us by the collective name of Midrash Rabbah is not a unified midrash on the Pentateuch. Actually, it is a collection of separate works, each edited individually by different redactors, in different times and places. Most of the extant medieval manuscripts of midrashim do not encompass midrashim on all the books of the Torah, rather only on one or several books. It is only around the time that printed editions of midrashim on the Torah began to appear [1] that copyists began to include midrashic works on all five books of the Torah in their anthologies and to give them the general name of Midrash Rabbah.

The earliest of the Midrash Rabbah anthologies is Genesis Rabbah, edited in the land of Israel, as far as we can tell dating to the end of the fourth or early fifth century C.E. The next in the series was Leviticus Rabbah, while Numbers Rabbah is the latest of these homiletical works on the Torah in terms of the time of its final redaction. It actually emerged in the final form in which we know it today not in the land of Israel, but in Europe, probably in Provence, southern France. Various considerations indicate that final redaction of the work occurred no earlier than the 12th century. As far as we know, the name Numbers Rabbah is not mentioned in written sources until the beginning of the 13th century, nor do we have any information about the work existing in the form in which we know it prior to this period.

Beginning in the 13th century, Numbers Rabbah began to appear in several places throughout the Jewish world, but for a few generations its circulation remained rather limited. The first traces of this midrash appear in Catalonia, northeastern Spain, as well as Provence. Later its distribution began to expand, including other Jewish centers in countries on the Mediterranean Sea, and only shortly before the beginning of printing was Numbers Rabbah found in more remote places from its center of circulation, such as Ashkenaz or Turkey.

A glance at Numbers Rabbah immediately reveals that the nature and scope of the homilies on the first two weekly readings of Numbers, Be-Midbar and Naso, are quite different from the homilies on the rest of Numbers. Numbers Rabbah on the eight parashot from Be-ha'alotkha to Masei is almost identical to the text of Midrash Tanhuma which we have in our hands. Most of the material on these readings that does not appear in the Tanhuma with which many are familiar and which has been in print for centuries, or in the Solomon Buber edition, [2] appears in other manuscripts of the Tanhuma that are more extensive than the familiar printed editions.

In contrast, the first part of Numbers Rabbah is much larger than the second part, notwithstanding the fact that the first part, the homilies on Be-Midbar and Naso, covers less than one fifth of the material in the entire book of Numbers. Moreover a large part of this material repeats itself more than once and therefore is of limited value as a basis for homiletical commentary. Nevertheless, this part turns out to comprise approximately 73% of Numbers Rabbah. In this first part most of the homilies in Midrash Tanhuma have been incorporated, along with many other and varied commentaries from different sources. Many of the derashot deal with matters of halakhah, particularly as concerns the halakhic passages in Naso: the Nazirite, the Sotah, and the priestly blessing. Indeed, there is a relatively larger component of halakhic interpretation in the first part of Numbers Rabbah [3] in comparison with other volumes of Midrash Rabbah on the Torah.

There can be no doubt that the redactor of Numbers Rabbah was well-versed in all of the literature of the Sages. Indeed, both the halakhic parts and the aggadic parts make extensive use of all the classical sources in the literature of the Sages. Moreover, alongside the well-known sources which it uses, Numbers Rabbah also uses lesser-known sources, some of them relatively late ones, such as Midrash Tadshe, Midrash Konen and Ottiyot of Rabbi Akiva. Numbers Rabbah also uses the liturgical poems of ha-Kalir and apparently was aware of at least some of the writings of R. Saadiah Gaon and possibly also of the writings of other contemporaneous rabbis. There can be almost no doubt that the redactor of Numbers Rabbah had before him an ancient midrash on Numbers, and perhaps on other books as well, which has not come down to us and which we do not know of today. From the nature of the passages that were incorporated from this work and that remain in the Numbers Rabbah that we have today, one may conclude that this midrash belonged to the group of Tanhuma-style midrashim.

An extremely important source used by the author of Numbers Rabbah was the lost book of R. Moses ha-Darshan. What we know about this rabbi is scanty and incomplete, and not even a single line of his works has come down to us directly. It is clear, however, that he was an extremely interesting and prolific writer and that the scope of his works was very broad. R. Moses ha-Darshan lived in the 11th century, for the most part in Narbonne, Provence. The best-known source which cites his teachings is Rashi's commentary on the Torah; however this is not the only source on R. Moses ha-Darshan. Indeed, various considerations indicate that Numbers Rabbah preserves considerable material incorporated from the lost book of R. Moses ha-Darshan. Most of the material cited here from the midrash of R. Moses ha-Darshan is incorporated in the last chapters of the first part of Numbers Rabbah, chapters 13 and 14, whose primary concern is the sacrifices brought by the tribal heads for the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Numbers, ch. 7). These chapters present extensive and varied homiletical material about the chieftains' offerings in all their details; apparently the author of Numbers Rabbah, and R. Moses ha-Darshan from whose work this material was taken, had a special sensitivity to numbers and their significance.

Generally the redactor reworked his sources, interweaving passages from here and there. Sometimes one can discern remarks of the redactor himself (or of an unknown author who preceded the final redactor) incorporated amidst the passages from identified sources; therefore the task of untangling the bundle of sources and presenting each in its own right is difficult and complex, and conclusions must be drawn with great caution. This is especially true regarding the halakhic passages in the midrash. The work of compilation done here by the redactor is both interesting and impressive, befitting the complex halakhic character of these passages. For example, the passage (ch. 9, 33) beginning with the words ve-he'emid ha-kohen (The priest shall place…; Vilna ed., p. 31c, line 32) and concluding at the end of the paragraph (p. 32d, line 23) encompasses fewer than forty short printed lines and is comprised of sixteen units from different sources. The entire passage pertains to a single verse from the Torah: Numbers 5:18.

In contrast, in the aggadic passages - which are greater in number than the halakhic comments - the style of Numbers Rabbah is heavy and lengthy, far inferior to the quality of the classical Midrash of the Sages. One hardly finds here any of the pithy conciseness and impressive precision characteristic of the classical aggadic midrashim, such as Genesis Rabbah. The various sources are woven together here in a different way, so that often the reader has difficulty establishing whether a given homily is from an ancient source or whether the passage at hand is a comment by the author of the anthology himself, skilled in presenting his views as if they were taken from ancient authorities. In general one may say that the author of Numbers Rabbah attempted and largely succeeded in creating a midrash according to the ancient format, one which is based to a large extent on the works of the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, but which is heavily influenced by the pand literary endeavors of the redactor himself and by relatively late sources which he uses.

The following example illustrates some of what we have said above:

In several places Midrash Tanhuma mentions that Moses devoted his life to three things and that these three things were named after him. In Tanhuma Shelah (10) and Shoftim (5) the three things are listed in the following order: the Torah, Israel, and the Laws. A verse is cited for each, proving that Moses "devoted his life" to that thing, and another verse, proving that indeed it is named after him. In Tanhuma Ki-Tisa (35) the homily is abbreviated, the verses having disappeared from it. On the other hand, the view of the amora R. Hiyya bar Yosef is presented there, adding a fouth item to the list: the Tabernacle. The redactor of Numbers Rabbah cited the verses on the Laws and the Torah from Tanhuma B-eshalah or Shoftim, added the Tabernacle to the list according to Tanhuma Ki-Tisa, and before citing from the Tanhuma the remarks of R. Hiyya ben Yosef on the Tabernacle, and crediting them to him, expanded on the subject with his own remarks.

The redactor of Numbers Rabbah had no qualms about omitting Israel from the list; that was necessary since he wished to preserve the number three and to include those items that he listed. The conclusion of the homily in Numbers Rabbah also differs from that in Tahuma Ki-Tisa. In the latter, the homily concludes by praising Moses for his toils for the sake of Torah. In Numbers Rabbah the concluding subject is the erection of the Tabernacle; hence, when the redactor reached this topic he concluded with praise of Moses for devoting his life to the Tabernacle.

Numbers Rabbah is familiar with the format of the petihta, typical of classical aggadic midrashim, and uses this technique in the usual way in midrash aggadah. Yet here, too, one senses the heavy and wordy style of Numbers Rabbah, divesting the short petihta of its beauty and uniqueness; and here, too, the main force of the homilist is in his method of incorporating and interweaving the sources that he uses. His attempt at creating a midrash with an ancient format leads him to refrain almost entirely from relating directly to contemporary events. Great effort is therefore required to identify concrete historical allusions in this book.

It is not clear why Numbers Rabbah was created in this unique format only for the first part of Numbers and not for the entire book. Perhaps the redactor of the Midrash took special interest in the readings of Be-Midbar and Naso, since these two weekly Torah readings contain many numbers, a theme close to the heart of the redactor of Numbers Rabbah. Perhaps the redactor intended to complete his midrashic work, extending it to the rest of the book of Numbers, and perhaps even further. Nor do we know precisely when Numbers Rabbah came to be recognized as a single integral work, despite the great difference between its two parts. Almost everyone who cites this midrashic work and refers to Numbers Rabbah by name treats it as a single work, and apparently the date when the two parts were united was not long after the first part was composed; indeed, the unification may have been done by the redactor of Numbers Rabbah part I, himself. Be that as it may, the anonymous redactor of Numbers Rabbah on Be-Midbar and Naso and the person who joined it with the other part of Numbers Rabbah - who may have been one and the same - succeeded in creating an interesting and highly developed interpretive work that found its way into the principal anthology of Midrash Aggadah on the Torah.

[1] The first printed edition of Midrash Rabbah on the Torah appeared in Constantinople in 1512.

[2] Solomon Buber, Midrash Tanhuma ha-Kadum ve-he-Yashan, Lvov (Lemberg), 1883. Buber, who believed that the edition of the Tanhuma which he had was the "ancient and original" one, was mistaken in this respect, for it is clear that there were several ancient editions of Midrash Tanhuma, and it is hard to determine which was the preferred or older one. In an extensive introduction to his book Buber himself mentioned nine manuscripts with greater or lesser differences, all of which he used in putting together his edition.

[3] From here on, in this brief sketch, when we refer to Numbers Rabbah we mean the first part of this midrashic work.

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