Midrashic Exegesis and Biblical Interpretation in the Meshekh Hokhmah – The Man and the Work – Their Legal Stature and Normative Influence

Jewish Law Annual, Forthcoming

50 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2012 Last revised: 25 Dec 2012

Date Written: January 21, 2010


This article addressed a broad spectrum of halakhic issues, almost all of them concerning non-ritual matters: capital cases, civil law, evidentiary law, the law of the king, inheritance law, matters of personal status, the laws of conversion, rules governing legal competence, and more. The most striking discovery I made was that the rabbinic decisors believed MH to be more than just a biblical commentary; they understood that RMS’ midrashic exegeses might have legal repercussions as he intended to render normative law based on his midrashic exegeses and biblical interpretations. He was not just engaging in theoretics.

Another striking discovery I made was that RMS’ enterprise of innovating the law via midrashic exegesis was not a marginal byproduct of his scholarly efforts, but fundamental and central to them. That RMS adopted this enterprise as a goal of his Torah study further highlights the courageous and innovative step he took in the face of the reticence evinced by other rabbinic decisors.

While we have seen that occasionally the decisors argued that RMS’ midrashic creations were only theoretical in nature, this cannot detract from the many cases in which it was absolutely clear to them that RMS had entered the normative-halakhic realm and was not satisfied with remaining engaged in midrashic theoretics. Proof that they clearly felt this way can be adduced in one of two ways: firstly, his novellae are quoted in the decisors’ responsa to actual questions; secondly, when his midrashic exegesis is quoted in the decisors’ responsa, they refer to it using legal terminology.

From the responsa examined, I have come to the conclusion that RMS offered his midrashic exegeses as the basis for normative law even though sometimes this meant that he was permitting something that normative, biblically-mandated law forbade and contradicting the standard law promulgated by universally accepted halakhic giants like the Shulhan Arukh and the Rema.

Actually, for the most part, the decisors rejected RMS’ exegeses because they understood the verses differently than he did and offered their own midrashic exegeses. We only witnessed two cases in which the decisors’ opposition stemmed from a principled refusal to accept either the problematic methodology itself or RMS’ authority to offer midrashic exegesis as the basis for normative law. In some cases, even though the decisors rejected RMS’ halakhic conclusions, they surprisingly did not reject the methodology he used to arrive at them; indeed, they were so influenced by his method that they even adopted it. Thus, we must conclude that they merely disputed RMS particular interpretations. They were not calling the legitimacy of offering midrashic exegesis itself into question.

Placing my findings in a broader context, I would like to note that offering midrashic exegeses and claiming that these have normative ramifications fits in well with RMS’ pragmatic tendency and with his legal-decision-making approach which I discussed elsewhere. This methodology endows RMS’ development of the Halakha with an innovative and unique character, especially as he expands and extrapolates from the extant law to include cases not yet explicitly addressed.

Keywords: midrashic exegeses, biblical interpretations, rabbinic decisors, halakhic, responsa, Or Sameah, Meir Simhah, Dvinsk, Hakohen,legal-decision-making, Halakha, capital cases, inheritance law

JEL Classification: K30, K39, K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Yitshak, Midrashic Exegesis and Biblical Interpretation in the Meshekh Hokhmah – The Man and the Work – Their Legal Stature and Normative Influence (January 21, 2010). Jewish Law Annual, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2190431

Yitshak Cohen (Contact Author)

Ono Academic College ( email )

Tzahal Street 104
Kiryat Ono, 55000
972 2 6793849 (Phone)

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