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Shiur 23a - Halakha and Aggada

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur 23a - Halakha and Aggada


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Rav Ami and Rav Asi were sitting in front of Rabbi Yitzchak Nappacha.  One said to him: "Let the master teach Halakha;" the other said to him: "Let the master teach Aggada."  He started to teach Aggada and one student did not let him proceed; he started to teach Halakha and the other student did not let him proceed.


He said to them: "I will give you a parable for comparison to this matter: a man had two wives, one older and one younger. Since the younger wife plucked out his white hairs, and the older wife plucked out his black hairs, the two of them made him bald.


"That being the case, I will teach something that will please both of you.  'If a fire goes out and finds thorns' (Shemot 22:6) — even though the fire goes out on its own, the person who kindled the fire must nevertheless pay.  So, The Holy One, Blessed be He, says: 'I must pay for the fire that I kindled. I lit a fire in Zion, as it says: "He kindled a fire in Zion and it consumed the foundations" (Eikha 4:11); I will, in the future, rebuild it with fire as it says: "And I will be for her… a surrounding wall of fire, and I will be the glory in her midst."'  The halakhic part is as follows: Scripture begins with damages caused by a person's property and then concludes with damages caused by the person himself; this teaches that one's fire is considered like one's arrow."

(Bava Kama 60b)


The teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Nappacha, is stymied by a voting deadlock: one student insists on hearing Halakha, matters of Jewish law; the other student demands Aggada, the stories and maxims of a non–legal nature.  After stating his parable, Rabbi Yitzchak offers a compromise, his reading of a verse that incorporates both halakhic and aggadic material.  Let us focus on the parable: is this just a striking image to chide his students lightly, or is there a deeper correspondence between the mashal (parable) and nimshal (moral)?


Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg offers a fantastic reading of this story in his Li-frakim (p. 333). He begins by contrasting the qualities of Halakha and Aggada.  The former represents tradition and consistency: Jews today practice the same daily rituals that our ancestors have been observing for centuries; these rituals provide the bedrock of stability upon which to build our Jewish lives.  Aggada, on the other hand, represents freshness and fiery enthusiasm; while Judaism does have a set of concrete, unchanging beliefs, its philosophical expression often employs the idiom of the time to convey Jewish ideals.  Thus, Aggada will frequently allow for novelty in a way that Halakha does not.  Furthermore, aggadic discussions often inspire youthful enthusiasm in a way that halakha does not.


The older woman represents Halakha, as she insists on the consistency and stability of tradition, the white hairs. The younger woman represents Aggada, as she champions the black hairs, the freshness and vitality of new insights as well as the inner soul of observance.  Rabbi Yitzchak explains to his students that each one has adopted an inappropriately narrow view of Torah.  Lacking Halakha, we will not have the solid foundation upon which to build a Jewish life; the grand ideas of Aggada could not be translated into concrete practice.  Conversely, bereft of Aggada, Halakha would remain dry, soulless and lacking energy.


The closing verse of Rabbi Yitzchak Nappacha's parable emphasizes the need for the integration of the two.  God speaks of a "wall of fire:" the protective wall of Halakha and the burning flame of Aggada jointly provide the framework for a Jewish life that combines tradition with novelty and stability with enthusiasm.