QUESTION: The Gemara records a number of extraordinary narratives, including the stories of Rabah bar bar Chanah. When they are read literally, their descriptions of the natural world seem to conflict with the world as we know it. The accounts of the things that Rabah bar bar Chanah saw certainly seem most bizarre. Although the RASHBAM implies that the events actually took place and that the descriptions are real, others (such as the RITVA and RASHBA) explain that some or all of these narratives were either dreams or allegories that the Chachamim chose in order to teach important lessons in Avodas Hash-m. Even the Rashbam may agree that these narratives are recorded in the Gemara not only for their literal meaning but for the allegorical messages that they contain. The MAHARSHA, who writes that one should not discount the literal meaning of these stories, also explains at great length their allegorical meanings. The VILNA GA'ON (in Pirush Al Kamah Agados) and NESIVOS HA'MISHPAT (in Emes l'Yakov) explain that these stories are parables that teach various truths about man's role in this world, about the study of Torah, and about Jewish destiny.

If the lessons contained within these stories are so important, why are they garbed in such obscure expressions and not written explicitly?


(a) Some of these lessons contain abstruse concepts which cannot be readily understood by everyone. If they were to be taught explicitly and thereby made available to all, they would be subject to serious misunderstanding and distortion. Therefore, the Chachamim preserved these lessons in a coded form -- the obscure form of parable and allusion. The keys to their true meaning would continue to be transmitted orally, from teacher to student. In this manner, the Torah's deepest wisdom would be preserved, and at the same time it would be protected from the ravages of misunderstanding. Wise students would be shown the way to understand the true meanings behind the parables, while the inept would take them for nothing more than interesting tales or shrewd advice.

However, not all parts of Agadah deal with esoteric wisdom. There are many parts of Agadah which could be conveyed in ordinary language which are taught, nevertheless, in an obscure manner. Many of the parables in the Gemara here do not seem so complex that they would be liable to misunderstanding if conveyed in a straightforward manner. Why did the Chachamim convey them in such obscure terms?

(b) One reason for why the Chachamim taught important lessons in obscure terms is that the Chachamim sought to teach that wisdom is acquired only by those willing to expend the necessary effort. People who do not exert themselves to understand wisdom do not appreciate its value and certainly will not trouble themselves to live by it. The parables and wordplays are all means of separating the serious students from the uninterested.

(c) The RAMBAM (Introduction to Perush ha'Mishnayos) writes that Agadah was kept obscure "to sharpen the students' minds and to inspire their hearts, and also to blind the eyes of those fools... who, if the full force of the truth were revealed to them, would reject it because of their character deficiencies." When they see that they cannot even understand the statements at face value, they will be humbled and realize that the deficiency in understanding is theirs and not the Chachamim's.

(d) The Chachamim commonly had many intentions behind their sayings. A parable is the most efficient way of conveying all of these levels of meaning at once.

Also, by using parables, the Chachamim were able to add overtones of meaning to their ideas that shed light on other verses or dictums of the Chachamim, which could not be expressed by an ordinary statement. A plain statement could not possibly be laden with such potency of suggestion.

(e) The Chachamim often used the same metaphors to convey (relatively) comprehensible ideas as they used to convey more esoteric teachings. By using these metaphors early on in a student's career, they introduced him to the meanings hidden therein and thus prepared him for the later time when he would be worthy of studying the hidden aspects of wisdom.

In addition, the Chachamim garbed important lessons in the language of Agadah so that these lessons can be remembered even by children and beginners, so that when their minds develop they will be able to analyze the memories of their youth and appreciate their deep messages. (RAMBAM, ibid.)

(Adapted from THE JUGGLER AND THE KING, Rav Aharon Feldman, 5750/1990, Feldheim Publishers, with permission from the author.)



OPINIONS: Rabah bar bar Chanah related that he saw a frog as large as the city of Hegroniya, which was the size of sixty houses. A serpent came and swallowed the frog, and then a raven came and ate the serpent. The raven went and sat in a tree. The Gemara exclaims, "See how great is the strength of that tree!" Rav Papa bar Shmuel said, "Had I not been there, I would not have believed it."

There are a number of approaches to understanding the meaning of this Agadah.

(a) The RITVA explains that the "raven" alludes to the kingdom of Yishmael who overpowered and swallowed numerous other nations before taking power over Eretz Yisrael. The MAHARSHA explains this in more detail and explains that the "frog," or "Tzefarde'a," alludes to the kingdom of Yavan, whose main preoccupation was the development of man's knowledge ("De'ah"; Yavan is referred to as "Tzafir" in Daniel 8:5). The "sixty houses" refer to the sixty nations conquered by Alexander the Great, the leader of Yavan, as the Targum says in Shir ha'Shirim (6:8).

The "serpent" alludes to the kingdom of Edom, which is identified with Esav, who is compared with a snake (Pesichta Esther Rabah 5; see Insights to Kidushin 29:2). Edom conquered Yavan. Later, Yishmael came and conquered Edom. Yishmael is compared to a "Pushkantza," a raven (see Bava Kama 92b). Also, a raven represents cruelty (since it does not feed its young; Eruvin 22a). The Maharsha adds that Yishmael is represented by a female raven, since all of his power comes through the prayers of his mother, Hagar.

The Ritva continues and says that when the raven went up to rest in the tree, that signified that Bnei Yishmael used their power to prevent the Jewish people from learning Torah, which is compared to a tree. "See how great is the strength of that tree" refers to the way the Jewish people continue to learn Torah despite the efforts of Yishmael. Rav Papa bar Shmuel said that he would not have believed that it was possible to survive the efforts of Yishmael had he not seen it for himself. (See Maharsha.)

(b) The VILNA GA'ON explains that the "Tzefarde'a" alludes to a Talmid Chacham, who constantly talks words of Torah like the incessant croaking of a frog. The sixty houses that measure the size of the frog refer to the sixty Masechtos in Shas which the Talmid Chacham has mastered. Sometimes, the Yetzer ha'Ra, represented by a serpent (Nachash ha'Kadmoni), manages to prevent the Talmid Chacham from learning Torah. He argues that the Talmid Chacham must go to work to support his family and that he cannot learn Torah all the time, and he thereby manages to persuade the Talmid Chacham to stop learning. However, there is a Talmid Chacham who can conquer that Yetzer ha'Ra, and that is a Talmid Chacham who is like a raven who "is cruel to his young" in that he does not let the arguments of the Yetzer ha'Ra persuade him that he needs to spend more time providing food to his family, as the Gemara says in Eruvin (22a), "In whom will you find the Torah? In a person who is as cruel to his children and family as a raven," who commits himself exclusively to learning Torah. However, such a Talmid Chacham will not be able to support himself and his family; how will he survive? He will find a tree on which to rest -- that is, a benefactor to support him, like Zevulun, who supported Yissachar so that he could be immersed totally in learning Torah. The verse, "Etz Chaim Hi la'Machazikim Bah," teaches that the people who support Torah are compared to a tree. The Gemara here emphasizes, "See how great is the strength of that tree," a reference to the greatness of those who support Torah. Rashi (Devarim 33:18) writes that Zevulun's blessing in the Torah precedes that of Yissachar because of Zevulun's great merit in supporting Torah with his resources; since he must conquer a greater Yetzer ha'Ra -- the test of parting with his hard-earned money and giving it to Talmidei Chachamim -- in order to do his part, his blessing precedes that of Yissachar. Zevulun has "great strength" -- he is a Gibor because he conquers his Yetzer ("Eizehu Gibor? Ha'Kovesh Es Yitzro"). Rav Papa bar Shmuel adds that had he not been there -- that is, in Eretz Yisrael -- he would not have believed that wealthy people support Torah in such a dedicated manner, because in Bavel, where he lived, the wealthy people did not support Torah scholars, as the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (17a) says, "The rich people in Mechoza will inherit Gehinom" because they do not use their money to support Torah.