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Midrash and Aggadah

Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis identify Mahalath with Basemath (based on the exchange of names between Gen. 28:9 and 36:3; cf. “Esau’s Wives”). Some of the Rabbis maintain Esau’s marriage to Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael reflected his desire to repent of his evil deeds and act in accordance with the wishes of his parents Isaac and Rebekah for a proper mate (JT Bikkurim 3:3, 65c–d). Mahalath’s name indicates that the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned (mahal) Esau for all his wickedness. Her other name, Basemath, also teaches that by this marriage Esau’s character improved (nitbasmah; Gen. Rabbah 67:13).

Leah: Midrash and Aggadah

Leah is depicted in the [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:424]Torah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] as the woman who was married to Jacob against his will, and as the sister of the beloved and beautiful Rachel. The Rabbis compare Leah and Rachel: both were equivalent in beauty and in their erect stature. However, Leah’s eyes were weak from crying, for she feared that she would have to be married to the wicked Esau. The Rabbis found this weeping to be praiseworthy and declared that by merit of her prayers this fate was set aside and she was married to Jacob.

Jephthah's Daughter: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis severely criticize Jephthah’s vow and conduct that resulted in the senseless death of his daughter.

Jezebel: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis count Jezebel among the four women who ruled in the world, two of whom were enthroned in Israel (Jezebel and Athaliah), and two who reigned over other peoples (the heathen Semiramis and Vashti) (Esther Rabbah 3:2). Jezebel is portrayed as a wicked woman (Sifrei on Numbers, 133), who represents the negative influence of Gentile women who turned Israel’s heart to idolatry; an evil woman who causes the king of Israel to stray from the ways of the Lord (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 159). Nevertheless, the Rabbis also indicate a favorable aspect of her character.

Jochebed: Midrash and Aggadah

The midrash portrays Jochebed as a wise woman who was righteous and God-fearing. By merit of her good deeds, she gave birth to the three leaders of the Exodus generation: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Keturah: Midrash and Aggadah

Keturah was one of Abraham’s wives. The Rabbis describe her as a woman of virtue and for that she was worthy of being joined to that righteous one [Abraham].

Hannah: Midrash and Aggadah

Hannah is depicted by the Rabbis as a righteous woman who was devout in her observance of the commandments, especially those of pilgrimage to the Tabernacle, [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:373]niddah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] (the laws governing family purity), the taking of [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:319]hallah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] from dough, and the kindling of the Sabbath lights.

Hagar: Bible

Hagar is Sarai’s Egyptian slave girl, whom Sarai (later Sarah) gives to Abram (later Abraham) as a wife who would bear a child that would be considered Sarai’s (Gen 16:3). Although it bears a resemblance to modern technological surrogate motherhood, this custom may seem bizarre. However, cuneiform texts of the second and first millennia b.c.e. attest to this custom in ancient Mesopotamia.

Hagar: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis present Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, as an Egyptian princess whom Pharaoh king of Egypt gave to Sarah as a gift. She grew up in the home of Abraham and Sarah, and converted. Sarah initially had to persuade Hagar to marry Abraham (to compensate for her own barrenness), but Hagar quickly became accustomed to her new status, taking advantage of it in order to vex Sarah and disparage her in the eyes of others. The [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:357]midrash[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] tells that Abraham grew close to Hagar and ceased viewing her as a handmaiden. He heeded his wife as regards Hagar, but he also took care not to harm the latter. Sarah, in contrast, treated her handmaiden harshly and abused her in various ways, causing her to flee to the wilderness. Hagar is depicted by the Rabbis as being strongly influenced by the atmosphere in the house of Abraham and Sarah. She became accustomed to seeing angels and therefore was not alarmed when an angel of the Lord was revealed to her at Beer-lahai-roi. The spiritual level of Sarah’s handmaiden was higher than that of people from later generations (see below, the comparison with Manoah).

Eve: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis view Eve, the first woman, as embodying the qualities of all women, and of femininity in general. As God’s handiwork, she is portrayed as the most beautiful woman who ever lived, and there was no fairer creature but her husband Adam. The midrashim about her exude an air of primacy: the first mating between Adam and Eve is described as a magnificent wedding, and their first intercourse aroused the serpent’s jealousy. The primal sin is generally symbolic of man’s sins, and through it the Rabbis seek to clarify why men trespass. The depiction of the woman’s creation leads the Rabbis to inquire into gender differences and the nature of the female sex, all through the eyes of the male Rabbis. They discuss woman’s different temperament, her mental maturity, her habits, the physical shape of her body, her behavior, and other aspects of female existence. The Rabbis attempt to provide an explanation for gender differences by means of a portrayal of woman’s different creation, and also as being a result of the sin of the Garden of Eden. Eve’s punishment is examined at length in the dicta of the Rabbis, who exhibit a certain degree of empathy in their ability to describe women’s suffering during the first three months of pregnancy, during birth, in instances of miscarriage, the pain of raising children, that of menstrual periods and other afflictions.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Midrash and Aggadah." (Viewed on January 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/topics/midrash-and-aggadah>.

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