Friday, April 22, 2005

Fantastic Aggadah

The following is an excerpt from R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes' The Students' Guide through the Talmud (buy it now), pp. 195-197. Keep in mind that the Maharatz Chajes was a giant of Torah scholarship whose glosses are printed in the back of the standard Vilna edition of the Talmud. This is from what was intended to be the introduction to the glosses and printed in the Talmud, but it was not finished in time.

Similarly, in Aggadic interpretations the lecturer's aim was to inspire the people to the service of God and to awaken them to a realization of the emptiness of their vain life, so that they should be compelled in this world of forgetfulness to fit themselves for entering the banqueting hall (of immortality), adorned and graced with a pure heart and good deeds. Thus, the chief object of the lecturer was to awaken the slumbering soul from its foolish sleep and stir it up to do what was right. If at times he noticed that his simpler utterances made no impression upon the audience he sought to find another method for his purpose by telling them stories which sounded strange or terrifying or which went beyond the limits of the natural and so won the attention of his audience for his message.

The Rashba,[1] making reference to this in his commentary on Berachoth (chap. ix), in the Aggadic section, where he speaks of the stone which Og, King of Bashan, attempted to cast down upon Israel,[2] says of this matter: 'Maimonides, in his introduction to the Mishnah, has referred to the two ideas which the Aggadic teachers had in mind (when relating these outlandish Aggadoth).[3] But, in my view, there was besides these another motive behind some of the Midrashim of the Aggadists, namely that since there were occasions when, as the Aggadists were delivering their discourses publicly and elaborating matters useful to the audience, the listeners fell asleep, the lecturer, in order to awaken them, had to make use of queer and astounding tales to rouse them from their sleep.'

The reason is clearly shown in the Midrash Hazitha,[4] par. הנך יפה where we read that Rabbi was delivering a discourse and the audience had dozed off, so in his desire to arouse them he told them of one Israelitish woman who in Egypt gave birth herself to 600,000 children.[5] Similarly, the story told of Og, how he uprooted a mountain three parsangs in extent, was meant to convey that Og's object was to deprive the children of Israel of their rights based on their three ancestors. The Aggadists, however, put the idea in the form of this astounding tale in order to arouse the public to follow the lecture with greater interest.

Such are the Rashba's observations... Following this explanation, we can understand the following exposition of R. Akiba[6] (Sot. 11b): 'The Israelites were delivered as a reward for the righteous women of that time. It happened by a miracle that they (the babies which they bore) were swallowed by the ground, and the Egyptians brought oxen and ploughed over them, etc. Yet they broke through the earth, sprouting (like herbs from the soil), and came in flocks to their homes.'[7] Although in the Gemara version this is reported in the name of R. Awira, in Cant. Rab.[8] it is quoted in the name of R. Akiba.[9] One who knows R. Akiba's true genius and intellectual capacity... may find it difficult to reconcile such an odd Aggada with him; but from what we now know of his method, as shown in the two aggadic expositions which we have dealt with above, viz. that when he noticed his audience uninterested or drowsy he would relate to them sensational legends to arrest their attention, we may, I think, unhesitatingly accept this aggadic homily as another of those which had as their object the impressing of the masses and the impelling of their hearts towards the things which are right.

[1] See p. 159, note 3.
[2] Ber. 56a. The legend narrates how Og had planned to destroy Israel. 'The camp of Israel,' he said, 'extends three miles.' He then planned to uproot a mountain three miles in size, throw it upon them and kill them. He uprooted the mountain and raised it above his head, but God sent ants which bored holes in it, causing it to fall upon his head and rest on his shoulders, and when he tried to throw it off, his teeth became interlocked, thus preventing him from throwing it off, with the result that Moses was able to strike the mighty blow which killed him.
[3] They were intended to sharpen the intellect of the students, or else to open the eyes of fools hastening to find fault with the scholars as soon as they found their words difficult to follow.
[4] The exegetical Midrash on Canticles.
[5] He meant this to refer to the birth of Moses who equalled all the rest of the people in importance. The number 600,000 is given in Ex. XII, 37.
[6] Who behaved heroically in those days of oppression.
[7] The Aggada, in its own fanciful style, pictures the scenes elaborately. First, it tells us how the women used to obtain and carry the food to their husbands, the slaves, and remain with them in secluded spots, and when the time of their delivery arrived, how the babes were attended to and fed by God's Ministering Angels, and how they were preserved in subterranean caves, and how when the babes were grown up, the earth opened its mouth and returned them to the light of day. Like the grass of the fields they sprouted from the soil and moved away in herds to their homes.
[8] The author ascribes to Cant. Rab. what is in fact recorded in Ex. R. I, 16.
[9] See also Yalkut Shimoni on Ezekiel, par. 354, cf. also R. Is. Pick glosses, ad loc.
See also this post.

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