The Fourth Plague

The Fourth Plague

According to medieval Jewish bible commentators, the fourth plague suffered by the Egyptians was an invasion of destructive herds of wild animals. Yet Christian, and indeed many modern Jewish translations , believe the plague was an inundation of flies. The disagreement between the two opinions of the plague’s nature is highlighted in the Midrash.

Continue reading
Twelve Tribes One Blessing

Twelve Tribes One Blessing

The rabbis who compiled the ancient Midrash must have struggled with Jacob’s blessing to his sons. The problem is that, although Jacob had twelve sons, we know nothing at all about half of them, apart from their names. How does one interpret a blessing made to someone of whom we know nothing?

Continue reading
Judah and Joseph as Superheroes

Judah and Joseph as Superheroes

One of the most vivid illustrations of rabbinic imagination occurs in the scene Judah when pleads with the viceroy of Egypt for Benjamin’s freedom. But the Midrash is not satisfied with merely interpreting Judah’s entreaties as threats. In a spectacularly futuristic passage they turn Judah and Joseph into super-heroes, more reminiscent of twentieth century Marvel comics than second century rabbinic literature.

Continue reading
Jacob’s Microscopic Errors

Jacob’s Microscopic Errors

We know that many of the characters in the Tanach are flawed personalities, it is one of the reasons why the text has resonated with readers throughout history. They make mistakes, get things wrong, act unjustly or even unfairly at times. Less well known though is that the ancient Jewish interpretative tradition, although it often erases these faults, or engages in unlikely apologetics, is just as happy, at times, to highlight or exaggerate them. The hapless biblical hero, whom we instinctively imagine to be a paradigm of saintliness and sanctity, finds themselves used instead as a salutary example of how not to behave; they become at best a nebbish, at worst unsavoury.

Continue reading
Angels Buzzing Round Like Flies

Angels Buzzing Round Like Flies

n a rather bizarre comment the Midrash (BR 69,3) seems to compare Jacob’s angels, climbing up and down the ladder, to flies. It draws a parallel with a young prince sleeping on his bed with flies buzzing around him. When his nurse appears the flies go away. Similarly, says the Midrash the angels were ascending and descending the ladder, until God appeared, whereupon they ran away.

Continue reading
Jacob and Esau’s Struggle in the 2nd Century

Jacob and Esau’s Struggle in the 2nd Century

The earliest midrashic commentaries on the story of Jacob and Esau portray Esau as thoroughly wicked. Since Jacob does not seem to emerge from the deception of his father with much credit, the vilification of Esau seems a little unfair. But, like much of midrash, if we need to consider it in its historic setting if we are to fully understand it.

Continue reading
Would You Fall Asleep in Rabbi Akiva’s Sermon?

Would You Fall Asleep in Rabbi Akiva’s Sermon?

Few midrashim startle us as much as the one which begins “Rabbi Akiva was sitting and preaching and the public was falling asleep….” Akiva was the greatest of all the early rabbis, yet his audiences did what congregations have been doing for centuries; they fell asleep during his sermon.

Continue reading
© 2020 Harry Freedman Books