Jewish Studies Aggadah
by
Mira Wasserman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0224

Introduction

Aggadah is an imaginative realm of rabbinic literature and culture. It encompasses wisdom texts, narrative, and exegesis in the classical rabbinic works of Midrash and Talmud and in subsequent Jewish literary cultures. Aggadah is commonly defined negatively as “everything in rabbinic literature that is not halakha, or Jewish law,” but new scholarship is increasingly challenging this dichotomous understanding. “Aggadah” is a multivalent category, and the term is used by both scholars and lay people in diverse ways: for some, it designates a literary genre, or a subdivision of rabbinic literature; for others, it refers to the conceptual world and values conveyed in classical rabbinic works; for still others, it refers to legends, myth, and other imaginative discourse in Jewish works. Aggadah ranges over a variety of oral and literary forms, many of which partake of both scriptural exegesis and narrative to varying degrees. While some rabbinic works are exclusively dedicated to Aggadah, Aggadah also appears in rabbinic works that are primarily dedicated to halakhic matters. Sometimes the word “Aggadah” is used interchangeably with “Midrash,” though more often the terms designate overlapping categories. “Midrash” refers to rabbinic traditions of scriptural exegesis; “Aggadic Midrash” treats scriptural materials that are not legally oriented, while “Halakhic Midrash” focuses on the legal portions of the Hebrew Bible. For an overview of works of Aggadic Midrash, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Midrash.” This article focuses on scholarly discussions of Aggadah as a concept and genre rather than as a literary corpus. Aggadah has been defined and evaluated in varying ways in different historical settings. Even as aggadic works continued to be compiled throughout the medieval period, many scholarly elites in rabbinic academies disparaged Aggadah. Aggadah has been a focus of critical academic study since the early nineteenth century. Early scholarship engaged in form criticism, philology, and history. More recent scholarship examines Aggadah’s literary features and cultural contexts. Scholars investigate Aggadah for insights into the values, ideas, and cultures of rabbinic Jewish communities, often focusing on how aggadic traditions reflect Jewish interactions with non-Jewish cultures. This article reflects changing gender dynamics in the field, with early scholarship dominated by males and more recent scholarship characterized by increased gender balance. “Aggadah” is an Aramaicized version of the Hebrew “Haggadah”; both spellings are used interchangeably throughout. For treatment of the Passover Haggadah, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Prayer and Liturgy.”

General Overviews

Aggadah is a broad category that brings together two kinds of rabbinic discourse that are often studied separately: midrash and narrative. Bakhos 2009 is a helpful overview of recent scholarship in both subfields that provides a comprehensive bibliography. Heinemann 1986 is a brief and elegant introduction that emphasizes Aggadah’s literary and spiritual qualities. Shinan 2006 covers similar ground in a less artful but more updated overview that also provides bibliography. Fraenkel 1991 engages extensively with both exegesis and narrative, presenting serious scholarship in a clear and accessible way that makes it a great handbook for students and laypeople. Especially useful is its catalogue of the methods and features of both aggadic midrash and of rabbinic storytelling. Unfortunately, it is only available in Hebrew and there is nothing comparable in English. For other overviews, one must pursue aggadic midrash and rabbinic storytelling separately. The scholarship in these two subfields is organized differently because of differences in the way the textual materials are organized and transmitted. While both rabbinic narrative and aggadic midrash are dispersed through every work of the rabbinic corpus, aggadic midrash is the predominant focus of multiple books in the rabbinic library. These books include works that emerged during the classical rabbinic period and reflect the creativity of Palestinian Amoraim and later works that come from a variety of settings in the medieval period. Much of the scholarship in the field of aggadic midrash focuses on the development of individual works of midrash. Strack and Stemberger 1996 provides an introduction to each individual work of midrash, including its provenance and organization, as well as relevant scholarship, critical editions, and translations. Stemberger 2011 is an updated version in German. Lerner 2006 covers much of the same ground as Stemberger 2011 with the benefit that it revises the standard categorization of midrashic works to better account for new discoveries and research. Hirshman 2006 provides an overview of the general character and concerns of aggadic midrash. Within the subfield of rabbinic storytelling, much of the scholarship offers close readings of individual stories. Rubenstein 2010 is exemplary in offering close readings of eight individual stories; its conclusion catalogues the literary features that typify rabbinic storytelling. Rubenstein 2021 is a succinct and comprehensive review of the state of scholarship on rabbinic narrative in the early twenty-first century.

  • Bakhos, Carol. “Recent Trends in the Study of Midrash and Rabbinic Narrative.” Currents in Biblical Research 7.2 (2009): 272–293.

    DOI: 10.1177/1476993X08099545

    A succinct and comprehensive overview of scholarship of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, including theoretical work as well as critical editions. Provides useful bibliography.

  • Fraenkel, Yonah. Darchei Ha-’agada ve-ha-midrash. Jerusalem: Yad Ha-Talmud, 1991.

    A magisterial two-volume work that covers all aspects of Aggadah. Volume 1 includes introductory materials on the historical development of Aggadah (pp. 3–44) and its grounding ideas (pp. 45–85). Part 2 (pp. 89–232) focuses on principles of rabbinic hermeneutics, while Part 3 (pp. 235–432) develops a poetics of narrative and other literary forms. Comprehensive and accessible, with a detailed table of contents and multiple indexes. In Hebrew.

  • Heinemann, Joseph. “The Nature of the Aggadah.” Translated by Marc Bregman. In Midrash and Literature. Edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, 41–55. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

    English translation of the introduction to Heinemann’s 1974 work Aggadah and Its Development (Hebrew). An accessible and elegantly written introduction to the breadth of Aggadah, with an emphasis on its artistic creativity and spiritual meaning.

  • Hirshman, Marc. “Aggadic Midrash.” In The Literature of the Sages: Second Part; Midrash and Targum Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism, Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature. Edited by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 107–132. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006.

    An introduction to the primary forms and contexts of aggadic midrash that reviews key insights from scholarship.

  • Lerner, Myron B. “The Works of Aggadic Midrash and the Esther Midrashim.” In The Literature of the Sages: Second Part; Midrash and Targum Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism, Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature. Edited by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 133–229. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006.

    Joins an overview of all extant works of aggadic midrash (pp. 133–176) with a more focused study on midrashic works of Esther (pp. 177–229). The overview offers a new taxonomy of aggadic midrash that takes into account key discoveries of recent decades. It updates Strack and Stemberger in offering a more comprehensive presentation of extant midrashic works and their treatment in critical editions and commentaries.

  • Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. Stories of the Babylonian Talmud. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

    For an overview of the literary devices and motifs that characterize Talmudic, see the conclusion, pp. 203–230. The body of the book offers close readings of eight Talmudic stories by the foremost contemporary scholar in the field.

  • Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. “Introduction.” In Studies in Rabbinic Narratives. Vol. 1. Edited by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, ix–xxiii. Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2021.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1jbzcp0.4

    A succinct and comprehensive overview of fifty years of scholarship into rabbinic narrative. Rubenstein organizes key research advances into five main categories and provides notes and bibliographic references to the important advances in each of these categories.

  • Shinan, Avigdor. “The Late Midrashic, Paytanic, and Targumic Literature.” In The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Judaism. Edited by Steven T. Katz, 678–698. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    This short and accessible article engages the full breadth of aggadic forms and provides an overview of relevant scholarship. The focus on the context of Roman Palestine means that more attention is paid to scripturally oriented work and to the Palestinian works of midrash than to Talmudic narrative. Includes bibliography.

  • Stemberger, Günter. Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch. Munich, Germany: Beck, 2011.

    DOI: 10.17104/9783406628757

    A comprehensive introduction to the field of rabbinic studies, with detailed information about recent scholarship on individual rabbinic works. This is an updated version of Strack and Stemberger 1996. In German.

  • Strack, Hermann L., and Günter Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

    Stemberger’s additions and expansions to an earlier work by Strack made this a concise and comprehensive overview of the state of the field of rabbinic literature when it was published in 1996. It remains a helpful guide to identifying the leading scholarship, critical editions, and translations of midrashic works, including more obscure works.

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