Rabbinic Views on Understanding Aggadah/Midrash

Rab Hai Gaon, son of Sherira 939 1038, head of the Pumbedita
Academy Sefer Haeshcol, Hilkhot Sefer Torah, p. 60a
Aggadah and Midrash, even concerning those written in the Talmud, if they do not work out properly and if they are mistaken, they are not to be relied upon, for the rule is, we do not rely on Aggadah. However, regarding what is ensconced in the Talmud, if we find a way to remove its errors and strengthen it, we should do so, for if there were not some lesson to be derived it would not have been incorporated. Concerning what is not in the Talmud, we investigate if correct and proper we expound and teach it and if not we pay no attention to it.
Rab Hai Gaon,
Comments on Hagigah
You should know that aggadic statements are not like those of shemua (heard, a passeddown). Rather, they are cases of each individual expounding what came to his mind, in the nature of it can be said, not a decisive matter. Accordingly we do not rely on them.
Rab Hai Gaon (ibid.): "Rabbenu Hai was asked: What distinction is there between aggadoth that are written in the Talmud (the error of which we are obligated to remove [through interpretation]) and aggadoth that are written outside the Talmud? He answered: Whatever has been fixed in the Talmud is clearer than what has not been fixed in it. Nevertheless, if the aggadoth that are written in it (i.e. in the Talmud) are not [logically] founded or are erroneous, the are not to be relied on, for there is a rule: We do not rely on aggadoth. However, whatever is fixed, the error of which we are obligated to remove [through interpretation], we should do so. For had it not possessed substance it would not have been fixed in the Talmud. If we find no way to remove its error [through interpretation], it becomes like unaccepted dicta. But in the case of what has not been fixed in the Talmud (i.e. non-Talmudic aggadoth found in the Midrashim) we do not need [to do] all this. If it (i.e. the aggadah) is correct and fine, then we discourse on it and teach it; otherwise, we pay not attention to it." (This is the basic source of Rabbi Shemu'el haNagid ibn Naghrela's similar statement printed in his Mebo HaTalmud in the back of Messecheth Berachoth of the Vilna Shas).
Rab Hai Gaon Words of Aggadah are not like a tradition; rather, everyone expounds what arises in his heart — like ‘it is possible’ and ‘one may say’ — not a decisive statement. Therefore, one does not rely upon them.
Introduction to Pereq
Regarding those who interpret all aggadot and midrashim literally, the Rambam states: “they destroy the Torahs glory and darken its brilliance; they make G-ds Torah the opposite of what was intended. He stated in the perfect Torah regarding the nations who hear about all these statutes, that they will say, What a wise and insightful people this great nation is (Deut. 4:6). But when the nations hear how this group relates the words of the sages in a literal manner they will say, What a foolish and ignorant people this insignificant nation is. Most of these expounders explain to the public what they, themselves, really do not understand. Would that they be quiet or say, We do not understand what the rabbis mean in this statement or how to interpret it. But they think they understand and endeavor to make known according to their poor understanding not according to the sages intention and expound at the head of the assembly the derashot of tractate Berakhot, the chapter Heleq and other sources, literally, word by word.”
  “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 the veil from that man's eyes and shows him whatever He shows, he must conceal the information from others.”
Maimonides, in his
introduction to the last
chapter of the tractate
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..
The Guide to Perplexed
[Our Sages] use the Bible text as a kind of poetical language [for their own ideas], and do not intend thereby to interpret the text. . .This style was widespread in ancient days; all adopted it in the same manner as poets...Our Sages say, in reference to the words, "And a paddle (yated) thou shalt have upon thy weapons (azeneka)" [Deut 23:14]. Do not read azeneka "thy weapon," but ozneka, "thy ear" if you hear a person uttering something disgraceful, put your fingers into your ears. Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Sages literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the verse quoted, and as the meaning of this precept...I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can accept this. The author employed the text as a beautiful poetic phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lessonpoetically connected with the above text. In the same sense you must understand the phrase, "Do not read so, but so,: wherever it occurs in the Midrash.
Abraham ben Moses
ben (1186, 1237) was
the son of Maimonides
who succeeded his
father as Nagid of the
Egyptian Jewish

Let it be known that the greater part of whatever is found in the Talmud or in the other books of the sages, blessed be their memories! as the Midrash (Biblical exposition) is entirely concealed from us; and even they who wrote commentaries upon the Talmud, never made an attempt to fathom its meaning. And my father, my teacher, blessed be his memory! contemplated writing an explanatory commentary, as he mentions in his “Commentary on the Mishnah,” but refrained from doing so. And Moses was afraid to approach it, as he says in the beginning of his Hamore {FN: A book of philosophy by Moses Maimonides, called Hamore (The Guide to the Perplexed).} Nevertheless, after my father’s death, I devoted considerable energy to make some explanations regarding this subject, and I did not withdraw from this step because, after all my study, I came to the conclusion that it is of great importance. My explanation shall, however, merely serve to call the attention to thy heart and thy thought so that thou shalt open thine eyes and comprehend the manner in which the sages spoke in their so-called Midrashim. From my words, shalt thou be able to determine what are the real meanings of their words”

"Know that it is your duty to understand that whoever propounds a certain theory or idea and expects that theory or idea to be accepted merely out of respect for the author without proving its truth and reasonableness pursues a wrong method prohibited by both the Torah and human intelligence. From the standpoint of intelligence, such a method is worthless for it would cause one to minimize the importance of those things which, after scrupulous observation and proofs, ought to be believed, and from the point of view of the Torah - because it inclines from the true path and from the straight, leveled road. The Lord, praised be He! said: Thou shalt not respect the poor person, nor honor the great person; in righteousness shalt thou judge, etc. (Lev. 19, 15). And it also says, Ye shall not respect a person in judgment (Deut. 1, 17)... According to this preamble, then, we are not in duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details... Thou canst see that even the sages themselves say very often of things which cannot be proved by discussions and arguments, “I swear, that even had Joshua b. Nun said it, I would not obey him.” This means that I would not believe him although he was a prophet - since he cannot prove the reason for such a thing in accordance with the rules of the Talmudical construction. The following evidence will be sufficient proof for it and none will venture to dispute it. Since we find that the sages themselves had said, concerning medical knowledge that the opinion of such and such a Rabbi did not prove to be true, as for instance, the eagle-stone (Sabbath Fol. 66b), or other things mentioned. We infer from this that they did not arrive at the true ultimate conclusion of everything outside of the Torah."

"there are also stories which actually occurred, but were exaggerated in the belief that no thoughtful man would mistake their meaning. And the sages admitted using such a style, as they say (Tamid Fol. 29) “The Torah spoke in exaggerated language, the prophets spoke in exaggerated language, and the sages spoke in exaggerated language; the Torah - for it is said (Deut. 1, 28) The cities are great and fortified up to heaven; the prophets - for it is said (I Kings 1) So that the earth was rent at their noise. The sages - when they speak of the heap of ashes on the altar; what the Mishnah says (Ib.) in regard to the vine which stood at the entrance of the Temple, and what they say concerning the curtain which separated the holy of holies from the Hechal.” These are but three instances in the Mishnah, but in the Gemara, they are numberless. An illustration of this may be found (Megilla Fol. 7b): “Raba and R. Zeira were banqueting together; during the banquet Raba stood up and slaughtered R. Zeira. He prayed to God for mercy and R. Zeria returned to life.” The meaning of this is that Raba beat R. Zeira and wounded him so severely that the latter was at the point of death; he uses the term “slaughtered him” because it was severe, or it might have been at the throat. And the word Achaye (made him return to life) means he became well. The word is frequently used for that meaning {FN: See II Kings 20, 7 and Isaiah 38, that the word is used for “becoming well.”} Many similar stories are found in the Talmud."

read the full essay (short): http://mesora.org/AinYaakov-Intro.html

R. Shemu’el ben Hofni
died 1034) was the
last gaon of Sura
Teshuvot al Hagigah 4b
.. if the words of the ancient [Sages] contradict the intellect, we are not obliged to accept
- R. Shemu’el ben Hofni
Perush ha-Torah
And it is impossible for us to believe in the veracity of a matter for whose negation there are corroborations, only because some of the ancient [Sages] said it. Indeed, it is necessary that we contemplate the matter with our intellect. If a proof may be found for its veracity, we shall accept it. If there comes corroboration for its possibility, we shall believe in it as something possible. And if it is found to be impossible, we shall regard it as impossible.
- R. Shemu’el ha-Naggid
Talmudic scholar,
grammarian, and
philologist, who lived
in Iberia
Mevo ha-Talmud
Aggadah is every explanation that comes in the Talmud regarding any matter that is not a mizvah. This is Aggadah; and you should learn from it only what arises in the mind.… What [the Sages] interpreted in [Scriptural] verses is [for] each one according to what occurred to him and what he saw in his mind. And according to what arises in the mind from theseinterpretations, one learns it; and one does not rely upon the rest.
Shmuel ha-Nagid, in his
"Introduction to the
Talmud “Mavo
HaTalmud” (Intro to
the Talmud) found at
the end of Tractate
"Aggadah comprises any comment occurring in the Talmud on any topic which is not a commandment (i.e. which is not halachic) and one should derive from it only that which is reasonable."The value of Aggadah is found only in the gems of wisdom one derives from it. If one derives nonsense, it has no value. Very few people are capable of diving into the deep water and coming up with pearls [Ramban metaphor]. Other individuals have no business delving into Aggadah. They would do better refraining from trying to interpret that which is beyond them. “Bmufrosh mimcha al tidrosh.” Such people cannot discern between something literal or metaphorical.
-Abraham ben Isaac of
Narbonne (Raavad II)
d.1210, was
a Provençal rabbi Sefer ha-Eshkol
One should not rely upon Aggadah and Midrash, even though they are written in the Talmud, if they are unattuned or erroneous. For our principle is: One does not rely upon the Aggadah. Rather, what is fixed in the Talmud, [in] which we find [the means] to remove its error and reinforce it — we should do so; for, if it had no basis, it would not have been fixed in the Talmud. And what we do not find a way to clear of its error — becomes like matters that [do] not [accord with the] Halakhah. [With] what is not fixed in the Talmud, we need not [do even] this much. Rather, one ponders it; if it is correct and becoming, one expounds it and teaches it; and, if not, we pay it no attention.
-R. Yechiel ben Joseph
of Paris of Paris Sefer ha-Vikuah
...words of Aggadah, to draw the heart of man ... if you desire — believe them; and if you do not desire — do not believe them, for no law is determined based upon them.
Disputation at
We have a third book called Midrash, meaning sermons. It is just as if the bishop would rise and deliver a sermon, and one of the listeners whom the sermon pleased recorded it. With regard to this book [of sermons], if one believes in it, it is well and good; if one does not believe in it, he will not be harmed [spiritually]
Rabbi Leo Jung the purpose of Aggadah is not history, but "to amuse, to cheer up, to let the people forget their present suffering by either leading them back to the glorious past or by painting in bright colors the fullness of times when there will be no enemy, no slander, no prejudice. There is no trace of a definite method, of any endeavor to weave these stories into a dogmatic texture, the Haggadah containing all that had occupied the popular mind, what they had heard in the beth hammidrash, or at a social gathering. Stories contradicting each other, theories incompatible with one another, are very frequent. They are recorded as the fruits of Israel's genius. They have no authority, they form no part of Jewish religious belief. Nor may they be taken literally: it is always the idea, the lesson, and not the story, which is important. It is wrong to say that the Haggadah contains the doctrines of the Rabbis, or that only orthodox views have been admitted to the exclusion of all the rest (pp. 3-4)."
Rab Sherira Gaon 906- 1006, head of the Pumbedita Academy Sefer Haeshcol, Hilkhot Sefer Torah, p. 60a Those points brought out from scriptural verses called Midrash and Aggadah are assumptions. Some are accurate such as Rabbi Judahs statement that Simeons portion was included in that of Judah, for we find it corroborated in the book of Joshua but many are not we abide by the principle, According to his intelligence is a man commended (Prov. 12:8). As to the aggadot of the students’ students - Rabbi Tanhuma, Rabbi Oshaya, and others - most of them [the realities] are not as they expounded. Accordingly we do not rely on aggadot. The correct ones of them are those supported by intelligence and by Scripture. There is no end to aggadot.


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