Commentary on Midrash Rabba in the Sixteenth Century

The Or ha-Sekhel of Abraham ben Asher

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Benjamin Williams
Oxford Oriental Monographs
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The “history of the book” represents an important area of study when considering virtually everything concerned with books: production, distribution, binding, reading culture, etc. What Benjamin Williams has done in his brilliant Commentary on Midrash Rabba in the Sixteenth Century is apply these methods to sixteenth century printed midrashim. The results provide us a window into the reception of rabbinic midrashic biblical interpretation in the early modern period.

Williams’s focus is on printed midrashim within Sephardic communities, which are where the printed midrashim originated. As his subtitle indicates, his main focus will be on Abraham ben Asher’s Or ha-Sekhel, and he hopes by his study “to determine how sixteenth-century commentators understood rabbinic expositions of the Hebrew Bible,” as well as “uncover the significance” of ben Asher’s Or ha-Sekhel “at a moment of creativity and innovation in the study of Midrash Rabba” (8).

Williams’s slender volume—237 pages including front matter and index—has many strengths. The first that struck me was how economical Williams’s language is. As someone who tends to be verbose, I am always impressed when writers are able to communicate clearly, thoroughly, and yet concisely, what would take me far more space to put into words. His inclusion of Hebrew texts from ben Asher’s Or ha-Sekhel, Solomon le-Vet ha-Levi’s work on Genesis Rabba, and Samuel Yafeh’s work on Genesis Rabba in the seven appendices (179-192), as well as images from actual pages of Or ha-Sekhel, Daniel Bomberg’s printed Talmud, and Jacob ibn Habib’s Ein Ya‘akov, are beneficial additions (212-19).

Beyond such incidental strengths are Williams’s clear mastery of the primary sources, and of midrashic scholarship. He not only explains the history and tradition of midrash accessible to complete novices with the lucidity only a master could accomplish, but he confidently charts his course through the difficult waters of contemporary midrashic scholarship, and scholarship of the printing of Hebrew texts in the early modern period. He provides corrections to published scholarship, as well as necessary nuances, and he is very well aware of the explanatory limits of his study and discussion.

One significant point that his study underscores pertains to the guiding assumptions within early Jewish biblical interpretation. He observes how, “midrash takes for granted the perfection of the Written Torah, its divine origin and its reliable transmission from Moses through successive generations of authoritative tradents” (2). As such, “No textual detail of the Torah … is treated as superfluous, unimportant, or misplaced; every element of the text is suffused with meaning” (2).

Rabbinic midrash represented attempts to mine Scripture for all of its divine treasures hidden in the most mundane, or the most obscure, parts of the text. Williams shows how the unique contribution of these sixteenth century figures whose work he studies was in providing actual commentaries on these rabbinic commentaries. Thus, the brief proliferation of commentaries on Midrash Rabba in the sixteenth century, beginning among Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Ben Asher’s unique contribution included the first printing of stand-alone midrash in a single volume—rather than the midrash being included as one interpretive text among others—alongside (or around) the Scripture passages under discussion.

One interpretive and rhetorical technique employed in ben Asher, and others, was the listing of questions concerning challenges (dikdukim)—perhaps apparent contradictions—in Scripture, followed by various resolutions. Williams explains the dual effect of this method. It “makes the reader newly aware of the complexity of a passage that may previously have appeared straightforward” (72-73). At the same time, however, it reinforces “a preconception that the text under discussion has the precision and authority to withstand such a scrupulous cross-examination” (73).

In both the midrash and the sixteenth century commentaries on the midrash, it becomes clear how the commentators viewed nothing as superfluous; everything contained some fuller meaning that could enrich the reader, and thus make studying midrash spiritually rewarding. This is particularly significant for the homilies in the context of the synagogue, as Williams’s study describes the important role midrash plays in homilies. His study thus increases our knowledge about the reception of rabbinic midrash in the sixteenth century, particularly among Sephardic Jews. As he indicates, the intense focus on midrash would soon be “replaced by pilpulistic analysis of halakhah in the Babylonian Talmud and in legal codes” (173).

In light of the growing importance of Christian Hebraism in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, I would be interested to know of evidence of the reception of midrash among Christian interpreters during this time period, although that is beyond the bounds of Williams’s study. His volume, however, is essential reading for anyone interested in the early modern reception of Jewish biblical interpretation, and particularly midrash.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey L. Morrow is chair of the department of undergraduate theology at the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Williams is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, department of theology & religious studies, King's College London.


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