Midrash is often described as “atomistic”, or “versocentric”, meaning that it focuses narrowly on specific details of a text rather than seeking to understand them in context. This description is incorrect.

To begin with, the midrashists see the entire Torah as a theological unity, and thus never offer interpretations that conflict with their sense of the whole. They interpret each verse in the global context of the content of the entire Torah. Additionally, the atomistic understanding of midrash is also mistaken in a more fundamental sense. Rather than being versocentric, midrash is deeply concerned with literary context, and the Rabbis thought consciously about literary context as they interpreted the Torah.

Why did the mistaken impression arise? Perhaps it is because there are different kinds of literary contexts. One kind is immediate context. This refers to the clauses or verses that immediately precede or follow the unit being interpreted, or to a theme running through a literary unit that includes the specifics being interpreted. A second kind is structural context. This refers to the clauses or verses that are connected by the structures of the text to the details being interpreted, or to other literary units that are structurally connected to those details. Midrash sometimes sacrifices immediate narrative or legal context for the sake of structural context. Some scholars noted these sacrifices and incorrectly understood them to reflect a lack of concern for any type of context, rather than a choice among types of context.

An example of structural context is semikhut parshiyot, the assumption that the juxtaposition of literary units in Torah is meaningful. This concept in and of itself militates against atomism. Semikhut entails complex literary judgments about the boundaries of literary units. These judgments are necessarily grounded in sensitivity to textual structures larger than the individual verse.

My goal in this article is to provide one clear illustration of the phenomenon in which a midrash that seems to be ignoring context is actually choosing structural over immediate context.1 I contend that this example can be multiplied many times over.

   The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman brings forth seed and bears [ki tazria veyaldah] a male . . .(Lev. 12:1-2).

The standard midrashic reading here begins from the apparent superfluousness of brings forth seed [ki tazria]; whatever physiological phenomenon it refers to presumably occurs in all pregnancies, and therefore the text should simply have said ishah ki teled zakhar, “when a woman gives birth to a male”. To avoid this difficulty, the Rabbis translate the next word in the verse, veyaldah (and bears), as declarative, “she will (subsequently) give birth to a male”, rather than as part of the conditional “. . . and gives birth to a male”. This raises the question – what exactly are the prior conditions that will generate the birth of a male? The answer from immediate context is ishah ki tazria, When a woman brings forth seed. This generates a somewhat risqué discussion on TB Niddah 31a as to how husbands can ensure that their wives are mazria2 before they themselves are mazria.3

However, TB Shavuot 18b records three other answers:

  1. If husband and wife separate close to her projected menstrual time, rather than waiting for her to actually become ritually impure (R. Chiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yochanan).
  2. If he makes havdalah over wine on Saturday night, as it says, You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane (Lev. 10:10) (R. Chiyya bar Abba in the name of R.Yochanan).
  3. If he sanctifies himself (literally, makes himself kadosh) during intercourse (R. Binyamin bar Yefet in the name of R. Elazar).

Each of these answers initially seems “atomistic”, as none of these themes appear elsewhere in the literary unit in Leviticus 12 discussing the birthing woman.

However, it should be immediately clear that the first approach is actually based on the simplest form of semikhut (juxtaposition of literary units). It contends that Leviticus 12:1-2 follows directly from the last verse of the preceding chapter, even though that verse concludes a literary unit that otherwise appears unrelated to ours. That verse reads: For distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten (Lev. 11:47). The first approach claims on the basis of juxtaposition that bears a male [veyaldah zakhar] is a consequence of separating between the impure and the pure.4

To understand the second approach, we need first to recognize that the first two interpretations are both said by R. Chiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yochanan. It therefore seems likely that these versions are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. There is no reason to assume that only one path leads to bearing male offspring. The claim is that havdalah also leads to the birth of a male child.

Now we need to understand why You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane (Lev. 10:10) was understood to refer specifically to havdalah said over wine. The reason is that the previous verse, Leviticus 10:9, includes a ban against kohanim drinking wine when they enter the Tent of Meeting. Verse 10 then begins with a vav, ulehavdil, meaning “and you must distinguish”. This doesn’t fit well in context, and is in fact left out of the JPS translation, as the two verses do not seem to be connected. The question is whether the best available reading has the vav mean “and”, or rather “but”. This interpretation of R. Chiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yochanan reads it as “but”, meaning that you may not drink wine when you enter the Tent of Meeting, ohel moed, but you must drink wine to separate between holy and profane.

Now that Leviticus 10:10 is interpreted to refer to havdalah said over wine, we must ask: why does Rabbi Yochanan in his second reading connect that far off verse to the woman giving birth to a male in Leviticus 12:1-3? TB Shavuot 18b explains, “It says here You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane (Lev. 10:10), and it says there For distinguishing between the unclean and the clean (Lev. 11:47), and juxtaposed to the latter is When a woman brings forth seed (Lev. 12:2).” The phrase following You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane is and between the unclean [tamei] and the clean [tahor] which is out of place in Leviticus 10, a chapter which otherwise deals entirely with the category kadosh (holy). R. Yochanan therefore suggests that the phrase serves as a bridge between Leviticus 10:10 and 11:47, so that 10:10 can then be juxtaposed with 12:2.

What about the third approach, the reading proposed by R. Binyamin bar Yefet? In TB Shavuot 18b he relates Leviticus 10:10 to 11:44-45, a few verses further back than R. Yochanan did. For I the LORD am your God: you shall sanctify yourself and be holy for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. For I the LORD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:44-45).

Why does R. Binyamin bar Yefet skip the immediate context? Professor Richard Steiner argued powerfully5 that Rashbam (c.1085 – c.1158) discovered the concept of “inclusio”. “Inclusio” refers to a textual structure in which a final unit refers back to the opening of that unit, so that the unit is bracketed by the content of that structure. In this structure, the final unit may have little or no connection to the immediately preceding verse or verses. I contend that R. Binyamin bar Yefet is an even earlier example of the “inclusio” approach. Leviticus chapter 11 opens with, The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals, and ends, These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten (Lev. 11:46-47). R. Binyamin bar Yefet saw the inclusio and realized that Leviticus 11:47 was a summary of the preceding chapter. He then went one step further, arguing that the next chapter, dealing with a woman giving birth, should therefore be read in the context of the last new substantive point in the preceding chapter. In other words, it should be read in light of you shall sanctify yourself and be holy for I am holy (Lev. 11:44).

In TB Shavuot 18b, R. Yehoshua ben Levi comments regarding the first two approaches that such behavior will not generate merely ordinary sons, but rather sons competent to issue halakhic rulings (reuyim lehora’ah). This is a reference to Lev. 10:9 and 10:11, the verses before and after the one used in the first approach. Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages (Lev. 10:9), and then you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses (Lev. 10:11). Why does he begin his interpretation one verse further back? Presumably he too sees bears a male [veyaldah zakhar] (Lev. 12:2) as connected to Leviticus 10:10 by the bridge of 11:47. However, where R. Yochanan saw a simple connection, R. Yehoshua ben Levi sees a more complex connection, so that anyone who fulfills 10:10 will be blessed with 12:2 as amended (positively) by 10:11.

To sum up: Taken by themselves the interpretive approaches from TB Shavuot 18b seem to be explaining bears a male [veyaldah zakhar] (Lev. 12:2) in ways that have no contextual relevance. I hope this article has shown that their readings are deeply rooted in sensitivity to the structural context, and required a mode of reading that saw the text as an integrated whole.

This does not mean that the Rabbis read the Torah exactly the way modern literary analysts do. R. Binyamin bar Yefet’s recognition of inclusio is easy to appreciate for moderns; the notion of a “textual bridge” may seem artificial. But if this example is taken as representative, it should be clear that the midrashic enterprise is all about understanding a phrase in context, and not “atomistic” or “versocentric” at all.



  1. My comments on midrash are heavily influenced by the work of my friend Rabbi Nachman Levine, but I am solely responsible for any errors and for all elements of the specific examples here.
  2. The Rabbis had no difficulty using the active voice for women in this context. There have been a variety of suggestions as to biological phenomena that might be reflected by their choice to use it.
  3. Rashbam in his commentary to Lev. 12:2 may have understood that the question was why ki tazria is connected to the birth of the male rather than the female, and accordingly seeks to forestall the midrash by asserting that ki tazria relates both to the immediate veyaldah zakhar and to the later im nekeivah teileid. In my understanding, however, the Rabbis considered that possibility, but rejected it as failing to explain why ki tazria is in the text at all.
  4. In Baraita d’Masechet Nidda p. 57, the separation issue is care regarding immersion. J.D. Eisenstein, ed., Otzar Midrashim (New York: Noble Offset, 1915), p. 400.
  5. Prof. Steiner taught that “Rashbam discovered inclusio” in a class I took at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University many years ago.


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. He lectures and consults internationally on issues of Jewish law. Much of his Torah can be accessed at