Genesis Rabbah

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GENESIS RABBAH (Heb. בְּרֵאשִׁית רַבָּה), aggadic Midrash on the Book of Genesis, the product of Palestinian amoraim.


The earlier title of the Midrash was apparently Bereshit de-Rabbi Oshaya Rabbah (Genesis of R. Oshaya Rabbah) so named after its opening sentence, "R. Oshaya Rabbah took up the text…" (Gen. R. 1:1), this being later abbreviated to Genesis Rabbah. This explanation is superior to the suggestion that it was so called in order to distinguish it from the biblical Book of Genesis of which it is an expansion (rabbah means "great").


Genesis Rabbah is an exegetical Midrash which gives a consecutive exposition of the Book of Genesis, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, and often even word for word. It is a compilation of varying expositions, assembled by the editor of the Midrash. The work is divided into 101 sections (according to the superior Vatican 30 manuscript; other manuscripts and the printed versions have minor variations in the number of sections). Often the division into sections was fixed according to the open and closed paragraphs of the Torah (see *Masorah), and at times according to the triennial cycle of the weekly readings of the Torah in Ereẓ Israel which had been customary in earlier times. All of the sections, with seven exceptions, are introduced by one or several proems, one section having as many as nine. The total for the entire work is 246. The proems are of the classical type common to amoraic Midrashim, opening with an extraneous verse which is then connected with the verse expounded at the beginning of the section. Most (199) of the proems in Genesis Rabbah are based on verses from the Hagiographa (principally Psalms and Proverbs), only a small number being from the Prophets (37) and the Pentateuch (10). The proems are largely anonymous and in most instances commence without any of the conventional introductory formulae or termini technici. Those that are ascribed to authors are mostly amoraic, only two being tannaitic. Generally, the sections have no formal ending, but some conclude with the verse with which the following section begins, thus providing a transition. On rare occasions the ending carries a message of consolation. Characteristic of Genesis Rabbah, as of the other early amoraic Midrashim, tannaitic literature, and the two Talmuds, are its repetitions. An exposition or story is often transferred in the Midrash where an expression appears in more than one context.


The language of Genesis Rabbah closely resembles that of the Jerusalem Talmud. It is mostly written in mishnaic Hebrew with some Galilean Aramaic. The latter is used especially for the stories and parables, in which many Greek terms and expressions are also interspersed.

The Redaction of the Midrash

In the early Middle Ages, some scholars ascribed the work to the author of the opening proem of the Midrash, Oshaya, of the first generation of Palestinian amoraim. The fact, however, that Genesis Rabbah mentions the last group of Palestinian amoraim who flourished in the second half of the fourth century c.e. (about 150 years after Oshaya) shows this ascription to be erroneous.

The editor used early Aramaic and Greek translations of the Bible (the translation of *Aquila is quoted three times in the Midrash), but was unacquainted with Targum *Onkelos on the Pentateuch, which was used in a Babylonian milieu. While he clearly used the *Mishnah, some scholars have assumed that he did not make use of our *Tosefta, or of the extant *Midreshei Halakhah (Albeck, Mavo), though this issue needs further investigation. They also conclude that he made no use of *Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, a relatively late aggadic compilation, or even of the much earlier Seder Olam Rabbah. Since there are many parallel passages in Genesis Rabbah and the Jerusalem *Talmud, scholars have understandably devoted considerable attention to the complex question of their relation to each other. Recently H. Becker devoted an entire study to a reexamination of this issue. In an extended review of this work, C. Milikowsky criticizes the author for not drawing a clear distinction between the question of literary dependence between individual passages found in these two works, and the larger question of literary dependence between these compositions as complete and fully redacted literary works. Milikowsky, however, falls prey to this very confusion when he writes (concerning Lev. R. and Pes. deRav Kahana) "if we succeed in reconstructing which text used the other, then we have the rare opportunity of seeing exactly what a rabbinic redactor does with the material he is revising" (528). Milikowsky rightly draws our attention here to what may be the only matter of substance in this entire scholarly debate. Nevertheless, the question of "exactly what a rabbinic redactor does with the material he is revising" can be determined only on the level of individual passages, and it is more than likely that in some cases the redactor of Genesis Rabbah reworked an earlier literary tradition which is preserved in a more original form in the Jerusalem Talmud, whereas in other cases the opposite may be the case. This can be explained by positing that some of the aggadot and halakhot which occur in both Genesis Rabbah and the Jerusalem Talmud were derived from earlier common sources (perhaps from oral traditions). Alternatively, both Genesis Rabbah and the Jerusalem Talmud may have undergone successive revisions (as did the Babylonian Talmud), even after they took on a fairly distinct and identifiable literary form as redactional wholes, such that either one of them could have drawn upon a version of the other which differs in some respects from the works which we possess today. Therefore the artificial linking of the important issue of the nature of rabbinic redactional revision of earlier literary sources to the broader (and far less significant) question of possible literary dependence of one or the other of these two finished and complete literary works on the other only leads to methodological and conceptual confusion.

On the basis of its language, of the names of sages mentioned in it (most of whom were Palestinian amoraim), and of various historical allusions, it is clear that the work was edited in Ereẓ Israel, probably in the beginning of the fifth century c.e.Genesis Rabbah is thus the earliest amoraic aggadic Midrash extant; it is also the largest and the most important. The other amoraic aggadic Midrashim, including Leviticus Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah, already made use of it. The first explicit reference to the work, however, occurs in Halakhot Gedolot.

The editor drew upon both written and oral sources. *Ben Sira is mentioned four times in Genesis Rabbah, on one occasion being introduced by the phrase, "As it is written in the book of Ben Sira" (Gen. R. 91:4). Genesis Rabbah contains many aggadot which also occur in the other Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and in the works of *Philo and *Josephus. No conclusions, however, are to be drawn from this regarding any relation between Genesis Rabbah and these works, it being highly probable that they drew upon a common source or early oral traditions. In addition, aggadot and ideas from Jewish-Hellenistic literature often reached the sages through indirect channels. In addition to amoraic statements, Genesis Rabbah naturally contains much tannaitic aggadic material. Having assembled all of this material, the editor arranged it according to the order of the verses in the Book of Genesis, abbreviating, or modifying as he saw fit.

Later Additions

In Genesis Rabbah there are several parts (in 75, 84, 88, 91, 93, 95ff.) whose language, style, and exegetical character do not form an integral part of the original Midrash but are later additions. In most manuscripts the original expositions on the end of the pentateuchal portion of Va-Yiggash and the beginning of that of Va-Yeḥi are omitted and replaced by others of later origin and which belong to a type of *Tanḥuma Yelammedenu Midrash.


Genesis Rabbah was first published in Constantinople in 1512 together with four other Midrashim on the other books of the Pentateuch, though these latter have nothing in common, as regards style and date of editing, with Genesis Rabbah. This edition and Midrashim on the five scrolls (which were previously published separately) were reprinted in Venice in 1545 and reissued several times.

Genesis Rabbah has appeared in a scholarly, critical edition based on manuscripts and containing variant textual readings and comprehensive commentary. This edition is one of the finest such works of modern rabbinic scholarship. It was begun by J. *Theodor in 1903 and completed in 1936 by Ḥ. *Albeck, who also wrote the introduction. From the numerous manuscripts at his disposal, Theodor chose the London manuscript, written about the middle of the 12th century. Careful examination of the manuscripts by Albeck, however, established the manuscript Vatican 30, copied in the 11th century, as superior. The London manuscript is probably a later formulation of the same tradition recorded in the Vatican manuscript. This conclusion has been subsequently confirmed by Y. *Kutscher's linguistic studies of the Vatican 30 manuscript which have shown it to represent an accurate archetype of Galilean Aramaic. A facsimile edition of the Vatican 30 manuscript was published in 1971 with an introduction by M. Sokoloff, and in the following year a facsimile edition of a previously unknown manuscript of Genesis Rabbah (Vatican 60), which was at first thought to be equal in importance or perhaps even superior to the Vatican 30 manuscript, but after a detailed analysis of this manuscript by M. Kahana, this has proven not to be the case. Genesis Rabbah was translated into English in the Soncino series by M. Friedman (1939) and again more recently by J. Neusner (1985).


Frankel, Mevo, 51b–53a; M. Lerner, Anlageund Quellen des Bereschit Rabba (18822); Weiss, Dor, 3 (1883), 252–61; Ḥ. Albeck, Mavo le-Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (1936); idem, Midrash Bereshit Rabbati (1940), 1–54 (introd.); J. Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, 1 (1940); Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, 76–78, 123–124. add. bibliography: L.M. Barth, An Analysis of Vatican 30 (1973); M. Sokoloff, The Geniza Fragments of Bereshit Rabba (Hebrew) (1982); O. Meir, in: Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 3:1 (1990), 101–8; idem, in: Te'uda, 9 (Hebr.) (1996), 61–90; M. Kahana, in: Te'uda, 9 (1996), 17–60 (Hebr.); H. Becker, in: The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature, ed. S. Cohen (2000), 145–58; idem, Die grossen rabbinischen Sammelwerke Palästinas: Zur literarishen Genese von Talmud Yerushalmi und Midrash Bereshit Rabba, Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum 70 (1999); C. Milikowsky, in: jqr, 92:3–4 (2002), 521–67; A. Goldberg, in: Meḥkarei Talmud, 3:1 (2005), 130–52.

[Moshe David Herr /

Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]