Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishamel: Volume Two, translated by Jacob Z. Lauterbach
Admittedly, I am approaching this obscure midrashic text in a somewhat backward fashion. Having first received and read the third volume of this work, I was prompted to obtain the other two volumes of the work and since the second volume arrived first, I read it first. Ultimately, though, this is not a text that suffers from being read out of order because each volume contains rather self-contained materials that do not depend on the context of the other volumes in order to be well-understood. Indeed, and perhaps somewhat humorously, the book itself defends the reading of material out of order, pointing out over and over again that numerous books of the Bible are arranged out of order with the insistent reminder that the Bible doesn’t care about chronological order, and as that is the case, then neither should I be bothered about reading a deeply worthwhile book like this one out of order either. Admittedly, this volume is not the sort of volume that is likely to ever be a popular one to read, but if you like midrashic materials that write about the law and give some deeply interesting interpretations of it, this book is definitely a worthwhile one.
The contents of this book consist of four different tractates of the early Midrashic tradition that, combined, make up about 300 pages in both English and Hebrew. The pages have a bit inconsistent of formatting, but it’s not a huge issue as the book is easy to read (although the Hebrew is lacking vowel points). The first text, Tractate Shirata, looks at the Song of Moses that consists of most of Exodus 15 and takes up about 80 pages in both languages. The second text, the Tracate Vayassa’, looks at the rest of Exodus 15 and 16 and the first part of Exodus 17, taking up about 70 pages or so. The third text, the Tractate Amalek, covers the conflict between Israel and Amalek at Rephidim and the material just after that to the end of Exodus 18 and takes up a bit less than 60 pages of material. The fourth and final text, the Tractate Bahodesh, covers the text from Exodus 19 and 20, including the ten commandments, and takes up a bit more than 100 pages worth of material, giving some in-depth discussion about the family situation of Jethro and Moses as well as the ten commandments, all of which adds up to some deeply worthwhile material.
Indeed, this material is worthwhile in a variety of ways. The content includes some thoughtful understanding of various puns, including a reference to Israel’s time in the Wilderness of Sin. It was refreshing to know that I wasn’t the only or the first person to connect the problems of Israel with sin in the wilderness to their sojourn in a wilderness with that location. Likewise, the authors showed themselves to be deeply interested in all kinds of aspects of words, including the tense of various words like song that indicated a difference between the feminine and masculine with prophetic implications. To be sure, some of the material was speculative in nature, but there were many different interpretations provided for different texts and passages, all of which meant that the writing provided for a great deal of flexibility in approach that allows for a lot of different possibilities, many of which may end up being true about a given meaning of a passage. And that flexibility of meaning and the allowance for various possibilities makes this book more meaningful and interesting to read, and more useful as a way of understanding some traditional understandings of the law.