Book Review: Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: Volume Three

Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael:  Volume Three, translated by Jacob Z. Lauterbach

Unfortunately, when I first saw this book online I did not realize that there were three volumes to the work, and so this was the first one I ordered and reviewed, and so I will be reading this work out of order, not something I generally prefer to do.  Fortunately, it appears as if this book (which also includes some of the supplemental material for the three volume set as a whole at the end) can be read on its own and is a self-contained unit, and so it appears as if it is not a bad thing to read this work on its own.  As someone whose familiarity with the translator is somewhat slight, it was interesting to read the author’s translation work before taking on his commentaries on Jewish law and practice.  At any rate, this book is worthwhile if someone is interest in the importance of the Midrash and in having a book on traditional Jewish interpretation of the law in one’s library.  I happen to be someone who engages in midrashing from time to time on the Torah [1], and so this book is one I found to be pretty congenial in terms of its contents and some of its approaches.

The contents of this book are distinctive and the book appears a lot larger than it reads.  The vast majority of the book consists of three ancient midrashic texts from Rabbi Ishmael, with the English on the left side of the page and ancient Hebrew on the right side of the page without vowel points.  Most of the book is taken up with the Tractate Nezikin along with its translation, and this particular text focuses on the law of the covenant, containing eighteen chapters that cover the material in Exodus 21 and 22.  After that is the shorter Tractate Kaspa, which looks at the material from Exodus 22:24 to Exodus 23:19 in five chapters.  The third and final text in this book is the Tractate Shabbata, which has one chapter on the Sabbath covenant in Exodus 31:12-17 and one chapter on the material in Exodus 35:1-3.  These three texts contain slightly over 200 pages of material in both English and Hebrew, and the rest of the book is taken up with indices and a concordance that demonstrate the excellence of this critical text and its value for researchers.

Overall, I would say that this book is of chief interest to those who are researchers in the interpretation of Hebrew law.  Specifically, Lauterbach’s work as a whole (at least as far as I understand it) was markedly in favor of the midrash approach of interpreting the law in light of the whole text of the Tanakh rather than the Mishnaic approach of going outside of the Bible and looking to create or endorse unscriptural practices through human reasoning.  That is not to say that there is no reasoning going on in these texts–not only in the critical comments but also in the way that Rabbi Ishmael sometimes argues things via proof by contradiction.  Nevertheless, even if some of the conclusions of the author on these various laws and their implications are not the same as I would draw, they have the benefit of coming from the Bible itself, and are interpretations that I can certainly understand and in many cases agree with.  For those readers whose interest in the interpretation of the law is not great, there is likely to be little of interest in this very dry and technical and scholarly work, but for the small number of people who have a deep interest in these matters, this book is definitely a worthy volume.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: Volume Three

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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