HOW TO UNDERSTAND AGADOS [Agados: exaggeration]
(Mishnah): The ash-heap was in the middle of the Mizbe'ach. Sometimes, there would be 300 Kor (about 10,000 liters) of ashes.
(Rava): This is an exaggeration.
(Mishnah): They would give the Korban Tamid to drink from a gold cup before slaughtering it.
(Rava): This is an exaggeration.
(R. Ami): The Torah, prophets, and Chachamim all exaggerate:
Chachamim exaggerate in the above examples;
The Torah exaggerates - "great cities, fortified up to Heaven."
The Nevi'im exaggerate - "the land cleaved from their voices."
(R. Yitzchak bar Nachmani): Chachamim exaggerated in three places - the ash-heap (above), the golden vine, and the Paroches (curtain in the Mikdash);
(Mishnah): There was a golden vine by the entrance to the Heichal, supported by poles. Donations of a grape or cluster (of gold) were hung on the vine;
R. Eliezer b'Rebbi Tzadok says, 300 Kohanim were needed to move it.
(Mishnah - R. Shimon ben Gamliel): The Paroches was one Tefach thick. It was made with 72 Nirim (rings through which warp threads pass). Each strand was made of 24 threads;
It was 40 Amos long and 20 Amos wide. It was made from 82,000 threads (or weavers);
Every year, two were made. They needed 300 Kohanim to immerse it.
Megilah 15a (R. Aba): Esther said "v'Cha'asher Avadti Avadti" - just like I was lost from my father's house (orphaned), I am lost to you (as a wife, for now I go willingly to Achashverosh).
Gitin 57a (Ravin): "Hash-m swallowed... all the beautiful places of Yakov" refers to 60 Ribo (600,000) cities of King Yanai in Har ha'Melech. Each city had 60 Ribo inhabitants. Three had twice this amount - the villages of Bish, Shichlayim and Dichriya.
(Ula): I saw Har ha'Melech. It cannot hold even 600,000 reeds!
A heretic: You (Chachamim) lie!
R. Chanina: Eretz Yisrael is called "the land of the deer." Just like a deer's skin cannot cover the flesh once it has been flayed, Eretz Yisrael expands when Yisrael dwells on it, and shrivels when they are not on it.
Perush ha'Mishnayos (introduction to Seder Zera'im): Do not think that the value of Drashos in the Gemara is small. There is great understanding in them. They include wondrous riddles and teachings. When one looks at them with intellect, he understands the great good which nothing is greater than, and reveals Divine matters and truth that Chachamim hid and did not want to reveal. If you look at the simple meaning, you see matters far from intellect that nothing is above them and wondrous matters. This was to sharpen Talmidim and to arouse fools who never arouse their hearts. If they would show them the true radiance, the fools would turn away. We do not reveal secrets to them, for their intellect cannot properly grasp it. A Chacham once said 'teach to me Ma'aseh Bereishis, and I will teach to you Ma'aseh Merkavah.' After they taught him, he did not teach them, for he saw that he was worthy to learn what they knew, but they were not worthy to learn what he knew. One does not make Hishtadlus (efforts) to attain Chachmah. Rather, he prays to Hash-m, and when Hash-m shows him something, he should hide it. He may give a small hint so that someone with a complete intellect can understand it. Therefore, Chachamim made Drashos to distance these matters from a fool's understanding. Chachamim commanded not to mock their words. One who does so is judged in boiling excrement (Gitin 57a).
Rashi (Devarim 1:28): The Torah ("great cities, fortified up to Heaven") exaggerates.
Note: Also the Yalkut Shimoni (805 DH Arim) says so on this verse, but it cites Devarim 9:1, which uses the same phrase. Zayis Ra'anan (on Yalkut Shimoni, 20) explains that in 9:1, the Torah exaggerates. Devarim 1:28 records what Bnei Yisrael said, so this is no proof that the Torah exaggerates. Presumably, Rashi and the Yalkut Shimoni merely explain that the cities were not truly up to Shamayim, but not that we learn from here that the Torah exaggerates.
Rashba (Perushei ha'Agados, Berachos 6a): Chachamim have hidden matters hidden in closed Agados, which appear to fools like idle words, and appear wise to those who understand. Some can be expounded only by those who know secrets. I will not explain them. Others have a hidden part and an exposed part.
Tosfos (Megilah 15a DH k'Shem): Why didn't Mordechai divorce Esther? Then, he would be permitted to remarry her afterwards! I answer that a Get requires witnesses, and he feared lest the king find out.
Rebuttal (Rashba 15a DH Mah): He could have written a Get in his own handwriting. Mid'Oraisa, this is Kosher (even if witnesses do not see it given. This is like the Rif, unlike Tosfos - PF.) This would have saved her from the severe Isur of Arayos, for which it is better to be killed than transgress! Rather, this is an Agada. We do not challenge it.
Shiltei ha'Giborim (Avodah Zarah 6a, citing Ri'az): There are three kinds of Medrashim. Some are exaggeration, like it says in Chulin (90b). Many are like this, e.g. the words of Rabah bar bar Chanah in Bava Basra (73a-74a, in which he recounts giant creatures and bizarre experiences in his travels at sea and in the Midbar). People often speak this way. Some are through miracles, in which Hash-m shows His might, and shows them awesome, astounding wonders, e.g. Daniel's vision, Yonah being swallowed by the great fish, and many like this. There are many Divrei Chachamim like this, e.g. R. Bena'ah used to delineate graves (and he spoke with Eliezer Eved Avraham - Bava Basra 58a). In some Medrashim, Chachamim expounded in every way they could. They relied on "Achas Diber Elokim Shtayim Zu Shamanu." Each verse has many Ta'amim (explanations) (Sanhedrin 34a). Sometimes, even people speak and there are two Perushim of their words. All the more so Divrei Kedushah said with Ru'ach ha'Kodesh have multiple Perushim! The simple meaning is always true (Shabbos 63a); it is primary. Some Medrashim have a source close to the simple meaning, and some have almost a hint. One Chacham expounded that Yakov never died (Ta'anis 5b). He was challenged, for Yakov was eulogized, embalmed and buried! He answered 'I expound a verse.' I.e. I know that he died. Even so, I expound any way the verse may be expounded. If it cannot be like the connotation, there is a hint to say that he did not die. E.g. Tzadikim are alive even in their death. Shabbos 30b says that in the future, Eretz Yisrael will produce buns, silk garments and other bounties. The Yerushalmi (Nazir 35a) says 'these are Medrashim. We expound and get reward. (Really, the Shi'urim are a tradition from Moshe from Sinai.) This shows that Medrashim are not Emunah (truthful) and primary; rather, Chachamim sought to increase reasons for the verses and expound in every way. It says about one who mocks their words "they insulted angels of Hash-m and belittle His prophets" (Divrei ha'Yamim 2:36:16). People were punished for mocking Divrei Chachamim.
Rebuttal (Shlah, Klalei ha'Talmud 17, 395): Heaven forbid to say that Medrashim are not Emunah and primary! If this were true, why is there reward for expounding?! In the Yerushalmi, R. Shimon said that the volume of a lentil of a Sheretz is Metamei because its initial creation is the size of a lentil. We asked that if so, less than a k'Zayis of a Mes should be Metamei, since a Nefel can be less than a k'Zayis, or a Neveilah the size of a pea, for R. Chanina saw a pea-sized calf in a fetal sac. He answered 'I tell you Medrashim. Expound and receive reward.' I.e. R. Shimon's Drashah should obligate similar laws regarding Tum'as Mes and Tum'as Neveilah unlike the Halachah. He answered that we do not challenge Drashos. We expound what there is to expound, and we do not learn to other places. R. Menachem Dei Lunzano explained the Yerushalmi like this.
Poskim and Acharonim
Maharsha (introduction to Chidushei Agados): Every teaching that is not derived from a verse, if it is a bizarre or wondrous act contrary to human intellect, I explain it through a parable for which we can say that the teaching is the Nimshal (what the parable alludes to). This is essential for Agados. Chazal were brief with their words. They appear Stumim (closed, i.e. without explanation). We must be meticulous about Chachamim's words and riddles. Every Chacham will increase and learn more. Many who learn Agados are not meticulous about Chazal's words and do not seek to know the entire matter. They seek to loudly expound, even if their Perush does not match the teaching. The Gemara says about them 'one who is not concerned for honor of his Maker, it would have been better if he were not created' (Chagigah 16a).
Shlah (397): All Divrei Chachamim are truthful in the simple meaning and the secret, except for a small number or places where Chachamim gave parables, e.g. "the trees went to anoint a king over themselves" (Shoftim 9:8). The Beis Yosef says that this is only in Nevi'im and Kesuvim, but we cannot say that the Chumash or Mitzvos are a mere parable. There are only three exceptions that R. Yishmael expounded - "if he will get up and walk on his stick", i.e. healthily, "if the sun shone on him", i.e. it is clear, and "v'Farsu ha'Simlah", i.e. they will clarify the matter.
Shlah (399): Whenever Chachamim said 'R. Ploni opened...', it is like a parable.
Maharal (Chidushei Agados Gitin 57a (p. 112 in the Sefer) DH Shishim): Sixty is the number that represents Berachah of increase. This is why there are 60 letters in Birkas Kohanim. Chachamim always discuss 60 regarding increase, e.g. '60 runners cannot catch one who eats bread in the morning' and 'if one hears another eat, but he does not eat, 60 pains befall his gums' (Bava Kama 92b). The Gemara says that it was proper that Yanai have 60 Ribo cities of this size.
Yabi'a Omer (2 EH 1): In Chagigah (15a), we are concerned lest a woman became pregnant through sitting on semen in a bathhouse. Semak brings a Medrash that Yirmeyah fathered Ben Sira through his daughter in this way. Tashbatz (3:263) cites this from Sefer Ben Sira, and was unsure whether we may rely on it. Semak and Maharil (85a) cited it from a Medrash, and did not express any doubt. They proved from it that the child is Kosher. Tzemach David said that it is a mere exaggeration. It is not found in the Gemara or Medrashim. R. Tam (Sefer ha'Yashar) says that if one is not fluent in Maseches Sofrim, Pirkei d'R. Eliezer, Medrash Rabah and the other Seforim of Agadata, he may not refute the words and customs of early Chachamim.
Piskei Uziel (She'alos ha'Zman 53): The Maharil (CM 1:8) says that Ben Sira was Yirmeyah's son. His semen was in a bathhouse, and entered a woman. The Beis Shmuel supported this from Semak, who says that a woman must be careful not to sit on a sheet that a man sat on, lest she become pregnant, and her child will marry a paternal sibling. Also the Mishneh l'Melech holds that the child is considered the son of the father. There is no proof for this. We hold that we do not learn (Halachos) from Agados (Yerushalmi Pe'ah 2:4). Also, another Agada says that Yirmeyah's daughter became pregnant from her father in this way. Perhaps this is why Ben Sira was called Yirmeyah's son, for grandchildren are like children. The Taz says that perhaps we are only stringent to consider him to be his son, but not to be lenient. The Birkei Yosef (EH 1:13) says similarly.
Yabi'a Omer (2 EH 1:6): The Acharonim, e.g. the Birkei Yosef (Machazik Berachah, Kuntres Acharon OC 51) say that we learn from Agados when there is no contradiction from the Gemara. The Torah calls grandchildren 'children', but people do not.