Friday, January 18, 2008

The Foolishness of the Literalists - Rambam on Agadeta - Group One the Fools!

I was traveling this week so I did not have a chance to continue with Ta’amei Hamitzvot. One of the regular commenters – Holy Hyrax – asked me in an email for a reference to where Rambam talks sharply against those that insist on reading Aggadeta literally. It is in the introduction to Chelek (the 10th according to Rambam or the 11th Perek according to the standard printed Shas) and I thought it worthwhile to translate it. BTW, I used to dislike translating but after doing it a few times, I found that I got new insights in the text that I was working on. It became a fun activity. [As usual I paraphrase / translate with my comments in brackets].


המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י משנה א

וממה שאתה צריך לדעת שדברי חכמים עליהם השלום נחלקו בהם בני אדם

לשלש כתות.

הכת הראשונה והם רוב אשר נפגשתי עמהם ואשר ראיתי חבוריהם ואשר שמעתי


מבינים אותם כפשטם ואינם מסבירים אותם כלל,

ונעשו אצלם כל הנמנעות מחוייבי


ולא עשו כן אלא מחמת סכלותם בחכמות וריחוקם מן המדעים, ואין בהם מן השלמות

עד כדי שיתעוררו על כך מעצמם, ולא מצאו מעורר שיעוררם, ולכן חושבים הם שאין כונת

חכמים בכל מאמריהם המחוכמים אלא מה שהבינו הם מהם, ושהם כפשוטם, ואף על פי שיש

בפשטי מקצת דבריהם מן הזרות עד כדי שאם תספרנו כפשטו להמון העם כל שכן ליחידיהם היו

נדהמים בכך ואומרים היאך אפשר שיהא בעולם אדם שמדמה דברים אלו וחושב שהם דברים

נכונים, וכל שכן שימצאו חן בעיניו. והכת הזו המסכנה רחמנות על סכלותם לפי שהם רוממו

את החכמים לפי מחשבתם ואינם אלא משפילים אותם בתכלית השפלות ואינם מרגישים בכך, וחי

ה' כי הכת הזו מאבדים הדר התורה ומחשיכים זהרה, ועושים תורת השם בהפך המכוון בה,

לפי שה' אמר על חכמת תורתו אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה וכו', והכת הזו דורשין

מפשטי דברי חכמים דברים אשר אם ישמעום העמים יאמרו רק עם סכל ונבל הגוי הקטן הזה.

והרבה שעושין כן הדרשנין המבינים לעם מה שאינם מבינים הם עצמם, ומי יתן ושתקו כיון

שאינם מבינים מי יתן החרש תחרישון ותהי לכם לחכמה, או היה להם לומר אין אנו יודעים

מה רצו חכמים בדברים אלו ולא היאך פירושו, אלא חושבים שהבינו, ומעמידים את עצמם

להבין לעם מה שהבינו הם עצמם לא מה שאמרו חכמים, ודורשין בפני ההמון בדרשות ברכות

ופרק חלק וזולתם כפשוטם מלה במלה.

You should know that as to [understanding] the words of the sages [Rambam is referring to Aggadeta] people are divided into three groups. The first group consists of the majority of the people I met, those that I read their books or that I heard about. They understand them literally without explaining them at all, accepting impossibilities as fact [literally: impossibilities as necessary existents]. They did this because of their ignorance [literally: foolishness] and their distance from the sciences, not having enough perfection to take notice themselves or because no one brought this to their attention [that these things are impossible. In other words, the lack of learning and information does not even trigger in their mind the possibility that this is absurd.] They therefore think that all the intelligent sayings of the sages are to be understood literally, as they understand them, although there are some sayings that are strange. Some things they say would stump even the masses and how much more the unique [learned] ones among them. This pathetic [literally: poor] group [literalists], a pity on their foolishness, think that they are elevating [as in bringing respect to] the sages, while they are utterly debasing them without even taking notice. I swear in God’s name [literally: By the life of God], that this group destroy the beauty of the Torah and darken its luster presenting it in a way that is the opposite of what was its intent. God stated about the wisdom of His Torah that “when they hear all these statutes”… while this group understands the words of the sages in a way that if the nations will hear this they will say “this small nation is foolish!”

[Rambam is referring to the following verse in Devarim 4:6 –

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא

חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים: אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת

כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה,

וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי

הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה

. 6 Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

Instead of fulfilling this prediction these people, suggest the opposite!]

Much of this [foolishness] is perpetrated by the preachers who give to understand to the people things they themselves do not! I wish they would remain silent. Silence for them is wisdom! Instead of saying that they do not know what the sages were trying to transmit, they think they understand, and undertake to teach the people what their opinion is which is not the sages’ opinion, expounding on the Gemarot in Berachot and Chelek word for word [literally].

It is fascinating how Rambam presents the proponents of the literal approach,

“The majority of the people I met, those that I read their books or that I heard about”. In other words not only are they the masses but also authors and preachers and still he calls them foolish! So much for “Mesora”, the canard used nowadays to silence any rational questioning.


  1. Once again, Rambam shows himself to be well ahead of his time (and perhaps well ahead of ours). It is a shame that more people are not aware of this dual thread in our tradition and that all semblence of the rational is being erased under the pretence of protecting tradition.

  2. B is K
    the presentation of medroshim and aggadahs by the rabbai-im in my yeshivah days as 'emes' and the fact that i concluded long ago that these can't be literally true nearly destroyed my faith and adherence to traditional yiddishkeit, but i overcame this.

    however, and maybe you can help...i never got a good ansewer from anyone on how does one distinguish between which stories in our mesorah are factual history in medrosh or talmud are true and which are to be taken as parable/allegory.

  3. FWIW, Teh Rambam's Son R. Avarham echoes his Famous Dad's ideas in his intor to Aggedita. It is in the English version of En Jacob [Aranson Publishers I think]. and it makes so much sense.

    Once a naive yeshiva bachur asked me: "you mean you don't believe the Midrash is true?"

    I answered: "Every word is holy and true, but not LITERALLY true!"


  4. one potentially important caveat is that the Rambam here qualifies what he means by allegorical midrashim -- the ones in perek Chelek, and in Berachot, namely the ones with impossibilities. He appears to intend stories such as the moon talking (and I believe gives this as an example).

    This does not necessarily mean that he thinks that all aggada is non-literal, or intended as non-literal. For example, a midrash which states that Bat-Pharaoh came down to the Nile (when she found Moshe) in order to convert. One nowadays might have difficulty reconciling that with peshat, but it is not an impossibility, and Rambam *might* not call that an allegory. And even ones which involve nissim, perhaps, since there is internal recognition within the midrash itself that this is outside the realm of derech haTeva. (It may be good precedent for an extension, though...)

  5. Joshwaxman said "For example, a midrash which states that Bat-Pharaoh came down to the Nile (when she found Moshe) in order to convert."
    What conversion? There was no jewish religion until matan torah and therefore no conversion.This midrash is definitely not literal!! I would bet that all midrashim are not literal and are only intended for the underlying message.The midrash follows the path of our written torah which is not designed to tell us childrens stories but instead to teach us how to think and behave by instilling proper ideas/beliefs and principles that lead us to yedias hashem.

  6. I have to bring this up every time I talk about this, because people almost without exception conflate my arguing for the literalness of midrashim with arguing for the historicity of midrashim.

    First off, my point was that *Rambam* does not necessarily talk about such midrashim when he is speaking here in his introduction to perek chelek. Whether or not *you* are convinced of the truth of such a midrash has nothing whatsoever to do with what *Rambam* is speaking about. He is talking about impossibilities.

    Furthermore, the question is about Chazal's *intent* in saying this midrash, not whether or not they were *correct* in their intent. Chazal believed that Avraham accepted various mitzvot (such as brit, which is explicit) and gid hanashe. And talk about Avraham and Sarah accepting converts (the nefesh they made in Charan). It is certainly *possible* that Chazal retrojected the process of conversion in a mikveh back to that time, and viewed her as intending to join the Jewish people, to learn whatever Torah they had back then.

    Whether you or I think this is *historically* correct is an entirely different issue than whether the midrash was *intended literally*. Chazal lived in different times than us, and had different assumptions from us. Projecting our worldview onto them and assuming they must have meant it metaphorically may be of similar kind to Chazal's taking their halachic approach and casting it upon the avot. And claiming they meant it metaphorically when it is quite possible that they did not, because you don't agree intellectually with it (and would consider it a "children's story) is possibly recasting Chazal in our own image.

    Regardless, I deliberately chose a midrash such as this, which has certain difficulties for us to adopt, to give an example which it is not at all clear that Rambam is talking about. Read Rambam's introduction to perek chelek inside, and see whether this is the type of midrash Rambam is talking about. Once again, reading our assumptions of the type of midrash Rambam is talking about is the same error of reading our own beliefs into Chazal.

  7. I expand upon this in these two posts:

  8. Josh Waxman-I don't understand why you have to defend whether the stories in the torah or midrashim are to be taken literal or not.Do you really believe moshe and chazal wanted to make sure we knew our jewish history? What about all the other events that were not written in the torah. Do you believe that in the forty years in the desert the only stories important for our history are the ones mentioned in the torah.I instead believe that the stories are only there for the deeper message which is the proper beliefs that lead to yedias hashem which then results in doing "ratzon hashem". For some people religion is made up of telling stories from "the midrash says".To me there is no difference between this and the christians telling stories of their saints or the "so called"miracles from the new testament.The same goes with the stories that the muslims relate from the Koran.What makes the Torah unique is the fact the stories are only the surface and they must be removed in order to reveal the true essence of our religion so that one can truly meditate on his ways and then follow G-D.

  9. Sorry but I was away for a few days and had no easy access to the internet.

    Elyahu. - Most stories are allegories unless they tell us specifically they are historical and they are very rare. They will use the Lashon Kach Mekubalni or some other such formula.
    The last comment by anonymous is pretty much correct.

    R. Josh your position is the more sophisticated of what is referred to as yeshivish nowadays. Rambam in his hakdama to mishna makes it clear that all midrashim are just allegories. i will eventually quote it and translate it . Next post is going to be the end of this one.

    It is quite obvious that when the Rabbis deduce a story from an extra word they are just teaching us that the extra word has a message, the presentation of the story in chumash is also the same. i always say that two people witnessing the same event will always report a slightly different way. The perspective of each person will influence his retelling. the same with a story in Chumash. HKBH is telling the story thorough Moshe in a certain way. The rabbis are trying to decipher the perspective of HKBH Kevayachol.

  10. "are to be taken literal or not"

    should be "were *intended* literally or not," if it is intended as a response to me. Otherwise, it is conflation.

    Read my above two linked posts, if you have not already, to get a sense of what I am intending here, and what I am not.

    It is not a matter of defense. It is a matter of taking sources on their own terms, rather than reading our own values into them. Because we do not agree with them, they must suddenly be intended literally?

    As proof to the fact that *some* people intended midrash literally, just look at the quote from the Rambam above, where people were taking even the impossible midrashim literally. And midrashim were being composed well past the time of the Rambam. Can you honestly tell me that it is impossible that *no one* of the authors of midrash (say, a late midrash, such as one from the 14th century) did not intend it literally, when Rambam spoke of people who understood midrash literally? What is your basis for saying this, other than some feeling that "Chazal must agree with me, because I cannot argue with Chazal or else be a heretic, and so I must rewrite Chazal in my image?"

    What if I showed you a few quite implausible midrashim, from which Chazal in the gemara derived practical halacha therefrom? Would that demonstrate that they intended it literally?

    What if I showed you Chazal contrasting one midrash with another, and trying to resolve details of one with details of the other? If both are intending only a deep moral lesson, and these lessons are not conflicting, but rather e.g. details of Biblical history, how would such a question have validity? Would such a question demonstrate that they intended it literally?

    My concern is original intent, and the best way to do this in an intellectually honest manner, IMHO, is to examine the sources in context, rather than reinterpreting Chazal to meet our own assumptions.

    (Of course, if we make such a determination, one need not be a heretic to argue. Rambam's son Rabbi Avraham says we can *disagree,* rather than reinterpret, midrashim, for midrashim are only those author's opinion.)

    In my opinion, the business about "Chazal did not intend history" is a red herring. It is a popular apologetic answer for places in the gemara that Chazal got, or appear to have gotten, their history wrong. But that does not make the apologetics correct, or more to the point, true in every single instance. That *sometimes* a deeper message was meant does not mean that *always* the deeper message was meant, and that they did not believe in the truth of it within the historical narrative as well.

  11. I see you mention whether Moshe intended it literally as well. This is another can of worms. But yes, there is reason, speaking from a text-internal view, to believe that at least many parts were indeed intended literally and historically.

  12. >just look at the quote from the Rambam above, where people were taking even the impossible midrashim literally. And midrashim were being composed well past the time of the Rambam.

    C'mon! Rambam was talking about the midrashim of chazal not his contemporaries or later generations. The rest of this paragraph is consequently totally irrelevant .

    R. Josh I did skim through your first reference and hope to read both carefully later on and BN respond. From a fast look it seems you are not seperating halachik drashot from midrashim.

    >What if I showed you a few quite implausible midrashim, from which Chazal in the gemara derived practical halacha therefrom? Would that demonstrate that they intended it literally?

    Why would it prove taht. If an earlier Tanah explains a story in a certain way it is assumed that he made sure it fit with his understanding of the halacha. It does not show that he even dreamt it was literal!

    >If both are intending only a deep moral lesson, and these lessons are not conflicting, but rather e.g. details of Biblical history, how would such a question have validity?

    Why not if they were contradictory teachings?

    R. Josh I have to respectfully disagree with your position and I cannot for the life of me see what compels you and other like minded people to insist on such an obvious allegorical style in all midrashim unless specifically told they had a kabbalah ish mipi ish that it was so.

  13. >I see you mention whether Moshe intended it literally as well.

    In chumash itself we have certain rules set out by the rishonim especially rambam when it is historical and when it is not. But even the historical it is told by Moshe mipi hashem. That is the key the teller, how it is told and how He interprets it not the historical fact itself. Like rambam says re milah in a letter (Sheilat page 410)did moshe find a written document that avraham left re milah and the 13 britot? Was Moshe a plagiarist and did not tell beshem omro? It is HKBH through Moshe who told us what happened and He is the one who reported the details. We therefore accept the mitzvah from that standpoint not history!

  14. >R. Josh your position is the more sophisticated of what is referred to as yeshivish nowadays.

    R.Josh, I just reread my comment above and I retract this sentence apologizing. It was gratuitous and probably incorrect.I did not want to redo the whole comment though.

  15. no offense taken, whatsoever. though in fact, until you mentioned this, I did not notice your earlier comment, since I was posting about the same on the same day, and haven't since read higher than my comment.

    my approach is probably more akin to the *second* group of idiots mentioned by the Rambam, in the continuation of the quote (immediately after your excerpt), who take their words literally and then use it as a basis for rejecting it.

    my concern here is not over-reading the Rambam to say more than he says. to that end, the Rambam about midrashim in general would be a good quote. my impression based on the examples here in context is that he is talking only about impossibilities (and there are such in Berachot and Chelek, such as the moon and sun talking, and Cosbi bat Tzur being a normal woman except with an opening a cubit long), rather than midrashim in general. This is important because he considers anyone who claims otherwise to X an idiot. Even *if* he would consider people who take other midrashim (Y) literally to be incorrect, that does not mean he would consider them idiots.

    (I am willing to see midrashim with allegorical meaning as well, by the way. For a recent example, see here, about different approaches to the frogs in Egypt multiplying. And the same for Torah, in terms of what happened in Gan Eden and the meaning of the snake's punishment. Just in a more circumscribed manner, in that I first need persuading that this was in fact authorial intent, and for that I look for text-internal proof.)

  16. In terms of Rambam and later midrashim, indeed. But we are discussing both Rambam's intent and (as a result of an anonymous question put to me) the expanded issue of the midrash's author's intent, independent of the Rambam.

    My point here was not what the Rambam intended. (For indeed, we can argue on the Rambam if we wished.) Rather, it is that people will base themselves on this Rambam and say that therefore, all midrash that we encounter everywhere must have been intended allegorically, and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot.

    But the thing is, we see such "idiots" nowadays. And the Rambam saw such "idiots" in his day. As a result, at least for late midrash, it is conceivable that a Darshan (rather than a pashtan) intended his derasha literally.

    So if I for example cite to you a midrash (as someone did recently to me) as follows:
    "The great kingdom of Rome was built by Zepho, son of Eliphaz, son of Esau. (Yelamdeinu, Batei Midrashos 160)."

    the proper response is not *necessarily* that this was intended allegorically, and any other interpretation of the midrash is incorrect. For that midrash was in Yalkut Talmud Torah by Rabbi Yaakov Sikili, from the 14th century.

    The same for midrashim from Shemot Rabba, from the 11th and 12th century (relying on Wikipedia's dating), and Bemidbar Rabba (12th century), though of course they will likely also have citations from pre-Rambam. Perhaps they were all intended allegorically, but just perhaps these were the literalists that Rambam was talking about.

    Furthermore, my point was that if such literalists could exist in our day, and in Rambam's day, and we can conceive of literally intended midrashim (and we can probably find some clear examples), then it is not so farfetched, IMHO, (though not compulsory) to say that there were people with a similar worldview earlier as well, who authored midrashim. In which case it comes down to trying to determine authorial intent.

    Also, Shmuel haNaggid (and IIRC R' Avraham son of the Rambam) held that midrashim were not mipi hagevura, but rather just the author of the midrash's personal opinion, and therefore one could argue. It seems to me that they are precedents for my position, that midrashim were intended literally. For if they were allegorical, it is not shayach to talk of arguing. Even an interpretation I propose which contradicts it is no contradiction, since only an allegorical level was intended. There would be no need to have the "out" that midrashim are not mipi haGevurah.

  17. having just reviewed R' Avraham son of Rambam's writing, I retract what I attributed to him. It is only Shmuel haNagid, not he, who says this.

    Here is a link to a translation.

    I am unclear in what category he would place certain non-miraculous interpretations of pesukim, based on his examples.