(originally printed in The Written and Oral Torah)
If halachah is explained as a system of codes and regulations that govern life, there must be a concurrent system that enables men to formulate a weltanschauung, a teaching that gives man the ability to function on a philosophical, rather than on a concrete, plane. Just as philosophy tries to find metaphysical meaning, so does Judaism give meaning to the rulings of halachah. Moreover, even though the halachic system is flexible by its very nature, there must be some manner of dealing with the totality of life’s phenomena and of determining a personal course of action that transcends the inherent limitations of every legal system.
Halachah can inform man how to act in any given situation, but it cannot provide insight into the quality of a given act or a sense of the spiritual change that is a result of the performance of, or adherence to, a specific dictate. Because Judaism is a way of living rather than a societal grouping, man must have the means of penetrating the secrets that are the possible reasons for the mitzvot. Although some of the reasons are beyond our ability to understand, given our dependence upon the material world, nevertheless, they must exist or else the entire system is meaningless. As we have noted previously, the Torah was given to man and for man; thus, it must contain, along with divine guidance regarding the way in which life should be lived, an indication of what man can aspire to. Aggadah – from the Aramaic root, ngd, “to flow” – is the part of the Torah that deals with the whole of life, rather than the laws in accordance with which it should be lived. Aggadah gives man understanding, through which he can choose to follow the dictates of halachah based on an acceptance of them, rather than on seeing them as a sort of totalitarian system he is forced to follow. Because there is Aggadah, man can accept the mitzvot even if he does not understand their purpose. Aggadah prevents mechanical observance by freeing man’s inner spirit. It is the aspiration of man, whereas halachah is the consummation. At times, Aggadah is a refinement of halachah: thus, whereas the latter, being a code applicable to all men at all times, must base itself on the capabilities of mankind in general, the former is free to suggest a greater degree of Godliness that might be applicable only to a chosen few. While there is no other option but to follow halachah, Aggadah’s paths are suggestions and offer voluntary choices to each individual.
Aggadah is the aspect of the Torah that draws man toward its teachings. It is the philosophy of the Torah way of life, yet it is not dogmatic or even systematic. It is completely open to all those willing to accept minimal axioms and does not demand that man accept it in toto. It is a far cry from the theology or catechisms of other religions, for it does not purport to possess or present the “truth,” although, as in the case of halachah, there is often a consensus of the majority of the Sages. Rather, Aggadah was cultivated so as to allow the unseen to enter the visible world and was formulated to give man the ability to go beyond the realms of the definable, perceivable, and demonstrable. Just as language attempts to allow us to comprehend the intangible through use of metaphor, Aggadah allows us to begin to comprehend the infinite through the use of symbolism. In this sense, Aggadah is a form of religious metaphor, a camera that enables us to form mental images of the indescribable. It answers man’s need to understand the reasons for the actions demanded of him and assures him that there is purpose to what he does. When religion becomes frozen in dogmas, its ability to provide meaning to life becomes lost.
Aggadah, by imbuing the practices of Judaism with spirit, insures that the way of the Torah remains ever fresh. Through Aggadah, one can perceive, and at times understand, that heaven and earth are one, as well as feel the Divine force that flows through all that lives. History becomes alive, for it is not merely the story of what has occurred but is revealed to be the threads that are woven into the fabric of human development.
Found throughout talmudic literature, Aggadah can be defined as all the material that does not determine the practical observances demanded by halachah. It includes and emphasizes matters of faith, wisdom, and ethics, and finds its forms in travel tales, parables, business counsel, medical advice, scientific observations, and stories relating to the lives of our forefathers and Sages. Aggadah is the source of many of the religious and philosophical foundations of Judaism, such as the immortality of the soul, the coming of the Messiah, reward and punishment in the hereafter, and the nature of prophecy, as well as other principles of our belief that are not directly mentioned in the Written Torah. It, too, is part of the orally transmitted Torah given at Sinai and is transmitted from father to son, at least in its basic ideas. Parts of the Aggadah are obscure and difficult to understand; some are hyperbole that goes beyond the realm of literal belief. Yet all of the Aggadah is authentic, in the sense that it was given and transmitted in order to provide each man with the ability to find his niche within the eternal community of Israel.
We must forcefully point out that the attempts to describe Aggadah as legend or folklore are misguided and reveal a basic misunderstanding of its wisdom and sanctity. Aggadic literature was not transmitted and ultimately recorded to make the Jew proud of his ancestry or to provide material for anthropologists concerned with the past. On the contrary, Aggadah is meant to serve as an inspiration to man to achieve the level of morality and ethical behavior that once characterized the Jewish people. Those parts that describe wickedness are important, for they reveal the contradictory levels of man’s mind, even as the generation that witnessed the revelation could worship a golden calf. While twentieth-century man has been taught to see history as an evolutionary process, with technological progress a symbol of human advancement, Aggadah claims that man’s fundamental nature remains unchanged. Man’s environment might differ, his understanding of the physical world may be deeper, but his inherent qualities are the same as those of man throughout the generations. The separation from the period of direct Divine intervention in history makes man less capable of fathoming his responsibilities and roles; through study of the Aggadah, one can overcome that liability and live as one should. The stories, parables, and homiletic material of the Aggadah are not intended to amuse man. Rather, they are the means through which man can develop an ethical personality, when observing the dictates of halachah, and which will serve to create a Torah society.
Basically, Aggadah finds support within the text of the Torah and serves as a point of departure in filling in the background of the stories, personalities, and motivations of biblical figures. Additionally, it serves as a sort of philosophical commentary to many of the 613 precepts, sometimes providing the reason for their being ordained. In other instances, the Aggadah deals with the lives of the prophets and the Sages. In general, it is safe to say that Aggadah was recorded to allow man to determine what constitutes morality, by comparing his situation with similar occurrences in the past.
Because aggadic literature is replete with highly unusual stories, parables, exaggerations, and sometimes contradictory statements, it is worth our while to mention Maimonides’s comments on the intent of the Aggadah:
First of all, it is a way [for teachers] to sharpen the minds of their students. Secondly, it beguiles the fools so that their minds cannot discern the actual substance, for if the truth was shown to them they would ridicule it, given their destitute nature. Thirdly, the Sages composed these parables and narratives in a manner that even those of limited intellect can still grasp some of their meaning. There are many ways of understanding the Aggadah and it is only through intellect and sincerity that one sees that every Aggadah can be interpreted on different levels. (Introduction to the Mishnah, 8)
He then proceeds to set limits to the study of Aggadah:
These subjects do not contain that which is fitting to be publicly taught and demonstrated even in academies [whose students are replete with] wisdom. Indeed, [the subjects] discussed are hinted at in the Torah in well-concealed illusions. When God will remove the veil of ignorance of those whom He chooses – after that person has exerted himself and ingrained himself with wisdom – then that person shall partially comprehend their meaning commensurate with his intellectual capabilities. And when God does remove he veil from that man’s eyes and shows him whatever He shows, he must conceal the information from others. (ibid.)
In his introduction to the last chapter of the tractate Sanhedrin, Maimonides makes the following comments about interpreting Aggadah:
As concerns the words of the Sages, people can be divided into three categories: the first… believe them literally and do not see them as containing a hidden message; they see them as fact. They do so because they do not comprehend wisdom and are far from understanding. They are not on the level that would give them the ability to discern the true intent by themselves and lack the teachers who would give them this ability. They are convinced that the Sages intended no more than what they [these people] understand and that all of the Sages’ words must be taken literally: a contention that the simpleton – let alone a wise man – rejects, for an examination of some of the Aggadah leads one to conclude that there could not possibly be people who accept them fully or view them as matters of faith. One must feel sorry for those weak-minded people, for, in their foolishness, they feel that they are honoring and elevating the words of the Sages, whereas in reality they drag them down to the lowest level… This category of men destroys the glory of the Torah, darkens its brightness, and perverts the Torah of God into the reverse of what was intended. God said in the Torah that the nations will hear its laws and will say how wise and understanding is this great people. This type of person causes the nations who hear their [literal] interpretation to comment how foolish and despicable is this small people…
Aggadah cannot, therefore, always be taken literally; rather, it must be interpreted with the understanding that a higher truth is being alluded to – a truth that is beyond historical perspective, philological expression, or the dimensions of scientific observations. To express these truths in a manner that man can understand, a vehicle must be employed that simultaneously frees the mind from the limits of material constraints and yet keeps it within the bounds of the intelligible. Thus, if the message intended has meaning and application, it does not matter that the medium used for its expression is inexplicable. What is important is the philosophical or ethical truth that underlies the story. The message of the Aggadah is part of the orally transmitted Torah; the medium is often no more than a means used to express ideas. Thus, the Aggadah cannot be seen as an invention of the Sages. As is true of halachah, Aggadah is part of the interpretation given at Sinai so that the Written Torah might be understood and followed. As proof of this, scholars have noted that many of the stories in the Aggadah represent traditions that find expression in sources that predate the Talmud. In his Wars of the Jews, Josephus tells us of many miracles that occurred in the Temple and that were later recorded in the Talmud (Taanit 23a) and in other traditions.
Many of the lives of the patriarchs are quoted in Philo, the Alexandrian philosopher who lived about thirty years before the destruction of the Second Temple. Without falling into the trap of referring to Aggadah as the legends of the Jews, we are safe in seeing it as a lore passed on through the generations.
Many of the sayings of the Sages were not recorded in the Talmud, for only those matters whose importance was generally recognized were incorporated. Moreover, not all aggadic statements carry equal weight, for much depends on the standing and level of piety and wisdom of the Sages quoted. One cannot equate the latter tannaim with Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, for there was something like an unwritten law that “the closer one lived to the Revelation, the greater one’s level of inspiration.”
Thus, confronted with a statement or story in the Aggadah, one must first examine in whose name it is said. Perhaps this is the very reason that the Aggadah cannot be used in determining halachah (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 11:6). Moreover, because the veracity of certain statements is at times questionable, Aggadah should not be taught to children or others who might not be able to differentiate between doubt as to their credibility and outright rejection (ibid., Pesachim 5:3).
Despite all we have said, it is interesting to note that some commentators are of the opinion that certain aggadic statements must be taken literally; that is, one cannot see all aggadot as being metaphors or hyperbole. This is especially true of the accounts of miracles that happened to certain Sages. It is beyond the scope of this work to discuss the question of real versus perceived miracles. Suffice it to say that there are major commentators who reject the idea completely.
Although most of the masters of Aggadah excelled in halachah as well, certain Sages seem to have specialized in the former. Generally referred to as Rabba Deaggadata – Rabbis of the Aggadah (Jerusalem Talmud, Maaserot 1:2) – this category seems to have been applied especially to the Palestinian amoraim, such as Rabbi Yonathan, Rabbi Abba bar Kahana, Rabbi Tanchuma, and others. Rabbi Akiva was noted for his mastery of Aggadah, yet we find that Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaryah admonished him, “What do you have to do with Aggadah? Cease your talk and turn to the laws of nega’im and ohalot” (Chagiga 14a). This could be understood to mean that some Sages disapproved of the study of the Aggadah and saw it as second-rate material for study and discussion. This conclusion, however, might not necessarily be accurate, for it is possible that the previously mentioned reluctance to teach Aggadah to people who might misinterpret its intended message is at issue. As Rabbi Yochanan observes: “There is a tradition transmitted by my father not to teach Aggadah to a Babylonian or a southerner, as they are uncouth and unlearned” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 5:3).
Originally, the prohibition against recording the orally transmitted Torah (Gittin 60a) applied to Aggadah as well. However, when the times called for a partial annulment of that proscription, the question was raised as to whether the various aggadot should also be recorded, for there was a great danger of errors and mistakes. This was not necessarily true of the Aggadah, for it had always called for an oral interpretation and explanation of its true intention. Indeed, writing down the Aggadah could prove to be dangerous and misleading. Thus, we find that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a third-century C.E. amora, says: “Anyone recording it has no share in the world to come and whoever uses a written copy for teaching it is liable to excommunication (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 16:1). Rabbi Zeira considered written Aggadah “the work of sorcerers” (ibid., Maaserot 111:4). Other scholars, such as Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, felt that the importance of remembering the message outweighed other considerations.
1 See Daniel 7:10.
2 In his introduction to the last chapter of Sanhedrin, Maimonides lists thirteen articles of faith that every Jew must accept. Rabbi Yosef Albo, in his Sefer Ha-ikkarim, maintains that there are but three such principles. Thus, there is even an argument as to what constitutes the minimal axioms that all must accept. It is interesting to note that even Maimonides, who wrote extensively on the subject, was not overly impressed by philosophical study. In his commentary on the Mishnah (Berachot 9:5), he writes: “It is more precious to me to teach the fundamentals of our religion than any of the other matters that I study.”
3 See Maharal, Be’er Hagolah 17.
4 He goes on to explain that the reason most people cannot grasp the real meaning is because of their poor intellectual abilities, laziness, and desire for instant gratification.
5 See also Maharal, Chidushe Aggadoth, Bava Kamma 110b.
6 That is, in order to make the point understandable to all, the Sage might express their message in a parable that attributed a certain dialogue to our forefathers.
7 Rabbi Z.H. Chajes, Students Introduction to the Talmud (New York: Feldheim), pp. 151-152.
8 See Nachmanides, Milchamot Hashem 39, p. 308, Mosad Harav edition.
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