THOUGHTS ON THE DAILY DAF
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Bava Basra, 73
BAVA BASRA 71-75 - Sponsored by a generous grant from an anonymous donor.
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1) UNDERSTANDING AGADAH
QUESTION: The Gemara records a number of extraordinary narratives,
particularly the stories of Rabah bar bar Chanah. When read literally, their
description 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 (RITVA, RASHBA) explain
that some or all of these narratives either were dreams or allegories that
the Chachamim chose in order to teach important lessons in Avodas Hashem.
Even the Rashbam may agree that these narratives are recorded in the Gemara
not only for their literal meaning, but because of the allegorical messages
that they contain. The MAHARSHA, too, while writing that we should not
discount the literal meaning of these stories, 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 our
Gemara do not seem so complex that they would be liable to misunderstanding
if conveyed in a straightforward manner. Why, then, did the Chachamim convey
them in such obscure terms?
(b) One reason the Chachamim taught important lessons in obscure terms is
because the Chachamim sought to teach us that wisdom is acquired only by
those willing to expend the necessary effort. People who will 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 in 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 is 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,
2) AGADAH: HOW MIGHTY IS THE TREE!
AGADAH: Rabah bar bar Chanah related that he saw a frog that was 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 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 the raven went up to rest in the tree,
meaning that B'nei 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," referring 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 says 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
supported Yissachar so that he could be immersed totally in learning Torah.
The verse says, "Etz Chaim Hi la'Machazikim Bah..." which 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," referring 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 no thave believed that wealthy people support Torah in
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.