Sunday 27 January 2019



One of the first questions any student of Midrash[1] is confronted with is: Do I have to believe the expanded Midrashic interpretations which are clearly embellishments over and above the literal meaning of the source text?

In this article, we will look at how various authorities throughout the ages have dealt with this question, which is a very pressing - if not a make or break - issue for many.

The first five examples are taken from R. Moshe Shamah in his Recalling the Covenant.[2]

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

This is how Rav Sherira Gaon, who was the head of the Pumbedita Academy, answers the question of taking Midrashim literally:

“Those points brought out from scriptural verses called Midrash and Aggadah are assumptions. Some are accurate...but many are not...”[3]

Rav Sheria Gaon makes the point that an ‘intelligent’ person will know how to select fact from hyperbole and exaggeration:

“We abide by the principle, ‘According to his intelligence is a man commended’ (Proverbs 12:8).

Then he goes on to deal with Aggadot which he calls the work of the ‘student’s students’ (i.e. a ‘second generation’ expansion of an expansion):

“As to the aggadot of the student’s students...most of them...are not as they [were originally][4] expounded.

Accordingly we do not rely on aggadot.

The correct ones of them are those supported by intelligence and by Scripture.

There is no end to [the exaggeration of][5] aggadot.”

RAV HAI GAON (939-1038):

Rav Sherira’s son, Rav Hai Gaon echoed his illustrious father and wrote:

“...we do not rely on Aggadah.”[6]

But then he extends his words to apply not just to Midrash and Aggadah – but also to certain sections of the Talmud:

 “...regarding what is ensconced in the Talmud, if we find a way to remove its errors and strengthen it, we should do so...”


Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon picks up on this theme of Talmudic Aggadah and writes in his Introduction to the Talmud[7]:

“Aggadah constitutes all the explanations in the Talmud on any subject that does not refer to a mitzvah.

You do not learn from them except what seems acceptable to the mind...and the rest we do not rely upon.”

Rav Shmuel is apparently saying that the prime purpose of Talmud is to expound on religious commandments and practices. Anything other than a technical discussion of mitzvot, must first pass through the filter of the intelligent mind before it is to be considered.


Ibn Ezra writes in his Torah commentary about the words ‘zachor’ and ‘shamor’ which occur alternately in the two biblical versions of the Ten Commandments.

In Exodus, it reads ‘Remember (zachor) the Sabbath...’ - and in Deuteronomy, it reads ‘Observe (shamor) the Sabbath...’[8]

The Talmud says:

“Zachor and shamor were simultaneously said by G-d – [and this was a miracle] because it is not possible for the mouth to say and for the ear to hear [words spoken at the same time]”:

Ibn Ezra comments on this notion and begins by making it clear that he is not being disrespectful to the Sages:  

“...for our minds are meager in comparison to their minds...”

Yet he immediately dispels the commonly accepted notion that both expressions were said simultaneously by G-d!

“...but people of our generation think that their words were intended to be taken literally which is not the case.”[9]

Ibn Ezra suggests his more rational interpretation that:

“...[in Exodus,] when Hashem uttered zachor  (to remember the Sabbath day) everybody understood it to mean in order to observe it, so (in Deuteronomy) Moshe wrote shamor.”

RAMBAM (1035-1204):

Rambam writes regarding those who interpret Midrashim literally:

“They destroy the Torah’s glory and darken its brilliance, they make G-d’s Torah the opposite of what was intended.

He stated in the perfect Torah regarding the nations ‘who will hear all these statutes and say, “What a wise and insightful people this great nation is”’ (Deut. 4:6).

But when the nations hear how this group relates the words of the sages in a literal manner they will say, ‘What a foolish and ignorant people this insignificant nation is.’“

The Rambam’s piece de resistance is his description of the ‘expounders’ who go on to give elaborate explanations about some of these Midrashim which they themselves do not comprehend:

“Most of these expounders explain to the public what they, themselves, really do not understand.

Would that they be quiet or say, ‘We do not understand what the rabbis mean in this statement or how to interpret it.’

But they...expound at the head of the assembly the [Midrashic][10] derashot...literally, word by word.”[11]

Then in Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, he continues:

“...Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Midrashic interpretations literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted, and as the meaning of this precept...I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can accept this.

The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lesson...poetically connected with the...text.”[12]


After sharing these sources with us, R. Moshe Shamah concludes:

As long as the reader or listener realizes that a proposed interpretation of a text is not necessarily its true meaning...and that the highly improbable, often fantastic and sometimes impossible realities portrayed are not literal, no harm is done and a benefit is derived from the lesson.”[13]

Here are some additional references I was able to find as well:

RASHBA (1235-1310):

R. Shlomo ben Aderet, also known as Rashba, wrote a special commentary on certain Midrashim called Perushai HaAggadoth. In it, he too shows that Midrashim were not meant to be taken literally.

VILNA GAON (1720-1797):  
The Vilna Gaon also dealt with various Midrashim in a non-literal manner in a small book entitled 'A Commentary on Many Aggadoth'.

RAMCHAL (1707-1746):

R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as Ramchal, discusses the metaphoric nature of Midrashim in his Ma’amar al haAggadot, or Essay on the Aggadot. He writes:

"...they [the sages who compiled the Midrashim] would commit them to writing so that they [the ideas contained therein] would not be lost to succeeding generations, but [they would do so] in an obscure form or in various riddles."

He also says:

"... only persons of clear mind, who have been well trained in correct logical analysis, will succeed in [understanding] them. Dense individuals and those untrained in correct logic, if they should come across them, would interpret these true and precious concepts as to make them erroneous and harmful."

This is an interesting understanding because while the concept the Midrash is trying to convey may be true, the means of conveying the message is not necessarily true.

MEIRI (1249-1310):

Menachem Meiri, also described as a ‘Maimonidean’, writes in a more direct manner:

אין עקרי האמונות תלויות בראיות של פשוטי מקראות ואגדות וכבר ידעת שאין משיבין באגדה

“...the fundaments of Judaism are not determined by simplistic interpretations of Scripture, or by aggadot, as you know that we do not respond to aggadot.”[14]

MAHARSHA (1555-1631):

R. Shmuel Eidels, known as the Maharsha - in the introduction to his Chidushei Aggadoth – writes that statements of our Sages that contain wild stories which do not make sense are to be explained as parables and metaphors alluding to something else.


R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch clearly writes that Aggadic statements “are not part of Oral Tradition from Sinai”. 

He says we should rely on the views of Rav Sherira Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon, etc.... who taught that we do not accept Midrashic literature unless it appears reasonable. Furthermore, he suggests that those who maintain their insistence on perpetuating the literal meaning of Aggadot may, in fact, be opening the doors to heresy!


A scholarly rabbi, who is an acquaintance of mine, was once giving an explanation on a Tosefot which says that elephants can jump. When one of the students questioned the accuracy of that statement, the rabbi got upset and said; “If Tosefos says elephants can jump – then elephants can jump!

However, according to

“If you were to look at an elephant’s skeleton, you’ll see that they’re standing on their tippy toes...All the bones are pointed straight down...That skeletal design supports the weight, but does not allow for an upwards spring from the feet, which is what would be required for jumping.”


R. Pinchas Rosenthal, who is the dean of Torah Academy of Long Island writes about the way we teach children Midrashim:

“The thrust of my concern lies in my observation, as a rebbe and principal for many years, that most current chinuch [religious education][16], rather than inspiring our students with the beauty and wisdom of Torah, too often teaches them that Torah learning requires that they suspend disbelief, setting aside their intellectual faculties rather than further engaging and sharpening them.

As a result, many of our students harbor secret suspicions (which they are too often afraid to voice because their rebbeim will not welcome questions of this type) that Torah cannot stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and/or feel that Torah is completely irrelevant to their lives as 21st century Jews.”

R. Rosenthal addresses particularly the well-known Midrash which tells of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya ‘extending’ her hand ‘many cubits’ to reach the basket in which baby Moshe was floating down the Nile. He continues:

“As part of the interview into high school, I often challenge incoming students with questions that contrast the P’shat [literal or simple meaning][17] of a Chumash story with its Midrashic counterpart. The reaction is always the same - the student looks at me like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

The other day, the student was an eager young lady named Leah. I asked her the following question: If you were able to go back in time to the moment when Paroh’s daughter saw baby Moshe in his basket, what would you see? Would you see Paroh’s daughter requesting her maidservant to fetch the basket as the posuk tells us or would you see her arm grow 25 feet long like Mister Fantastic and rope in the basket as the Midrash says?

I felt at that moment as if I had asked Leah to choose between her two parents at a divorce proceeding.  She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. Her mind was telling her both versions could not be simultaneously true! Therefore, she was frozen and unable to respond.

Leah was educated in a yeshiva day school. The vast majority of children from the current yeshiva system believe all Midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach. 

Let me fast forward to an Anthropology Class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions there is a legend among the Jews about the daughter of Pharaoh concerning her arm stretching out to retrieve baby Moses. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and the daughter of Paroh had her arm stretched out to save Moshe.

Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The Professor asks her, ‘Do you believe that actually happened?’ Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way and yet she finds that despite 15 years of Yeshiva education, she is unable to do so...

I explained to Leah that the... Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the seemingly miraculous extension of Paroh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to another idea - the great difficulty that she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby...

 Her actions required her to go against her upbringing and the dictates of her father.  This would of necessity create tremendous conflict for any young woman, but particularly for one in her position of prominence in Egyptian society...

The rabbis are teaching us that her emotional shift towards feeling protective of this baby is as much of a miracle as if G-d had extended her arm 25 feet. 

Leah felt as if a load had been removed from her shoulders. At age 14, she was taught for the first time, the relationship between the Torah and the Midrashim.

It is my belief that all teachers should only teach a Midrash if they help the students discover its deeper message.[18]

Here is how one sixteen-year-old young man from our community, who grew up in the Torah educational system, shared his candid views:

“Being six or seven years old, learning Judaism in a Jewish day school, is great. You get to learn about all the amazing stories the Jews went through, like when they could pick fruit from the Red Sea when it parted, etc....

But the issue as a young Jewish learner comes when you grow up a little and expand your mind to the world around you and see with your own eyes the unrealistic writings of the Midrashim – but yet being told to believe in them wholeheartedly.

Our teachers are telling us at a young impressionable age that these stories are legitimate and literal.

This makes us young Jewish learners question the realness of the Torah and Judaism as a religion as a whole.” [MF]


To be clear:

It is my subjective view that Midrashim are often morally and theologically profound (sometimes even subversive - see here).

Additionally, they serve as a useful tool in helping young children stay focussed and interested in their Torah studies. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that if you want your children to grow up smart, then read them many fairy tales. And if you want them to be even smarter, then read them even more fairy tales. This is because they allow the developing mind to sour into the realms of great imagination.

But there comes a point when facts and truth must begin to take over if the person is to learn how to deal with reality. It's difficult to sit in a dentist's chair and trust him if you know he still believes in the tooth fairy.


Most surprisingly - although many religious people do take some Midrashim quite literally - I battled to find primary sources which actually prescribe that position and which encourage us to take Midrashim literally!

The closest I could find was the mystic, Nachmanides (or Ramban) who writes:

‏. מי שיאמין בו טוב. ומי שלא יאמין בו לא יזיק

“Whoever believes in them [Midrashim], good – but he who does not believe in them will not be harmed.”

[And even here, there is a dispute as to whether Ramban only made this statement as part of a debate or polemic where lives could have been at risk - or whether he really meant it.[19]]

Either way (and I would love to be corrected on this) I was astonished that I could not find any sources requiring one to believe unconditionally in Midrashim.

This is noteworthy because, clearly, so many people do take many Midrashim very literally.

Perhaps it may have something to do with Rashi’s commentary on the Torah which every child is taught at a tender age. 

Although Rashi claimed his purpose was only to instruct on the pshat or literal meaning of the Torah text, much of his commentary is not his original interpretation but, in actual fact, selected quotations from the various Midrashim. Possibly around eighty percent of his commentary in Midrash based.

Presented this way, anyone reading Rashi could quickly be led to believe that his vast Midrashic content is indeed part of the Torah narrative!

So Batya’s hand did stretch out to reach Moshe and Yosef’s bones did float to the surface of the Nile prior to the Exodus and so on.[20]

This being the case, although there is no real literature stipulating or enjoining us to follow Midrashim literally, it’s importance has already been successfully and subliminally suggested in Rashi’s commentary which is the de facto popular ‘handbook’ to understanding the ‘basic text’  of the Torah.

Might this have become a contributing factor as to why so many have come to regard Midrashic amplifications as literal and historical pshat?

Perhaps this was why Rambam encouraged his son, Avraham ben haRambam, to study Chumash with Ibn Ezra and not with Rashi?


[1] Biblical and Talmudic interpretation which goes beyond the text and is often an exaggeration and expansion of the literal or plain meaning of the text.
[2] Parashat Beshalach p. 336.
[3] Sefer haEshkol, Hilchot Sefer Torah, p. 60a. Translations by R. Moshe Shammah.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] Ibid. Sefer haEshkol.
[7] Vilna edition, end of Berachot (erroneously attributed to Shmuel haNagid).
[8] Shavuot 20b.
[9] Ibn Ezra continues his deductive thinking:

He applies his logic and challenges the assertion that there was a need to create an extra supernatural component to the account of the Ten Commandments: If ‘zachor and shamor’ were said simultaneously then why is it not written ‘zachor veshamor’ in both versions of the Ten Commandments?

And if it the Talmudic statement was referring to a miracle, it can’t be because:

“...[In] every miracle Hashem performed through Moses there is some remote resemblance in reality that the intelligent will understand, but this claim that Hashem spoke zachor and shamor at one instant is so amazing that it would be more fitting to be written in the Torah [itself and not just in the Talmud][9] than all the other wonders and miracles that were written.”

And if one retorts that G-d’s speech is not like human speech, then:

“ could Israel have understood Hashem’s words? For if a person hears zachor and shamor at the same instant he would not understand either....if we say it was a miracle that zachor and shamor were uttered at the same time, how did the ear hear them?
If we say that also was a miracle...why did the sages not mention that miracle, a greater one than speaking two words at the same time?”

[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Introduction to Perek Chelek.
[12] Guide, Friedlander 1956, 353-4.
[13] Shammai Parashat Beshalach, p.340.
[14] Meiri on Shabbat 55a.
[15] See: “And the daughter of Paroh’s arm stretched out many cubits” and the dangers of Midrashim’, by Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal.                                                                                                         
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Emphasis , R. Rosenthal.
[19] R. Yaakov Kamanetzky (Emet leYa’akov, Bereishit 44:18) maintained it was for the debate - while the Chattam Sofer (Orach Chaim 1:16), and Abarbanel maintained this was indeed his position.
[20] I thank Mendy Rosin for his input in helping me develop this idea.
[21] It is possible that this document is a forgery, although Shem Ton Ibn Shaprut as well as Ibn Kaspi quoted from it. It is printed in Iggerot veShe'elot uTeshuvot (a collection of letters from Rambam).


  1. "A philosophy of nonsense"- Kierkegaard

  2. Very good article. But on one point I disagree. Rambam nwver told his son to read Ibn Ezra. There is a letter by Rambam which says so but without any doubt this letter is a forgery. But of course it's very good to read the Ibn Ezra.

    1. Thanks, for pointing that out, R Igor. According to Tamas Visi: "We see that the anti Miamonidean camp canonised Rashi's commentary in a similar way during the controversies during the 1230s."
      He also does say, as you point out, " a probably forged document, in Miamonides' supposed 'ethical will'to his son..."

    2. Interestingly Visi Continues:"[The Tosafists made a declaration] in 1230 that forbade anyone from relying on anybody's authority in biblical exegesis except Rashi's under threat of excommunication."

    3. How can this be? What about the Perush of Raschbam or Daat Zekenim? By the way who is this Tamas Visi and what are his sources?

    4. Sefer Ginzei Nistarot, vol 4. p.64

  3. Perhaps this was why Rambam encouraged his son, Avraham ben haRambam, to study Chumash with Ibn Ezra and not with Rashi?

    do you have a source for the last 4 words?

    1. It's written in a letter of Rambam which is a forgery. Look at the Shailat edition of Rambams letters on page 698.

    2. i looked it up. even if it were not a forgery, there is no negation of rashi ,in any case, just praise for ibn ezra.

    3. Your'e absolutely right Unknown. However viewing the ensuing conflict between the kabbalists and Rambam, and the apparent promoting of Rashi's commentary by the Tosafists (who were to a large extent Kabbalists - see Mystical Forrays of the Tosafists [post 180]) - also the possibility of Rashi being a corporealist [Hakira journal has two opposing articles on this] and the Rambam anti-corporeal -it is probable that Rambam (or the forger) was referring to Rashi. But I agree it is not conclusive.
      Even if the letter is a forgery, a good forgery is still useful because it speaks to the actual tensions and conflicts at the time otherwise it would never be taken seriously.

    4. Later on in the same text, Rambam (or the forger) explicitly states: " Especially keep yourself away from the words of most of the books by the people of Tzarfat, Francia..."

  4. According to this article (found at: on page 24) Rabbis Shlomo Min Ha-Har, Yosef ben Todros and possibly Rabbeinu Yonah all held that midrashim should be takem literally. on the next page he brings one of the ba'alei tosafos, Rabbi Moshe ben Chasdai Taku, who actually wrote a sefer called katav tamim against rav saadiah gaon and the rambams view on not taking midrashim literally (he goes so far to call SG an ignoramus apparently).
    this article ( on page 25) also brings rabbi shimshon from sens, another of the ba'alei tosafos, who also holds like the above.
    finally, this post ( discusses whether or not the chazon ish allowed for non-literal interpretation of midrashim

    1. Thank you for those references.

    2. Hey,

      Would you consider questioning the strength of HaShem’s name used to bring up Yosef’s bones a logical fallacy? How about questioning Batya’s miraculous arm extension during a period of countless miracles? Is necromancy itself too hard to believe? Do you tend to resort to it being explained as illusionary?
      Would be wise to add those rishonim that agree with the Ramban.
      I’m of the opinion of the ramchal as he would usually be the opinion of the Arizal who would probably follow the Ramban on these types of matters.


  5. My source is from R. Yehuda Leon Mosconi's supercommentary to Ibn Ezra. [Ms London, Montefiore Library, 49, fol 3v (2v):
    "...And now, my son, believe me, for I command you not to bother your intellect with the [study] of other commentaries, for he [Avraham Ibn Ezra] was like [the biblical Avraham in his age. Whatever you read of his words, meditate over it with subtle meditation."

  6. OK, after a little fight with myself, I decided to comment. I love the blog.
    Now, yes I dont believe the Batya midrash. I just dont. BUT here is the thing... I do believe that Yosef bones went up the Nile after Moses throw a golden piece where was written a name of Hashem.

    The thing is this... how can we say that when we were leaving Egypt there was not this kind of Miracles? Yosef bones..etc. If we dont believe in this, then how can we believe in the kodesh hakodashim miracles, beit hamikdash,etc etc.
    I kind of agree with the Geonim, that some were true and some not and the intelling person will chose correctly.

    I would love to hear everyone opinion.
    shabua tov!

  7. Even the Torah stories that have the signature of truth are not true in the historical sense.

  8. I explained to Leah that the... Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the seemingly miraculous extension of Paroh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to another idea - the great difficulty that she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby...????????!
    Rachmana Litzlan!!
    its one thing to quote rishonim and geonim that opine that medrashim arent to be taken lit. but its another thing entirely to supply some modern 21st century pedegogery to maamarey chazal!
    also i never understood why people are so obsessed with all the rishonim that didnt understand chazal lit. you are still going to have to live with the fact that there are many rishonim that do take it lit. and that according to everyone there are many miracles that cant be explained away, so what are you gaining? how are you going to protect leah from the makkos and yetzias mitzrayim and yericho and chanuka?

  9. Thank you Unknown. You do make a valid point and no one can argue that many (most?) do subscribe to that view.

    R. Nachman of Breslov takes it even further by essentially saying that it is good to believe in all things because then the faculty of emunah will never run the risk of being corrupted.

    There is the opposing view (in Rambam if I'm not mistaken) - that emunah is so precious that it should not be wasted on anything other that what we are absolutely required to believe in by the Torah, and that anything more than that begins to border on the superstitious. This way emunah is kept holy and pure almost like the relationship between husband and wife, devoid of any extraneous affairs.

  10. I'm trying to hunt down that R' Hirsch. I used to have a photocopy of it and misplaced it. I'd like to see it inside. Do you know which book it's in?

  11. I should have footnoted it when I wrote it. Apologies by I cant recall. Please let me know if you find it.