Yitzchak Blau

The Sugya Approach to Aggada

In Tradition Winter 2021 (53:1), my talented brother R. Yaakov Blau outlines a “sugya approach” to aggadic literature in which the interpreter utilizes other stories and statements of a given sage to fill out a composite picture. This method differs from Yonah Fraenkel who preferred reading each tale as an independent unit and also diverges from Jeffery Rubenstein and Ofra Meir in that those scholars highlight the differences between variant versions of the same story based on context whereas my brother sees the differences as supplementary. He successfully showed the benefits of his method in analyzing the life of R. Elazar Ben Arakh.

In his words: “Now, each source adds an element to the overall tapestry of the narrative. Avot de-Rabbi Natan (14:6) most poignantly presents the initial options of going with the other sages to Yavneh or choosing the more materialistically satisfying Deyomset. Kohelet Rabba (7:15) presents R. Elazar Ben Arakh’s later wavering in his decision and being convinced to remain isolated in place by his wife. Shabbat (147b) has the most graphic account of how severely his Torah knowledge had deteriorated and is the only version that has his peers pray for his learning to be restored.”

I thought of this recently when reading R. Ari Kahn’s The Crowns on The Letters: Essays on the Aggada and the Lives of Its Sages, a work very much in line with the “sugya approach.” The essential evaluative question about this methodology is are the results convincing or forced? Do the myriad of sources integrate smoothly or should they remain distinct objects of analysis?

Kahn’s connections are often reasonable and illuminating. The same students of R. Akiva who died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot due their not treating each other with respect (Yevamot 62b) do not treat R. Akiva ‘s wife with respect when she comes out to greet her husband after their spending years apart (Ketubot 63a). Reish Lakish was a highway bandit before repenting (Bava Mezia 84a), teaches important ideas about teshuva (Yoma 86b) and has the combat skills necessary to rescue captured Jews (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:4).  Beit Shammai was sharper than Beit Hillel (Yevamot 14a) and they maintained an elitist educational policy. In contrast, Beit Hillel represented the majority and they endorsed an open door educational policy (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 2:9).

Two of the connections are particularly clever. Rabban Gamliel dies when, as a result of a mix up about Rosh Hodesh, his sister allows her husband R. Eliezer to fall on his face during prayer (Bava Mezia 59b). Kahn suggests this is comeuppance for R. Gamliel’s authoritarian qualities which were manifest in a dispute with R. Yehoshua about the calendar (Rosh Hashana 24b). R. Elazar Ben Arakh loses his knowledge and mistakenly reads hahodesh hazeh lakhem as haheresh hayah libam (Shabbat 147b). Kahn notes that a deadening of the heart is particularly appropriate for R. Elazar since it was his championing of “a good heart” as the most significant trait that was endorsed by his teacher, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, when R. Elazar was still firmly in the world of Talmud Torah (Avot 2:9).

Some of the connections are not as compelling. I think it less likely that R. Shimon bar Yohai asked whether or not arvit is an optional prayer (Berakhot 28a) because he did not want to interrupt his Torah study for other mizvot. After all, R. Shimon did not interrupt his study for obligatory prayer either (Shabbat 11a). To be fair, Khan introduces that suggestion with “it may be” rather than adopting a definitive tone.

The ability to locate many sources helps the sugya approach and Kahn does an excellent job. He illuminates the life of R. Yohanan ben Torta, critic of the Bar Kokhba uprising, with the help of Yerushlami Ta’anit 4:8 and Pesikta Rabbati 14. He notes emphasis on the evils of theft in the joint learning of Reish Lakish and R. Yohanan found in Kohelet Rabba 3:12.

Beyond the method of integrating sources, Khan offers several good insights. He reads the inability of mountains, rivers, and celestial bodies to help R. Elazar ben Dordaya (Avoda Zara 17a) as a symbolic way of saying that repentance lies beyond the boundaries of the natural order. From a rational perspective, we should be unable to alter the past and yet we can repent. He also explains R. Elazar putting his head between his legs as a reclaiming of the fetal position in an attempt to earn a rebirth.

Regarding the oven of Akhinai, Kahn points out that the miracle uprooting the carob tree rather than causing it to blossom (Bava Mezia 59b) indicates a more negative messaging. R. Eliezer’s first sign conveys that the sages opposing him are destroying Torah, the tree of life. Water, a frequent metaphor for Torah, running upstream and the walls of the beit medrash collapsing further this symbolism. Finally, R. Akiva parallels Moshe Rabbenu (Menahot 29b) and serves as a tikun for the fatal transgression of Moshe.  R. Akiva dies al kiddush Hashem (Berakhot 61b) while Moshe could not enter the Land of Israel because of a lack of kiddush Hashem (Bemidbar 20:12).

A nice feature of this volume is the inclusion of additional source material in the original Hebrew or Aramaic at the end of each chapter. Readers who want to encounter the traditional sources directly and enhance their learning experience are given the opportunity.

One quibble I had was with Kahn’s penchant for bending over backwards to paint the sages in the most favorable light. R. Elazar ben Arakh only left his fellow sages and went to Emmaus because he wanted to do kiruv work and console the Jews living there. R. Yohanan was not trying to insult Reish Lakish when he referred back to his study partner’s violent past during a legal debate. R. Akiva hated Torah scholars during his early years (Pesahim 49b) because those scholars were genuinely arrogant. Rashbi is not bragging when he says that he and his son could support the world (Shabbat 33b, Sukka 45b); he is trying to justify the existence of an imperfect world. It seems to this reader that Kahn is being more pious than Hazal who were willing to portray flawed Talmudic heroes.

That criticism aside, Kahn makes a real contribution towards advancing aggada study in general and the sugya approach in particular. We are fortunate that more serious thinkers currently turn their attention to the aggadic parts of the Talmud.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
Related Topics
Related Posts