Aggadah and Mashalim - Narration and Parables


Aggadah is a Hebrew word that means narration and includes many themes....there is ethics, taught through fables and sayings, and history related through legends.


Theology and philosophy are important subjects in Aggadah, and there are extensive sermons interpreting the Scriptures. In addition, thought is given to such sciences as astronomy and medicine. There are Aggadot which consist of mystic and messianic speculation, and there are even long passages which discuss the interpretation of dreams. These can be found in Talmudic literature and in many collections of books of Aggadah called Midrash.


There is no folklore that can claim such long and continuous history as the Jewish, that has had such a vast range of productivity in both time and geography. Some writers have expressed astonishment at the marked intellectual and sophisticated character of so much of Jewish folklore. But seen within the context of its social and cultural history there is nothing at all baffling in this. Jews became an intellectual people not because of any innate mental superiority over other peoples, but because of the peculiar nature of their history. They have cherished and preserved their tradition of learning ever since the Age of Ezra the Scribe and the public teachings of the Men of the Great Assembly during the Sixth Century BCE.


Of all elements in Jewish folklore the parable is probably the most distinctly Jewish. The Hebrew name for it is mashal, but mashal has a wider meaning, it also includes fables and brief allegories. In all of the Torah there are only five parables, but they abound with prodigal lavishness in the Aggadah of the Talmud, in the Midrash, and in the books of the Apocrypha which are the non-canonical, extra-Biblical writings.


The attitude of the rabbis of the Talmud to the parable was one approaching reverence. Not only did it make their teachings easier for the students in the academies to understand, but it kept their congregations from nodding. No doubt with intellectual snobs in mind the teachers of the people wrote admonishingly in the Aggadah: "Do not despise the parable. With a penny candle one may often find a lost gold coin or a costly pearl. By means of a trifling simple parable one may sometimes penetrate into the most profound ideas."


 According to the universally accepted tradition it was King Shlomo (Solomon) who "invented" the parable. "The Torah until Shlomo's time," commented Rabbi Nachman in the Aggadah, "was comparable to a labyrinth with a bewildering number of rooms. Once one entered there one lost his way and could not find the way out. Then along came Shlomo and invented the parable which was served as a ball of thread. When tied at the entrance of this labyrinth it serves as a secure guide through all the winding, bewildering passages."


 Taking up the thought, Rabbi Nachman's colleague, Rabbi Hanian, said: "Until the time of Shlomo the Torah could have been compared to a well full of cool refreshing water, but because of its extraordinary depth no one could get to the bottom. What was necessary was to find a rope long enough to tie to the bucket in order to bring up the water. Shlomo made up this rope with his parables and thus enabled everyone to reach to the profoundest depths of the well."


A characteristic of the parable is that it is not just an ingenious and entertaining story but it is wisdom instinct with spirit. It is subtle and imaginative, penetrating to the very heart of an idea or a truth. Wise in the ways of the world and of men, it is mellow in its common-sense understanding of both the heights and pitiful limitations of the human being.


We find in the parable Truth in Gay Clothes the gentle understanding of how hard it is for many people to accept the naked or obvious truth. To become agreeable to some, Truth must first be adorned in attractive clothes. And that, concludes the narrator slyly, is why Parable is always seen in the company of Truth.


Often the parable is a bitter commentary on the perverseness of man's reasoning and conduct. And very often the parable was told, not so much to instruct, as to offer solace to the Jewish people. And, like the method of the Yiddish literary master, Sholom Aleichem, it sparkled with the wit and laughter of courage in adversity.


Aggadah and Mashalim contain parables of infinite beauty and enshrines sayings of everlasting worth.