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Mekhilta of R. Simeon ben Yoḥai


MEKHILTA OF R. SIMEON BEN YOḤAI (Aram. דְּרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַאי מְכִילְתָּא) (ms), a halakhic Midrash on Exodus from the school of R. *Akiva, which is attributed to R. Simeon b. Yohai because of his exposition at the beginning of the book. Several rishonim knew this Midrash by other names, such as "Mekhilta de-Sanya"; "Mekhilta"; "Sifri"; "Sifri de-Vei Rav," andothers. This Midrash was subsequently lost, and only portions were found by modern scholars. Meir Freidmann (Ish Shalom) was the first to collect the quotations from ms that were known in his time, and his list was augmented by a number of items by Hoffmann in his pioneering study of the tannaitic Midrashim. Israel Lewy then discovered that large portions of the Midrash had been cited by R. David ha-Adani in Midrashha-Gadol on Exodus, and Schechter published a few fragments from ms itself that he uncovered in the Cairo Genizah. The first edition of ms was published by Hoffmann (Frankfurt, 1905), based on Midrash ha-Gadol and a small number of Genizah fragments identified by Schechter. The next edition, published by Epstein and Melamed in 1955, is based on 95 ms leaves or fragments of leaves discovered in the Genizah. The rest of the Midrash (approximately one third) was reconstructed using four manuscripts of Midrash ha-Gadol. A few additional ms fragments were subsequently published, transcriptions of all the new Genizah fragments which came to light, and also a new edition of Parshat Amalek of ms based on new manuscripts.

The introduction to the Epstein-Melamed edition contains a description of the ms manuscripts and their main distinguishing features, but the principles guiding the editors were not presented, nor did the editors include a focused and orderly treatment of the signs and symbols used in the edition. The manuscripts were generally copied in this edition in an admirably accurate manner, and only in rare instances should the transcription, which was based on photographs, be corrected on the basis of the original manuscripts. It should be noted, however, that the largest copy of ms, on the basis of which some 65 pages were published, is not an excellent manuscript, being only of second-rate quality, and written in the 13th century in Spain. About another 15 pages are not from direct ms manuscripts, but are fragments that survived from two copies of abridged midrashic collections from ms. Consequently, the textual tradition of ms set forth in the major portion of the edition is not an especially reliable one, and is plagued by many copyist's corruptions and mistakes.

The editors correctly noted the striking disparity between the certain ms fragments that were discovered in the Genizah and the doubtful passages, that they printed in smaller type. Most of the doubtful reconstructions, that encompass about one third of the edition, were based on Midrash ha-Gadol, and the editors were forced to complete the rest based on the parallel material in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (mi), Sifra, Mid-rash Tannaim, and other Midrashim. Obviously, error could hardly be avoided in such a complex labor of reconstruction, and in his review of the edition, Margalioth referred to a few passages that were incorporated within the text on the basis of Midrash ha-Gadol, but that do not originate in ms, but in Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, Avot de-Rabbi Natan, or the Babylonian Talmud. A similar situation holds for the completion of missing passages in the Genizah fragments on the basis of Midrash ha-Gadol (which were printed within brackets, in normal type), whose origin in ms is extremely doubtful. On the other hand, the Epstein-Melamed edition omitted several other passages from Midrash ha-Gadol whose origin in ms has now been proven from new quotations from ms cited by several rishonim, such as R. Hafeẓ ben Yaẓli'ah and the Karaite authority Jeshua ben Judah.

ms begins with a lengthy exposition concerned with a single topic: the choosing of Moses as the agent who shall redeem Israel, and Moses' response to this selection. This midrashic exposition is composed of two developed literary units (pp. 1–4/3; 4/3–7/9), each of which is focused on the first verse of the weekly Torah reading (seder) according to the custom of the Land of Israel with which it opens: Ex. 3:1; Ex. 6:2, that are the only two lemmas in these units. The phenomenon of constructing an entire Midrash around the opening verses of the weekly seder as practiced in the Land of Israel appears only very rarely in the tannaitic Midrashim, but is a frequent occurrence in the amoraic Midrashim and in the versions of Tanhuma. The deficient extant documentation hinders our determining if ms included additional hermeneutical units on chapters 6–11 of Exodus. At any rate, Midrash ha-Gadol preserved midrashic interpretations that apparently originated in ms, beginning with the halakhic subjects in Ex. 12:1; and starting with verse 3 in this chapter, ms is documented in a Genizah fragment published by Abramson. ms continues to expound the verses, in order, at least until Ex. 23:19, after which the exact scope of the Midrash is unclear. Based on Midrash ha-Gadol, Melamed reconstructed ms on Ex. 23:20–24:10, and selected verses from chaps. 30, 31, 34, and 35 of Exodus in his edition, but several of these quotations clearly do not originate in ms; this issue requires further study.

The Epstein-Melamed edition does not include a commentary, and the parallels, as well, were listed only in a partial fashion. Many interpretations of the Midrashim of ms appear in the edition by Hoffmann and in Kasher's glosses in Torah Shelemah, but these cannot fill the need for an orderly and detailed critical commentary of ms in its entirety. As regards the research of ms, see the introduction to the edition, in which Melamed published Epstein's general essay on the ms, which paid special attention to the question of its redactors. Melamed added his own discussion concerning the terminology and vocabulary of ms, the names of the rabbis it cites, its method of quoting sources, and its characteristic hermeneutical methods. The second edition contained an additional short chapter on "Mishnah and Baraita Quotations in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon b. Yoḥai," and the appendices to the edition included various subject indices that aid in the further study of this Midrash.

Most scholars concur that the halakhic portion of ms was redacted fairly late. This opinion was first expressed by Epstein, who wrote at the end of his Introduction: "The ms is from the school of R. Akiva, and is later than all halakhic Midrashim (Ḥm) (making much verbatim use of Sifra, Sifrei, and Tosefta), and many halakhot are incidentally connected in the Midrash. All this points to a late date." Based on an orderly study of the section of the Hebrew slave in the two Mekhiltot, Judah concluded that ms was redacted after mi. De Vries took this premise a step further, and asserted that ms contains a reworking of baraitot from mi, and not parallels or a common source. Levine examined several halakhic topics in ms, and reached an even more far-reaching conclusion, that the activity by the redactor of ms closely resembles that of the amoraim in the area of interpretations of the Mishnah. He, like them, clarifies the halakhic concepts in the Mishnah, expands it, draws parallels to it, and examines the relationship between one mishnah and another by the use of certain interpretations of mishnayot or baraitot. On the basis of this analysis, Levine wrote that, apparently, the redactor of ms was himself an amora, while emphasizing that further study is required as to whether conclusions could be drawn regarding ms as a whole on the basis of an examination of these specific details. An investigation of Levine's proofs shows that almost all were based on extremely tenuous speculation, and not on solid evidence, on the basis of which we could determine the text of the sources available to the redactor of ms, on the one hand, and the nature of their reworking, on the other. Objections could also be raised concerning the quality of De Vries' proofs of the use by ms of mi. An examination of the singular character of ms therefore requires further study, that would have to include a new and consistent examination of its terminology, the names of the rabbis it mentions, and its prevalent hermeneutical methods that at (albeit extremely rare) times seem also to include several elements seemingly characteristic of the other school, that of R. *Ishmael.

The aggadic material in ms fundamentally resembles the parallel material in mi. An orderly examination of the parallel aggadic material of Parshat Amalek demonstrates the primacy of the tradition in mi, in comparison with that of ms, which apparently was fashioned by redactors who sought to inform the midrashic expositions with a more developed literary and ideational nature, somewhat freed from their rigid linkage to the verses. Along with the ideational development of several of the Midrashim in this section in ms, the latter occasionally exhibits stylistic hyperbole, exegetical diffusion, a tendency to relate unattributed interpretations to specific rabbis, and possibly even an attempt to artificially rewrite disagreements. Some of the Midrashim in ms exhibit a simplification of content that borders on popularization, and the accentuation of motifs that concentrate on elementary principles of the religious experience, such as emphasizing the importance of obedience to the word of God, sermonizing about the observance of the commandments and avoiding sin, reinforcing the standing of prayer, and promising the good end that awaits Israel, along with the tribulations that shall befall its enemies.

A comprehensive characterization of the aggadic material of the two Mekhiltot would require a detailed examination, which has not been conducted to date. Nonetheless, a partial examination of other parashot in the ms reveals findings similar to those in evidence in Parshat Amalek. The literary nature of the first aggadic unit that appears only in ms, and not in mi, which resembles in a certain sense the genre of Tanhuma, also reflects the literary adaptation that is characteristic of the aggadic material of ms and the relatively late time of its fashioning. The same is true for some of the aggadic material that is incorporated within the halakhic sections, and for a portion of the halakhic material that is included in the aggadic passages.

A geonic response (probably by R. *Sherira and R. *Hai) attributes a quotation from ms to the rabbinic teaching that appears in the "other sifrei de-vei Rav [all Ḥm, except for Sifra]," "and thus all the tannaim learned, without exception," and compares it with a citation from mi, which they termed "Mekhilta de-Ereẓ Israel." This led scholars to conclude that ms was the primary Mekhilta that the "tannaim" (i.e., the teachers of baraitot) taught at the time in Babylonia, while mi was more widespread in the Land of Israel; it was not studied in Babylonia (at least not in the yeshivah of Pumbedita), and the geonim cited it from a written book. This could possibly be related to the manner in which ms was transmitted, and, in fact, the tb frequently quotes Midrashim similar or identical to ms. In either event, the history of the transmission of ms is to be separated from the question of the venue of its redaction, and there is no reason to move the latter from Ereẓ Israel to Babylonia.


S. Abramson, "A New Fragment of the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon b. Yoḥai," in: Tarbiz, 41 (1972), 361–72 (Heb.); Ch. Albeck, Introduction to the Talmuds (Heb.) (1969), 82–83; idem, Untersuchungen ueber die Halakischen Midraschim (1927), 151–54; B. de Vries, Studies in the Literature of the Talmud (1968), 142–47 (Heb.); J.N. Epstein, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text (1948), 746–47 (Heb.); idem, "Mekhilta and Sifre in the Works of Maimonides," in: Tarbiz, 6 (1935), 343–82 (Heb.); J.N. Epstein and E.Z. Melamed (eds.), Mekhilta d'Rabbi Sim'on b. Jochai (1955); M. Friedmann, Mechilta de-Rabbi Ismael, der alteste halachische und hagadische Midrasch zu Exodus (Heb.) (1870), xlix-lv, 119–24; A. Glick, "Another Fragment of the ms," in: Leshonenu, 48–49 (1985), 210–15 (Heb.); M. Hirshman, Torah for the Entire World (Heb.) (1999), 40–42; D. Hoffmann, Mechiltade-Rabbi Simon b. Jochai zu Exodus (Heb.) (1905); M. Kahana, "Another Page from the Mekhilta of R. Simeon b. Yoḥai," in: Alei Sefer, 15 (1989), 5–20 (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), 153–86; idem, Manuscripts of the Halakhic Midrashim: An Annotated Catalogue (Heb.) (1995), 50–59; idem, The Two Mekhiltot on the Amalek Portion (Heb.) (1999); M.M. Kasher, The Book of Maimonides and the ms (Heb.) (19802); H.I. Levine, Studies in Talmudic Literature and Halakhic Midrashim (Heb.) (1987), 127–92; I. Lewy, "Ein Wort uber die 'Mechilta des R. Simon,'" in: Jahersbericht des judisch-theologischen Seminars (1889); M. Margalioth, "ms Hotza'at Epstein-Melamed," in: Kiryat Sefer, 31 (1956), 155–59 (Heb.); Ch. Milikowsky, "On Parallels and Primacy: Seder Olam and ms on the Israelites in Egypt," in: Bar-Ilan, 26–27 (1995), 221–25 (Heb.); E.Z. Melamed, The Relationship between the Halakhic Midrashim and the Mishnah … Tosefta (Heb.) (1967), 94–104; Z.A. Yehuda, "The Two Mekhiltot on the Hebrew Slave" (Ph.D. diss., Yeshiva University, New York, 1974).

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

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