We’ve explained why midrash and aggadah are so vital to our Torah diet. We’ve explained that these stories speak to us from a higher plane of reality. And we’ve also demonstrated that even if you don’t get it, you still do get it—meaning that you’ve still got truth even if you’re clueless to the meaning inside.

We’ve also provided some guidelines to determine whether a story is an anecdote or a parable. Now, let’s take a test case. Let’s look at a story of the Talmud and see what’s meant literally, what’s meant to point to something deeper, and how it could be true for everyone on their level.

Practically Speaking

One of the giveaway signs of down-to-earth literalness is practical application.

Aside from context, one of the giveaway signs of down-to-earth literalness is practical application. If you see a story cited in the determination of a halachah—what to do and what not to do—you know that at least the relevant details must stay tied down to the ground.

Here’s an example. First, the Talmud presents us an opinion on a very practical matter:1

Rabbah taught, “A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”

Fine so far. But then the Talmud proceeds with a relevant anecdote:

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira held their Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for divine mercy, and brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. A year passed, and Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let us hold the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles don’t happen every day.”2

In this case, I guarantee this is not meant to be taken at face value. Rabbah was one of the star sages and respected teachers of the Talmud, well-known for his righteousness. That is implicit in the story itself: if you or I would “plead for divine mercy,” do you think we would be successful at bringing our victim back to life?

Besides, if this were a compulsive behavior issue, would Rabbi Zeira have no concern other than the unlikelihood of a repeat resurrection? How about “I’d feel safer celebrating with someone a tad less bloodthirsty”? And what about Rabbah? He seems to have felt no remorse whatsoever for his recklessness—on the contrary, he’s quite gung-ho about doing the whole thing again.

So, we’re out to find some clues to the deeper meaning of this story. Maybe they weren’t really drunk? Maybe Rabbah didn’t really murder Rabbi Zeira? Maybe these are just allegories with some spiritual meaning?

But not so fast: Think of what this story is out to tell us. Quite obviously, that there are still limits to drinking, even on Purim. Some people just shouldn’t get drunk (or drink at all). After all, the entire story comes framed within the context of the halachah preceding it. In fact, several classic halachic authorities take the anecdote as the Talmud’s rejection of Rabbah’s teaching—better not to get drunk, lest you murder your colleagues and find yourself incapable of resurrecting them.3

That’s the rule of thumb we’re talking about, mentioned by Ramban and others: As soon as you see a practical, halachic application within a story, you know there’s some relevant details here with which you cannot tamper.4

Internally, as well, the story resists a non-literal interpretation: If Rabbah didn’t really kill Rabbi Zeira, then how could he resurrect him? And if he didn’t really resurrect him, then what is Rabbi Zeira’s concern about non-repetitive miracles?

Death by secrets

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms.

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms. Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were drunk, but not from the wine; and Rabbah slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, but not with a slaughtering knife. Everything was good, very good—to the point that Rabbah was ready to go it again. Just not something that us amateurs should attempt without clinical supervision.

”When wine enters,” the Talmud tells us, “secrets come out.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, describes how great sages and holy men would consume much wine and celebrate—and the channels of their mind would open so that the deepest secrets of the Torah would flow out of their mouths.5 He cites stories of the Talmud to this effect.6 Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, in his commentary to the Torah, Ohr ha-Chaim, describes how it was these secrets that emerged through the drinking of wine that carried Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, to death as their souls departed from their bodies in ecstatic divine love.

Now, Rabbah was able to imbibe these secrets and remain alive, as his name implies: rab means “great.” But Rabbi Zeira could not contain such intense light: ze’ir means “small.” So Rabbah’s sharing of mystical secrets created such a great thirst for divine union in Rabbi Zeira’s soul that it departed, and his body was left dead.7 The next day is no longer Purim—no longer a day for escaping all bounds and limitations, but a day for fulfilling your purpose down here on earth inside a physical body—so Rabbah dutifully resurrects his colleague.

The next year, Rabbah had no regrets, and was ready to perform the same clinical procedure on Rabbi Zeira once again—take him for a ride up to heaven and back again the next morning. Or perhaps he figured Rabbi Zeira had enough time to also attain a higher level, and would be able to hang in there.

But Rabbi Zeira, being a humble man, was not so sure. Certainly, he desired with all his soul to attain such divine ecstasy once again, to escape his body and return, to have both heaven and earth in a single 24 hours. But perhaps this time his soul would not be willing to return—or perhaps this time Rabbah would not be capable of a repeat of last year’s miracle. Ultimately, after all, we fulfill our purpose of being while alive on this earth.

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance.

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance. Keep your feet on the ground. If you know you’re the type to be easily carried away when drinking, avoid it altogether.

Only that now the message reaches to many more echelons of society, to each person on his own level—the spiritual mystic with his Zohar, and the teenager with his friends at a party. The teenage drinkers would likely not be too impressed by Rabbi Zeira’s ecstatic expiration of the soul. And even if they were, it’s not really something you want to start talking about with them—who knows, they’ll probably want to try it for themselves.

So, the beautiful woman of secrets peeks out from a small window, concealing what needs to be concealed from the the passerby on the street while revealing what needs to be revealed to the wise-hearted seeker. Each takes what he needs to take, and leaves behind what does not belong to him as of yet.