Talmud Study (Archive)
Talmud Study (Archive)Nati Shohat/Flash90
While raising my children (and continuing on with the grandchildren, baruch Hashem), I found that Yocheved Segal's "Our Sages showed the way" ("Koh Asu Hakhamenu" in Hebrew) was one of the rare and treasured examples of reading material on yiddishkeit that made its way into young people's hearts and minds, inculcating respect for the Talmudic Sages ("Chazal" ) and sometimes actually affecting behavior. When situations comparable to those in the stories arose, parents could even cite an appropriate story and use it as a guide because Segal carefully chose stories from the Talmud and Midrash that have moral messages young readers can understand and often identify with. She wrote that the set of books was meant for early childhood educators in order for them to teach the children about "the Talmudic Sages' good deeds and lofty values, ethics and wisdom, deep thoughts and the foundations of Torah."

The lives of adults studying Talmud are also immensely enriched by the moral messages of this type of narrative, called aggadah in Hebrew, but they are exposed to many additional, harder to understand aggadot (the plural form) whose role has been debated for centuries – this in contrast to the Talmud's halakhic content which, by definition, involves the attempt to reach consensus.

Why is the aggadah enmeshed in the Talmud this way (note that 16th century Ein Yaakov by Rabbi Yaakov Ibn Tabib and more recent Sefer Ha'agadah by Bialik and Rawnitzki are anthologies of aggadot alone) and what is each of the aggadot intended to convey? How is one to view the more unusual stories, which sometimes describe events that do not seem to be possible or that evoke the supernatural? Are they literal or allegorical? Dreams or events? Can all four answers be correct?

Is there a deeper reason than that conveyed by an ordinary reading for their inclusion in the Talmud? Is their particular placement connected to their message? Can we understand why the Sages act as they do in these aggadot? Does the entire compendium of aggadah, as one scholar wrote, contain the "motivation and aspirations of the halakhah" – or is that statement applicable only to the aggadot appropriate for 'Koh Asu Hakhomenu'?

It has been claimed that esoteric aggadot can be understood on a level intended for the intellectually elite - which sounds much like the Rambam's opinion on other issues, except that his attitude to aggadah is complex. The Ramchal (1707-1746) contends that aggadah contains the mystic ("sod") part of the Talmud as opposed to the explicit halakhic one.

Does it follow, then, that the aggadot have a rationality hidden from everyone except the select few who are privy to the secrets needed to analyze that form of text? Are we to learn from the ones we understand and continue to try to reach the point at which we understand the others?

Great Torah luminaries have addressed these questions. The Maharal of Prague (1355-1427) observes, "all of these stories teach us Wisdom and the Fear of Heaven. However, should the details of some of them prove to be beyond our understanding, we must realize that their essential religious message is expressed in the figurative language which our Sages often employed." The Maharsha (1555-1631) separated his commentary on the Talmud into halakha and aggadah, but then seems to have regretted doing so. The Noda Beyehuda (1713-1793) said there is nothing superfluous in the aggadah. Rav Avraham Hacohen Kook wrote the "Ein Aya," an erudite and penetrating analysis of aggadah, but passed away after having written on just three Talmudic Tractates.

A wholly different approach to suggesting answers to these questions is taken by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol, author of the new book "The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave, exploring Talmudic narratives" (published by Maggid Books, an imprint at Koren Publishers). Rabbi Sokol is Dean of Lander College for Men and rabbi of the Yavne Minyan in Flatbush, New York, a musmach (ordained rabbi) of ITRI Yeshiva whose Ph.d is from the University of Pennsylvania.

With a masterful command of language that preserves the respect accorded Talmudic discourse, Sokol analyzes the 8 aggadic stories he has chosen on multiple levels, starting from the personal lives of the protagonists and their interactions with those around them, using the traditional commentaries for clarification as well as to give varying opinons on whether the aggadah is a dream, allegory or event. From there he goes on to how he sees the narrative's role vis a vis the Jewish people's dilemmas during the time the Talmud coalesced

One of the unique aspects of his undertaking (I am not familiar enough with writings on aggadah to be absolutely certain, but this seems to me a first) - is declared at the very beginning. As we know, every word in the Torah given to the Jewish people in the revelation at Mount Sinai is believed significant, and therefore to be closely read, interpreted and analyzed – hence, the many commentaries that differ widely from one another. Halakhic debates in the Talmud are also not worded randomly - and let us not forget the reams of paper filled with writings on the choice of words in Rambam.

Rabbi Dr. Sokol adopts that same type of analysis and close reading to aggadah to reach his understandings from the language spoken by the protagonists, their choice of words, comparisons with other possible choices or texts and even omissions. That close reading and the resulting detailed literary analysis as well as selections from the commentaries on aggadah are the foundations of the enlightening theses the author proposes about the narratives' greater meaning.

There are, thanks to the author's intellectual honesty and humility, no flights of fancy or imaginative attempts to psychoanalyze the great men who lived over a thousand years ago and about whom we have relatively meager information with which to work, but, instead, a thorough gleaning and synthesis of what we do know about them and their contemporaries that makes for fascinating reading.

The conflicts and difficulties the Sages face and how they deal with them are shown to be intertwined with and influenced by their very different personal lives, as we know them, and human nature, as we know it, all this against the backdrop of what seems to be the author's main point (at any rate, the one I enjoyed the most)- the handling of critical dilemmas and conflicts affecting the mesorah, the continuity and passing down of the Oral Law, to which these larger-than-life personalities dedicated their lives in the bereaved post-Temple and post-prophecy world.

Rabbi Dr. Sokol finds a different crucial component that enables continuing the mesorah in each of the 8 aggadot, thereby showing how Judaism's way of living and studying Torah, surviving thousands of years of exile and dispersion, was defined but not spelled out by the Talmudic Sages.

In the analysis of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, for example, the Sage whose background makes his life story especially tragic, we meet the "bor sud" of Ethics of the Fathers, likened to a whitewashed pit that loses not a drop of water, symbolizing his total grasp of previous generations' Torah knowledge. Rabbi Eliezer cannot and will not deviate from what he sees as pure truth, from the halakha as he was taught it, the halakhah he suffered for and thirsted to master– and his opinion on a specific halakhic quesiton is correct, even the heavens agree. But his is a lone dissenting opinion.

The question then is: How far does majority rule go and does truth set limits to its authority in halakhic decisions when it is clearly wrong?

The rest of the story shows that conceding to the majority's halakhic opinion is a halakha in itself, ranked above the specific issue of who is right methodologically, that allows for disputes without letting a difference of opinion affect the cohesion of the decision making body. Rabbi Eliezer cannot accept the decision that continuity trumps truth and is banished in the famous aggadah of the ceramic stove, tanur shel achnai, that most Orthodox children hear in school. The author, however, brings a fresh outlook to his analysis and Rabbi Eliezer's seemingly inexplicable deathbed conversation with Rabbi Akiva is interpreted as made up of indirect existential questions couched in halakhic language. He proceeds to develop that idea to the point where it seems the natural way to explain the otherwise esoteric discussion of impurities, cucumbers and sorcery.

Halakhic truth and personal conscience vs. unity once a majority is reached must have been an almost insurmountable stumbling block, and is posited as also directing the actions of unbending Akavya ben Mahalalel, explaining why his most famous saying is "know What is above you…" Rabbi Sokol thoroughly compares the two Sages who went against the majority and suggests the reason for the difference in their fates.

The greater much-debated issues of the place of creativity within the halakhic framework, the necessity to learnTorah full time vs. making a living while setting aside time for Torah, the Babylonian way of learning vs. the Eretz Yisrael style of learning - are Rabbi Sokol's interpretations of other aggadot that add a wider dimension to stories, parables or dreams about indviduals, morally instructive as they may be.

The story of Honi Hameagel, Rabbi Sokol suggests, illustrates the people's quest for those who can perform wonders once there is no prophecy.

The snake at the mouth of the cave does not allow Rabbi Yochanan to enter Rav Kahane's burial place until he realizes that he must, prophetically, respect the level of Babylonian Torah more than his own.

These are just two of the meta-messages revealed by the author in the 8 aggadot whose peshat (literal reading) is otherwise hard to fathom.

Rabbi Dr. Sokol succeeds in engaging the reader in his absorbing analyses of the Sages themselves, but most significantly, in clarifying the role of aggadah in the Talmud as the portrayal of the various dilemmas facing the leaders of Jewish society as it developed in the years in which it was decided that the Oral Law had to be written down.

These were fateful times for the Jewish people's future, yet in the end, controversies, tragedies and difficult decisions meshed together, all for love of Torah and awe of the Almighty, thereby preserving an entire nation. Rabbi Dr. Sokol adds immensely to our understanding of how that miracle, performed by our Sages with the help of G-d, took place.

Rochel Sylvetsky made aliya to Israel with her family in 1971, coordinated Mathematics at Ulpenat Horev, worked in math curriculum planning at Hebrew U. and as academic coordinator at Touro College Graduate School in Jerusalem. She served as Chairperson of Emunah Israel and was CEO of Kfar Hassidim Youth Village. Upon her retirement, Arutz Sheva asked her to be managing editor of the English site, a position she filled for several years before becoming Senior Consultant and Op-ed and Judaism editor. She serves on the Boards of Orot Yisrael College and the Knesset Channel.