Leviticus Rabbah

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LEVITICUS RABBAH , one of the oldest Midrashim extant, probably composed in the fifth century in Palestine. Like other ancient Midrashim it has many passages in Palestinian Aramaic and contains a considerable number of Greek and Latin words. Many of the stories and folktales interwoven in its homilies reflect a Palestinian locale, especially that of the Sea of Galilee and its surroundings, and conditions in Palestine in the first four centuries c.e.; often the halakhah and customs referred to are specifically Palestinian. Much of the aggadic material presented is quoted in the names of Palestinian amoraim or of tannaim. The Midrash knows and quotes the Mishnah, Tosefta, and other tannaitic material. The editor either made use of the Palestinian Talmud (Albeck) or had access to similar (oral) traditions as were embodied in it, though differing from it in style and details (Margulies).

Leviticus Rabbah is a homiletical Midrash; it is composed of separate homilies, 37 in number, each of them based on the beginning of one of the sedarim ("orders"), i.e., the weekly pericopes according to the so-called triennial cycle (though in a good many cases the division in Leviticus Rabbah differs from the lectionary as known from other sources). Hence Leviticus Rabbah does not provide a running commentary on the entire book of Leviticus but limits itself to developing one theme (or, sometimes, several themes) related to the beginning of the seder. However, the subject of the homily is by no means always identical with the main content of the pericope itself; thus, while the first seder of Leviticus deals mainly with the burnt-offering, the Midrash devotes its entire first homily to the first verse and, accordingly, deals with Moses' outstanding qualities as a man and a prophet. Hence the author retained, to a large extent, freedom in choosing and arranging his material. He avoided, on the whole, matters of ritual, to which most of Leviticus is devoted, e.g., details of different categories of sacrifices, and developed instead homilies on subjects such as God's preference for the poor, their offerings and their prayers (ch. 3, relating to 2:1), the dangers of drunkenness (ch. 12, on 10:8–9), the praise of peace (part of ch. 9, on 7:11; the rest of the homily is devoted to "peace-offerings"), etc. Though the editor is not in fact the author of the aggadic material, which came to him through tradition, he nevertheless attempts, usually successfully, to present homilies which are homogeneous thematically; moreover he strives to attain in the composition of each homily full integration and a balance between its component parts. If in chapter 3 he quotes a series of tales which express the contempt felt by the aristocracy and especially by the priests for the meager sacrifices offered by the poor ("What is there in this to eat? What is therein this to offer up?" 9), he counterbalances them by concluding with a hymn of praise for the ideal priests, who are without a share in the land and take their portion from the hand of God Himself, and who are thus themselves the poorest of the poor and yet are devoted wholeheartedly to the service of God. Or, if in the beginning of chapter 9 (3) the story is told of R. Yannai who had invited a man to his house believing him to be a scholar and then insulted him when he discovered him to be an ignoramus, it has its counterpart at the end of the chapter (9) in the tale of R. Meir who allowed himself to be insulted in order "to make peace between a man and his wife." Most of the homilies thus testify to the skill of the editor and to his art, which express themselves in the degree of unity which he achieves even though using heterogeneous material. Often the various elements of the homily, as well as different homilies dealing with similar themes, are linked together dialectically, expressing different, even contrasting aspects of one and the same subject. Thus the picture drawn in chapter 3 of the ideal priest is again qualified in chapter 5 (relating to Lev. 4:13), where the merits of the common people and their true leaders – the sages – are extolled (7–8) in contrast to the shortcomings of the priests, who frequently failed in their high office and, at times, even led the people astray (5–6). It is not to them that the people must look for atonement, but, instead, they can rely on their own good deeds (especially their generosity in providing funds for scholars (4)) and their prayers; for "Israel knows how to placate its Creator" (9).

Each homily in Leviticus Rabbah is constructed according to a definite pattern; it opens with a number of proems, then follows the "body of the sermon" (which does not possess any standard form), and, lastly, a peroration, devoted mostly to the messianic hope. These homilies, though their material was drawn mainly from sermons as preached in the synagogue, are by no means identical with the latter; thus, e.g., it stands to reason that a preacher used no more than one proem in each sermon (see also: *Preaching). This new structure found in Leviticus Rabbah – which is a composite of materials drawn from a number of sermons and welded together into a new artistic unit, the "literary homily" – may well be the creation of the author of this Midrash, which appears to be the oldest of the homiletical Midrashim in which it occurs. It may have been this new form which enabled the author to shape his Midrash as he did, to arrange the traditional material freely to suit his own purposes, to deal with subjects suitable for a wider circle of readers, and to enrich his work by the inclusion of numerous folktales and parables.

Leviticus Rabbah is similar in character to Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, which was composed at about the same time (and possibly by the same author (Margulies)); though others believe it to be somewhat later (Albeck). The structure of the homily is identical in both; but the plan of construction of the two Midrashim as a whole is completely different: while Leviticus Rabbah deals with all sedarim of one book of the Pentateuch consecutively, Pesikta de-Rav Kahana presents homilies for all the special days in the calendar, festivals and special Sabbaths, relating to their respective lections, taken from different books of the Pentateuch or the Prophets. A curious feature is the appearance of no less than five identical homilies in both these Midrashim; in Leviticus Rabbah as sermons on pericopes of Leviticus, in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana as sermons for festivals on which those same sections were read. It can hardly be maintained that the author of either Midrash simply transferred whole chapters from the other; rather it is due to copyists, who were tempted by the identical structure of homilies in both works to augment the one by drawing upon the other. Chapter 28 may be considered as an authentic part of Leviticus Rabbah, because it appears to be superfluous in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana; on the other hand, chapters 20, 29, and 30 and, perhaps, 27 would seem to have originated in the latter. Another query arises regarding the three cases where Leviticus Rabbah has two separate chapters relating to one and the same seder, viz. chapters 1 and 2 (on Lev. 1:1ff.); chapters 4 and 5 (relating, seemingly, to 4:2); and chapters 20 and 21 (on 16:1–2). However, chapter 20 originally belonged to Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (see above), whereas chapter 4 was mistakenly ascribed to 4:1–2 and belongs in reality to a seder – otherwise unknown – beginning at 4:13. Hence the one remaining case of two homilies on the same pericope appears suspect, too; presumably chapter 2 is not authentic either in Leviticus Rabbah. Moreover, even after these "deductions" of 4 or 5 chapters from the total of 37, the number still appears too large, considering that Leviticus is divided traditionally into only 20 to 25 pericopes. It appears likely that the division of pericopes underlying the composition of Leviticus Rabbah differed considerably from the one accepted eventually as the custom of most congregations; hence the need was felt to supplement the Midrash by supplying the "missing" ones. This would also explain why quite often the beginnings of pericopes indicated in the Midrash as it stands are distant from one another by as few as five, eight, or nine verses only. However, if some of the homilies of Leviticus Rabbah are not original, they must have been added at a very early stage, for they are common to all manuscripts, including the ones from the Cairo Genizah. A critical edition of Leviticus Rabbah by M. Margulies has been published (Jerusalem, 1953–60); an English translation by J. Israelstam and J. Slotki appeared as part of the Soncino edition of Midrash Rabbah (1939). Recently an online synopsis of the textual witnesses of Leviticus Rabbah has been prepared (under the direction of C. Milikowsky) and posted on the Bar-Ilan website (http://www.biu.ac.il/js/midrash/vr/editionData.htm).


D. Kuenstlinger, Die Petichot des Midrasch rabba zu Leviticus (1913); H.L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (1931), 211f.; Albeck, in: Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1946), 25–43 (Hebrew section); Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, index; M. Margu-lies, Midrash Va-Yikra Rabbah, 5 (1960), introduction; Heinemann, in: Tarbiz, 37 (1968), 339–54; Goldberg, ibid., 38 (1969), 184–5. add. bibliography: Strack and Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (1996), 288–91; M. Kadushin, A Conceptual Commentary on Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (1987); C. Milikowsky, in: Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (1999), 311–21; B.L. Visotzky, Golden Bells & PomegranatesStudies in Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (2003).

[Joseph Heinemann]