Mekhilta of R. Ishmael

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MEKHILTA OF R. ISHMAEL (Aram. מְכִילְתָּא דְּרַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל) halakhic Midrash on Exodus.

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (my) is a Midrash from the school of R. Ishmael to the Book of Exodus. The word "mekhilta" means "a measure," and its attribution to R. Ishmael was initially by R. Samuel ben Hophni and R. Nissim Gaon (the attribution of Mi to the midrashic school of R. Ishmael is an innovation solely by scholars in recent generations; and it is only by chance that this notion corresponds with the name given the Midrash by several rishonim). Mi does not contain an exposition for the entire narrative section of Ex. 1–11; it rather opens with the first laws of the Book of Exodus in 12:1, and continues with the uninterrupted exegesis of the halakhic and aggadic passages until 23:19, before ending with the exposition of two short halakhic passages on the Sabbath in Ex. 31 and 35. All this indicates a close association between Mi and the halakhic material in Exodus, although the precise criteria for determining which material in Exodus will be the subject of an exposition and which will be passed over are unclear, since it also includes Midrashim on lengthy aggadic sections, while, on the other hand, it skips a number of halakhic passages.

Mi is divided into nine masekhtot: Pasha (Ex. 12:1–13:16); Va-Yehi Be-Shalah (13:17–14:31); Shirta (15:1–21); Va-Yassa (15:22–17:7); Amalek (17:8–18:27); Ba-Hodesh or Debiri (19:1–20:26); Nezikin (21:1–22:23); Kaspa (22:24–29); Shabbatta (31:12–17; 35:1–3). Each masekhta is divided into a number of parashot, each of which is in turn divided into halakhot, numbered with the letters of the alef-bet. Each parashah ends with a summation of the number of halakhot contained in it, the masekhtot conclude by mentioning and summing up the parashot, as well, and the entire Midrash ends with a summation of the masekhtot. These summations are presented by means of allusions to each parashah in Aramaic, which is also the language of the division into masekhtot, parashot, and halakhot (the division is preserved in its entirety only in the Genizah fragments).

Two critical editions of Mi, that do not refer to each other, have been published: the edition by H.S. Horovitz, which was posthumously edited and completed by I.A. Rabin (Frankfurt, 1931); and the edition by J.Z. Lauterbach, which was published in three volumes (Philadelphia, 1934–35). These editions rightly received favorable reviews by E.Z. Melamed, who reviewed the Horovitz edition, and by S. Lieberman, who evaluated the Lauterbach edition.

Horovitz chose the printed version as the basic text for his edition, at times emending and completing it in accordance with other textual versions. He provided a detailed listing of the textual variants found in the two complete manuscripts of Mi, Oxford 151 and Munich 117; in the Leghorn 1801 edition, that is based, inter alia, on the emendations by Soliman Ohana; in the many quotations in Yalkut Shimoni and in Midrash Hakhamim, which include most of Mi; and in other indirect testimonies, primarily the Midrashim Lekah Tov, Sekhel Tov, Tanhuma, and Sefer ve-Hizhir. Horovitz also added a concise but thorough critical commentary, with references to the parallels.

The Lauterbach edition is more eclectic. The editor generally preferred the common version of the two manuscripts in his determination of the text. In addition to the textual versions that were available to Horovitz, Lauterbach used a few pages from the Genizah, ms. Rome Casanatensa H 2736 on Masekhta de-Shirta, and ms. Oxford 2637 on Yalkut Shimoni. The variant readings were recorded in an extremely selective manner, and the references to the parallels are listed separately.

Both editions suffer from the absence of a prior methodological discussion regarding the character of the various textual versions and the mutual relations between them. Consequently, the editors were unaware of the direct dependence of the printed Venice 1545 edition on the printed Constantinople 1515(?) edition, that was indicated by Melamed; the common source of the Western mss., as was concluded by Finkelstein; and, mainly, the relative superiority of ms. Oxford to the other texts that they possessed, as was first noted by Lieberman. The lack of a comprehensive evaluation of the character of the textual versions is also apparent in the tendency of the editors to base the text of Mi, especially its difficult passages, on the adapted and emended versions of Midrash Hakhamim, which, as its name implies, is a "Midrash" by an Italian sage from the 15th century who relied in great measure upon the Mi, but not a direct textual version.

Additional versions of Mi came to light after the publication of these two editions. Especially noteworthy among these are ms. Vatican 299, which preserves about half of the Mekhilta, and some 80 pages from the Cairo Genizah. The importance of the latter lies in the Eastern and early textual tradition that is reflected in the majority of them, and that is generally superior to the later Western textual tradition that is presented in the direct Mi texts on which the two critical editions were based. In many instances, the original version is preserved only in the Genizah fragments, and in other places the Eastern Genizah version confirms the shared reading of the Western manuscripts, also for very difficult versions, that might possibly attest to intentional intervention in the original traditions of the Mi by its later redactors or the earlier copyists.

mi was interpreted during the medieval period by several rishonim, but only one of these commentaries is extant, and only partially, in ms. Mantua 36. The publication of Mi was followed by a number of short emendations and commentaries written with the aid of manuscripts, and a number of lengthy commentaries by aharonim that were based solely on the printed version, along with quotations appearing in Yalkut Shimoni. The most important of the latter are Shevut Yehudah by R. Judah Najar and Berurei ha-Middot by R. Isaac Elijah Landau, which were closely followed by two scholarly commentaries: Middot Soferim by Isaac Hirsch Weiss, and Me'ir Ayin by Meir Friedmann (Ish Shalom). Friedmann's work laid the groundwork for the editions by Horovitz and Lauterbach, who were greatly aided by it. After the publication of the two editions, Masekhta de-Shirta was the subject of a new commentary by Goldin, and Kahana published a new edition of Parshat Amalek that included a detailed discussion that sought to prove the originality of the aggadic material preserved in Mi, relative to the secondary material in ms (Mekhilta of R. Simeon Ben Yoḥai).

The general nature of Mi and its sources has been examined and described by scholars of halakhic Midrashim, and has been the subject of numerous monographs examining its diverse sources, its attitude toward the Mishnah and to ms, its narrative traditions, its conceptual worlds, and other topics.

Translations: English: J.Z. Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, vols. 1–3, Philadelphia 1933–35; J. Neusner, Me khilta according to Rabbi Ishmael: An Analytical Translation, Atlanta, 1988. German: J. Winter and A. Wunsche, Mechilta eintannaitischer Midrasch zu Exsodus, Leipzig, 1909. Spanish: T. Martines, Mekilta de Rabbi Ismael; comentario rabinico al libro del Exodo, Navarre, 1995.


Ch. Albeck, Introduction to the Talmuds (1969), 106–13 (Heb.); idem, Untersuchungen ueber die Halakischen Midraschim (1927), 91–96; D. Boyarin, "From the Hidden Light of the Geniza: Towards the Original Text of the Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael," in: Sidra, 2 (1986), 5–13 (Heb.); idem, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990); D. Buchner, "On the Relationship between Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael and Septuagint Exodus," in: ioscs, in: Congress, 9 (1997), 403–20; Elias, "The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael according to an Excellent Copy from the Genizah" (Master's thesis, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1997; Heb.); J.N. Epstein, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text (Heb.) (1948), 736–38; idem, "Mekhilta and Sifre in the Works of Maimonides," in: Tarbiz, 6 (1935), 343–82 (Heb.); idem, Prolegomena ad Litteras Tannaiticas (Heb.) (1957), 545–87; L. Finkelstein, "The Mekhilta and Its Text," in: paajr, 5 (1933–34), 3–54; M. Friedmann, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ismael, der alteste halachische und hagadische Mid rasch zu Exodus (Heb.) (1870); L. Ginzberg, Al ha-Halakhah ve-Aggadah (Heb.) (1960), 66–103; J. Goldin, The Munich Manuscript of the Mekilta (1980); idem, The Song at the Sea (1971); H.S. Horovitz (ed.), Sifre d'Vei Rab (on Numbers; 1917) (Heb.); M.A. Kadushin, A Conceptual Approach to the Mekilta (1969); M. Kahana, "The Critical Editions of Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael in the Light of the Genizah Fragments," Tarbiz, 55 (1986), 489–524 (Heb.); idem, "Halakhic Midrash Collections," in: The Literature of the Sages, vol. 3b (2006); idem, The Genizah Fragments of the Halakhic Midrashim (Heb.), 1 (2005), 1–152; idem, Manuscripts of the Halakhic Midrashim: An Annotated Catalogue (Heb.) (1995), 37–49; idem, The Two Mekhiltot on the Amalek Portion (Heb.) (1999); E.D. Kutscher, "Genizah Fragments of the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael," in: Leshonenu, 32 (1968), 103–16 (Heb.); J.Z. Lauterbach, "The Arrangement and the Division of the Mekhilta," in: huca, 1 (1924), 427–66; idem, "Me-Biurei ha-Mekhilta," in: Sefer Klausner, 181–88 (Heb.); idem, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, vols. 1–3 (1933–35); idem, "The Name of the Mekilta," in: jqr, 11 (1920), 169–82; H.I. Levine, Studies in Mishna Pesachim, Baba Kama and the Mechilta (1971); S. Lieberman, "Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael ed. J.Z. Lauterbach," in: Kiryath Sepher, 12 (1935), 54–65 (Heb.); idem, "A New Piska from the Mekhilta and Its Meaning," in: Sinai, 75 (1975), 1–3 (Heb.); E.Z. Melamed, Essays in Talmudic Literature (Heb.) (1986), 394–405, 421–32; idem, The Relationship between the Halakhic Midrashim and the Mishnah … Tosefta (Heb.) (1967), 105–23; G. Stemberger, "Die Datierung der Mekhilta," in: Karios, 21 (1979), 81–118; I.M. Ta-Shma, "An Unpublished Franco-German Commentary on Bereshit and Va-Yikra Rabba, Mekhilta and Sifre," in: Tarbiz, 55 (1986), 61–75 (Heb.); B.Z. Wacholder, "The Date of the Meckilta De-Rabbi Ismael," in: huca, 39 (1968), 117–44; A.Z. Yehuda, "The Two Mekhiltot on the Hebrew Slave" (Ph.D. diss., Yeshiva University, New York, 1974).

[Menahem I. Kahana (2nd ed.)]