World of the Sages: Halacha and Aggada - inseparable sisters

The Talmud is a work rich in both Halacha (Jewish law) and Aggada (Jewish lore). These two fields are masterfully woven, creating a singular text that stimulates the legal mind while stirring the imaginative soul.

November 23, 2006 07:35
4 minute read.

The Talmud is a work rich in both Halacha (Jewish law) and Aggada (Jewish lore). These two fields are masterfully woven, creating a singular text that stimulates the legal mind while stirring the imaginative soul. Despite this unique feature, over the ages various scholars have valiantly endeavored to isolate one discipline from the other. These attempts have produced great works, though the capacity to truly split these interlocked branches is by no means certain. One such work is the popular Ein Ya'acov, compiled by the Spanish scholar Rabbi Ya'acov ibn Habib (1445?-1515/1516). This work is an assemblage of the non-legal portions of the Babylonian Talmud and some of those from the Jerusalem Talmud. Thus when opening the Ein Ya'acov we can expect to find talmudic Aggada distilled from halachic deliberations and normative conclusions. It is therefore surprising to find in the Ein Ya'acov the talmudic discussion concerning the recital of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) during the prayer service (B. Berachot 12a). In Temple times, the priests' daily prayer service would begin with a blessing, continue with the recital of the Ten Commandments, the reading the three passages of the Shema, an abbreviated Amida and conclude with the priestly blessing (M. Tamid 5:1). This abridged service allowed the priests to go about their daily Temple duties. Yet the Talmud reports that the service was further condensed when the recital of the Ten Commandments was abandoned. This change was prompted by the concern that troublesome heretics would suggest that only the Ten Commandments were the word of God, while the rest of Torah did not have Divine origins and hence no claim on our lives (Y. Berahot 3c). Subsequent attempts to reinstitute the recital of the Ten Commandments were doomed and to this day the key passage is not central to our prayer ritual, though some recommend its recital as an addendum to the service. Looking at this talmudic discussion, it appears to be a bona fide legal text: We have a report of the prayer rite in the Temple, a recounting of events that precipitated a change to this practice and an effective rule for prayer services to this day. Thus we would not expect to find this text in the Ein Ya'acov anthology of aggadic passages. Fortunately Ibn Habib complemented his work with a commentary entitled Hakotev (the writer) and here he responds to this very question. In a personal tone, he begins: "I quoted this passage because of what I learned with regard to faith and particularly with regard to the distinct value of prayer." He continues detailing the non-legal lessons that can be drawn from this halachic passage. First, Ibn Habib notes that the priests, despite being busily engaged in Temple service and hastening to offer the morning sacrifices, nevertheless understood that there was no substitute for prayer. To bolster his contention, he recalls how when King Solomon completed the construction of the Temple, dedicating it with numerous sacrifices offered by the priests, he nevertheless personally bowed in prayer, raising his hands heavenward in heartfelt prayer (I Kings 8). Ibn Habib continues offering other lessons that can be drawn from this passage, lessons that do not fall under the purview of normative law. Thus he justifies the inclusion of a halachic passage in his aggadic compilation. In fact, he appears to acknowledge that despite his gallant attempt to prise the Aggada from the Halacha in the Talmud, such a dissection is a near-impossible task for even in halachic passages, aggadic messages can be drawn. Moving to another area of the Diaspora some years later, the Polish talmudist Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels (1555-1631), more commonly known by his acronym Maharsha, set about writing a commentary on the entire Talmud, dividing it into two separate works - one on the legal portions of the Talmud and another on the non-legal passages. The Maharsha realized that some texts had both halachic significance and aggadic import, thus for the sake of brevity his commentary on such passages was written once with a cross-reference in the other work. Upon completion of his works, the Maharsha, writing in the introduction to his halachic commentary, bemoaned his chosen path: "In truth I see now that the sages of the Talmud made one work of legal and non-legal material, for our Torah is one." He continued explaining that the words of the sages contained morals, wisdom and instruction and therefore could not be torn into two separate disciplines. Thus he regretted dividing his commentary, poetically describing the two types of material as sisters. Nevertheless, the Maharsha tells us that he was unable to repair the damage he had wrought and make his two commentaries into one holistic work. He concludes by requesting that his readers ignore the separation and probe both works: "For [the reader] will see that in the case where this one hides, this one reveals; this one closes, this one opens - and they both will be complete together." Initially the Maharsha's works were published separately. Students had to first classify the talmudic passage as halachic or aggadic before they could find the Maharsha's relevant comment. Later, after his death, the printers in Metz heeded his lament and his two commentaries were published as one work. To differentiate between the two, a slightly larger font was used for the halachic commentary. Until this day, the Maharsha's commentaries are published in this manner at the back of standard editions of the Talmud. Thus we see that Jewish law and Jewish lore are inextricably intertwined. As the Maharsha pointed out: What could be a better example than the Talmud itself, where Halacha and Aggada are masterfully and seamlessly woven together in one text! Attempts to split the inseparable perforce leaves us bereft. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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