Shiur #30: Cheap Trinkets, Expensive Stones and the Aggada

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #30: Cheap Trinkets, Expensive Stones and the Aggada


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



This short shiur is my last aggada shiur for now as I am taking a break after two years of writing for the VBM.  I wanted to thank the VBM staff for giving me this opportunity and for being consistently helpful.  I would also like to thank the readers, both the silent variety and those who sent me many interesting and insightful comments.  Hopefully, shiurim such as these will encourage students of Torah to turn their attention to the aggada in a serious way.


Kol tuv,

Yitzchak Blau



Rabbi Abbahu and Rabbi Chiya bar Abba arrived in a certain town.  (There they offered public lectures.)  Rabbi Abbahu taught aggada and Rabbi Chiya bar Abba taught halakha.  Everyone left Rabbi Chiya bar Abba and went to Rabbi Abbahu.  [Rabbi Chiya] became depressed. 


[Rabbi Abbahu] said to him: "I will give you a parable to compare to this matter.  There were two merchants, one who sold precious stones and the other who sold notions (inexpensive implements such as needles).  Whom did people jump on [to buy from]?  Was it not on the one who sold notions?"


Every day, Rabbi Chiya bar Abba would accompany Rabbi Abbahu back to his lodgings to honor the house of the emperor.  (Rabbi Abbahu was a favorite of the royal family.)  On that day, Rabbi Abbahu was the once to accompany Rabbi Chiya back to his lodgings, but even so, [the latter] was not appeased.

(Sota 40a)


Rabbi Abbahu tries valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to appease Rabbi Chiya after the latter finds an empty shul waiting for his shiur, in sharp contrast to the packed hall awaiting Rabbi Abbahu.  He walks Rabbi Chiya home and employs a parable to encourage his colleague to feel better.  The Ein Ya'akov cites a different version of the text in which the phrase "amar la-hem" (he said to them) precedes the parable.  In our previous version, Rabbi Abbahu offers this parable specifically for his friend’s consumption.  According to the version of the Ein Yaakov, Rabbi Abbahu says this to the townspeople during his discourse as a form of subtle chiding.


            What does Rabbi Abbahu attempt to convey with his parable?  As Rabbi Chanokh Zundel from Salant points out in his Etz Yosef, Rabbi Abbahu presumably does not intend to denigrate the study of aggada; after all, he himself is teaching this very subject.  Rather, he is pointing out that aggada resembles the cheap implements only in that they are more easily acquired, not because they are light in value.  In other words, people choose the aggada shiur because they prefer a light story to the intricacies of Jewish law.  However, popular choice may not reflect authentic worth.


            Two important principles emerge from this parable.  Firstly, in all educational fields, we should be careful not to identify the best teacher with one who is the most popular.  All things being equal, it is certainly a good thing for a teacher to be liked.  However, popularity can be achieved in all kinds of educationally dubious ways.  A teacher can achieve popularity by being too easy of the students, telling them inappropriate jokes, always siding with them against the administration and encouraging them to adopt an arrogant attitude that only in their classroom is the truth being taught.  Yet, all of these methods ultimately hurt the educational process.  Apparently, popularity and quality teaching remain distinct categories.


            Furthermore, in the narrower realm of aggada, we should also be wary of popularity.  If we treat aggada as light stories for easy entertainment, then we do not do them justice.  On the contrary, if we truly sweat to plumb the depths of the aggada, we may lose some students, but we will gain in understanding.  Our interest in aggada must rest upon the realization that appreciating stories also demands hard work.  In this particular anecdote, a deeper appreciation of the meaning should motivate us to find the subtleties of each and every Talmudic narrative.