Midrash is a particular form of Torah commentary, often involving excruciatingly detailed verbal analysis and what might appear to be far-fetched comparisons (based on anagrams, numerology, and the like); for examples relating to the Aqedah (the story of Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac), see here and here. Even if, like me, you’re not religious, it can be a lot of fun if you enjoy a good argument. Exquisite Corpse has an essay by David Schwartz that serves as a lively introduction to the discipline. It quotes a guy named Ben Bag Bag and has punchlines like “R. Pappa turns out to have rejected Rab’s opinion… before Rab rendered an opinion!” But beyond the fun and games, midrash has wider implications, summarized nicely by Schwarz:

Belonging to an argumentative tradition teaches not only that learning occurs through interaction, but that the consequences of learning ought to be further action. Bickering over minute points, rousing criticism, and arguing is a form of saying: “I like what you are saying. Give me more information. Convince me.” If, indeed, Eleazar needs Yonatan, or Hillel needs Shammai, the criticism of the Israelites (or their leaders as representatives of the people) is a sign of God’s need for the debating sages. Were it not for the criticism, the give and take, there would be no Tanach, and no Torah. There would be, to use the rabbis’ circumlocution, no wisdom.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. It will perhaps be further edification for you to learn that immediately following the line in Pirkei Avot from Ben Bag Bag, there’s another one from a guy named Ben Hay Hay.
    The “Ben”s in these cases aren’t diminutives for Benjamin, though; they’re Hebrew for “son”, and indicate that the gentlemen in question are the sons of men named Bag Bag and Hay Hay. I imagine that their fathers must have been greatly relieved to have been referred to as Ben “Something other than Bag Bag/Hay Hay”.

  2. I figured it was probably ‘son of.’ So if he’d been an Arab he’d have been Ibn Baj Baj.

  3. I’ve been wondering about Bag Bag and Hey Hey for a long time. I think they might be imitative nicknames, whether complimentary or not I don’t know. Many of the names of the Talmudic sages are actually nicknames: Shorty, Toothy, Big One.

  4. Bag Bag is actually a sort of nickname. Both Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hay Hay were converts and the jews didn’t want the romans to find out that some non-jews became jews so they gave them nicknames. Bag is spelt in Hebrew Beis, Gimmel, the numerical value of Beis is 2 and the value of Gimmel is 3 which equals 5 together. The word for convert is Ger which is spelt Gimmel, Raish. The numerical value of Gimmel is 3 and Raish is 200 and if you take away the ‘0’s it equals 2 which then together also equals 5.

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