A midrash is like a parable. It is a Jewish teaching tool that uses an explanation or story to give details or a modern application for an old teaching found in Jewish Scripture. Midrashim are not considered Scripture, although some are accepted as truth.
What is the Midrash?
According to the Bible, God gave the Jews the Tanakh — which Christians call the Old Testament. The Tanakh is comprised of the Torah (the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible which give the law), the Nev'im (the prophets), and the Kethuvim (the writings). But the laws of the Torah are hard to understand and often not very specific. So Orthodox Jews believe God also gave Moses the Oral Law — a set of instructions that elaborate on the law. The Oral Law was compiled into written form called the Mishnah. In addition, rabbis and scholars added their own explanations — some accurate and some merely speculation; in fact, some contradict others. The extra explanations were compiled into the Gemara. These instructions in the Oral Law/Mishnah and the Gemara are in the form of short parables, or Midrashim.
There are two basic categories of Midrashim. A collection of Midrashim on a single topic or book is also called a Midrash.
In Hebrew, halakhah refers to the law given in the Torah and the Mishnah. It includes the religious, ceremonial, and civil regulations. The Midrash Halakhah, then, gives explanation to those laws. The Midrash Halakhah is divided into the Mehkilta on Exodus, the Sifra on Leviticus, and the Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy. They all give detailed explanations of the passages in the Torah, down to who is being referred to by which pronoun. They also attempt to explain why each law was brought into play.
For example, in the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:6-9, the Midrash Halakhah explains what is meant by "these words," "why you lie down and when you get up," and how you can wear the law between your eyes. The Midrash Halakhah was also essential in reinterpreting ceremonial law for a Judaism that had no Temple. Two different rabbinical schools compiled the three books. One school believed every word was intentionally placed and had the potential to develop into another law. The other believed that Scripture, like human speech, was subject to flourishes that didn't really mean anything.
Unlike the Midrash Halakhah, the Midrash Aggadah speaks more about stories, characters, and ethical dilemmas. Midrash Aggadah specializes in taking Scripture and teasing out a modern application. Several commentaries of a single passage may sit one after another, with no correct interpretation identified. Behind-the-scenes stories are added to explain terse and confusing accounts given in Scripture. The Midrash Aggadah is not meant to be literal Scripture — more jumping-off points for contemplation. They are still used today to explain such things as feminism and the Holocaust.
The Midrash Rabbah is the most cohesive collection of Midrash Aggadah, although Midrash Aggadah are found throughout Jewish writings. The Midrash Rabbah is actually ten volumes, one each on the Torah and the five Megillot (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). Each volume includes Midrash Aggadah gathered between the 5th and 8th Centuries. "Rabbah" means "great" and identifies each book as the largest collection of Midrash Aggadah on the given book of the Tanakh, although other, smaller, collections do exist. A Midrash Aggadah could be a poem about a passage, a homily about an ethical consideration a passage mentions, or a story that explains the behavior of a character. Some reflect the difficult times in which they were written, and some seem to come out of nowhere.
Other Midrashim collections do exist, such as those on 1 and 2 Samuel, the Psalms, and Proverbs. Others are topical and cover a variety of subjects.
Are the Midrashim accurate interpretations of Scripture? Some of them probably are. But there's no real standardization, and it would be easy for a Christian to get confused as to what is truth and what isn't. Second Timothy 3:16-17 says that all Scripture is inspired by God and suitable for instruction, and this certainly includes the Old Testament. But it doesn't include the descriptions, speculation, and stories of the Midrash.
What is the Jewish Talmud?
What is the Mishnah?
What is the Pentateuch?
Why should we read the Old Testament?
Are Christians expected to obey the Old Testament law?
Truth about the Bible