Does one have to take a Midrash/Aggadah literally?


The problem with how we read Aggada today is that our approach, instead of being idiomatic, is idiotic.

-- Rabbi Moshe Hauer.

From the Rambam's commentary to the last chapter of Sanhedrin:

There are three categories of people with regards to interpreting Aggada.

The first category take everything literally and teach it as such, going to the masses and translating the (Aggada-heavy) final chapter of Sanhedrin without any explanation whatsoever, and I wish they would just keep quiet, as anyone bearing any intelligence whatsoever could not follow this; for instance, when the Talmud states that the finest cakes and tapestries will grow from the land of Israel in the future. If we spoke of a man for whom his business is booming and he doesn't have to work hard, we would say "everything is made for him", so too this expression, describing the abundance, ease, and quality of production that Israel shall have in the future.

The second category assumes that Chazal were fools. Though they fail to recognize all the material of tremendous human value in the Talmud.

The third category, and there are so few individuals here that they barely constitute a category, is those who assume Chazal were wise and moderate, and seek whatever explanation to an Aggada fits accordingly.

Does that answer your question?

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    See hakdama of Maharsha's commentary on agados as well – YDK Nov 19 '10 at 5:14
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    That is a pretty funny quote from Rabbi Hauer. I guess what it lacks in diplomacy it makes up for in creativity. – RCW Nov 19 '10 at 6:19
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    Yes. The Rabbi Hauer quote is from a podcast of his on Maharal, in fact. – Shalom Nov 19 '10 at 14:04
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    @user4784 The Gra in his commentaries on Mishlei 1:3 says that it is the way of Chachamim to speak in non-literal parables and allegories. – Loewian Feb 6 '15 at 4:21
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    @user4784 What do you mean halacha is like the Gra, and by what means do you choose between him and Rambam. Even if this were an issue of psak, are you a posek? – mevaqesh Feb 11 '15 at 18:00

Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Sherira Gaon, Shmuel Hanagid, Rambam and others all tell us we cannot rely on aggados or take them literally. Where empirically disproven it is certainly unnecessary or even criminal to do so, e.g., Talmudic physiology and medicine. It is also logically impossible, considering that aggados are often mutually contradictory, and there are often several different versions of a story or saying within the literature.

The idea of infallibility "ad chasimas hatalmud" (which one rov told me) is completely 'opgefregt.' Rabbi Yehuda himself uses empirical observation to disprove "our view" in favor of the view of the gentiles, re. where the sun goes at night. His observation, regarding why springs are warm, is incorrect, but the main thing is that he decided based on observation. He would have been the first to deny the existence of a mouse that is half mouse and half earth (Mishna Hullin) if he had ever been to the Nile Delta and observed the rodents there. But since people said it existed at the time, the mishna tells you the halacha.

In other words, it doesn't do the Talmud any favors to insist on asserting the correctness or literalness of its fantastical, humorous, or pseudo-scientific/speculative parts. The Talmud is better off for it.

  • Shimon, welcome to m.y, and thanks for your helpful commentary! Please consider clicking on the "register" button above, to take advantage of all the features here. – Shalom Jan 11 '11 at 21:15
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    By and large this answer is fine, but one should be wary of dismissing any part of the Gemara as "fantastical, humorous, or pseudo-scientific." It may be true that these statements are not meant in a literal sense, but after all, "even the casual speech of Torah scholars demands study" (Avodah Zarah 19b) - all the more so if they felt these statements important enough to record for all time. There are indeed important moral and Kabbalistic lessons that can be learned from these statements (and occasionally, too, they have their place in halachic discussion). – Alex Jan 12 '11 at 20:44
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    Rabbi Yehuda does not use Emprical observation regarding the sun's path at night. He just says that it seems more correct. Similarly his 'observation' regarding springs is a hypothesis not an observation. – avi Dec 5 '11 at 6:03

Here are some additional sources: אין מקשין על האגדה We do not ask questions regarding Aggada. Various sources expressing this idea: (Rashba Megillah 15a) (R' Saadia Gaon, R' Hai Gaon, Otzar HaGeonim, Chagiga 13; Otzar HaGeonim, Pesach, 3a) (Meiri, Magen Avot 1) (Shiltei Giborim, Avoda Zara, 6a) (Ramban in his Disputation, also brought in responsa Chatam Sofer 17) (Ramban Yevamot 71:) (Ritva, Shabbat 75:) (Rabbeinu Chananel, Otzar Geonim, Respona 50)

Rav Hai Gaon, in a more wordy responsa, "הוו יודעים כי דברי אגדה לא כשמועה הם, אלא כל אחד דורש מה שעלה על לבו בגון אפשר, ויש לומר לא דבר חתוך.. לפיכך אין סומכין עליהם.. ואומדנא נינהו." "We know that the words of Aggada are not like halacha; rather, everyone darshans whatever comes to his mind, like saying "It could be", "It's possible"; these are not exacts things... therefore we are not to rely upon them... they are merely estimations" (R' Hai Gaon, Otzar HaGeonim, Chagiga 13)

Rabbi Shmuel HaNagid on his introduction to Talmud in Berachot: "כל פרוש שיבא בגמרא על שום ענין שלא יהיה מצוה זוהי הגדה ואין לך ללמוד ממנה אלא מה שיעלה על הדעת.. מה שפרשו בפסוקים כל אחד כפי מה שנזדמן לו ומה שראה בדעתו ולפי מה שיעלה על הדעת מן הפרושים האלו לומדין אותם והשאר אין סומכין עליהם". "Any commentary that comes in the Gemara that is not a mitzvah is called Aggadah, and you shouldn't learn anything from it except for what comes to mind... their explanations on passages consist of what came to mind for each scholar and whatever seems reasonable we should learn from them, but the rest we do not need to rely upon them."

Rambam "כל אותן הדברים דברי הגדה ואין מקשין בהגדה וכי דברי קבלה הן או מילי דסברא אלא כל אחד ואחד מעיין בפירושן כפי מה שיראה לו, בו ואין בזה לא דברי קבלה ולא אסור ולא מותר ולא דין מן הדינין, ולפיכך אין מקשין בהן, ושמא תאמר לי, כמו שיאמרו רבים: וכי דברים שבתלמוד אתה קורא הגדה? כן! כל אלו הדברים וכיוצא בהן הגדה הן בעניינם, בין שהיו כתובין בתלמוד בין שהיו כתובין בספרי דרשות בין שהיו כתובין בספרי הגדה", (אגרות הרמב"ם לר' פנחס הדיין´)." "All of these things are Aggada, and regarding Aggada we do not ask questions. Are these words transmitted from Moshe? or rather personal thoughts of each scholar? - rather, everyone should study the explanations and according to what seems reasonable he should accept, and these are not 'divrei kabbala' (transmitted from Moshe), and not prohibitions, and not permissions, and not judgments, therefore we do not ask questions. Perhaps you'll ask me, like many others have asked: Are you calling words of the Talmud Aggada? Yes! All of these things are Aggada in their nature, whether they're written in the Talmud, whether they written as drashot" (Rambam, Letter to R' Pinchas HaDayan)

"שכך דרך בעלי אגדה על סמך כל דהוא בונים דבריהם" "That is the way of the makes of Aggada, on the smallest foundation they build their words" (Responsa of Rosh, 13 21)

That is to say, Aggada was intended for moral edification, teachings lessons, etc. It is not intended to augment historical statement or fact about the events discussed. It does not guarantee consistency with other texts.


The general view of the Geonim and Sephardi Rishonim was that not every Aggadta is authoritative or needs to be taken literally. Some Ashkenazi rishonim were more inclined to take a literalist stance for much of aggadata. The machloket continues to this day, with many haredim taking the literalist stance.

Specifics: Rambam was already cited. Ramban has a more complex position, but didn't take an extreme authoritarian or literalist view. For example, see his statements about aggadata from his disputation. The Ba'alei Tosafos were more literally inclined, in the more extreme form, they even believed in corporealism.

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    I kind of resent that generalism. I consider myself "haredi", and yet do not take a literalist stance toward midrash/aggada at all. – jake May 24 '11 at 23:59
  • OK, I edited it. Though full-fledged haredim wouldn't be using such a site. – Ariel K May 25 '11 at 0:03
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    Sources, please, for the claims in the answer? – msh210 May 25 '11 at 2:45
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    Do you think the Ramban actually meant what he said at the disputation, or he was just using an excuse to get out of having to answer agadot? – Menachem Dec 5 '11 at 4:45
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    "they even believed in corporealism." More accurately "Some even believed in corporealism" The implication now is that most or all believed on corporealism. – mevaqesh Feb 11 '15 at 18:06

I think it would depend on which Midrash. I think the Rabbis throughout the generations understood that some Midrashim that are meant to be taken literally, and some aren't. However, which ones are to be taken literally and which ones are not may be a subject of debate.

Take for example, the Midrash that tells us that Avraham Avinu was thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod. As the Abarbanel points out, Rashi, Ramban, and the Ran all understand that Midrash is to be understood literally. On the other hand, the Abarbanel says that the Ibn Ezra does not believe the Midrash is to be taken literally.

Even the Ibn Ezra discounting the Midrash's literal interpretation shows (in my mind) that some Midrashim should be taken literally (if not, why bother discounting it).

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    Ibn Ezra would tell you that Avraham Avinu wasn't really thrown into fiery furnace by Nimrod. – jake Dec 5 '11 at 4:55
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    I think Ibn Ezra does take the midrash literally as well. He just doesn't agree with it. – jake Dec 5 '11 at 15:47
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    The Ibn Ezra's comment on אור כשדים can be found in the version of his commentary ראב"ע שיטה אחרת which, for instance, can be found at the back of the תורת חיים Mikraot Gedolot. (Couldn't find a version online). He says on 11:28: וקדמוננו אמרו שהשליך אברהם אבינו בכבשן האש, ולא נזכר זה בכתוב, ואם היא קבלה נקבל כדברי תורה. And our predecessors have said that Avraham was thrown in to the furnace of fire, and this is not mentioned in the Torah, and if this is 'kabbala' (an accepted tradition) then we shall accept them as words of Torah. – ChaimKut Jan 25 '12 at 3:01
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    He seems to be taking a 'safe' attitude to leave open the option to reject certain midrashim as long as they're not קבלה, an accepted tradition. Other examples: Genesis 22:4 hebrewbooks.org/… . "And our rabbis have said that Yitzchak was 37 at the time of the binding of Isaac (Akeida). If they are an accepted tradition then we will accept it. But logically this is not correct." Also see Genesis 11:29 (again the "long" version of Ibn Ezra) "Those who have said that Sara is Yiskah... this is a drash/explication or logical inference, not an – ChaimKut Jan 25 '12 at 3:11
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    accepted tradition, and this is not a command [to accept it as fact]." – ChaimKut Jan 25 '12 at 3:11

To expand upon what I think the Rambam (quoted by Shalom) had in mind:

I think it is somewhat irrelevant whether or not what the midrash says actually happened. Midrashim are meant to give us ideas, not necesarrily facts. The midrash that says Avraham survived a furnace is telling us that Avraham was so great that he could have done that. Whether he actually did matters very little if at all. When it says Hashem held har sinai over bnei yisrael when giving them the torah, it is again irrelevant whether this actually happened. When we (or at least when I) read the story surrounding matan Torah, the first word to come to mind is not fear. The midrash is emphasising that what bnei yisrael experienced had a prominent element of fear, even without having a mountain suspended over their heads. Midrashim about good people are meant to tell us how we should act. Midrashim about bad people are meant to tell us how we should not act.

A couple more points:

  • Midrashim are (in general) meant to be analysed for literary content, not factual content
  • If there is some inconsistency with the text, then that inconsistency is probably not the point of midrash

A quick story to illustrate my point:

There was some famous Rabbi (I don't remember who exactly) who was accused of some crime (again, I don't know what). Anyway, during his trial, his students came to plead with the judge claiming that there rabbi had never sinned before in his life. The accusing lawyer asked the judge in amazement "Do you really believe that?" The judge replied "I don't know, but they don't say that about you and me."

(I just want to make this absolutely clear: This is my opinion and I have seen a fraction of a fraction of all the midrashim that are out there and I don't have any direct 'source' for this other than extrapolation from the Rambam)

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    "If they were all completely factual and relevant, shouldn't they have been included in the torah?" ummm...I don't follow your logic here. – Double AA May 8 '12 at 22:40
  • It applies more to midrashim on Torah than anything else. If the Midrashim are facts that Hashem thought were necesary to be known, wouldn't He have told them to us? – 2345678876543 May 8 '12 at 22:48
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    I think it's called the Oral Torah for a reason. – Double AA May 8 '12 at 23:01
  • "ואין בזה לא דברי קבלה" - from the rambam quoted in ChaimKut's answer (I wouldn't be at all suprised if I grossly misunderstood that). Also, even if I'm wrong here, it isn't exactly an integral part of my argument. – 2345678876543 May 8 '12 at 23:20
  • Oh the rest of what you said is fine; I just didn't see how that last line supports you. – Double AA May 8 '12 at 23:22

The difficulty in answering your question is in understanding what the term "literally" means in context of medrish. For example there is a well known Gemara (Megilla 7b) about Raba and Rav Zeira who were celebrating and one shechted the other. Came morning time Rabba davens and Rav Zeira is revived. The next year Rabba invites Rav Zeira over and he declines, saying that one should not rely on a miracle.

One could understand this literally in two ways...

  1. They were both very drunk and Rabba cut off Rav Zeira's head and then preformed a miracle that brought him back to life.
  2. They were learning the great secrets of Torah of which Rabba was able to handle much more than Rav Zeira and in teaching Rav Zeira he "shechted" him and Rav Zeira passed away but there was a miracle that brought him back.

The first explanation is silly and doesn't teach us much. The second explanation recognizes that there is the part of the story which is literally true and part of the story which alludes to something deeper.

So as to know what to understand literally and what not to, it takes an understanding of what the story is and what the context for that story is as well.

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    I don't understand how #2 could possibly be called "literally" understanding the midrash. – Daniel Nov 3 '15 at 14:09
  • b/c he literally died and the manner in which he died was called being shechted b/c he could not handle the depth of the Torah he was trying to be mekabel from Rabbah – Dude Nov 17 '15 at 5:39
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    @Dude Are you claiming that the literal meaning of "shecht" is "to not be able to handle the depth of the Torah one is trying to be mekabel"? – Double AA Nov 17 '15 at 5:43
  • I'm saying the medrish is using a euphemism and this is the plain meaning of it – Dude Nov 17 '15 at 5:52
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    Even if it's the plain meaning (which it's not) a euphemism is by definition not literal. – Daniel Nov 17 '15 at 13:53

No. In his work called Chelek, Maimonides writes that those who take Midrashim literary are "fools," while those who reject them out of hand are also "fools." Midrashim are imaginative parables, sermons designed to teach moral lessons. People should mine Midrashim for lessons about proper behavior.

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    Is your answer different from the top answer? – Alex Jan 21 '20 at 0:50
  • @Alex Perhaps not, and if so, why is my answer downvoted? (Not implying that you did it). – Jonathan Jan 21 '20 at 0:55
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    The person who downvoted might feel that your answer doesn't add anything to the discussion. If you agree with an existing answer, you can upvote it, and leave a comment for any minor points relating to it. If you think an existing answer is wrong you can downvote it and leave a comment with your objections. You can also post your own answer showing why a different interpretation of the same source is correct, if that's what you feel. But your answer here simply cites the same source as the other answer, and makes no claims about being different. (Not my downvote, though.) – Alex Jan 21 '20 at 1:01
  • Interesting. I'll have to remember that. Thank you for your insight. – Jonathan Jan 21 '20 at 1:11
  • @Jonathan Thanks for your thought Jonathan. – RCW Jan 22 '20 at 3:28

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