Sacred Texts  Judaism  Wisdom of the East  Index  Previous  Next 

The Wisdom of Israel, by Edwin Collins, [1910], at

p. 9


THE extracts from the Midrash Rabboth and the Babylonian Talmud, given in this little vol., are not the work of one or two authors, or of one age. They belong rather to the speech and feeling of a whole nation than to its literature, properly so called. At first, impromptu utterances, or composed to be spoken in the course of sermons, popular addresses, the speeches of honoured rabbis at marriage feasts or in the houses of mourners, or in the rabbinic assemblies of Palestine and Babylon, these and thousands of similar parables, fables, legends, and more or less poetic playings of fancy around the facts of life, or round the popular thought and knowledge of their time and place of origin, lived in the mouths of the Jewish people, like the folk-lore and folksongs of other nations, and were orally transmitted from generation to generation for hundreds of years before being included in the compilations where we now find them, and in other works now no longer extant. Their survival, and their place in rabbinic literature, they owe to the fact that

p. 10

everything was brought into relation with the Bible or with the traditional laws of Israel; so that they became a part of the Midrash or study of Revelation.

The terms Midrash and Talmud mean this study and interpretation of Scripture, especially of the Mosaic Law, together with its application to the changing conditions—mental and material—of the Jewish people. So widely inclusive and so many-sided was this "Study of the Law," which formed the chief mental activity of the Jewish people from the times of Ezra and Nehemiah until long after the final redaction of the Talmud in the 5th century, that there is hardly a single subject of modern secular study that was not dealt with—at least incidentally; for life, as a whole, was meant to be regulated by the Mosaic Law. Says Zunz in his Gottesdienstliche Vorträge, still the chief authority on the subject:—"Whoever applied himself profitably to, the various branches of Midrash was a jurist, a theologian, a man knowing in the ways of the world, a linguist, an orator—and if nothing was to be neglected, he must have no slight acquaintance with history, natural science, and astronomy." As a matter of course, specialization became necessary. But the oldest subdivision of this "Study of the Law" is twofold:—into (a) Halacha—practical rule of life, judicial decisions, the results and finished products of Midrash; and (b) Agadah—that which is spoken, and placed before the hearer, not as binding and having authority to guide him, either in practical life or in belief, but as presenting a vivid picture of ethical truth, of

p. 11

beauty, or of thought, linking the less obvious meanings of Scripture with the newer ideas and with the customs of non-Jewish peoples, and providing for the spiritual or moral needs of the moment.

The Halacha was the transmission of the Mosaic Law in its application to material life; to civil and criminal law, practical hygiene, religious ceremonial, marriage and divorce, practical morality, the daily conduct of individuals and of the nation in every conceivable relation with each other, with the forces of nature, and with other nations of the world. Halacha claimed to be an exact and literal interpretation of the letter and spirit of the law given at Sinai, only modifying its details in so far as traditions dating from Moses and the prophets had provided for such modification, or where, hidden beneath the letter of Scripture, hints could be discovered, showing that its spirit actually demanded such modifications in foreseen changed conditions. Differences of opinion on Halacha must be discussed in the schools that combined the functions of a university and a parliament.

Not so the Agadah. Herein was room, and full liberty, for the freest play of individual thought and fancy. As in Halacha, everything must be referred in some way to the Scripture. But here there was no obligation to interpret the revealed word strictly in accordance with its real meaning. As often as not it is some new light, borne in upon the teacher from his own experience, for which he seeks a reflecting or intensifying medium in the revealed word. As a poet uses natural scenery

p. 12

to illustrate the thoughts or emotions its aspect or his mood suggests, so the Agadists used the texts of the Bible. The Agadata were not the authoritative teachings of the rabbinic schools, but the occasional utterances of individual rabbis and teachers. Remarkable was the freedom with which verses of the Bible were often used to support views in consonance, truly, with the general teaching of the Bible, but not at all contained in the words themselves. The same rabbi would even interpret the same verse in different ways to meet the requirements of the lesson he wished to enforce. No harm was done; for every one knew that this was not peshat—simple literal interpretation—but only drush, or the homiletic use of Scripture.

This method of dealing with Scripture flourished exceedingly among the teachers of the last century B.C. and in the succeeding two hundred years, and appreciation of this fact will help materially in the understanding of the New Testament. For instance, when the verse "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn" is interpreted as an admonition to support the preachers of the gospel, and it is added that "Moses took no care for oxen," this is simply an example of drush, and no one need accuse the New Testament writer of wishing to deny that, in peshat, this verse is one of the many strict injunctions to avoid all cruelty to animals—injunctions that form a prominent characteristic of both the Mosaic Law and the Talmud.

But from every point of view the Hagadic writings, from some of which the following

p. 13

extracts are translated, should prove of the greatest interest to students of the New Testament, and especially of the parables of Jesus.

Trench writes * as follows:—"The parable, as St Jerome has noted, is among the favourite vehicles for conveying moral truth throughout the East. Our Lord took possession of it; honoured it by making it His own, by using it as the vehicle for the very highest truth of all. But there were parables before the parables which issued from His lips." "There cannot be a doubt that our blessed Lord so spake as that His doctrine, in its outward garb, should commend itself to His countrymen. . . . Thus He appealed to proverbs in common use among them. He quoted the traditionary speeches of their elder rabbis. . . . When He found the theological terms of their schools capable of bearing the burden of the new truth . . . He willingly used them. . . . 'Thy kingdom come' formed already part of this Jewish liturgy. . . . Nor less is it certain that the illustrating of doctrines by the help of parables, or briefer comparisons, was greatly in use among the Jewish teachers, so that it might be said of them, as of Him, that without a parable they spake nothing."

Trench quotes several examples of rabbinic parables—among them one dealing, in another way, with the subject of the one I give on pp. 19, 20, "Why the good so often die young." It is answered that God foresees that if they lived they would fall into sin. "To what is this like?

p. 14

[paragraph continues] It is like a king who, walking in his garden, saw some roses, which were yet buds, breathing an ineffable sweetness. He thought, 'If these shed such sweetness while they are yet buds, what will they do when they are fully blown?' After a while the king entered the garden anew, thinking to find the roses now blown, and to delight himself with their fragrance, but . . . he found them pale and withered and yielding no smell. He exclaimed with regret, 'Had I gathered them while yet tender and young, and while they gave forth their sweetness, I might have delighted myself with them, but now I have no pleasure in them.' The next year the king walked in his garden, and finding rosebuds scattering fragrance, he commanded his servants, 'Gather them, that I may enjoy them before they wither as last year they did.'" *

"Again," he says, "there is one of much tenderness to explain why a proselyte is dearer to the Lord than even a Levite. Such a proselyte is compared to a wild goat which, brought up in a desert, joins itself freely to the flock, and which is cherished by the shepherd with especial love; since, that his flock, which from its youth he had put forth in the morning and brought back at evening, should love him, was nothing strange; but that the goat, brought up in deserts and mountains, should attach itself to him, demanded an especial return of affection." Moreover, there are very numerous parallels between the parables scattered through the Babylonian and Jerusalem

p. 15

[paragraph continues] Talmud and the Midrashic writings, and those found in the New Testament.

Much in the same spirit as the last parable cited by Trench, and offering a curious parallel with New Testament examples, is the agadic passage in the Babylonian Talmud stating that "the degree of blessedness of the sinner who repents is much higher than that of the righteous man who has never sinned, because those who have never tasted the sweets of a sinful life have not the same difficulty in abstaining from sins."

But few, if any, of the following extracts have ever been translated into English, and it is a matter of regret to me that the limits of space compel the omission of at least ten times as many equally interesting examples of agada that still remain inaccessible to the English reader in their original Aramaic and Hebrew.

Edwin Collins.


13:* "Notes on the Parables of our Lord," by Richard Chevinix Trench, D.D., Dean of Westminster.

14:* Compare the parable of the figs which are gathered in their due season, p. 18.

Next: Why God Permits Idolatry