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This question already has an answer here:

There are midrashim which are clearly allegories, like the midrash that hashem wears tefilin.

How do I know if a midrash is an allegory or kipshuto?

Can I explain a midrash which looks like pshat in an allegorial way?

marked as duplicate by Yishai, Scimonster, Gershon Gold, Y     e     z, Fred Jan 6 '15 at 23:17

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    Duplicate? judaism.stackexchange.com/q/13003 (though I don't think that question should be marked as a duplicate). – Fred Jan 5 '15 at 21:58
  • How do you know there is a way to distinguish? – Double AA Jan 5 '15 at 22:49
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    If the simple meaning is 'unreasonable'. (That's what all the Geonim said, at least, and isn't far off from the Rambam in his intro to Perek Cheilek) – הנער הזה Jan 6 '15 at 3:41
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    answers here should be helpful: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/4037/4682 the consensus seems to be that you take from midrashim whatever you take. I personally try to begin accepting strange imagery or narratives at face value, because that helps me deconstruct each element as part of the bigger figurative model, that seems to lurk beneath almost every midrash I encounter. – Baby Seal Jan 6 '15 at 7:14
  • Hashem is the reality, we are the allegory – bondonk Jan 6 '15 at 15:31
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In a previous M.Y. answer. someone cited Ramba"m's classification of 3 types of individuals who view Midrash. The 3rd one is the one that, I think, is the most applicable:

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.

In other words, I don't believe that anyone has stated a specific set of rules to follow. It is up to the individual to make his own interpretation, but, at the same time not be foolish about it.

Examples:

A Midrash says that Ya'akov spent years in yeshiva before he went to Padan Aram to Lavan. Questions that I ask when I see this. The "Yeshiva shel Shem V'Ever" mystifies me. What did they learn? There was no Gemara; the Torah, perhaps, wasn't "completed" as the stories didn't yet occur, and there wasn't yet a nation to receive it. Many other questions can be asked about this "yeshiva" based on what we think of a yeshiva. And, if Ya'akov was literally, in some yeshiva learning something, we have no proof of this, elsewhere, anywhere in Tana"ch.

To take things, literally based on the Torah's story, we assume that Ya'kov was an obedient son. Rivka and Yitzhak send him to Padan Aram to find a wife, and the Torah says, he went there. Did Ya'akov's parents expect him to delay his travel to study? Wasn't he already a "Yoshev Ohalim", which based on another Midrash says that means that he studied Torah? What more did he need to learn? (Again, I'm assuming if we argued toward just pshat of the events).

Conclusion - We could translate this, literally, but, I think a literal translation, here would lead to additional questions as above. Perhaps, there is something "un"literal in this Midrash that we have to find.

Example 2:

Midrashim state that the Avot performed all the Mitzvot. How is this possible? Many mitzvot apply only in the land of Israel, which didn't exist, yet. There's a mitzvah to appoint a king - they couldn't do that. Then, there are the mitzvot that they could have done but didn't. Most notable, perhaps - Ya'akov married 2 sisters.

Conclusion: A literal translation of this Midrash seems impossible.

Your example about G-d wearing tefillin, has to be allegorical as it contradicts Rambam's principle of faith that G-d has no body.

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    The OP knew that -- that was his example of a "clearly allegorical" medrash. This doesn't help for midrashim that are less clear, unless you turn this into a general rule ("it has to be allegory if it contradicts something we know to be true," "it has to be allegory if it contradicts other Jewish sources" or something) – Shokhet Jan 6 '15 at 3:52

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