THE AGGADOT OF THE TALMUD

by Rabbi Avraham, son of the Rambam (translated by Avraham Yaakov Finkel)


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ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF THE AGGADOT

 

It is important to understand that the homiletic expositions and stories in the Talmud have underlying meanings that are shrouded in secrecy, and most of the commentators did not even attempt to probe their deeper meaning.

 

My father, (the Rambam), had in mind writing a commentary on the aggadot, as he mentions in his Commentary on the Mishnah. Yet in the end he decided against it, as he stated in the beginning of his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), applying to himself the passage, "Moses was afraid to come close to it." 1

 

However, after my father's death, I decided to write a few explanatory remarks on this subject in the hope that it will be helpful to students of this field. If you follow my guidelines in understanding the aggadic teachings of the Sages, you will come to grasp their deeper meaning, and, as a result, you will not make light of them or deny that they are true. Neither will you fall into the trap of thinking that the miracles that happened to the Sages are as momentous as those that happened to Moses and Israel at the parting of the Red Sea, or as remarkable as the parting of the Jordan for Elisha and Elijah. Such misconceptions arise when you take the derash (i.e., homiletic interpretations) literally and accept only the surface meaning of the text. But there is abundant evidence to show that the aggadic tales and teachings, aside from their plain meaning, have profound hidden significance. My father already made this clear in his book; I merely want to explain it in greater detail by classifying the aggadot into different categories and citing examples for each category. But first I want to make a few introductory remarks.

 

EVERY THEORY MUST BE SUBSTANTIATED

 

To begin with, let me point out that if a person puts forward a certain theory without offering proof, expecting people to accept it at face value just because they respect him, he is sadly mistaken; his approach flies in the face of both the Torah and common sense. It goes against common sense, because he wants people to believe something without evaluating and investigating whether it squares with the facts. And it runs counter to the Torah, because it goes against the truth and is unethical. The Torah [tells us not to curry favor with anyone], saying [to a judge], "Do not give special consideration to the poor, nor show respect to the great" (Leviticus 19:15). And it says also, "Do not give anyone special consideration when rendering judgment" (Deuteronomy 1:17). And there is no difference between a person who believes an idea without supporting evidence and one who trusts a person's statement simply because he respects him and holds that it must be true since it comes from a great scholar. This does not prove that the statement is true.

 

Accordingly, we are not required to endorse all the theories of the Sages of the Talmud on medicine, physics, and astronomy in every respect just because we know the authors to be outstanding personalities and eminent scholars in all facets of the Torah. Of course, when it comes to Torah knowledge, the scholarship of the Sages is unsurpassed, and it is their responsibility to teach it to us, as it says, "You must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you" (Deuteronomy 17:11), but this does not necessarily apply to all other branches of knowledge. You can see that even the Sages themselves when faced with an issue that could not be proven by debate and logical arguments, said, "I swear, that even if Joshua b. Nun had said it, I would not have obeyed him!" Which means, "I would not believe him although he was a prophet, since he cannot prove his point by the talmudical rules of logical argument."

 

Let me offer you one conclusive proof that no one will refute. It is this: We find that the Sages themselves said that the opinions expressed in the Gemara with regard to general medicine are not borne out, like for instance when the Gemara says that wearing a "preserving stone" 4 is a safeguard against miscarriage, or other things mentioned in tractate Shabbat. They tested these remedies and found them not to have any therapeutic value.

 

DEDICATION TO THE TRUTH

 

You should realize, however, that there are exceptions to the rule, (that the medical advice of the Sages is unreliable). For example, the admonition of the Sages, "If you are hungry, eat; if you are thirsty, drink; if your dish is cooked, pour it out while it is hot," is certainly true. What it means is that you should not eat until you are hungry or drink until you are thirsty, and when you sense the call of nature, you should not delay relieving yourself. This dictum is the key to healthful living; it has been verified by experience and by medical testing.

 

By the same token, it would be wrong to argue as follows: While Aristotle, the great philosopher, has proved by indisputable facts that the Creator exists, as well as other things that are true, he holds the false belief that the universe never had a beginning but always was, and he propounds the fallacy that the Creator does not know every detail. Now you should not say that since he erred on these points, therefore, all his theories are untrue. You should carefully examine each of this statements on its own merits and accept that which passes muster and reject that which does not hold up. You should refrain from ruling on things that cannot be decided either way, regardless of who says it. As our Sages said [about a law R. Shimon proposed], "If this is a tradition [he received from his teachers] we will accept it, but if it is only an inference, we want to raise an objection." 5 In the same way, when the Sages were faced with an issue they were unable to decide either way, they said teiku which means, "the question remains unsolved." Similarly, we find that when they discovered that the opinion they held was wrong, they reversed themselves, and frankly took back what they had said, like, "Bet Hillel retracted their earlier decision and decided in accordance with Bet Shammai." Indeed, their dedication to the truth was so great that the Gemara tells us that Rava appointed an Amora to say in his name, "The statement I made to you was an error on my part." 7 Don't accept theories with blind faith just because the author is an outstanding scholar. You should accept teachings only on the basis of solid evidence, as my father said in his commentary. Anyone who is objective and has an open mind will agree with this.

 

CATEGORIES OF SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATIONS

 

With God's help I will now proceed to classify the derashot [scriptural expositions] in the Talmud, breaking them down into five categories.

 

1. The first category consists of derashot that should be understood in their literal sense, since they contain nothing but their plain, obvious meaning. Although this category needs no illustration, I will give you an example anyway, to make it unmistakably clear. I have in mind the Gemara in Berachot 31a that expounds, "You are forbidden to fill your mouth with laughter in this world, for it says, 'When God will return the captivity of Zion... then our mouths will be filled with laughter' (Psalms 126:2);" (the word then implies that we will laugh only after the Redemption, but not while we are still in galut (exile).

 

2. The second category of derashot covers interpretations that have both a literal and a figurative meaning. Since the Sages meant to convey the figurative rather than the plain meaning of these sayings, they couched them in such a way that their plain meaning represents the opposite of their figurative and true meaning. Most of these have been explained in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed, volume 3:43) and in the Commentary on the Mishnah [by the Rambam]. An example of this kind of rabbinic exposition is found in the Gemara in Taanit 31a, where it says, "R. Eliezer said: In days to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make a circle for the righteous, and He will sit among them in Gan Eden. Every one of them will point his finger at Him, as it says, 'And they will say on that day: Behold, this is our God... let us exult and rejoice in His deliverance'" (Isaiah 25:9).

 

Of course, no intelligent person will take this derash in its literal sense. What R. Eliezer meant to say is that the reward of the righteous in the world to come will be that they receive from God a lucid perception of the absolute truth, something they could never attain in this world. This is the supreme and ultimate good. He therefore compares the joy of gaining this insight to a dance, and likens the blissful delight each individual experiences to the pointing with their fingers at the Holy One, blessed be He. Thus he illustrates this lofty idea through a concise allegory. This exemplifies all other interpretations of this kind.

 

3. The third category embraces expositions that have only a simple meaning, but this simple meaning is so puzzling that most people cannot understand it. And if you do understand it, you find that the composition of the piece is unclear and confused and its wording vague and ambiguous. Therefore, be careful when you study such expositions, and don't be hasty in figuring out what they mean, because you can easily reach the wrong conclusion and get the wrong idea.

 

To give you an example, the Gemara says, "A person should always incite (yargiz) his yetzer tov (good impulse) to fight against his yetzer hara (evil impulse). For it says, 'Incite (rigzu) [your inner powers] and don't sin' (Psalms 4:5). 8 If he overcomes his evil impulse, fine. But if he cannot, he should recite the Shema, for the verse continues, 'Reflect in your hearts while on your beds [mishkavchem] (ibid.) [this alludes to the Shema, for it says, beshochbecha, you should recite the Shema when you retire]. If this works, fine. If not, he should remind himself of the day of death, for the verse concludes, 'and be silent' (ibid.)" (Berachot 5a).

 

Although this exposition means exactly what it says, it is difficult to understand it because the terms "good and evil impulse" are unfamiliar, and the suggested ways of overcoming the evil impulse are baffling. I think it is important that I explain this derashah to help you understand it and similar expositions in this category.

 

Note that the word yargiz, "incite," means also, "to rule, to control." The term yetzer tov refers to your intellect, and yetzer hara denotes your passions and physical desires. So the real meaning of the statement is that you should strive to make your mind control your physical desires, and that you should reflect on this all the time. If reflecting on this is enough to restrain your passions, well and good; but if not, you should reinforce your thoughts by articulating this concept, uttering passages that will make you submissive, help you subdue your passion, and stop you from having lustful thoughts. The passage you should recite is the Shema, because the Shema stresses the fact that the yetzer tov encourages you to believe in the Oneness of God, to love and serve Him and to trust in the principle of Divine reward and punishment. The Shema tells you to subdue the yetzer hara when it says, "Do not stray after your heart and eyes" (Numbers 15:30), and it tells you to bolster your yetzer tov, saying, "Be holy to your God" (ibid. v. 40).

The derashah continues, "If reciting the Shema works, fine. If not, he should remind himself of the day of death." This means that if the yetzer hara continues to stir your passion and is not subdued by your recitation of the Shema, you will overcome it by thinking of the day of death. Remembering that man is mortal is enough to break the arrogance of your yetzer hara, as Akavya b. Mehalalel said, "Consider three things and you will not come in the grip of sin:... 'Where you are going'-to a place of dust, worms and maggots..." (Avot 3:5).

 

4. The fourth category consists of metaphoric interpretations of certain verses. However, the Sages did not suggest that their figurative interpretation is the actual meaning of the verse, God forbid to think that.

 

An example of this kind of exposition is the Gemara in Taanit 9a, where R. Yochanan said: What is the meaning of the passage, "Asseir te'asseir, You shall tithe" (Deuteronomy 14:22)? It means, "Give tithe, so that you will become rich." 9 [And there is a verse to prove it. God says: "If you give tithes,] I will pour upon you a blessing without end" (Malachi 3:10). What is the meaning of the words, "without [beli] end"?-Until your lips grow weary (yivlu) from saying, "It is enough!" 10

 

Don't think like people who are unable to grasp the real truth and who think that such metaphoric interpretations are traditions like the expositions of the laws of the Torah. That is not so. The fact is that the interpretations of passages that do not involve fundamental laws and principles are not based on tradition. Such expositions were thought up by the authors according to their own understanding. Many of these interpretations are vehicles to express lofty ideas through allegories, parables, and symbolism. Take the commentary 11 on the verse, "Jethro heard... and he came to the desert where Moses was staying, near God's mountain" (Exodus 18:1), where R. Yehoshua asked: What did Jethro hear? and answered: He heard about the war of Amalek. 12 I have no doubt that this is merely R. Yehoshua's opinion and not a tradition. The fact that he cites evidence to support his opinion proves it, because for a tradition we need no evidence. Furthermore, the fact that all other Sages disagree with him, proves it also. If it was a tradition they would not dispute him.

 

5. The fifth category comprises derashot [metaphoric expositions] that contain exaggerations, like the following: Mar Zutra said, Between Atzel and Atzel there are four hundred camel-loads of derashot (scriptural interpretations) (Pesachim 62b). Mar Zutra has in mind the verse, "Atzel had six sons, and these were their names: Azrikam, Bocheri, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan, all these were the sons of Atzel" (1 Chronicles 8:38). The first Atzel is at the beginning of the verse, the second is at the end. To say that this verse has four hundred camel-loads of interpretations is clearly an exaggeration. For if in the whole book of Chronicles there are not four hundred camel-loads of scriptural interpretations, how could there be that many in one passage? Therefore, it must be an exaggeration.

 

AGGADIC ANECDOTES

 

The aggadic anecdotes can be divided into four parts:

 

1. True stories to serve as precedents for the purpose of deciding a law. An example is the case of a person who is sitting with his head and the greater part of his body inside the sukkah but with the table inside the house (because the sukkah is too small). Bet Shammai declared the sukkah invalid, but Bet Hillel ruled that it was valid. Said Bet Hillel to Bet Shammai: "Did it not happen that the elders of Bet Hillel and the elders of Bet Shammai once went on a visit to R. Yochanan b. Hachoranit, and they found him sitting with his head and greater part of his body within the sukkah while his table was in the house?" [The fact that R. Yochanan sat in such a sukkah proves our view that it is valid.] Retorted Bet Shammai: "On the contrary. This incident proves that our view is right, for they told him, 'If you have always sat in a sukkah like this, you have never fulfilled the mitzvah of sukkah!'" (Ketubot 13b). [Thus the anecdote is told to serve as a precedent for a law concerning the minimum size of a sukkah.]

 

2. Stories that are told to teach a moral lesson, like the following: A person should always be gentle like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. The story is told about two people who made a wager between themselves. They said: "Whoever will go and make Hillel angry will receive 400 zuz... and Hillel did not become angry" (Shabbat 30b). The moral of this story is that you should try to emulate Hillel and not be overly particular or become angry even when provoked, for forbearance is an admirable trait. There are many similar stories in the Talmud.

 

3. Anecdotes that convey a fundamental religious principle, like the following: It happened once that the people said to Choni Hame'agel: Pray that it should rain. He drew a circle around him and said, "Master of the universe! Your children have turned to me..." (Taanit 19a). This story shows the power of perfect faith, that God listens to the prayer of His righteous servants and answers them when they are in distress, as it says, "What nation is so great that they have God close to it, as God our Lord is, whenever we call Him?" (Deuteronomy 4:8). The prophets too, expressed this thought, saying, "Then you will call, and God will respond" (Isaiah 58:9), and also, "He will call upon Me, and I will answer him" (Psalms 91:15). A similar story is told about Nakdimon b. Gurion in Taanit 19a, and there are a great number of such anecdotes in the Talmud.

 

4. Tales that point out a miracle or an amazing incident, like the following story about R. Meir, R. Yehudah, and R. Yose who were traveling on the road. R. Meir deduced from the innkeeper's name that he was dishonest, and subsequent events proved him right (Yoma 83a). Many similar incidents can be found in the Talmud.

 

DREAMS PRESENTED AS REAL EVENTS

 

Then there are stories that did not actually happen but were seen in a dream. The Sages express them in terms of real events, because they believed that no reasonable person would ever mistake dreams for actual facts, like the following: R. Yishmael b. Elisha [the High Priest] said: It once happened on Yom Kippur that I entered the innermost part of the Sanctuary to burn the incense and saw the Lord of Hosts seated on a high and exalted throne... (Berachot 7a), and many other similar stories. And the same is true of stories that tell of visions of the prophets, how God spoke to them, and stories about demons. A naive person who thinks that these things happened exactly as they were recorded and believes things that are impossible, is foolish and ignorant of the laws of nature. For in telling the stories of miracles the Sages followed the example of the prophets who told in plain language what they saw in their visions, as my father explained it in the Moreh Nevuchim.

 

EXAGGERATIONS

 

There are many incidents that actually happened but were exaggerated in the belief that no reasonable person would mistake their meaning. The Rabbis condoned the use of exaggeration, saying, "The Torah used overstatement, the prophets used overstatement, and the Sages used overstatement. The Torah used hyperbole, like in the verse, "Great cities fortified to the skies" (Deuteronomy 1:28). The prophets used hyperbole, like in the verse, "The people were playing flutes and rejoicing with great joy; the ground burst from their noise" (1 Kings 1:40). The Sages exaggerated when they described the heap of ashes on the altar [saying that there were three hundred kor of ashes-an immense quantity-on the altar]; they exaggerated when they spoke of the golden vine [on which the people used to hang their gifts of gold for the Bet Hamikdash, saying that it took three hundred kohanim to collect those gifts]; and they exaggerated when they described the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Sanctuary, [saying that it was so heavy that it took three hundred kohanim to immerse it in a mikveh] (Tamid 29a). These are just three examples in the Mishnah, but in the Gemara there are countless cases of exaggeration. To cite one example: Rabbah and R. Zeira had the Purim feast together. They became intoxicated, and Rava got up and slew R. Zeira. On the next day Rabbah prayed for R. Zeira and revived him (Megillah 7b). What it means is that Rabbah beat R. Zeira and wounded him so badly that R. Zeira was near death. The Gemara uses the phrase "he slew him" because the wound was life-threatening, or it might have been on the throat. And the word achyei [he revived him] means "he recovered." The term achyei is often used for that meaning. Many similar stories are found in the Talmud.

 

PARABLES

 

Some aggadot tell stories that actually took place but are told in the form of parables or metaphors so that only a person who grasps the author's intent can understand them. In some cases even fools and children can make sense of the symbolism. An example of this kind of aggadah is found in the following Gemara in Sukkah:

Once there were two Kushites who served King Solomon as scribes, Elichoref and Achiyah. 13 One day Solomon noticed that the Angel of Death was sad. "Why are you sad?" he asked. "Because in heaven they have demanded from me the souls of the two Kushites who are sitting here," the Angel of Death replied. [Their time to die had arrived, but they were not at the place where they were destined to die.] To save their lives, Solomon placed them in the custody of the demons [over whom he ruled] and sent them to the sity of Luz, [where the Angel of Death has no power]. 14 However, as they reached the gate of Luz, they died. The next day Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was cheerful. "Why are you cheerful?" he asked. "Because you sent the men to the place where I was ordered to take their lives, [namely, at the gate of Luz]," replied the Angel of Death. Thereupon Solomon coined the phrase: A man's feet are responsible for him; they carry him to the place where he is wanted (Sukkah 53a).

 

The meaning of this aggadah is obscure. It seems to me that it actually happened. In other words, Solomon knew that the two scribes were going to die of a sickness they had, and in an effort to save their lives he sent them to a place with a good climate where they would be cured. But they died there at God's behest, from which there is no escape. That's why Solomon said: A man's feet carry him to the place where he is wanted. You can find deeper meaning in each detail of the story, but I don't want to go into that at this time.

Don't be surprised that the Sages use parables and allegories rather than plain ordinary language; they also use this method to interpret verses of the Prophets. See the Gemara in Berachot 18a where they interpret the passage, "He (Benaiah) struck the two altar-fires of Moab" (2 Samuel 23:20) in a figurative sense, 15 although the prophets stated it in plain language as if it had no other meaning. I want to make it clear that these verses have no meaning other than the symbolism by which the Sages explained them. Now, if the words of the prophets are explained in a figurative sense, surely symbolism should be applied to the words of the Sages that are difficult to understand. My father pointed this out in his Shemonah Perakim. 16

 

ALLEGORIES, SYMBOLISMS, AND PARABLES

 

We found a source in the Talmud that proves beyond doubt that most of the sayings of the Sages are allegories and symbolisms, and should not be taken literally. The Gemara relates:

 

R. Eliezer had a disciple who once rendered a halachic decision in his presence. Said R. Eliezer to his wife Ima Shalom, "I wonder whether this student will live through the year." The student, in fact, did not live out the year. "Are you a prophet [that you knew that he was going to die]" his wife asked. "I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet," R. Eliezer replied, "but I have this tradition: Whoever renders a halachic ruling in the presence of his rabbi is liable to the death penalty at the hands of Heaven," [and that is what this student was guilty of]... The name of this disciple was Yehudah ben Gurya.

 

The Gemara continues: The reason that the disciple's name and that of his father were mentioned is so that you should not say that the whole story is a parable. From this you can infer that in many instances the words of the Sages were not taken literally, but were seen as parables. Fix this proof in your mind and keep your eyes open to it, for it is a marvelous thing and a superb piece of evidence. (This proof was pointed out to me by a great Torah scholar.)

 

This last group of figurative aggadot is very much like the second category of derashot mentioned above that deals with allegorical interpretations. They are both important portions of Aggadah, containing magnificent and lofty concepts that could not be revealed to the masses, and, therefore, they were veiled in parables and metaphors.

 

COMPOSITES

 

One important thing for you to remember and which will be very helpful to you in determining whether a story is real, a dream, a parable, or a metaphor, is that many aggadot contain a mixture of all these elements. If you are going to explain an entire story according to one single form, either in its plain meaning or in any other way, you will be bewildered and confused.

 

An example of an aggadah with a blend of two or more meanings is the following story: Once R. Yochana b. Zakkai was traveling on the road, riding on his donkey, and R. Elazar b. Arach was driving the donkey from behind. R. Elazar said to him, "Rabbi, please teach me one chapter of the Account of the Divine Chariot." 17 "My son," replied R. Yochanan, "Did I not teach you that the Divine Chariot should not be taught to one person unless he is a sage and understands it by himself?" R. Elazar then said, "Rabbi, allow me to say one thing that you taught me." He answered, "Go ahead and say it!" R. Elazar then expounded the Divine Chariot, and as he did, fire came down from heaven and encircled all the trees in the field. Then all the trees broke out in song, singing, "Praise God from the earth, sea giants and all watery depths... fruitful trees and all cedars... Halleluyah!" An angel then called out from the fire and said, "This exposition is truly the Account of the Divine Chariot!" R. Yochanan b. Zakkai stood up and kissed R. Elazar b. Arach on the head and said, "Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, Who gave to our father Abraham a son who knows, understands, and is able to delve into and expound the Divine Chariot." This story and the one after it are mixtures of all these elements and forms of meaning. I cannot analyze these things in depth because they are profound mysteries that should not be revealed.

 

SUMMARY

 

I have attempted to clarify the aggadot for the thoughtful student by classifying the anecdotes and Scriptural expositions, citing examples for each category. I am confident that, after studying my comments, when you come across a story or a derash, you will have no difficulty recognizing what type of aggadah it is.

 

Knowing these things, you will avoid casting aspersions on the words of the Sages like the Karaites and the fools did. This will also prevent a person from going to the other extreme of foolishly believing in impossible things and in events that never happened. In the end, he will deny the spiritual essence of God by ascribing to Him physical attributes. This comes from taking certain passages about God in a literal sense and believing that God is a tangible Being.

 

Think seriously about the principle I propound in this essay. It is a towering pillar and a strong wall against confusion and error.

 

And now be blessed by God; place me like a seal on your heart and like tefillin between your eyes. Let this be a gateway and an introduction for whatever you will read or hear in the future of any derash (explanation of a verse) or story; you will benefit greatly from it. Join the ranks of those that recognize and understand the truth, stay away from the opponents of the truth who go after delusion and are deluded. 22

 

May God in His mercy lead us in the right course and guide our steps so that we may walk in the pathways of the truth and follow His direction. May His Name be blessed. Amen.

 

Notes:

1. An allusion to Exodus 34:30.

2. 2 Kings 2:14.

3. Berachot 24b, where the Gemara says, "Even if R. Yehoshua b. Levi had said it..."

4. Also called eaglestone.

5. Yevamot 76b.

6. Pesachim 88b; Yevamot 116b; Gittin 41b; Eduyot 1, 12, 13, 14.

7. Chullin 100a; Eiruvin 16b; Gittin 43a; Sanhedrin 44a et al.

8. Rigzu, from the same root as yargiz, means both "tremble" and "incite to fight."

9. The second part of the compound verb, asseir te'asseir, can be read te'asheir, "you will become rich."

10. The words beli and yivlu have letters bet, lamed, yud in common.

11. Zevachim 116a.

12. Exodus 17:8-14.

13. 1 Kings 4:3.

14. Sotah 46b.

15. Ariel, translated here as "the two altar-fires of Moab," symbolizes the two Temples. Ari, lion, represents the Sanctuary which, like a lion, is wide in the front and narrow in the back. The reference to Moab alludes to David and Solomon who are descendants of Ruth the Moabitess.

16. The Rambam's introduction to Perek Cheilek, the tenth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin.

17. The first chapter of Ezekiel in which he describes his mystical vision of the Divine Throne.

18. A breakaway sect founded late in the eighth century. Karaites rejected the Oral Torah and rabbinic traditions of Talmudic law. During the last few centuries they have gradually faded into oblivion.

19. Genesis 26:29.

20. Song of Songs 8:6.

21. Deuteronomy 6:8.

22. 2 Kings 17:15.