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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Q3.47 TOC Q3.49 >

Question 3.48:
What is the Mekhilta on Deuteronomy?


Medrashim are compilations of tannaitic material organized as a commentary on the Torah. There are two sorts: medrashei halakhah (halachic medrashim) record tannaitic discussion of the halachos raised by the verses, and medrashei aggadah are the discussions of everything else: theology, philosophy, ethics, the human condition, etc. (Medrashei aggadah are usually composed using stories and metaphore, and gave the word "medrash" a second meaning of stories that embellish those in the text or are about figures known to the authors.)

There is also a Mekhilta deRabbi Shim'on bar Yochai, but that is rarely referred to, and therefore people would call it by the full name. It's not "the Mekhilta". This other Mekhilta is sometimes called Mekhilta deVei Rabbi Aqiva (the Mekhilta of the house/school of Rabbi Aqiva) as the identification of the school of the author is more sure than the who in that school actually wrote it.

This split is quite relevent as Rabbi Yishma'el and Rabbi Aqiva had very different theories about how the rules of derashah, of associating halakhos with the text by hermeneutic rules, work. Therefore their medrashei halakhah reflect such differences.

The two series of medrashei halakhah are:

The traditional publication of the medrashei halakhah includes four books, mixing the two schools: Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifrei (on Numbers) and Sifrei (on Deuteronomy). In fact, the two Sifrei's often get published as a single volume, despite the differnce in style that makes their different origin obvious.

A more complete publication would have all seven books, traditionally published in the order: Mekhilta, Mehilta deR' Shim'on bar Yochai, Sifra, Sifrei (Numbers), Sifrei Zuta, Sifrei (Deut), Mekhilta Devarim.

The word "mekhilta" is Aramaic, and means "measure" or "rule". The words "sifra" and "sifrei" are conjugations of the root /spr/, meaning "book" or "writing a book". Sometimes the word "sifrei" is used to refer to all 4 books.

After Rabbi Yehudah haNasi compiled the Mishnah, organizing halakhah by topic rather than verse, the notion of composing medrashei halakhah fell out of use.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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