Rambam thought a great deal about the role of Aggadah, statements and stories in the Talmud which we have trouble taking literally. Already in his first major composition, the Commentary on the Mishnah, he advanced his theory of the non-literal, metaphorical, symbolic, or allegorical meanings of such statements and stories, accessible only to those ready for their message.
Much ink has been spilled on what he meant and how he interpreted such stories, and I have nothing of substance to add here. I instead want to point out he also sometimes takes as historical fact stories we might dismiss as homiletical.
Our parsha gives us an illuminating example. In verse 49:1, Ya’akov calls his sons to gather at his bedside, to tell them what will happen to them “be-acharit ha-yamim, at the end of days.” In the next verse, he calls them again, this time simply to gather, and then begins to address each of his children (Reuven, you are my first-born son, etc.).
- Shim’on b. Lakish, Pesachim 56a, noticed the unexplained repeat call and the lack of any revealing of the end of days. He infers an omitted drama, where the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, leaves Ya’akov, denying him the ability to speak of the end of days. While we could imagine Hashem simply did not want Ya’akov telling his sons the course of history, Resh Lakish thought Ya’akov worried yesh pesul be-mitati, perhaps one of my sons is unfit, as had been true of Yishma’el for Avraham and Esav for Yitzchak.
To assuage his concerns, his sons say Shema, Yisrael, hear O Israel (meaning he, Ya’akov, as Rashi points out), Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad. To which Ya’akov replies, Baruch Shem kevod malchuto le-‘olam va-‘ed. In imitation of our Patriarch, we say those words as well, despite their not appearing in the Torah.
In Laws of Shema 1:4, Rambam records the story as a tradition we have, this is what happened. Rif did precede him in including it (an interesting topic of its own, since we usually say Rif wrote his work by extracting only the halachic statements of the Gemara and yet has more than a few of these kinds of passages), which might have told Rambam he had to treat this text as halachah rather than aggadah. I think they assumed the story had to be historical since it led to a continuing halachic practice, saying Baruch Shem after the first verse of Shema.
Yet Rambam did not quite take the story as presented. The pesul, unfitness, of a son, in the Gemara, seems to be the kind Yishma’el and Esav modeled, meaning he would worry one of his sons was on his way out of the Jewish people. Rambam’s take seems to differ. He says “we have a tradition (masoret hi be-yadeinu) when Ya’akov gathered his sons at his deathbed, he commanded and encouraged them regarding yichud Hashem (the Oneness of Gd), and the path of Gd which Avraham and Yitzchak had followed.”
Before we go on with Rambam’s version, notice how he has changed the story and its stakes. While Pesachim spoke of Ya’akov wanting to reveal the end of days, Rambam writes he gathered to urge them to hold fast to full monotheism. He may have thought they were the same, being sure his children knew to assert Hashem’s Oneness was how to secure the best future for them. Still, he has to ignore the Gemara’s idea of the Divine Presence leaving Ya’akov.
In Rambam’s version, when he checked for a lack of pesul among his children, it was a more natural outgrowth of his general intent, to warn and adjure them to adhere closely to proper faith. Ya’akov says (in Rambam’s presentation), perhaps among you there is some unfitness, one who no longer stands with me on the matter of Hashem’s Oneness?
Perhaps Rambam thought his interpretation had to be what the Gemara meant, since the sons’ saying Shema Yisrael about any other kind of pesul would be odd. If Ya’akov was worried he had a Yishma’el or Esav among his offspring, saying Shema only responds if we assume anyone who believes in the Shema cannot also be a pasul, unfit. For that to be true, I think Rambam assumed, the central worry of membership in the religion is to be confident of the existence of One Gd, Wholly One, Unique in Oneness.
The lesson is valuable, as is the reminder that even the most rational among us take some of the “stories” of the Gemara as literal historical truth. As should we.