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Midrash and Aggadah: Terminology

by Jacob Elbaum

In current terminology the two terms, “midrash” and “aggadah,” refer to the two types of non-halakhic literary activity of the Rabbis. Midrash, following the mention of this word in II Chron. 13:22; 24:27, where, most likely, it already meant “to interpret,” was designated for such non-legal material on the basis of the exposition (derishatam) of these verses according to special hermeneutical rules, known in the sources as middot. The term aggadah (that was preceded in the early Jewish literature by the term haggadot) refers to statements that are not Scripturally dependent and that pertain to ethics, traditions, actions of the Rabbis, and the like. In contrast with current usage, the early sources generally do not draw a clearly defined distinction between these terms, although haggadot (or in the singular: haggadah or aggadah (as this appears in the BT) was initially reserved for the non-halakhic sphere (in contrast with halakhot), and midrash denotes Scriptural exegesis in all realms, both the legal and the aggadic, and its product: Scriptural commentary.

A precise examination of the uses of the terms reveals that even in later sources, and even those from the medieval period, these terms are not always defined. Midrash continues to denote the exegetical activity of derashah, but also what can be deduced from the Biblical exposition, as well as everything that accrued around a specific Biblical book, whether aggadic (= non-legal) or halakhic (which are known, respectively, as midrashei aggadah and midrashei halakhah). In certain linguistic traditions (such as the Yemenite), midrash is synonymous with interpretation of any form, and is not restricted to materials drawn from the classical midrashic collections. Furthermore, although compilations of Rabbinical exegeses of the books of the Bible are usually called midrash (e.g. Midrash Gen. Rabbah), some are also called aggadah or haggadah (e.g. Aggadat Shir ha-Shirim, Haggadat Tehillim [i.e., Midrash Tehillim]), and the like.

How to cite this page

Elbaum, Jacob. "Midrash and Aggadah: Terminology." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 29, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/midrash-and-aggadah-terminology>.

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