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Midrash Aseret Ha-Dibberot

MIDRASH ASERET HA-DIBBEROT (Heb. הַדִּבְּרוֹתמִדְרַשׁ עֲשֶׂרֶת; "Midrash of the Ten Commandments"), a collection of stories, occasionally connected by short homiletic passages, from the geonic period. Various scholars have ascribed different dates to it, ranging from the seventh century to the 11th. The collection cannot be dated later than the 11th century because in that century both Rabbi *Nissim of Kairouan and later the anonymous collector of the legends published by M. Gaster as Sefer ha-Ma'asiyyot, The Ancient Collections of Agadoth. The Sefer ha-Ma'asiyyot and Two Facsimiles (1894) made use of stories included in it. The work was apparently composed at the beginning of the geonic period, but later stories were added and have created confusion regarding both the number of stories included and the structure of the book as it appears in the several printed versions and the 20 extant manuscripts.

The collection was called a "Midrash" although its contents do not justify the name. It is basically a narrative work, one of the first medieval Hebrew works in the field of fiction. Its treatment of the midrashic material can be described as revolutionary: whereas traditional Midrashim place primary importance on homiletic material with only occasional use of stories, this work is primarily composed of stories, with the homiletic passages relegated to secondary importance. This stress on the fictional element is one of the characteristics of the new attitude toward the story introduced in medieval times (see *Fiction).

The work, which is based on the Ten Commandments, is correspondingly divided into ten parts. However, there is not always a close connection between the midrashic story and the commandment on which it is supposed to be based. This explains the material occasionally introduced into a story to create the impression of such a connection. In some versions the work is called Midrash shel Shavu'ot or Haggadah le-Shavu'ot, leading one to believe that it was used on Shavuot, the festival on which the receiving of the Ten Commandments is celebrated. However, there is no proof that any Jewish community ever used this work during Shavuot. Noy (see bibl.) concludes plausibly that the arbitrary connection between the Midrash Aseret ha-Dibberot and the commandments and Shavuot is merely an attempt to give a religious veneer to a collection of essentially secular stories which had no other purpose than to entertain.

Some of the stories in the collection are originally found in the Talmud and represent a medieval retelling of the talmudic aggadah. Others are derived from more ancient sources, like the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: the story of Judith is told in a different version (without mentioning her name), and the story of the woman and her seven sons from the Book of Maccabees is also retold. However, most of the stories are folktales, either Jewish in origin or Jewish versions of international folktales found in a variety of versions in many languages (Noy lists among them the international types Aarne-Thompson 976, 670, 899, 2040, and others). Some of these stories are still current today among oral storytellers.

The number of stories composing the collection differs from version to version, some containing no more than 17 and others nearly 30. One manuscript (Parma 473) has 44 stories. As there are some which appear in only one version, the total number of stories connected with this work is over 50. A largenumber of stories (12) are concerned with the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery"; an erotic element is also found in stories related to other commandments. Women, frequently courageous and devout, are the heroines of many of the stories. From the religious point of view, the stories seem to imply an extreme devotion to the observance of the commandments, far beyond that required by the halakhah. The collection can also be described, therefore, as one of the earliest ethical works written in the Middle Ages.


D. Noy, in: Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Papers, 2 (1968), 353–5 (Heb.); A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 1 (1938), 62–92; M.M. Kasher (ed.), Torah Shelemah, 16 (1954), 189–99; J.L. Maimon (Fishman), Haggadah shel Shavu'ot (1924); M. Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis (1924), 142–8.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.