There is a known rule that Rishonim cannot argue on the Gemara when it comes to "Halachic" drashos. For example, a Rishon will never give a different answer to a question which the Gemara already answered (Tosfos may ask why the Gemara didn't give that other answer, but he will never give his own answer without more). This is true whether the Gemara's subject is practical Halacha or not.

However, when it comes to aggadic drashos on Tanach, we find Rishonim "disagreeing" with Midrashim and late Acharonim disagreeing on Rishonim. Why do Rishonim feel freer to disagree on an explanation of Chumash than to disagree with a Gemara?

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    "There is a known rule" - Source for this rule? (Preferably from a Rishon)
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 23:16
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    (I am fairly certain there are places where the Rishonim disagree with the Gemara on matters of Halacha. See the comments on this question, for example.)
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 23:17
  • Strongly related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/10330/…
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 23:24
  • @Shmuel "known rule that rishonim can't argue on the Gemara" - here: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/35952/… Commented May 19, 2014 at 0:36
  • There is a known rule that Rishonim cannot argue on the Gemara when it comes to "Halachic" drashos. For example, a Rishon will never give a different answer to a question which the Gemara already answered That well known rule is false. Rambam often gives different sources than the Gemara, preferring simple readings of pesukkim, and sometimes even disagrees with the stamma of the gemara in interpreting earlier statements.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 16:24

4 Answers 4


The Rambam writes in one of his letters:

We do not pose difficulties with [i.e. from] the Aggadah. Are they words of Tradition or expressions of reason? Rather each individual considers their explanation as it seems fit to him. In this [Aggadah] there are no words of Tradition, no prohibition and no license, and no law among the Laws; therefore we do not pose difficulties with it. Should you say to me as many have said to me, “Can it be that you apply the term Aggadah [as pertains to this argument] to words of the Talmud?” It is so; all of these words and those similar to them are Aggadah in their reckoning, whether they be written in books of Derashos, whether they be written in books of Aggadah.

This position is echoed by various Ge'onim and Rishonim; see for example Otzar HaGeonim to Chagigah (pp. 59-60) from R. Hai Gaon and R. Shereira Gaon, and the Ramban in his famous Disputation.

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    What troubles me with this answer is that the Ramban will knock out Chazal's interpretation in a midrash using logic. If it can be knocked out through logic, why didn't Chazal think of it before choosing that interpretation?
    – b a
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 20:24
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    @ba Your question refutes itself - because I ask you, based on your own premise, is it possible the rishonim who held this way didn't think of this objection?
    – Dov F
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 20:30
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    @ba That's a straw man. Who ever said Chazal's reasoning was perfect in halacha? The fact that we do not veer from the psak of the Gemara does not imply this.
    – Dov F
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 20:59
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    @ba What are you trying to show from Karisos 12a?
    – Curiouser
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 22:13
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    @ba because it isn't relevant. Since the Gemara is accepted as halacha it really makes much less of a difference whether or not it it truly makes sense in and of itself than how it can be reconciled with other Gemaras and facts in order to define a straightforward and consistent set of rules.
    – Dov F
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 23:30

In response to YEZ, Feb. 28:

The distinction made in Dynamics of Dispute (pages 125 and following) is not halacha vs. aggadta. It is between teachings by Tannaim (of whatever category) that definitely did not originate with Moses' report of G-d's explanation, and all others. Only the former are candidates for dispute. The Rambam certainly maintains that among those teachings, transmitted to and by the Tannaim (as well as Amoraim), are historical accounts and hashkafic ideas that he likewise accepted as fact. (For example, creation ex-nihilo, and the accounts of the Mabul, Avraham's miraculous escape from Nimrod, and the desert wanderings (see Moreh Nevuchim 3:50 and Hilchos Avoda Zorra 1:3)

The main source for the explanation for why Amoraim abstain from disagreeing with Tannaim (when they do) is a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi on Payah 2:6:

Said Rebbi Zeyra in the name of Rebbi Yochonon: "If you come across a mishna whose reason you cannot understand, do not brush it aside and replace its law with another one. For many laws were told to Moses at Sinai, and all of them are lodged throughout the Mishna."

Said Rebbi Abbin: "How true! For behold the halacha regarding "two varieties of one grain"[as a prime example]! If Nachum HaLavlar had not come and explained to us [that it was a halacha L'Moshe MiSinai], would we ever have known?!"

From this source, one deduces that immediately following the formulation of the Mishna—the time of Rebbi Yochonon, at the beginning of the era of the Amoraim (c. 4000, 250 CE), the tumultuous state of affairs caused an obscurity over which laws had originated with drashos, permitting challenge, and which laws had really originated from Sinai, precluding question.

As summarized in the final paragraph of that chapter,

All details in the Mishna known not to be kabballos, and all rabbinical decrees not yet voted upon by a Tannaitic Sanhedrin, were challengeable. On such issues, an Amora could conceivably differ with a Tanna. As we mentioned above, there were rare instances in which Amoraim exercised this power.

  • In defense of YEZ, I never claimed that the distinction was between halacha and agaddta. I did point out that a case of agaddta is used as an example/support, and I pointed out in a parenthetical statement (since it's unrelated to this question) that it applies equally to halacha. I'm not sure how the cited Rambams are relevant, as we are discussing derashos of Chazal. Commented May 19, 2014 at 20:33
  • @YEZ, I was reacting to the statement, "However, in Aggada there is no such concern, and therefore they felt free to argue." Again, the distinction is not between halacha in Aggada, but between that which is definitely not a mesorah and that which might be. This distinction applies as equally to Aggada as to halacha. I cited Rambam because he is the source for the principle that a Beis Din could disagree with an earlier one (in interpreting pesukim), and for whom the question of why Amoraim will not contest Tannaim thereby becomes an issue.
    – Zvi Lampel
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 2:04
  • I was never pinning the distinction on Aggada vs. Halacha, just that Aggada is an example where the principle would apply. Aggada of a drasha from a verse will always fit into that rule. (As opposed to your examples, which is why I identified them as unrelated to this discussion). Commented May 20, 2014 at 2:20
  • (This is a bit surreal for me, arguing with the author of a sefer [which I loved, read and re-read] about if I properly referenced his own sefer) Commented May 20, 2014 at 2:57
  • Thank you for your compliment. It’s interesting to see how one’s ideas come across to others. As to your focus on drash-based Aggada, I see what you're saying. I didn't think the question was dependent upon whether the Aggadic teaching was drasha-based or not. But my point is that Aggadic teachings recognized to represent the consensus of Chazal are not contested, whether or not backed by drashos. So I disagree with the idea that it is justifiable to argue with "essentially any authority in an Aggadic discussion."
    – Zvi Lampel
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 3:23

The original question asked was: "[W]hether the Gemara's subject is practical Halacha or not...Why do Rishonim feel freer to disagree on an explanation of Chumash than to disagree with a Gemara?"

I would answer that the project of the rishonim was to distinguish between the lessons in the Chumash that can be procured through the peshat approach, and those that could be procured only through the drash approach. (And each rishon had his own definition of what qualifies as “peshat.”) They were intent in identifying the peshat level of the pesukim. When they differed with a Midrash in interpreting a posuk, they meant the Midrash’s lesson could not be gained through the peshat approach, but at best through the drash-approach. (And sometimes, they tagged the lesson as a minority and even unacceptable opinion, just as can be the case in halacha.)


In Dynamics of Dispute, Rabbi Lampel points out that in areas of Aggada, we even find Amoraim breaking the Golden Rule and arguing with Tannaim - see for example Megillah 7a in which Shmuel claims he has a better source for the Divine nature of Megillas Ester:

אמר שמואל אי הואי התם הוה אמינא מלתא דעדיפא מכולהו שנאמר קימו וקבלו קימו למעלה מה שקיבלו למטה אמר רבא לכולהו אית להו פירכא לבר מדשמואל דלית ליה פירכא

Said Shmuel: Had I been there, I would have said something better than everything they [the Tannaim] said, as it says etc... Said Rava: All of them [the answers of the Tannaim] have a weakness, but Shmuel's answer does not have a weakness

Rabbi Lampel has a thesis which he uses this to support, namely that the reason in general that Amoraim do not argue with Tannaim is because there was a chain of tradition regarding which halachos were Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai (he proves this with other methods as well), and that chain of tradition was lost in the mayhem of the generation of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Therefore the Amoraim would not argue for fear of inadvertently arguing with a Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai. However, in Aggada there is no such concern, and therefore they felt free to argue. (He also concludes from this thesis that if a given Halacha is clearly not from Sinai, for example if a Tanna had an opinion but then changed his mind about it, then an Amora was free to argue on that Halacha as well, and he cites examples of such.)

This would justify arguing with essentially any authority in a discussion of drash-based Aggada.

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    Sh'muel does not argue with tanaim (there). He says "were I there, I'd argue" -- but then he'd be a tana.
    – msh210
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 18:13
  • @msh210 I didn't translate it, but he offers his own opinion. It's like saying "I'm not going to tell you that you're ugly" - it doesn't become that I didn't say it by saying I won't say it. Shmuel said a different opinion not stated by Tannaim. And Rava concluded it was the most solid opinion. This is how R' Lampel takes the Gemara. I personally think the "If I were there" bit is to state that they would have agreed with him. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 18:22
  • "אי הואי התם הוה אמינא" sounds like "לולא דמסתפינא" to me, but I don't know. +1, anyway.
    – msh210
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 18:24
  • We find him arguing in Halachic Drashas also (end of Yoma regarding the source that Safek Pikuach nefesh doche Shabbos) Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 22:28
  • @ShmuelBrin arguing about the source of a drasha but supporting the same halacha would further conform to this - as long as you don't risk unintentionally arguing with a halacha l'Moshe mi'Sinai, it's fair game to argue with Tannaim. Especially if the source is explicitly given as not a HL"M Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 22:39

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