Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog
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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005
The Belated Answers to the Four Questions
The Maharatz Chajes answers why, in the Haggadah, we do not immediately reply to the Four Questions with Rabban Gamaliel's statement that "Whoever does not say these three things..." in which the questions are answered. From The Students' Guide through the Talmud, pp. 198-200:
With regard to the questions found in Num. R. and Deut. R., and in Midrash Tanhuma and the Pesikta Rabathi, with which these books often begin their homilies, namely the halachic dissertations which are introduced with the words 'There is a ruling that an Israelite, etc.,' or with the words 'May our teacher instruct us', and followed with Aggada, we cannot trace the use of a similar formula in the Talmudim (Babylonian or Palestinian), except once in the Babylonian Talmud... [The halachic question is asked] and the Aggadist goes on to indulge in sophistry, changing one subject for another until he closes his homily with the words 'and as for the question which I have been asked...' and answers it...

The chief object, however, of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmudim was to enlighten us either on halachic or legal decisions or upon matters of aggadic or ethical character. For this reason the redactors of the Talmud (except in once case) did not embody such a form of teaching in the Gemara, but dealt separately with the homiletical expositions in relation to the particular purpose for which they were needed, and separately also with the halachoth...

But it was not so with the Midrashim, which were not recognized as being for the teaching of halachoth, or for the publication of legal rulings needed for actual practice. In these Midrashim, the Rabbis at times left us their homilies either introduced with the words: 'There is a ruling that an Israelite, etc.,' or with the words: 'May our Teacher instruct us,' as indeed homilies were introduced when delivered to the masses in those days.

One may also note that the Passover Haggadah,[1] the compilation of which is thought to have taken place during the time of the Temple, as recorded in the Mishnah, Pes. 10, 4,[2] also introduces subjects with questions in the same way as the Midrashim of the earlier days. At first the children are made to ask four questions about the difference between this (the Passover) and other nights, and then the celebrant begins to narrate the successioin of events and to expound the Exodus and various passages in the Scriptures relating to this subject, and finally he turns back to reply to the question which had been put to him. So, for example, in reply to the question: 'Why are we eating this matzah?' he says: 'Because the dough of our forefathers did not have time to be leavened.' And there are similar replies regarding the Pesach (sacrificial lamb) and the maror (bitter herb). In this way the familiar difficulty which is raised as to why the narrator does not proceed at once with his proper answers to the questions on the reasons for the eating of matzah and maror is met, if we bear in mind the above elucidation of the methods adopted by the Tannaim and Amoraim in their homiletical discourse, as we have seen them exemplified in connection with the question referred to above (Shab. 30a), viz. that their way was to pass from one subject to another related to it, until they came back finally to reply to the main question asked.

[1] The ritual recitation for the Passover Home Service. Its name is derived from the word והגדת 'and thou shalt tell'. Ex. XIII, 8, and it includes the narration of the Exodus.
[2] Where first mention is made of the ritual and where R. Gamaliel is reported (Mishnah 5) as saying that 'one who has not said (i.e. not understood the spiritual implications of) these three words, Pesah, Matzah, and Maror has not done his duty'. The opinion is held by many scholars (see J.E. VI, 141) that this R. Gamaliel was the first of that name (who lived during the Temple) because he speaks of the Passover lamb. But even according to the view held (Weiss, Dor, II, 74) that he was R. Gamaliel II the mere fact that R. Gamaliel II speaks of a familiar ritual proves that the Haggadah was already in existence before his time. The proof however which the author has probably also considered was R. Tarfon's statement (Mishnah 6) in connection with the order of the Haggadah. R. Tarfon had lived during the Temple time (See Jer. Yoma III, 7). See also glosses on Nid. 6b by the author.

Monday, April 18, 2005
Letter to Haaretz
Regarding this article (here and in Hebrew here):

To the editor of Haaretz:

The quote attributed to me in your article about Rabbi Natan Slifkin ("The rabbi who wrestles with crocodiles," Haaretz 15/04/2005) is different from what I had said in subtle but significant ways. The article quoted me as saying that rabbis in Israel are "simply lacking in knowledge" and are being "self-defensive" in condemning Rabbi Slifkin’s books. This was certainly an unfortunate misunderstanding of my intention. I did not imply that the great rabbis involved, who are steeped in learning and wisdom, are lacking in knowledge or acting defensively. I have nothing but the profoundest respect for them, and I certainly did not speculate about their motivations in this matter. I sincerely regret that there was a misunderstanding between me and your reporter about this.

Additionally, a general theme in the article is that American Haredim, both the general community and its leading rabbis, support Rabbi Slifkin while Israeli Haredim do not. However, this is a mistaken impression because the issues are a matter of dispute within the entire Haredi community, both in Israel and America. Such diversity of opinion is a sign of openness, as I tried to stress, and not one of insularity. Rabbi Slifkin’s views are standard among Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States, and accepted among many but not all Haredim.

I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to clarify this matter.


Gil Student
Yashar Books Inc.
Brooklyn, NY

Students' Guide
It is my distinct pleasure to announce, 45 years after its last printing, that The Students' Guide through the Talmud, by R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes (Maharatz Chayes), is now back in print. Below is an article in last week's The Jewish Press about it.

The Students' Guide through the Talmud is divided, with half discussing halakhah and half aggadah. A significant portion of the first half of the book is the delineation of different types of laws, with explanations of their source and nature, and many examples to demonstrate the differences. In regard to all of this, the footnotes by R. Jacob Shachter, former Chief Rabbi of Northern Ireland, are invaluable. What follows is a short excerpt from Chapter 13: Enactments the Binding Force of which was Later Relaxed (pp. 103-104) [see notes 9 and 10 which are me-inyana de-yoma]:
Again, in many cases, we find that what had been definitely prohibited by earlier authorities was later permitted by the Beth Din, as in the following instance. According to the Biblical law, where the levirate marriage[1] could be performed, halitza[2] was not regarded as the fulfilment of the precept. Yet it was later ruled that halitza was preferable to the levirate marriage[3] (Yeb. 39b).

Indeed, even things prohibited by Biblical law were occasionally permitted by the Rabbis where only passive violation was involved,[4] and, in cases which appeared to them at the moment urgent, or where they had ground for apprehension that, in the absence of some guidance, the people would be led to more serious violations of the law, they felt prompted to set aside certain precepts, of which category the following are examples. They forbade the blowing of the shofar on a New Year's Day which fell on the Sabbath, lest one should inadvertently carry[5] the shofar four cubits in the public domain[6] (R.H. 29b).

They also forbade the taking of the lulab in hand on the Sabbath for the same reason[7] (Suk. 42b).

See Yeb. 90b for the following examples where the rabbis made their decisions in cases which would have entailed the punishment of Kareth,[8] even where there was involved only an abstention from performin the act in question, viz. the cases of the uncircumcised,[9] the sprinkling,[10] the knife.[11]

Similarly, they suspended Ezra's takkanah of immersion for those who had suffered pollution, see Ber. 22b and Yad, K. Shema 4,8,[12] and also the takkanah that a virgin should be married on a Wednesday,[13] v. Shittah Mekubezeth,[14] Keth. 3a.[15]

[1] See note 7, p. 9.
[2] See note 10, p. 6.
[3] Because it was noticed that the levirate marriage was not exercised for the fulfilment of the precept, but was prompted by other and selfish motives.
[4] Violation of the law by abstention, i.e. by passively not doing what one is commanded to do; this was in certain cases under the jurisdiction of the Rabbis (see Yeb. 90b), as distinct from active violation, i.e. by actually doing what one is commanded not to do, as this involved the defiance of a Pentateuchal law.
[5] As not all are skilled in the blowing of the shofar, some might be tempted to carry it to an expert to learn, and thus commit a transgression.
[6] The law prohibiting the transporting of things four cubits in the pbulic domain comes down by tradition (see Sab. 96b).
[7] See Rashi, Suk. 42b, s.v. ללמוד, who shows that the waving of the lulab required some teaching.
[8] i.e. precepts the violation of which involved the punishment of Kareth could be suspended by rabbinical ordinances.
[9] This refers to the proselyte who is circumcised on the Passover Eve. Although pentateuchally he would, as an Israelite, be obliged to keep the Passover, the rabbis pronounced him unclean (see Pes. 92a), and he was, in consequence, prevented from participating in the said celebration, even though failing to do so involved the violation of a precept carrying the punishment of Kareth.
[10] Sprinkling an unclean person on the Sabbath is only rabbinically forbidden (see Pes. 92a). If then the eve of the Passover fell on the Sabbath and also happened to be the seventh day of the purification of a person unclean according to Pentateuchal law, he would be permitted to participate in the Paschal-lamb celebration. Yet the Rabbis, by prohibiting the sprinkling, prevented him from fulfilling the Pentateuchal precept of the Paschal-lamb, even though its violation, as said before, involved the punishment of Kareth.
[11] i.e. circumcision, the violation of which involved Kareth. It was found sometimes necessary to postpone circumcision when it fell on a Sabbath, although it generally supersedes the Sabbath. That might happen through the rabbinic prohibition against carrying the knife on the Sabbath even along the roofs (see Sab. 130b).
[12] The author's reference in the text to the concluding paragraph of Tefillah is erroneous.
[13] See M. Keth. 1,1 because the Courts sat on Mondays and Thursdays, so that in the event of a man having a case regarding his wife's virginity, he could bring it forthwith before the court. Although a similar reason could be advanced for a Sunday that day was nevertheless excluded on account of the Sabbath which would interfere with the necessary preparations.
[14] See note 1, p. 31.
[15] Which states that where the Courts meet every day, the restriction to a particular day is suspended.
This classic book is now available to the public. Please ask for it in your local bookstores.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Classic Guide To Talmud Reissued After 45 Years
The Students' Guide Through The Talmud
buy the book now

The Jewish Press reports:
Classic Guide To Talmud Reissued After 45 Years Guidebook For Students, Scholars And Novices Now Available To A New Generation

The Students' Guide Through The Talmud by noted Talmudic scholar Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Chajes (Maharatz Chayes), translated by the late Chief Rabbi of Northern Ireland, Jacob Shachter, has been released by Yashar Books. The classic work outlines the history of the Talmud and formulates the nature, extent and authority of Jewish scholarly tradition. Rabbi Elazar Hurvitz, Professor of Biblical and Talmudic Literature at Yeshiva University, said, "During my experience of over 40 years teaching, I found that this book gave my students a broad understanding of the total spectrum about the development of early rabbinic literature in Halacha and Aggadah."

The Guide includes surprisingly contemporary analyzes of many statements of the Talmud and explains their methodology and rationale. The translator has added extensive footnotes so that even a novice will be able to follow. The Students' Guide Through The Talmud gives new insight into the inner workings of the Talmud and, as Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Assistant Professor of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University, said, "continues to speak to the 21st Century student."

Yashar Books is a new publisher of Orthodox Jewish books for today's readers and thinkers, dedicated to providing open access to the world of classical and contemporary Jewish ideas.

Yashar Books,;

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
No More Camels
We have run out of copies of The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax.

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