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Rabbinical Eras

The earlier halakha did not confine itself to the mere literal meaning of single
passages, but sought to draw conclusions from the wording of the texts in question
by logical deductions, by combinations with other passages, etc. Hence its midrash
differs from the simple exegesis of the older halakha. It treats the Bible
according to certain general principles, which in the course of time became more
and more amplified and developed (see Talmud); and its interpretations depart
further and further from the simple meaning of the words.
A few examples will illustrate this difference in the method of interpretation
between the older and the younger Halakah. It was a generally accepted opinion that
the first Passover celebrated in Egypt, that of the Exodus, differed from those
that followed it, in that at the first one the prohibition of leavened bread was
for a single day only, whereas at subsequent Passovers this restriction extended to
seven days. The older halakha (in Mek., Bo, 16 [ed. Weiss, 24a]), represented by R.
Jose the Galilean, bases its interpretation on a different division of the
sentences in Ex. xiii. than the one generally received; connecting the word "ha-
yom" (= "this day"), which is the first word of verse 4, with verse 3 and so making
the passage read: "There shall no leavened bread be eaten this day." The younger
halakha reads "ha-yom" with verse 4, and finds its support for the traditional
halakha by means of the principle of "semukot" (collocation); that is to say, the
two sentences, "There shall no leavened bread be eaten," and "This day came ye
out," though they are separated grammatically, are immediately contiguous in the
text, and exert an influence over each other (Pes. 28b, 96b). What the older
halakha regarded as the obvious meaning of the words of the text, the younger
infers from the collocation of the sentences.
The wide divergence between the simple exegesis of the older halakha and the
artificiality of the younger is illustrated also by the difference in the method of
explaining the Law, cited above, in regard to uncleanness. Both halakot regard it
as self-evident that if a man is unclean, whether it be from contact with a corpse
or from any other cause, he may not share in the Passover (Pes. 93a). The younger
halakha, despite the dot over the ?, reads "re?o?ah" and makes it refer to "derek"
(English "road" or "way") even determining how far away one must be to be excluded
from participation in the feast. However, to find a ground for the halakha that
those who are unclean through contact with other objects than a corpse may have no
share in the Passover, it explains the repetition of the word "ish" in this passage
(Lev. ix. 10) as intending to include all other cases of defilement.
Despite this difference in method, the midrashim of the older and of the younger
halakha alike believed that they had sought only the true meaning of the
Scriptures. Their interpretations and deductions appeared to them to be really
contained in the text; and they wished them to be considered correct Biblical
expositions. Hence they both have the form of Scriptural exegesis, in that each
mentions the Biblical passage and the halakha that explains it, or, more correctly,
derives from it.
It is to a law stated in this form�i.e., together with the Biblical passage it
derives from�that the name midrash applies, whereas one that, though ultimately
based on the Bible, is cited independently as an established statute is called a
halakha. Collections of halakot of the second sort are the Mishnah and the Tosefta;
compilations of the first sort are the halakhic midrashim. This name they receive
to distinguish them from the haggadic midrashim, since they contain halakot for the
most part, although there are haggadic portions in them. In these collections the
line between independent halakha and Midrash halakha is not sharply drawn.
Many mishnayot (single paragraph units) in the Mishnah and in the Tosefta are
midrashic halakot. On the other hand, the halakhic midrashim contain independent
halakot without statements of their Scriptural bases. This confusion is explained
by the fact that the redactors of the two forms of halakot borrowed passages from
one another.
Since the halakhic Midrashim had for their secondary purpose the exegesis of the
Bible, they were arranged according to the text of the Pentateuch. As Genesis
contains very little matter of a legal character, there was probably no halakhic
midrash to this book. On the other hand, to each of the other four books of the
Pentateuch there was a midrash from the school of R. Akiba and one from the school
of R. Ishmael, and these midrashim are still in great part extant. The halakhic
midrash to Exodus from the school of R. Ishmael is the Mekilta, while that of the
school of R. Akiba is the Mekilta of R. Shimon bar Yochai, most of which is
contained in the Midrash ha-Gadol.
A halakhic midrash to Leviticus from the school of R. Akiba exists under the name
"Sifra" or "Torat Kohanim." There was one to Leviticus from the school of R.
Ishmael also, of which only fragments have been preserved. The halakhic midrash to
Numbers from the school of R. Ishmael is the "Sifre"; while of that of the school
of R. Akiba, the Sifre Zu?a, only extracts have survived in the Yalkut Shim'oni and
in the Midrash ha-Gadol. The middle portion of the Sifre to Deuteronomy forms a
halakhic midrash on that book from the school of R. Akiba, while another from the
school of R. Ishmael has been shown by Hoffmann to have existed.
Midrashic halakhot found also scattered through the two Talmuds; for many halakhic
baraitot (traditions in oral law) that occur in the Talmuds are really midrashic,
recognizable by the fact that they mention the Scriptural bases for the respective
halakot, often citing the text at the very beginning. In the Jerusalem Talmud the
midrashic baraitot frequently begin with "Ketib" (= "It is written"), followed by
the Scriptural passage. From the instances of midrashic baraitot in the Talmud that
are not found in the extant midrashim, the loss of many of the latter class of
works must be inferred.
The Talmud often says of the interpretations of a baraita: "The Biblical passage
should be merely a support." Of this class are many of the explanations in the
Sifra and in the Sifre. The tanna also often says frankly that he does not cite the
Biblical word as proof, but as a mere suggestion of the halakha, or as an allusion
to it.