Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Fascinating Yemmenite Midrash

A friend sent me two Yemmenite Midrashim[1] that say the same thing in slightly different versions. According to the editor’s notes on both Midrashim, one by Professor Toby, an expert on Yemmenite Jewry, it is an accepted and well-known popular story in Yemen folklore. The one I am paraphrasing is from Midrash Habiur. The Midrash comments on the following verse in Devarim 31:21

וְהָיָה כִּי-תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת,
וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי

21 then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed;

For it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: He promised them that the Torah will not be removed from them nor will it disappear. There is a tradition that the Jews did not have the Torah during the First Exile. Ezra Hasofer wrote down from memory all the 24 books and could not remember the first part of this sentence in Shir Hashirim -

יב לֹא יָדַעְתִּי--נַפְשִׁי שָׂמַתְנִי, מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב.

12 Before I was aware, my soul set me upon the chariots of my princely people. (Shir Hashirim 6:12)

He asked an Am Ha’aretz (an unlearned man) if he remembered the beginning of the verse in Shir Hashirim that ends with מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב. To which the man said
לֹא יָדַעְתִּי-- - I don’t know! That jolted Ezra’s memory and he remembered the missing words. The Midrash continues that this is why the Mesora has עה on this verse, the acronym for Am Ha’aretz, to remind us that Ezra needed the help of one.

I have very little to say about this Midrash other than that it triggers a great many thoughts about how some of our rabbis understood Ezra’s role in writing down the torah. The fact that it was an accepted traditional story in the Jewish community in Yemen is even more telling.

[1] For a short overview of the Yemmenite Midrashim, see Torah Shleima Vol. 1 in the introduction note 11.


  1. S. Lieberman wrote a book on Yemenite Midrashim. I am surpised that D, Halivni didn't dig this up in Revelation.

  2. I heard of this tradition before, but had no idea it came from Yemen.

    I also don't know what you mean by "how some of our rabbis understood Ezra’s role in writing down the torah". The Torah is not Shir HaShirim (besides the tradition in Yerushalmi Ta'anit 4).

  3. The Midrash is built on the verse here in Ha'azinu which talks about "Hashira Hazot" has to be memorized so that it is not forgotten. Shir Hashirim is only an example.

  4. I see the "ayin" but what "hey"

  5. Can you please discuss what an appropriate approach to this kind of midrash would be in light of the RaMBaM's 8th ikkar emunah

  6. Anonymous, I have no idea and that is why I showed astonishment and found it so interesting. Though the 8th Ikar problem is old hat and much has been written about it. I hope to one day understand it. So far it has eluded me.