Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael

For other uses, see Mekhilta.

Mekhilta or Mekilta (Aramaic: מכילתא, a collection of rules of interpretation) is a halakhic midrash to the Book of Exodus. The name "Mekhilta", corresponds to the Hebrew "middah" ("measure," "rule"), and is used to denote a compilation of Scriptural exegesis ("middot"; comp. Talmudical Hermeneutics).

First Mention

Neither the Babylonian Talmud nor the Jerusalem Talmud mention this work under the name "Mekhilta," nor does the word appear in any of the passages of the Talmud in which the other halakhic midrashim, Sifra and Sifre, are named (Ḥag. 3a; Ḳid. 49b; Ber. 47b; etc.). It seems to be intended, however, in one passage (Yer. Ab. Zarah iv. 8), which runs as follows: "R. Josiah showed a Mekhilta from which he cited and explained a sentence." His quotation actually occurs in the Mekhilta, "Mishpaṭim" (ed. I.H. Weiss, p. 106b). It is not certain, however, whether the word "Mekhilta" here refers to the work under consideration, for it may allude to a baraita collection—which might also be designated a "Mekhilta" (comp. Pes. 48a; Tem. 33a; Giṭ. 44a)—containing the sentence in question.

On the other hand, this midrash, apparently in written form, is mentioned several times in the Talmud under the title "She'ar Sifre debe Rab" = "The Other Books of the Schoolhouse" (Yoma 74a; B. B. 124b). A geonic responsum (A. Harkavy, Teshubot ha-Geonim, p. 31, No. 66, Berlin, 1888) in which appears a passage from the Mekhilta (ed. I.H. Weiss, p. 41a) likewise indicates that this work was known as "She'ar Sifre debe Rab." The first individual to mention the Mekhilta by name was the author of the Halakhot Gedolot (p. 144a, ed. Warsaw, 1874). Another geonic responsum refers to the text as the "Mekhilta de-Ereẓ Yisrael" (A. Harkavy, l.c. p. 107, No. 229), probably to distinguish it from the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon, which was generally known in the Babylonian schools (D. Hoffmann, Zur Einleitung in die Halachischen Midraschim, p. 36).

Mekhilta of R. Ishmael

The author, or more correctly the redactor, of the Mekhilta cannot be definitely ascertained. R. Nissim ben Jacob, in his Mafteaḥ (to Shab. 106b), and R. Samuel ha-Nagid, in his introduction to the Talmud, refer to it as the "Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael," thus ascribing the authorship to Ishmael. Maimonides likewise says in the introduction to his Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah: "R. Ishmael interpreted from 've'eleh shemot' to the end of the Torah, and this explanation is called 'Mekhilta.' R. Akiba also wrote a Mekhilta." This R. Ishmael, however, is neither an amora by the name of Ishmael, as Z. Frankel assumed (Introduction to Yerushalmi, p. 105b), nor Rebbi's contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael ben Jose, as Gedaliah ibn Yaḥya thought (Shalshelet ha-Ḳabbalah, p. 24a, Zolkiev, 1804). He is, on the contrary, identical with R. Ishmael ben Elisha, R. Akiba's contemporary, as is shown by the passage of Maimonides quoted above.

The present Mekhilta cannot, however, be the one composed by R. Ishmael, as is proved by the references in it to R. Ishmael's pupils and to other later tannaim. Both Maimonides and the author of the Halakhot Gedolot, moreover, refer, evidently on the basis of a tradition, to a much larger Mekhilta extending from Ex. i. to the end of the Torah, while the midrash here considered discusses only certain passages of Exodus. It must be assumed, therefore, that R. Ishmael composed an explanatory midrash to the last four books of the Torah, and that his pupils amplified it (M. Friedmann, Einleitung in die Mechilta, pp. 64, 73; Hoffmann, l.c. p. 73).

A later editor, intending to compile a halakhic midrash to Exodus, took R. Ishmael's work on the book, beginning with ch. xii., since the first eleven chapters contained no references to the Law (Friedmann, l.c. p. 72; Hoffmann, l.c. p. 37). He even omitted passages from the portion which he took, but, by way of compensation, he incorporated much material from the other halakhic midrashim, Sifra, R. Shimon bar Yochai's Mekilta, and the Sifre to Deuteronomy. Since the last two works were from a different source, he generally designated them by the introductory phrase, "dabar aḥer" = "another explanation," placing them after the sections taken from R. Ishmael's midrash. But the redactor based his work on the midrash of R. Ishmael's school, and the sentences of R. Ishmael and his pupils constitute the larger part of his Mekhilta. Similarly, most of the anonymous maxims in the work were derived from the same source, so that it also was known as the "Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael." The redactor must have been a pupil of Rebbi, since the latter is frequently mentioned (comp. Abraham ibn Daud in Sefer HaKabbalah in A. Neubauer, M. J. C., p. 57, Oxford, 1887, who likewise ascribes it to a pupil of Rebbi).

He cannot, however, have been R. Hoshaiah, as A. Epstein assumes (Beiträge zur Jüdischen Alterthumskunde, p. 55, Vienna, 1887), as might be inferred from Abraham ibn Daud's reference, for Hoshaiah is mentioned in the Mekhilta (ed. Weiss, p. 60b). Abba Arika (Rab) therefore probably redacted the work, as Menahem ibn Zerah says in the preface to Zedah la-Derek (p. 14b). Rab, however, did not do this in Babylonia, as I.H. Weiss assumes (Einleitung in die Mechilta, p. 19), but in Palestine, taking it after its compilation to Babylonia, so that it was called "Mekhilta de-Eretz Yisrael".)

Quotations in the Talmud

Baraitot from the Mekhilta are introduced in the Babylonian Talmud by the phrases "Tana debe R. Yishmael" = "It was taught in the school of R. Ishmael," and in the Jerusalem Talmud and the haggadic midrashim by "Teni R. Yishmael" = "R. Ishmael taught". Yet there are many baraitot in the Talmud which contain comments on Book of Exodus, and which are introduced by the phrase "Tana debe R. Yishmael," but which are not included in the Mekhilta under discussion. These must have been included in R. Ishmael's original Mekhilta, and the fact that they are omitted in this midrash is evidence that its redactor excluded many of the passages from R. Ishmael's work (comp. D. Hoffman, l.c. p. 42).


The Mekhilta begins with Ex. xii, this being the first legal section found in Exodus. That this is the beginning of the Mekhilta is shown by the Aruk s.v. טמא, and by the Seder Tannaim v'Amoraim (ed. S.D. Luzzatto, p. 12, Prague 1839). In like manner R. Nissim proves in his Mafteach (to Shab. 106b) that the conclusion of the Mekhilta which he knew corresponded with that of the Mekhilta now extant. In printed editions the Mekhilta is divided into nine "massektot," each of which is further subdivided into "parshiyyot". The nine massektot are as follows:

  1. "Massekta de-Pesah", covering the pericope "Bo" (quoted as "Bo"), Ex. xii.1–xiii.16, and containing an introduction, "petikta," and 18 sections.
  2. "Massekta de-Vayehi "Beshalach" (quoted as "Besh."), ib., xiii.17–xiv.31, containing an introduction and 6 sections.
  3. "Massekta de-Shirah," (quoted as "Shir"), ib., xv.1–21, containing 10 sections.
  4. "Massekta de-Vayassah," (quoted as "Vay."), ib., xv.22–xvii.7, containing 6 sections.
  5. "Massekta de-Amalek", consisting of two parts:
    1. the part dealing with Amalek (quoted as "Am."), ib., xvii.8–16, containing 2 sections.
    2. the beginning of the pericope "Yitro" (quoted as "Yitro"), ib., xviii.1–27, containing 2 sections.
  6. "Massekta de-Bahodesh," (quoted as "Bah."), ib., xix.1–20, 26, containing 11 sections.
  7. "Massekta de-Nezikin," ib., xxi.1–xxii.23. (see next)
  8. "Massekta de-Kaspa," ib., xxii.24–xxiii.19; these last two messektot, which belong to the pericope "Mishpatim" contain 20 sections consecutively numbered, and are quoted as "Mish."
  9. "Massekta de-Shabbeta", containing 2 sections:
    1. covering the pericope "Ki Tisa" (quoted as "Ki"), ib., xxxi.12–17
    2. covering the pericope "Vayakhel" (quoted as "Vayak"), ib., xxxv.1–3

The Mekhilta comprises altogether 77, or, if the two introductions be included, 79 sections. All the editions, however, state at the end that there are 82 sections (comp. I.H. Weiss l.c. p. 28; M. Friedmann, l.c. pp. 78–80).

Haggadic Elements

Although the redactor intended to produce a halachic midrash to Book of Exodus, the larger portion of the Mekhilta is haggadic in character. From Ex. xii. the midrash was continued without interruption as far as Ex. xxxiii.19, i.e., to the conclusion of the chief laws of the book, although there are many narrative portions scattered through this section whose midrash belongs properly to the aggadah. Furthermore, many haggadot are included in the legal sections as well.

The halakhic exegesis of the Mekhilta, which is found chiefly in the messektot "Bo.", "Bah", and "Mish." and in the sections "Ki" and "Vayak", is, as the name "mekhilta" indicates, based on the application of the middot according to R. Ishmael's system and method of teaching. In like manner, the introductory formulas and the technical terms are borrowed from his midrash (comp. D. Hoffmann l.c. pp. 43–44). On the other hand, there are many explanations and expositions of the Law which follow the simpler methods of exegesis found in the earlier halakha (comp. Midrash Halakha.)

The haggadic expositions in the Mekhilta, which are found chiefly in "Beshallah" and "Yitro" are in part actual exegesis, but the majority of them are merely interpretations of Scripture to illustrate certain ethical and moral tenets. Parables are frequently introduced in connection with these interpretations (e.g., "Bo" ed. Weiss p. 1b, "Besh" pp. 36a,b, 37a) as well as proverbs (e.g., "Bo" p. 2b, "Vay" p. 60b) and maxims (e.g., the apothegm of the ancient Zekenim, "Besh" p. 62b, "Shir" p. 46b). Especially noteworthy are the haggadot relating to the battles of the Ephraimites ("Besh" p. 28b) and to Serah, Asher's daughter, who showed Joseph's coffin to Moses (ib p. 29a), besides others, which are based on old tales and legends.

It must also be noted that some of the tannaim mentioned in the Mekhilta are referred to only here and in Sifre Num., which likewise originated with R. Ishmael's school (comp. D. Hoffmann l.c., pp. 38–39). On the earlier editions of the Mekhilta and the commentaries to it see I.H. Weiss, l.c., pp. 25–26, and M. Friedmann, l.c., pp. 12–14.

English Editions

See also


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