Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Origin of Aggados

Following is a fabulous extract from a letter by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to Rav Hile Wechsler. He addresses the claim that Aggados do not originate from the Sages, but rather from Sinai:
"When you say that there are many statements made about which one cannot possibly say that they originated only with the Sages... I must say that I agree with you that there are indeed many statements made by our Sages which did not originate from them but which were handed down to them, especially the stories of events of far-off days in the past, e.g., the stories of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, the stories of Moses before he was elected by God, and so on. A proof for this lies in the fact that many stories told by late Amora'im can be found, almost word for word, in the writings of Philo, who lived centuries earlier in Alexandria during Temple times.

"But even here there is no need to assume that these tales originated from Sinai, but, rather, that they were part of an ancient folk tradition. It seems to me reasonable to say that even from earliest times, from the days of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Shem and Ever, such stories were transmitted and eventually were related to Abraham, and he passed them on to his descendants.

"Yet I would not swear to the accuracy of these tales or to equate them with the stories of Moses and the prophets. Possibly, some of them were merely told for moralistic and instructive ends. Even the stories of Abraham, Terach and Nimrod in Ur of the Chaldeans may have been told for homiletical purposes. They may have been constructed on the basis of the view that Abraham recognized his Creator when only three years of age, as derived from the numerical value of the word ekev, and on the basis of the phrase, "I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans." One should not reject someone who adopts this standpoint, for indeed, there are views that hold that Abraham did not recognize God until the age of fifty-two or more. Had those tales been held to be incontrovertible truths, one could not have set his conversion during his later age.

"One need not be surprised at this, for even the Job stories have been described by some of our Sages as not factual but allegorical, personifications of wisdom, virtue and the fear of God."
(Printed in Volume IX of Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pp. 214-215)

Rav Hirsch's words might sound shocking to some, but they are actually completely consistent with the writings of classic Rabbinic scholars. See Rabbi Chaim Eisen's article in Hakira, "Maharal's Be'er ha-Golah and His Revolution in Aggadic Scholarship."


  1. I am prouder than ever to call Rav Hirsch an ancestor. Thanks for posting!

  2. I am not shocked by his statement, as I have read many statements by great Torah scholars to that effect, but just to clarify: is it possible that Rav Hirsch is referring to apocryphal texts or anagignoskomena rather than Midrash?

  3. It it no less notable that R' Hirsch is comfortable with the possibility that aggados like that of Avraham escaping Ur Casdim, are part of a pre-sinai oral tradition, rather than being based on drashos of Tannaim.

  4. Since you linked Rav Chaim Eisen's article at the end, some people reading this may be interested to know that he currently gives a chaburah in Moreh Nevuchim twice a month and leads an Oneg once a month, discussing topics in Jewish philosophy, both in RBSA.
    (Hope it's ok to post that, not overly germane to the topic in the article, but I thought that some of the readers may be interested.)

  5. For more sources, also see the discussion here:

  6. "Rav Hirsch's words might sound shocking to some". I once sent in a photocopy of some pages from the Moreh for my son to show his Rebbi. The Rebbi didn't know where they came from and called it kefirah :).

    1. I was once attacked on a frum site for simply quoting Rav Hirsch's words on secular education.


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