Shabbat Parashat Matot-Masei| 5763
From the works of Hagaon Harav Shaul Yisraeli zt”l - The Approach to the Study of Homiletic Sections in Chazal - From Perakim B’Machshevet Yisrael, p. 305
The fundamental assumption of all classical treatments of aggadot Chazal (homiletic sections of the Talmud and Midrashim) is that they deserve and require deep study, just as the halachic sections do. Intensive study is necessary to be able to learn the correct philosophical and ethical lessons and in order to remove the criticism of the light-headed and the non-believers, who dismiss the significance of these sections.
Just as Chazal’s halachic works are built on solid foundations of logic, so too, it is impossible for it to be any different with aggada. Just as in halacha, questions, comparisons and intellectual dissection at times reveal that the true understanding differs from the superficial one, so is it by aggada. There are times that the words are but a parable or are expressions which serve as the covering for ideas which our Rabbis decided to hide and pass on in the form they did.
Certainly, in order to decide which passages are literal and which are figurative, and, if so, what the hidden message is, much care and contemplation are required. In these matters, as well, we must use our classical authorities throughout the centuries as a guide to come to an authentic understanding. In these matters, as well as in halachic ones, there are, at times, significant disagreements, which display different conceptions. We find a major machloket between the Rambam and Ramban on the concepts of the Garden of Eden and Gehenom (Purgatory). We also have a dispute between the Rambam and Ra’avad about the time of Mashiach. These machlokot are very much related to the general question as to how literal or figurative aggadic sources tend to be. What is unanimous, though, is that none of Chazal’s aggadot is frivolous and that their “riddles” are very much a part of the Torah, in which, profound truths can be found with proper study.
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