Thursday, February 23, 2012

Are all midrashim to be taken literally?

Several weeks ago I came across interesting 13th century comments recorded in the Shiltei Giborim [on the Rif] to Avodah Zarah 20. These comments address the question of whether midrashim are intended to be taken literally. You can find a text of the Hebrew - corrected from manuscripts - on-line here, along with some very important footnotes.

Here's a quick translation of the Shiltei Giborim's words:

Know and understand that there are three paths in midrash:

1) Some [midrashim] exaggerate, as Chullin 90b says, "The Torah spoke words of emptiness, the prophets spoke words of emptiness, the sages spoke words of emptiness," such as in Deuteronomy 1:28 "great, fortified cities in the heavens," and Kings I 1:40 "the earth split due to their voice."

There are many of these, like the words of Rabbah bar bar Chanah in Bava Batra 73b; these were exaggeration, for people speak thus.

2) Some of the midrashim present miracles, in which Gd demonstrates His might and displays amazing and shocking deeds, as in Daniel 10:7, "And I, Daniel alone, saw the vision, and the people with me did not see, etc." And Yonah ben Amitai who was swallowed by the fish and spat out. And many others like this.

Many of these are found in the words of the sages, such as Bava Batra 58a regarding R' Bena'ah marking caves, and Bava Batra 58a with a magician digging in the caves of the dead. All of those were miracles, as were performed and revealed to the prophets, but not for other people.

There are many of these, like the deeds of Rabbah bar bar Chana, things which are shocking which Gd showed His pious people who believe in Him wholeheartedly.

3) In some of the midrashim the sages intend to analyze Scripture with any means possible, relying on Tehillim 62:12, "Gd said one thing; I heard two." And so Yirmiyah 23:29, "For My words are as fire; this is the word of Gd. And they are like a hammer, splitting stone." They learned from this that one sentence may lead to many meanings, as explained in Sanhedrin 31a.

Do not be shocked by this; you often see that even a normal person speaks a complex message with two facets, and certainly words of wisdom spoken with Divine inspiration. Along these lines the sages analyze a passage in any way they can analyze it, saying (Shabbat 63a), "The passage does not depart from its simple meaning," which is the essence, and regarding all of the midrashim which are drawn from it, some of them are of the essence and close to the literal read and some of them have a small hint [in the text].

You see what one of the sages taught in Taanit 5b, "Yaakov our ancestor did not die." One sage replied to him, "Did the eulogizers eulogize him and embalmers embalm him and buriers bury him for nothing?" And he responded, "I am analyzing the passage." Meaning: I know he died, but I intend to analyze the passage in any way it can be analyzed, and if the midrash cannot be as it sounds, the passage still offers a hint that one could say "he did not die" as Berachot 18a says, "The righteous live even in their death," for their names and memory and deeds live eternally.

A similar case is seen in Shabbat 30b, in which the exegete taught, "Israel will produce cakes and fine clothing," as it is written, "There will be pisat bar in the land." [See Rashi there, for the connection between pisat and cakes and clothing.] A student mocked him, noting that Kohelet 1:9 says there is nothing new under the sun! To which he replied, "Come and I will show you an example of these items in this world." He went out and showed the student mushrooms. The sage was informing him that the midrash could be explained in a manner which was close to it; the original verse was teaching that the Creator would provide great goodness in the world.

Similar statements occur in other midrashim

They said in Yerushalmi Nazir 7:2, "Are the midrashot amanah? Learn them and receive reward." It is explained that the sages did not state the midrashim as matters of faith [emunah] and as the essence, but to increase the meanings of the text and analyze all of its facets, such that they might include a hint. Links to text and hints are among the paths of Torah study, regarding which it is said, "Learn them and receive reward."

Regarding one who mocks their words it is said (Divrei haYamim II 36:16), "And they mocked the messengers of Gd… and made light of His prophets." In various places we find that they were punished for mocking the words of the sages. Learn from the student who mocked the words of the sage who was analyzing Yeshayah 54:12, "And I will make your windows of gems," and they showed him from heaven, for the honour of that sage, that the words of the sage were accurate and one should not mock them, and the student was punished. (Sanhedrin 100a)


  1. if you consider this world to be a shadow world of a higher real world then the midrashim are literal.

  2. Adam-
    In other words: The midrashim are literal, it's the world that isn't?

  3. Kabalah at its foundation includes a metaphysical doctrine that there are many levels to reality. This is what I assume the midrashim are referring to i.e. the real world; as opposed to this transient world. On the other hand the Rambam probably would not have agreed with this. I wrote a little about the possibility of a reconciliation (by means of the reshash) between the ramabm and the kabalah on my own site because there is no room for this topic in a note.

  4. The shiltei giborim is interesting and thank you for pointing it out --I will have to study it inside in more depth.

    However, I don't understand the hava amina in your "headline" to your post. It's not clear to me whether you are asking: "are [all] midrashim to be taken literally" or "are [any] midrashim to be taken literally." But either way, given the size of the body of work we might define as divrei aggada of chazal, and the number of people that made up "chazal," the different places that they lived and even the different eras that they lived in, how could anyone imagine that there wouldn't be multiple modes of expression, and that each one doesn't have to be understood individually?

    Of course you understand this, and of course the shiltei giborim deals with it this way (i.e. he doesn't ask a yes or no question but rather gives several approaches to understanding different midrashim), but I think that the false dichotomy and the counterintuitive implied hava amina set up in the headline creates confusion among readers (by readers here I mean lomdei Torah in general).

  5. Shmuel-
    I'm not sure I agree, but I'll go along with a change to add "all"

  6. I wrote a similar post called "did the rabbis believe their own midrashim" - one of the points I made, is that in Seder Olam Rabba, you won't find any dates for any events not actually in the bible - a strong proof that the rabbis did not think Midrashim were historical.

  7. Thanks for posting - these sources are incredibly important, as in the popular sphere, I have found that many people do tend to take midrashim literally and miss the entire point. It is also incredibly important that people understand that taking midrashim metaphorically is in fact a traditional method going back to the ge'onim (who were intimately more familiar with Hazal's literary genres and modes of expression than we are today), and is not a modern invention.

  8. Benjamin:

    I think that's a rather weak proof, actually.

    Consider how Seder Olam barely deals with the Second Temple era at all, even though lots of events occurred during it. That is because SO is a midrash whose purpose is to interpret Scriptural verses that deal with dates, and the last of these is just a couple of decades after the building of the Second Temple.

    By the same token, then, it doesn't provide a date for, say, Avraham's ordeal in the furnace - not because they don't really believe it happened, but because there is no verse that gives any kind of date for SO to work with.

  9. The Rambam in his intro to perek chelek says (R. Touger translation) "they understand our Sages' statements literally...the people who follow this approach are truly pathetic-- May God have mercy on their foolishness. According to their conception, they are elevating the Sages, while in truth they are denigrating them utterly"

  10. Melech-
    But does the Rambam wish to be taken literally? (heh)

  11. Rabbi Nachman takes the midrashim of rabba bar bar chana in a kabalistic way. This I think in a surprising way fits with the tamabam that the midrashim are not to be taken literally but rather meant to refer to a higher spiritual world. If we understand the meaning opf the midrash is not the issue. the point is to what aspect of reality do they refer to.

  12. My problem with the fantastic explanations offered in the Midrashim is that they are so oblique that they confuse the readers and blur their faith in the literal words of the Chumash. The worst effect of this confusion is that people just can’t grasp on to any part of the Torahs narrative and they then disappear as believing Jews. As if, throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    We should all be careful what stories we tell because of the effect they may have on other Jews. If you’re not positive of a truth, don’t say it over to others.