In this short essay we will discuss a general approach to Agados of the Talmud. There are many[1] obscure Midrashim in both Talmud Bavli and other works that came down to us from Chazal[2] and while it is impossible to talk about all of them, we will discuss some general approaches.


It is well known that many of the Midrashim of our sages should not be taken literally[3] and are hinting to other concepts below the surface. In fact our sages often purposefully would use the most simplistic language[4] in their Agados that often hide deep concepts[5]. The GR”A writes[6] that the Kabalistic secrets had to be hidden so that those who don’t deserve would not be able to understand them but the side effect of this was that the jesters in every generation would be making fun of Agados saying that our sages had nothing better to do that talk about nonsense and ridiculous things. However a believer will always know that any Midrash contains deep wisdom and hints, even when he did not find an interpretation for a particular Agada. Our sages generally teach: “This is not an empty thing for you” meaning if it looks like an empty teaching, it’s only from you – because you lack true understanding.


The general approach to explain many of the obscure Agados is found in the writings of Maharal, Arizal, the GR”A and his students as well as the Chasidik masters. Our purpose here is not to duplicate their work and especially since many of their words have been already translated into English[7]. We will just offer some examples of dealing with obscure Agados.


The Talmud in Taanis (19b) mentions that throughout history the sun was stopped for three people: Moshe, Yehoshua and Nakdimon ben Gurion. The case of Yehoshua is indeed described in his book (10:12)[8]. The case of Moshe[9] is learned in the Talmud through a hint. The most interesting case is that of Nakdimon. The Jewish people who came to Yerushalaim did not have enough water in the cisterns and Nakdimon bought the water from a certain rich gentile. He told him that if by a certain date the water would not be returned, he would pay him a huge sum of money. When the last day arrived and rain was still not forthcoming, Nakdimon went to pray and Hashem answered him by sending rain and filling the cisterns. However the non-Jew claimed that the water came too late, after the day was over. Nakdimon then prayed again, the clouds cleared the sky and the sun was shining! If we take this Agada literally, it would seem that Nakdimon deserved a greater miracle that most of the Biblical prophets[10]. Certainly one could claim that it only looked like the sun had gone down while in truth it was still day time. Indeed this is not uncommon that during heavy rains it gets very dark early and a similar event is mentioned in Brochos (27b), when people prayed the Shabbos evening prayers and then clouds went away and it turned out it was still day time.


However it is also possible to take the story in the Talmud literally. The reason for this is because the caliber of the miracle depends only on our perception of it. For Hashem it’s not any “harder” to perform a great miracle like “stopping the sun” (or stopping the Earth’s rotation depending on the way one looks at it[11]) than to do a minor miracle like making a drowned hammer float to the surface (see Melachim 2:6:6). The “difficulty” in the miracles of great caliber is that such major changes in “natural laws” that Hashem had set up may cause removal of freedom of choice. However when a miracle happens in a hidden manner, then even if it is as great as stopping the sun it may be performed. Since in this case the sky was covered by the clouds, it would be impossible to verify if the miracle indeed happened and therefore it could be performed even in the late generations.


There are many other examples of various miracles in Gemorah Taanis. We will not be discussing whether they should be taken literally or not but we will discuss one obscure episode where the miracle seemed to have negative results. The Talmud (Taanis 24a) relates that Rabbi Yosi from Yokeret once saw how someone was staring at his daughter from afar. When questioned what he was doing the man answered that even though he knows he could never marry R. Yossi’s daughter, at least he wants to get the pleasure of watching her. Hearing this R. Yossi said that then his daughter should “go back to dust”. If taken literally this Agada would be difficult to believe, did the sage actually curse his own daughter so that she dies? One of the possible approaches to this Agada is that the statement “go back to dust” is meant that she should not be good looking any longer. The truth is that this way he saved both her and the men that may stumble. It is known that often times the women who are not so good looking accomplish much more in life than the ones that are. From early age they get accustomed that their accomplishments will not be judged according to their physical attraction and therefore they strive to reach spiritual heights as well as become capable in various areas. Even though our foremothers Sarah, Rivka and Rachel were praised for their physical beauty, R. Yossi may have known that his daughter is not as modest as the foremothers and for her the good looks are a disadvantage. It is also possible that his daughter was lighthearted and therefore the best thing for her was not to serve as an attraction for men[12].


The Talmud in Megillah (7b) mentions how during a festive Purim meal Rava killed Rav Zeira. He later had to pray to Hashem to bring him back to life. One of the approaches to this Agada is related to a known principle that during meditation and contemplation on Kabalistic secrets one can actually lose the connection to this world[13]. Ben Azai was one of the sages mentioned in the Talmud (Chagiga 14b) who died during one of his meditations[14]. Purim is a day when one can reach very high spiritual level and Rava started exponding on the deepest mysteries. Rav Zeira was so drawn in that his soul separated from his body and did not want to return until Rava prayed for him (Shla Hakodesh, Torah Ohr, Shemos; Ben Yehoyada; Divrey Yechezkel Tetzaveh[15]).


The Talmud in Megillah (11a) describes that Achashveirosh ruled over the entire world[16]. Certainly if we take this literally, he would then be ruling over China, Japan, America and Australia which would be difficult to accept. One may be tempted to say our sages meant the entire “civilized” world but this solution is also questionable since it’s hard to define what is considered civilized. At various times American Indians had quite a developed civilization. Moreover, it is not at all clear Achashveirosh’s rule included even Rome and Greece and these countries were already on the rise and quite civilized[17].


However a simple solution exists once we realize that the “world” spoken by Chazal is the Jewish world[18]. Indeed the Jewish people were dispersed in Achashveirosh’s kingdom and this is why Haman’s decree was even more dangerous than that of Hitler who was never able to conquer all the countries where Jews resided. Obviously besides the simple explanation there are other levels of understanding Chazal’s words. The GR”A explains the entire Agada in regards to the human soul, Vashti being the soul of a wicked person and Ester being the new gilgul when that person is righteous. Achashveirosh represents the yetzer hara – evil inclination. It rules over the entire life of an individual, from Hodu (from the word “thanking” when everyone is thankful when the child is born) to Kush (the blackness of old age). Just as Achashveirosh first ruled over seven provinces, then over twenty and at last over a hundred, so too the evil inclination first conquers the individual for the first seven years while he is young getting accustomed to physical pleasures. Later the person thinks he can continue enjoying himself till he is twenty, since Hashem does not punish one till this age. At last the yetzer hara controls him till he is one hundred.


The Midrash (Tanchuma, Zos Habrach, 4) tells us that Hashem offered the Torah to other nations and they all refused it. The only people who accepted the Torah was the Jews. This seems very strange since there does not seem to be any historic event when the Torah was offered to other nations. The Zohar Hakodesh (3:192a-b) asks explains that the non-Jews were not actually offered the Torah. Rather Hashem had presented the Torah to the angels that guard each nation that knew if their nations would be able to keep the commandments, and each angel refused.


Now that we dealt with some of the Midrashim that we think should not be taken literally we will bring some examples of the opposite: Agados that at first sight we would not take literally and yet they can be taken quite literally and teach us interesting ideas.


It is known that the Tabernacle in the desert was made of wood from acacia trees. The Talmud says (Yoma 72a; Sukka 45b) that these trees are still standing and will always continue to stand. This is very hard to understand literally[19]. If our sages meant that the specie of acacia trees still exist what is so special about it? And if they meant that the very same trees are still standing for more than three thousand years this seems very unlikely. It might be possible that they meant the wooden beams used for Tabernacle are still standing somewhere hidden in the Temple Mount and they survived miraculously without rotting.


However there exists a simple explanation offer in Sefer Hatzomach Vehachai in the Mishna. We know that the beams used to Tabernacle had to be 10 amos long (about 16 feet). The normal type of acacia tree does not have such long and straight trunks that these beams could be made out of it. However there is one type of this tree found in a certain valley new Jordan River that does grow long and straight. This tree is unique in a number ways and fits perfectly for the construction of the Mishkan. It is very light and easy to carry for Tabernacle had to be transported (as opposed to the types of cedar trees used for Beis Hamikdash). It also does not suffer major corrosion effects due to pressure and temperature changes and thus it is excellent choice for beams that had to be inserted into silver bases.


This explains why Yakov Avinu had to transport the seeds of these trees and plant them in Egypt (Tanchuma, Truma 9). This specie is unique in its nature and no similar tree existed on Egyptian soil. This also explains the prediction (Yeshiyahu 41:19) that in the future Hashem will make acacia wood grow in desert land. Even though various types of acacia trees normally grow in the wilderness, they are small and twisted. In the future this special type of acacia trees will also start growing in the desert. Now we can better understand to the words of our sages. As long as the specie of the tree survives, there is a possibility to grow more of it. Our sages may then be saying that the unique specie of acacia tree will actually survive till the end of days unlike the many types of plants and animals that disappeared.


We will bring another example from Gemorah Bava Kama (60b-61a). The Talmud is trying to explain a certain episode from the book of Shmuel (2:23:13-17) when Dovid and his men were attacked by Plishtim and three of Dovid’s mighty warriors did a heroic act by bringing Dovid some water. The Book of Shmuel relates: “And David longed, and said, Oh that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Beis Lechem, which is by the gate! And the three mighty men broke through the army of the Philistines, and drew water from the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David; nevertheless he would not drink of it, but poured it out to Hashem. And he said, Be it far from me, O G-d, that I should do this; is not this the blood of the men who went risking their lives? Therefore he would not drink it. These things did these three mighty men do.” 


Obscure as this passage is, the Talmud (Bava Kama 60b-61a) seems to make it even less comprehensible. It starts by assuming that the “water” that Dovid wanted was to find out a particular law he was not sure about[20]. Plishtim had hidden themselves in stacks of barley which belonged to Jews and Dovid wanted to know certain financial laws concerning these circumstances[21]. Because of the danger Dovid did not want to send anyone to inquire from the sages of Yehudah. However three of the strongest men did the risky task and brought the answer back. In the end the Talmud explains the verse: “But he would not drink of it” to mean that he did not want to quote the teaching in their names, but “he poured it out unto to Hashem” meaning he repeated this halachic statement “mishma degemora[22]”.


At first glance there seems to be no way to understand this Agada literally. However the first impression is incorrect and knowing the circumstances under which the events took place one can in fact gain a lot of understanding of both the words of the prophet and the explanation of our sages[23]. In general many of the mighty warriors of Dovid had joined him in the difficult time when he was running away from King Shaul. The stories mentioned in the end of the book of Shmuel describe different episodes that happened to Dovid and his men at various times and according to Daas Sofrim this particular story happened at the time Dovid was pursued by Shaul. The interesting situation at that time was that Dovid knew that he was anointed to be the next king but Shaul did not know about it and assumed Dovid to be a usurper. Thus Shaul considered his obligation to pursue Dovid and anybody who was suspected to be Dovid’s supporter was punished severely. Meanwhile Dovid tried to do the best for the Jewish people and fought against their enemies while at the same constantly having to run away from Shaul.


Dovid had to be very careful not to bring Shaul’s wrath on anybody in Yehudah where Shaul suspected the people supported Dovid the most being from his own tribe. Indeed many people in Yehudah did hear that Dovid was anointed[24] and secretly considered him their king[25]. Dovid had developed a very close relationship with the sages of his city Beis Lechem whom he often asked his halachik questions. However in order not to endanger them he had developed a system of an excuse that his men used. Whenever he needed to inquire a halacha he would say he wants to drink “the water of the well of Beis Lechem”. This is not too far fetched that one loved his native water he was accustomed to and other water will never taste the same. This way if an informer would tell Shaul that Dovid’s men were seen in the vicinity of Beis Lechem the people of the town would simply say that they came to draw water. Indeed this was true since Dovid’s people would bring the water as well together with the inquired halacha. Using this introduction the obscure Agada can be understood according to its’ plain meaning.


At last we will bring two examples of Agados where additional information is needed and without it it’s impossible to understand. The Mishna (Yuma 6:4) tells us that “Babylonians” used to behave in an unruly manner on Yom Kippur. The Talmud (66b) explains that they were not actually Babylonians but Alexandrians and it’s because “they” disliked them they called them Babylonians[26]. Indeed without additional information it is impossible to understand who disliked these Alexandrians and why they were called Babylonians[27]. Rav Yitzchak Halevi describes in Doros Harishonim (vol 1, pg. 58) that Herod had stationed a certain group of Babylonian Jews in Alexandria to protect the southern borders of Judea. These Jews were quite unruly as often happens to the kinds of people that choose to be army solders. The Jews of Alexandria who had lived there for generations had continued to call them “Babylonians” to distinguish them from the Alexandrian Jews who had good manners[28].   


The Bereishis Raba (64:10) comments on the verse (Bereishis 26:32) “And Yitzchak’s servants came and said: “we found water”. The Midrash first asks if they found water or did not find water and concludes that they did find water. This seems very peculiar for the verse clearly states that water was found, and one may be temped to say this Midrash is hinting to something else. However Rav Reuven Margulios (in Hamikrah V'hamesorah) offers an ingenious explanation. It is known that our sages were forced to translate the Torah into Greek language (see Megillah 9a) but of course any translation of Torah to another language is inadequate. In general the sages were not happy about the fact that now Torah translations would become available with the readers who don’t have contact with our Mesorah and will arrive to various wrong conclusions (see Maseches Sefer Torah 1:8). With time the Greek translation known as Septuagint had been copied by gentiles and many mistakes appeared in it. One of them is the translation of the verse (Bereishis 26:32) that now said: “And Yitzchak’s servants came and said: “we did not find water”. It is to exclude this incorrect translation that our sages said their Midrash. 


May we always deserve to understand the Holy Torah we possess and may Hashem open our eyes to see its’ wonders!





[1] Arguably most of the Midrashim can not be taken at face value and require explanations. Indeed in most cases when the level of Peshat (simple meaning) is concerned, the commentators of Tanach very rarely quote the opinion of a Midrash. Even Rashi who quotes Chazal more than any other commentator still often says that though our sages give an Agadic interpretation of a particular verse, he (Rashi) is going to instead offer plain Peshat. On the other hand Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ralbag and Rashi’s own grandson Rashbam almost never offer Midrashic interpretation of the verses and follow an approach of the plain Peshat that is generally very different from Chazal’s Midrashic interpretation.


[2] Note also that even though the Midrashim that are quoted by Talmud Bavli are known to come from Chazal, not all other Midrashic collections come from the same time period. The majority of works other than the Talmud Bavli were not sealed for a long time and therefore even though the core of the Midrashic collections comes from Chazal, there may be pieces that were added later in the times of Gaonim and Rishonim (see Maharitz Chijus’s collected writings for basic discussion regarding the Midrash Raba, our versions of Tanchuma and the rest of Midrashim). Similarly the Zohar may have still been edited up to the times of Gaonim with more additions to it. Regarding the Agados of Talmud Yerushalmi, Maharitz Chijus claims that at least some of them were added later than the main part of Yerushalmi that deal with halacha.


[3] Most of the early authorities (Rishonim) state that many Midrashim should not be taken literally, some of the famous ones include Rambam and his son Rabbi Avraham, Ritva, Rashba and Raavan (quoted by Tiferes Yisroel in the end of Kiddushin). Some important statement on this subject were made by see by a Sephardi sage R. Avraham Bedarshi printed in Tshuvos Harashba 418 where he discusses which Agados should be taken literally and which should not. The non-literal approach was also taken by the mekubalim: Arizal, Ramchal, the GR”A and others. Note that Maharsha who offered many wonderful interpretations to various Agados still held that whenever possible we should assume that the stories told by Chazal actually happened (see his words on Bava Basra 73b).


[4] One has to get accustomed to the simple language of Agados. Often times a Midrash may sound almost childish but when one begins to think about it he can understand deep concepts hidden under the plain language. One of the many examples may be the spiritual search of our forefather Avraham. The Midrash describes (Sefer Hayashar, see also Zohar 1:86a) how he was looking at the sun and thought it was a god. Later he watched sundown and the moon rose, so he decided this was a god. In the end he concluded that there is One G-d Who rules over everything. While sounding very plain this Midrash is actually hinting at how one can arrive to Monotheism without having any tradition about it. The only way to know about Hashem is either by tradition or by looking into the beautiful harmony in nature. Avraham did not have receive and monotheistic traditions yet (though later he would meet Shem and other monotheists). However he did have an acute mind and realized the tremendous plan and purpose behind everything in the universe. He observed the complexity and interdependence of everything in the world: the sun giving the right amount of light and heat, the moon, the air, inorganic materials supporting life, plants and animals dependants on each other and how all of them fit together. It is hard to know the exact arguments of Avraham; he may have come to realize that plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen while animals do the opposite. The sweet fruits fall from trees only when ripe and ready to eat. Their smell and color attracts the animals, but the hard pit does not get digested, it leaves the animal together with excrements, falls into earth and produces a new tree. Avraham realized that Somebody is guarding the tree not only for its' own sake but to also make it satisfy the animals. The theory of idolatry simply did not explain how many competing powers could agree to work together. Avraham realized that the people around him are making a grave mistake and argued with them at the risk of losing his life (see Pesachim 118a, Bava Basra 91a). Avraham also tried to imitate the ways of the One who created this wonderful world. If He feeds all creatures, Avraham also wanted to feed the hungry. After passing the difficult tests Hashem revealed Himself to Avraham.


[5] At times they would even purposefully add confusing details in order to further hide the true message of their words (see for instance Rashba on 16b; Ramban, Shemos 24:1 in the end). Sometimes our sages spoke in an obscure language even when talking about mundane things. For example a sage would ask for a “bull of judgment with a poor mountain” hinting by the translations of these words Tor-Din with Har-Dal – beets with mustard (Talmud, Eiruvin 53b see there for more examples). Chazal would also utter cryptic phrases hinting to Gematrias (see Darkei Shinuim 6:1). In addition to this there are some general principles that our sages used and the one who does not know them will misunderstand their words. For example, many Midrashim state the certain people are all the same person (see Sanhedrin 82b: he is Zimri, he is Shaul and he is Shlumiel ben Tzurishadai; Sanhedrin 94a: eight names if Sancheriv called; Sanhedrin 101a: he is Nevat, he is Mika, he is Sheva ben Bichri; Sanhedrin 105a: he is Beor, he is Kushan Rishataim, he is Lavan the Aramean; Rosh Hashanah 3b: he is called Darius, Artachshasta and Cyrus). These Agados do not mean that they actually were the same individual. In many cases it’s quite clear from Tanach itself that they are completely different people often living in different generations (see the GR”A in Aderes Eliyahu Devarim 29:11). Rather the Chazal meant that these people all had a certain similarity (see for instance the first  Tosafos in Chagiga 13a) or descendants of each other (see Gur Arye, Bereishis 14:13). At times they were hinting that the earlier person started something the next one completed or that the first person had in potential something that came out in the second individual. At other times they hinted that one person is a gilgul of the other (see for example Shaar Hagilgulim, hakdama 22; Shaar Hapsukim Vayetze and Ki Sisa; Megale Amukos, 33 and 64 regarding Bilaam and Lavan). At last they sometimes meant that one of these people also had the names of the other ones (see Baal Hameor on Rosh Hashanah 3b and the GR”A there). Similarly Chazal use expressions regarding angels to hint to spiritual Hanhaga but the main point of the Agada may be that a particular person was punished or died (Gabriel made a tail for her, Megillah 12b, see Rashba there; Gabriel came and through them on the ground, Snahedrin 19b).


[6] See his words to Tikuney Zohar (52b) starting with words “begin dealea isgalia” and his commentary to the Zohar 2:254b starting with words “Vekuleihu”.


[7] For English reader some recommended literature may be: “The Juggler and the King” (Feldheim), based on the GR”A’s commentary on the Aggados in Bava Basra and Bechoros; Artscroll’s translation of the Maharal’s Be’er HaGolah and also Artscroll commentary to the Talmud which often brings some of these explanations (I am indebted for this list of sources to Rabbi Shlomo Shulman).


[8] Interestingly there are testimonies written in chronicles of American Indians about a day when the sun did not rise. Obviously when the sun was standing above Eretz Yisroel it did not rise in America.


[9] It seems not clear if the sun was stopped for a long time then as it happened in the times of Yehoshua or not.

[10] Indeed, the Ralbag has a different interpretation of even the events that happened during the time of Yehoshua, since he finds it difficult to accept that a miracle of such enormous caliber would not be described in the written Torah to occur in the time of Moshe, so how could this happen in the times of his student? However most commentators disagree with Ralbag and certainly the plain meaning of the verses in Yehoshua is that indeed a tremendous miracle was performed (see Tshuvos Harivash 45, 118). However regarding Nakdimon it would be difficult to imagine that a miracle in his generation was greater than most of the miracles done for Eliyahu, Yeshiyahu and Daniel. Indeed the Talmud implies in many places that the later generations were not deserving of the same caliber miracles as the earlier ones (see Meila 17a, Sanhedrin 98b).


[11] See Zohar Vayikra 10a that the Earth is constantly rotating. Obviously if the rotation of the Earth is stopped instantly, people would be flying by inertia, so we can assume that it was either stopped slowly or that Hashem removed the laws of inertia as well.


[12] There is another story in the Talmud how the same R. Yossi pronounced that his son will die; this should be explained not as a “curse” but rather as a warning which may have been fulfilled if he did not live till the last day he was destined to live.


[13] Rav Arye Kaplan mentions that some Mekubalim used to take an oath to “come back” because they were afraid that being in meditative state the soul may actually stay and not desire to come back to the lower world.


[14] Similarly three of the ten sages of the Zohar that participated in Idra Raba (major assembly when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai expounded deep Kabalistic secrets) passed away in the end (see Zohar 3:144a-b).


[15] See also Chasam Sofer, Nida 23a and Hagahos Yavetz on Megillah for other explanations).


[16] In Megilas Ester this in not mentioned and it starts simply by stating that Achashveirosh ruled over 127 provinces from Hodu (India) to Kush (Ethiopia).


[17] Many of the Greek philosophers lived before and during the time of Achashveirosh and Alexander the Great would conquer the Persian Empire just a few years after Achashveirosh’s reign.


[18] This will also explain the other two kings mentioned to rule over the world: Achav and Nebuchadnezzar.  Indeed in the case of Achav the Talmud learns that Eliyahu would naturally have nowhere to hide from him since all the neighboring countries had good relations with Achav and would give him away, and Eliyahu would generally not want to dwell in a country where there are no Jews.


[19] Indeed some kabalistic interpretations of this statement exist.

[20] Torah is compared to water.


[21] A few opinions are offered in the Talmud regarding the exact halacha he inquired and the answer that he received. One of the possibilities is that he did not know if he would be required to pay for damage of the Jewish field if he burns it while fighting the Plishtim.


[22] In the name of general learning without mentioning the sage who said it.


[23] See Daas Sofrim commentary on the book of Shmuel. In general the author of Daas Sofrim did a fantastic job explaining the Tanach in the light of the words of our sages and knowing the Agados he is quoting one can find many chidushim in his explanations. 

[24] In fact according to some interpretations the two years that Shaul was the King of Israel only includes the time period up to Dovid’s anointment (see R. Yeshaya on Shmuel 1:13:1). After that the years are counted as if Dovid was ruling in Chevron since the tribe of Yehudah basically accepted him and what’s most important Hashem’s spirit now rested on him and not on Shaul.


[25] This explains why Dovid wanted to punish Naval Hakarmeli for rebelling against him. However Avigail stopped him by claiming that he is not a full fledged king yet since his “coins” do not get produced yet.

[26] There is one other place in the Talmud, in Menachos 100a where the “Babylonians” are described as coarse people and again the same statement is made: “they were not actually Babylonians but Alexandrians and it’s because the sages disliked them they called them Babylonians”.


[27] Rashi offers a very strange explanation that the sages of Eretz Yisroel disliked Babylonians.


[28] See also Rav Reuven Margulius in “Mechkarim Bedarkei HaTalmud Vechidosov” where he similarly describes why R. Yochanan Hasandelar was called “a real Alexandrian” in Yerushlami, Chagiga 15b.