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What is Aggada? Part I: Aggada in Classical Jewish Sources

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Ya’akov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan




Lecture 1 - What is Aggada? Part I:

Aggada in Classical Jewish Sources



This year’s course will focus on the aggadic sections of the beginning of the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot, chapter Me-eimatai. Before proceeding to examine this text we must first consider the meaning of the term “aggada” (sometimes called “haggada” or “aggadeta”).  To what sorts of texts and forms of study does this word refer? What is the status of aggada within the larger world of Torah study? And finally, what methods are appropriate for analyzing aggadic texts?


The term “aggada” and its equivalents appear throughout the works of the Mishna, the Talmudim and Midrashim.  In general, “aggada” appears in lists of disciplines or areas of study that make up the curriculum of the beit midrash.  Thus, the Sifrei (section 306) lists the components of Torah as “mikra and mishna, talmud, halakhot and haggadot,” while the mishna in Nedarim (4:3) assumes a curriculum made up of mikra, midrash, halakhot and aggadot. 


These passages do not define for us the exact meanings of these terms.  Certainly the term mikra refers to the study of Scripture, and halakhot most likely refers to the study of law.  But how are we to differentiate between the Sifrei’s “mishna, talmud, and halakhot especially given that the Sifrei was quite possibly written before the book we know as the Mishna was completed and was certainly completed long before the Talmud?


As for the term aggada, we can deduce only that it is consistently paired with the term “halakha.”  What is the relationship between halakha and aggada in these sources? They are certainly distinct categories, and quite possibly contrasting.  However, there is nothing in these texts to suggest that they are either mutually exclusive or antithetical.  Neither do they imply that these two categories encompass the entirety of Torah study.  Quite to the contrary, they are but two among many forms and aspects of Torah.


Two famous Talmudic stories however, do place aggada in direct opposition to shema’atata, which refers to a discussion or analysis of halakha.  First, the Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 60b, tells the following story:


When R. Ammi and R. Assi were sitting before R. Yitzchak the Smith,

One of them said to him,

“Will the master please teach us shema’atata?”

The other said to him,

“Will the master please teach us aggadata

He began with aggadata, one would not let him continue.

He began with shema’atata, the other would not let him continue.

He said to them,

“I will tell you a parable.  To what is the matter to be compared?

It is like a man who has two wives.

One is young (lit. ‘a girl’) and one is old.

The young one plucks his white hairs.

The old one plucks his black hairs.

He ends up bald from their actions.”

[R. Yitzchak] said to them,

“Since this is the case, I will tell you something that will be of interest to both of you:

‘If fire breaks out and catches in thorns’ (Shemot 22:5) -

“breaks out” implies, of itself.

‘He that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution’ (ibid.).

The Holy One blessed be He said,

‘It is incumbent upon me to make restitutions for the fire which I kindled.

It was I who kindled the fire in Zion.

As it says:

“And He has kindled a fire in Zion which has devoured the foundations thereof” (Eikha 4:11),

and it is I who will one day build it anew by fire,

as it says,

‘For I will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and I will be the glory in the midst of her” (Zekharya 2:9).

[As for] shema’atata -

The verse commences with damage done to chattel,

And concludes with damage done by the person,

To show that fire implies also human agency.”


In this story, halakha and aggada are portrayed as two warring wives of the same man.  Each one seeks to remake the man in their own opposing images.  The young wife seeks to make the man look young by removing his white hairs, while the old wife seeks to make the man look old by removing his black hairs.  In the end the man is left with no hair at all.


Halakha and aggada in this story are presented as two equal and opposing forces.  Aggada is apparently associated with the vigor of youth, while halakha is linked with the sagacity of old age.  Perhaps this is because aggada is viewed as creative and even daring, while halakha is seen as intellectually rigorous and conservative in nature.  Halakha and aggada each vie for the student’s attention, appealing to different aspects of his personality.  If this conflict remains unresolved the student runs the risk of becoming intellectually and spiritually paralyzed, mastering neither discipline.


The story also offers a resolution to this conflict in the form of R. Yitzchak’s brief sermon.  This is not the place to explicate the technical intricacies of R. Isaac’s teaching.  For our purposes, R. Isaac makes it clear that the conflict between halakha and aggada is not inevitable or desirable and that it is possible to give each its due.  This is true because, just as both R. Yitzchak’s halakhic and  his aggadic teaching emerge from the same biblical verse, so too, all halakha and aggada spring from the same divine source.


Another Talmudic story (Sota 40a) provides a different perspective on the relationship between halakha and aggada:


R. Abahu and R. Chiyya bar Abba went to a certain place.

R. Abahu expounded on aggada.

R.  Chiyya bar Abba expounded on shema’atata.

Every one neglected R. Chiyya bar Abba, and went [to hear] R. Abahu.

[R. Chiyya] became upset.

[R. Abahu] said to him, I will tell you a parable,

To what is [our situation] similar?

To two men,

One sells precious stones,

And the other sells various sundries. 

To whom does every one jump [to buy from]?

Not the one who sells various notions?


Similar to the previous story, this one also opens with a conflict between the promoters of halakha and those of aggada.  However, whereas in the previous story two students compete for the attention of the same rabbi, now two rabbis compete for the attention of the same audience of townspeople.  Further, in this story the representative of aggada, R. Abahu shows a decisive advantage; he succeeds in drawing big crowds, while the halakhist, R. Chiyya bar Abba, preaches to an empty hall.


Once again, the situation is explained through a parable.  The fact that a diamond dealer draws in fewer customers than a common dry goods retailer does not in any way suggest that diamonds are inferior to the other merchandise.  So too, the fact that halakhic lectures fail to draw a crowd while aggadic lectures bring in throngs, does not in any way suggest that halakha is inferior to aggada.


Indeed, R. Abahu’s parable takes the position that halakha is clearly superior to aggada.  Its lack of appeal to a broad audience is evidence of its refined and profound nature that is beyond the grasp of the common folk.  In this view, aggada reflects a sort of popular culture within the civilization of Torah.  It is akin to the sold-out rock concerts and paperback bestsellers in contemporary society.  Halakha, on the other hand, is an elite or even esoteric form, appreciated only by a select few, akin to today’s struggling symphony orchestras and publishers of fine poetry.  In this parable, R. Abahu presents an unapologetically elitist approach to Torah.


However, the story also suggests another possibility, that perhaps aggada’s drawing power does suggest its superiority.  Already we must wonder whether R. Abahu truly believes what he has said or is simply trying to comfort his friend.  After all, if R. Abahu believes that halakha is superior to aggada, why does he persist in teaching aggada?  Now the story concludes on a similar ambivalent note:


Normally, R. Chiyya bar Abba would escort R. Abahu to his residence, out   of respect to the Emperor.  (R. Abahu had close ties with the Roman authorities.)

That day R. Abahu escorted R. Chiyya bar Abba to his residence.

Even so, R. Chiyya bar Abba was not consoled by him.


R. Chiyya bar Abba remains upset.  He does not accept R. Abahu’s argument that his failure to attract the crowds actually points to the superiority of his endeavors.  The story does not explicate why it is that R. Chiyya bar Abba persists in his state of distress.  One possibility is that while R. Chiyya bar Abba clearly believes in the superiority of halakha, he cannot dismiss aggada’s popularity simply as a sign of its vulgarity.  R. Chiyya bar Abba seeks out the same popularity for halakhic teachings, something which he now realizes cannot be achieved.


To summarize our findings thus far, in most classical rabbinic sources halakha and aggada are two of many categories of Torah study.  They appear to complement rather than conflict with each other and neither one is portrayed as being more important than the other.  In contrast, in the two Talmudic stories we have seen, halakha and aggada are shown as being in competition and even in conflict with each other.  The latter story further portrays aggada as being a popular form and halakha as being an elite one.  The story also suggests that, at least according to R. Abahu, halakha is more important that aggada.


We will now turn to a pair of midrashic sources that present a very different view of aggada:


The expounders of aggadot say:

If you wish to know He who spoke, and the world came into being,

study aggada, for thereby you will come to know Him and cling to His ways. 

(Sifrei, Devarim #49)


This source declares that far from being a popular or inferior genre, aggada is superior to all others, in that it gives one direct access to knowledge of God and facilitates a direct relationship with Him.  Aggada would seem to deal with mystical or theological themes.  Given the sublime nature of its content, we might wonder whether aggada is, in fact, meant for a wide audience.  This mystical-esoteric nature of aggada is stated more explicitly in the second passage:


[R. Shimon b. Yehotzadak addressed the following query to R. Shmuel b. Nachman:]

Seeing that I heard you say that you are an expert aggadist, tell me:

Whence comes light into the world?

He answered him:

The Holy One blessed be He, enveloped Himself therewith in a garment

And the whole world shone with the splendor of His majesty.

R.  Shmuel told it to him in a whisper, so the other one said to him:

There is an explicit verse to prove it - for it says,

“Who covers Himself with light as with a garment,

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (Tehillim 104:2),

and you tell it to me in a whisper?

He replied,

As I was told it in a whisper,

so I tell you in a whisper. (Vayikra Rabba 31:7)


Once again, we cannot explicate this difficult passage in its entirety here.  For our purposes, this dialogue presents an “aggadist” as someone whose expertise includes knowledge of the details of how God created the world.  The explanation that R. Shmuel gives is frankly anthropomorphic, as it describes God donning a garment which exudes light.  R. Shmuel further states that this teaching was not for mass consumption.  He is only willing to transmit this teaching in a whisper, as he received it from his teachers.


These midrashic texts present a very different picture of aggada than the one found in the two Talmudic stories above.  Now aggada appears as an exalted endeavor, mystical and esoteric in nature, focusing on the nature of God Himself.  This seems a far cry from R. Abahu’s aggada that plays to packed houses and is unfavorably compared to halakha. 


In considering these contrasting portrayals of aggada, it is important to remember that in the entire corpus of rabbinic literature there are very few instances such as the ones we have just seen, in which individual passages are explicitly labeled as “aggada.”  The Talmudim and many Midrashim freely mix apparently halakhic with ostensibly aggadic material, without any formal indication that at any point the genre, nature or intended audience of the text has shifted.  Indeed, many rabbinic texts contain aspects of both halakha and aggada and cannot be easily classified.  Aggadic discourses often grow organically out of halakhic discussions and vice versa.  This would seem to point to the fact that the editors of these works did not see a clear demarcating line between halakha and aggada.  Furthermore, the term aggada applies to a broad and diverse category of texts and may not be defined by a single underlying set of attributes.


Next week we shall see how medieval interpreters addressed these issues.


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