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The Ramban in Sefer Havikuach (page 32, the bottom of the first column ) asserts with regard to Midrash:

מי שיאמין בו טוב. ומי שלא יאמין בו לא יזיק ‏

Whoever believes in it, good, he who does not believe it, will not be harmed.

Are Midrashim really optional?

Note: This isn't a duplicate of this question, because that one is whether the midrash must be taken as literally true, while this one asks whether it must be accepted as true at all, literally or not.

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    I haven't seen the sefer havikuach myself, but if that's what he says, then that's the Ramban's opinion. Or are you looking for other opinions? – Shokhet Feb 1 '15 at 19:33
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    "lo yazik" I think that means "will not harm" not "will not be harmed". IAE -1 per Shokhet's comment. I don't get the question. – Double AA Feb 1 '15 at 19:37
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    Abish, welcome to Mi Yodeya. Do you mean to ask "is there a different way to understand the Ramban other than what he means at face value?" If so, you should clarify that point, and why you think there might be ("I always was taught otherwise" would be an OK reason). As it is now, your question says "The Ramban says X. X?!" – Y     e     z Feb 1 '15 at 19:56
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    @Shokhet I didn't see it either, but it could have been polemics/apologetics as the Sefer is, AFAIK, a transcript of his debate with the Church. He had to make sure he'd win 150% or he'd lose (and he had to make sure not to offend the Church too strongly or he'd end up being killed, which almost happened anyways). This could have been a pre-emptive strike against midrashim he didn't want to explain. – Shmuel Brin Feb 1 '15 at 20:56
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    @DonielF there is a difference between believing something is true and believing it is literal. This question asks about the former. The "duplicate" asks about the latter. – Yishai Aug 29 '18 at 18:27
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+100

There is dispute among the commentators as to whether or not Ramban meant that seriously or just said it for the debate. R. Yaakov Kamanetzky z"l writes (Emet L'yaakov Genesis 44:18) that Ramban just said it for the sake of the debate. The Chattam Sofer (Orach Chaim 1:16) understands that Ramban was expressing a serious belief, but limited his view to extra-talmudic midrashim.

וכבר כתב רמב"ן בספרו מלחמות חובה כל מה שלא נמצא בש"ס בבלי וירושלמי ומדרשיהם אין אדם מחוייב להאמינו והמאמין יאמין

R. Shaul Lieberman z"l cites a variety of sources in support of the view that Ramban should be construed as having meant exactly what he said. He concludes with near certainty, as he puts it, 'that also in this case, the holy mouth of our master did not speak a lie, even if it would have been a permissible one.' (Sheki'in (Jerusalem, 1939), 81-3.) (quoted in this article).

The Abarbanel too, understands that Ramban as having expressed his true view, and attaches no qualifications to it. (as noted by @jake)

It should be noted that Ramban does frequently dispute midrashic interpretations in his commentary to the Torah.

Additionally he writes (chiddushim to Yevamot 61b) that we do not respond to words of aggada in the context of rejecting a teaching of the Seder Olam.

ואין משיבין על דברי אגדה דלית לן מאי דאמרינן באגדה ובסדר עולם שרבקה בת שלש שנים היתה באותה שעה

This same expression (ein meishivin al divrei aggada) is used by his student Rashba (Chiddushim to Megillah 15a) in the context of the Tosafists' question on an aggadah in the Gemara that states that Ester was married to Mordechai and became forbidden to him. The Tosafists ask why he didn't divorce her, and answer that the necessary witnesses for the divorce would have caused (or risked) publicizing his relationship with her. Rashba asks that he could have written the get himself thus obviating the need for witnesses. He answers that we don't respond to matters of aggada. This seems to mean that the Midrash may be wrong. (See also his responsa 1:50 and 3:340).

The Meiri uses this expression as well, and definitely means that the Midrash may be wrong. He discusses the opinion in the Gemara (Shabbat 55a) that suffering is always as a result of sin.

אמר רב אמי אין מיתה בלא חטא ואין יסורין בלא עון

The Gemara (55b) concludes that this opinion is mistaken.

ותיובתא דרב אמי תיובתא

The Meiri writes there that it is fundamental to Judaism that everything that happens to man is the result of divine oversight. He continues by writing that even though the Gemara concludes by rejecting this view, the fundaments of Judaism aren't determined by simplistic interpretations of Scripture, or by aggadot, as you know that we do not respond to aggadot.

ואע"פ שנשאר דעת האומר כן בתיובתא אין עקרי האמונות תלויות בראיות של פשוטי מקראות ואגדות וכבר ידעת שאין משיבין באגדה

See also the Machzor Vitry (428) who uses this expression regarding a Midrash about the age of Bil'am at the time he was killed, who notes that "we do not respond to aggadot, and perhaps there is Amoraic dispute in the matter. And Chizkuni (Exodus 4:26) who uses this expression regarding a disagreement between the Gemara and "rov haolam"; i.e. most commentators over whether Moses failed to circumcise his older son, or his younger son. See also the almost identical formulation in Chidushei HaRitva (Avodah Zara 8a), Paneach Raza (parshat B'reshit), Halakhot Ketanot of Mordechai (Menachot ch. HaT'khelt: 940), responsa of Rema (100), responsa of R. Menachem Azzaryah of Fanu (36), and Abarbanel (I Samuel ch. 4) who cites this in the name of "Chazal".

It is thus clear that Maharal erred when he wrote (B'er Hagolah: B'er HaShishi; ch. 15) that the expression (he quotes it from R. Nissim Gaon ) means that we don't question aggadot since they may have hidden meanings:

וזהו בעצמו מה שאמרו אין משיבין בדברי אגדה כי אפשר האומר אותה אמרו על דרך נעלם, ולפיכך אין משיבין ואין מקשין באגדה לפשוטה

As this certainly isn't the intent of the Meiri, and it is almost certainly not the intent of Rashba, or the Machzor Vitry. Lastly it is difficult to reconcile with the usage of the Chizkuni who deals with a Midrash of simple textual analysis. It is difficult to claim that he means that there may be deep meaning to the Midrash about which son Moshe circumcised.

The Mevo Hatalmud (generally printed at the end of tractate berakhot) attributed to R. Shmuel Hanagid (11th century) writes very similarly to the Meiri et al. "one should only learn from it that which seems reasonable...everything else disregard" (translation my own. I rendered "ein somchin aleihem" as disregard).]

Similarly, R. Yehudah Ben Barzilai of Barcelona (11th century) writes in his commentary to the Sefer Yetzira that there are drashot that we disregard "ein somchin aleihem":

לכך דרשו רבותינו בקצת דרשות כי המלאכים עתידים לשאול לצדיקים מה פעל אל...ואע״פ שיש מי שמפרש פסוק זה בנביאים והכי מתראה עיקר פירושו מכל מקום הרבה פנים בתורה ואין מספר להגדיות. ואע״פ שאין מי שסומך על הגדות הללו...וכו

Although in context his exact intent isn't fully clear (to me).

R. Sherira Gaon quoted by the Sefer HaEshkol (Hilchot Sefer Torah) writes:

ואמר מר [רב] שרירא הני מילי דנפקי מפסוקי ומקרי מדרש ואגדה אומדנא נינהו, ויש מהן שהוא כך...והרבה יש שאינו כן, כגון מה שאמר ר' עקיבא דמקושש היינו צלפחד...והם הזכירו דעתו של כל אחד ואחד, ואנו לפי שכלו יהולל איש. וכן...תנחומא...וזולתם, רובם אינו כן, ולכך אין אנו סומכין על דברי אגדה. והנכון מהם מה שמתחזק מן השכל ומן המקרא מדבריהם,

These words that are derived from verses and are called midrashim or aggada are estimations (umdena)...Some are indeed correct, but many are not correct...Therefore we do not rely on aggada...Accept as reliable only those that follow from logic or from the verses. (Also cited in the introduction to Menorat Ha-Maor p. 47)].

R. Hai Gaon cited there writes:

הגדה ומדרש אף על פי שכתובין בתלמוד אם לא יכוונו ואם ישתבשו אין לסמוך עליהם, כי כללינו הוא אין סומכין על ההגדה, אלא מה שקבוע בתלמוד שאנו מוצאין להסיר שבושן ולחזקן יש עלינו לעשות, כי לולא שיש בו מדרש לא נקבע בתלמוד. ומה שאין אנו מוצאין דרך לסלק שבושו נעשה כדברים שאין הלכה. ומה שלא נקבע בתלמוד אין אנו צריכין לכל כך, אלא מעיינין בו אם נכון הוא ויפה, דורשין אותו ומלמדין אותו, ואם לאו אין אנו משגיחין עליו.

Even if Aggadot and Midrashim are written in the Talmud, if they do not make sense disregard them, for we have a principle that we do not rely on the aggadot.

Similarly, Rav Hai Gaon is quoted (Otsar HaGeonim Berakhot; Peirushim: 67) as repeating the assertion that aggadot are not based on tradition, and therefore we do not rely on them. (Note that R. Hai precedes R. Nissim, the source for Maharal's quote about Aggadot. Unlike Maharal who claimed that the reason for not relying on aggadot is that they are cryptic, R. Hai Gaon writes that the reason is that they are not authoritative, and are mere conjecture:

הוו יודעים כי דברי אגדה לאו שמועה הם, אלא כל אחד דורש מה שעלה על לבו כגון אפשר, ויש לומר, לא דבר חתוך

Similarly, R. Abraham the son of Maimonides writes in his Torah commentary (Exodus 14:11) that a midrashic identification of characters in an incident is an estimation, rather than a definite fact.

וזו השערה על ההצעה האומרת כל שאתה יכול לתלות ברשעים תלה

Similarly, the Shiltey Gibborim to Avodah Zarah (6a) writes that some Midrashim state things that they themselves know are untrue as a poetic sort of non-literal interpretation of the text:

הנה תראה מה שדרש ...יעקב אבינו לא מת...והשיב לו מקרא אני דורש, כלומר גם אני יודע שמת אלא אני מתכוין לדרוש את המקרא בכל ענין...ועוד אמרו בתלמוד א"י בפ"ס דנזיר וכי המדרשות אמנה הם דרוש וקבל שכר הא לך הדבר מבואר שלא אמרו חכמים המדרשים על דרך אמונה ועיקר אלא להרבות טעמא למקרא ולדרשו בכל פנים

Rambam (cited and discussed here) writes in his letter on astrology:

I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words...

Thus, he maintains the possibility that the sage was mistaken regarding this non-halakhic matter, but his language leaves open the possibility that he would only suggest this regarding the view of individual sages, but not the consensus of the sages. It is noteworthy, however, that this possibility of the erring sage being an individual view is not backed up with any proof-texts of disputants. This suggests that practically Rambam would be willing to form opinions independent of Chazal even when their statements appear to disagree. It would appear, then, that the appeal to theoretical disputants is a mere formality.

In a similar vein, he writes in a responsum (Blau: II: 458) responding to a reference to a Midrash, that it is a mere aggada, and we do not concern ourselves with aggadot, for are they matters of tradition, or are they reasonable? Rather, they are the personal musings of individuals that do not relate to law and are therefore not to be reckoned with. This applies whether or not the Midrashim are recorded in the Talmud.

ולעניין יוצאי תיבה כל אותן הדברים דברי הגדה ואין מקשין בהגדה וכי דברי קבלה הן או מילי דסברא אלא כל אחד ואחד מעיין בפ[ירושן?] כפי מה שיראה לו בו ואין בזה לא דברי קבלה ולא אסור ולא מותר ולא דין מן הדינין ולפיכך אין מקשים [בהן]. ושמא תאמר לי כמו שיאמרו רבים וכי דברים שבתלמוד אתה קורא הגדה כן כל אלו הדברים וכיוצא בהן הגדה הן בענינם בין כתובין בתלמוד בין שהיו כתובין בספרי דרשות בין שהיו כתובין בספרי אגדה.

Radak (Joshua 5:14) goes so far as to state that a Midrash is based on faulty recollection of the verses:

ועוד כי כותב הדרש הזה טעה בפסוק וילן, כי שני פסוקים הם

He is quoted without objection by Rabbenu Avraham ben Sh'lomo in his commentary to Joshua (p. 28).

Similarly, R. Eliyahu Del Medigo (15th century) writes in Bechinat Hadat (Viena, 1833 pp. 55-56):

התלמוד נחלק לב׳ הלקים, הלק בהודעת הדינים כלם וחלק במדרשות ואגדות. והחלק הראשון אין ספק אצל כל בעל דת מאנשי אומתנו שאין ראוי לחלוק עליו כלל כאשר כבר נאמר, אולם החלק השני הוא אשר יתכן לפעמים שלא נסכים בו ולא יקרה בזה חטא, וזה כי התורה לא חייבתנו לשמוע לחכמים אלא בעניני הדינים אשר בם מעשה או בענייני שרשי האמונדה המוסכמים מהם

That is: the Talmud is divided into two parts: the part that includes all the laws, and the part that includes Midrashim and Aggadot. Regarding the former, there is no doubt among every practicing member of our religion, that it is improper to disagree with it whatsoever. However, the second part is the part which it is conceivable to sometimes disagree with, and this is not a sin. This is because the Torah only required us to listen to the Sages regarding practical laws and the universally agreed upon fundaments of faith.

Similarly, R. Samson Rahael Hirsch wrote that aggadic statements are not part of Torah Shebaal Peh from Sinai, and that we should not part from the great authorities such as Rav Sherira Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon, Rabbeinu Nissin, Rabbeinu Chananel, Rabbeinu Shmuel HaNaggid, Ritva... who taught that we do not accept aggada unconditionally, but only accept that which seems reasonable. Furthermore, claiming the opposite, actually opens the doors to heresy!

Similarly, Hakham Yosef Faur writes in Tradition (vol. 9 no. 4):

Traditionally for normative Judaism only the halakhic elements of the Talmud are authoritative.

There is possibly Talmudic precedent for this general approach to aggadot from the Palestinian Talmud Sanhedrin (10:1) as cited by Rashbats (Magen Avot to Tractate Avot 2:14):

ואמרו בירושלמי שם, אבל ספרי המירם והספרים שנכתבו מכאן ואילך, כל הקורא בהם כקורא באגדות, מאי טעמא, 'ויותר מהמה בני הזהר עשות ספרים הרבה אין קץ ולהג הרבה יגיעת בשר' [קהלת יב יב], להגיון נתנם ולא ליגיעה נתנם

Regarding books that are written from know on, reading them is like reading aggadot. Why? [because it is written "of making many books there is no no end," and] "much study is weariness of the flesh" (Eccless 12:12), for reading they were given but for toil [i.e. study], they were not given! (Trans. R. Dr. Jose Faur Golden Doves With Silver Dots p. 100)

Given the overwhelming body of literature expressing the view, including the writings of Ramban's predecessors, contemporaries, successors, and his own writings, it seems that there is no evidence that he believed anything other than what he wrote, and it is reasonable to assume that the Abarbanel and R. Lieberman are correct in their understanding.

Notably, Ramban's argument about the non-authoritative role of Midrashim was repeated in the Disputation at Tortosa by R. Astruc Halevi.

Others, however take the stance that one must believe (in at least some) Midrashim. This is the opinion of R. Soloveitchik according to R. Moshe Meiselman in his Torah Chazal & Science (see p. 654) regarding the source for the dirt used to create Adam, the story of Avraham being thrown into the fiery furnace, and Adam's sacrifice the day he was created. R. Hershel Shechter attributed similar sentiments to R. Soloveitchik, in a conversation I had with him.

The Chazon Ish (Iggerot Chazon Ish I:15) also regards as dogma the belief that all aggadot in the Talmud have their origin in the sages' prophetic power.

משרשי האמונה שכל הנאמר בגמ'...בין בהלכה ובין באגדה, הם הם הדברים שנתגלו לנו ע"י כח נבואי

Somewhat of an intermediate approach seems to be adopted by R. Yechiel of Paris in his Disputation in Paris in which he writes the following in response to the question of whether he believes in the Talmud from which questions will be raised:

Included there are fantastical things which are difficult for heretics to believe, and regarding them there is no need to respond to you. If you wish, believe them, and if you don't want to, don't believe them. For law isn't determined on their account. However, I know that the scholars of the Talmud didn't write mistakes, but only correct and true things. And if they seem fantastic to listeners, [bear in mind]: are there not many similar things in Scripture, such as Lot's wife who became a pillar of salt, and the mouth of Bilam's ass which spoke with him...and many similar events.

ויש בהם דברי פלא שקשה להאמין לכופר ולאפיקורוס ולמין, ועליהם אין צורך להשיבך, אם תרצה תאמין ואם לא תרצה לא תאמין בהם. כי אין משפט נכרת על פיהם. אמנם ידעתי כי החכמים בתלמוד לא כתבו מאומה רק דברים כנים ואמתים, ואם מופלאים הם לשומעיהם הלא יש כאלה רבים במקרא, כמו אשתו של לוט שהייתה נציב מלח, ופי האתון של בלעם שדיבר עמו ומלחמת סיסרא שנלחמו הכוכבים ממסילותם. ומעשה יונה וקיקיון של יונה שבין לילה היה ובין לילה אבד, ומעשה דאלישע שהחיה את המת מקברו וכיוצא בהם רבים

That is although he personally believes that all the words of the Talmud, even the Midrashim, are true and wise, and he implies that the only ones who have difficulty accepting them are heretics, he nevertheless writes that they do not not need to be accepted as they do not determine law.

(As with Ramban's dispute there is some latitude to suggest that some or all of what he said was a result of the necessity of the debate and doesn't reflect his true view).

See also here and Rabbi Chaim Eisen's article in Hakirah vol. 4 at length. Significantly, R. Eisen writes that he is unaware of any Geon or Rishon who held of Maharal's view.

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R' Tzvi Berkowitz told me that R' Yaakov Kaminetzky told him that the Ramban was only saying that for the purposes of the debate, in order to avoid addressing a question to which they would not accept the answer. This was along the lines of the principle of being "דוחה בקש" (pushing off with straw) someone who asks from an illegitimate standpoint.

However, in the notes to the Chavel printing of the Vikuach, he brings sources from other Rishonim who made similar remarks and concludes that there is no reason to assume that the Ramban did not mean it.

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    I think the extent to which the Ramban goes to defend the Medrash about BeReishis being two Reishis (in his commentary to Bereishis 1:1) gives a reason to conclude the Ramban would not dismiss a Medrash the way those other Rishonim do. – Yishai Feb 2 '15 at 17:34
  • @Yishai Perhaps the Ramban would only apply the principle in the OP to a certain class of midrashim and not to other midrashim. – Fred Feb 6 '15 at 1:52
  • @Fred, perhaps, but unless something can be shown that the other Rishonim would mount the same defense as the Ramban for that medrash, and there is some common deliniation of "class[es] of midrashim" between them, it remains very facile to just say the Ramban agrees with those other Rishonim. – Yishai Feb 6 '15 at 3:24
  • commentless downvote? – Y     e     z Feb 11 '15 at 4:46
  • The Ramban was not stuck in a corner when he said this, but perhaps as @ShmuelBrin said, it was preemptive. This way his explanation can be taken as optional. He also ended up answering the Rambam, which he agreed to, with this statement. – HaLeiVi Jul 1 '15 at 18:38
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Early Rabbinic Views on Understanding Aggadah/Midrash

Rav 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.

Rav 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.

Rav Hai Gaon, Comments on Hagigah You should know that aggadic statements are not like those of shemua (heard, a passed-down). 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.

Rav 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).

Rav Hai Gaon ibid 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.

Maimonides Introduction to Pereq Heleq 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 Sanhedrin 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 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...

Maimonides The Guide to Perplexed (III:15) [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 less poetically 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. Maimonides The Guide to Perplexed (III:43) They [i.e. Sages] use the text of the Bible only as a kind of poetical language [for their own ideas], and do not intend thereby to give an interpretation of the text. As to the value of these Midrashic interpretations, we meet with two different opinions. For some think that the Midrash contains the real explanation of the text, whilst others, finding that it cannot be reconciled with the words quoted, reject and ridicule it. The former struggle and fight to prove and to confirm such interpretations according to their opinion, and to keep them as the real meaning of the text; they consider them in the same light as traditional laws. Neither of the two classes understood it, that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is clear to every reasonable reader. This style was general in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets [adopt a certain style]. ...... You are thus told, that if you hear a person uttering something disgraceful, put your fingers into your ears. Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Midrashic interpretations literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted ....... The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lesson.....I have departed from my subject, but it was for the purpose of making a remark useful to every intellectual member of the Rabbanites.

Abraham ben Moses ben (1186, 1237) the son of Maimonides who succeeded his father as Nagid of the Egyptian Jewish community Introduction to Agadah, Ein Yaakov 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) Teshuvot al Hagigah 4b.. if the words of the ancient [Sages] contradict the intellect, we are not obliged to accept them.

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 993-1055, 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 these interpretations, 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 Brachot Aggadah comprises any comment occurring in the Talmud on any topic which is not a commandment (not halachic), 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. David Kimchi (Radak) (1160–1235) Iggerot Qena"ot, III Concerning the aggadot we explain them in accordance with the laws and [rational] evidence, since they are bonded to reason and allude to wisdom, as we were taught by our predecessors the Geonim, such as our teachers Sherira, Hayye, Isaac Alfasi, and the rest of the Geonim, pillars of the world and the foundations of the earth! Concerning the [interpretation] of aggadot, we depend and rely on their teachings and words, not on others!

R. Yechiel ben Joseph 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.

Nachmanides d. 1270 Disputation at Barcelona 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]

R. Samuel Saportas Milhemet HaDat p. 151 Behold, all of the great Geonim of our Tora agree that there are agadot that were expressed figuratively, as you saw from R. Nissim Gaon of blessed memory, who had stated this point clearly. In addition to him, many Geonim, fathers of the Talmudic legacy and qabala, and there is nothing higher than their words to measure them by—[confirm to this principle], particularly R. Hayye who wrote at length on this matter in his commentary on Hagiga.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/7204yb1m38ckygm/Early%20Rabbinic%20Views%20on%20Understanding%20Aggadah%3AMidrash.pdf?dl=0

  • "Rav Hai Gaon Comments on Hagigah" Where can this be found? "R. Shemu’el ben Hofni Teshuvot al Hagigah 4b" where can this be found? "R. Shemu’el ben Hofni Perush ha-Torah And it is impossible for us to believe..." where can this be found? "R. David Kimchi (Radak) (1160–1235) Iggerot Qena"ot, III: Concerning the aggadot..." where can this be found? "R. Yechiel ben Joseph Sefer ha-Vikuah" what is this sefer, where can I find it, and where in it is the quote? – mevaqesh Apr 3 '15 at 23:59
  • @mevaqesh i dont have the books im sure you can find them on google at least for sale. i saw hebrew books has rabbeinu hayya go'ons periush on bovo masiyyo but not on hagigo. search around let me know if you find them. if not i will look for them myself – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Apr 17 '15 at 2:20
  • Thank you. The viquah of R. Yehiel can be found judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/57238/… and the Radaq can be found judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/57237/…. I will try to keep my eye out for some of the other sephorim. – mevaqesh Apr 17 '15 at 2:41
  • @mevaqesh drive.google.com/file/d/0B8F_PW9P6dqlUmpmTUJ5TkxwMHc/… i havent read through this but it could help possibly. – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Jul 7 '16 at 22:54

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