Becoming a Maggid

I am preparing for my certification on January 29 as a maggid (or maggidah, the feminine form in Hebrew).  So I decided to look up what a maggid does in the Torah.  The word first shows up when Pharaoh tells Joseph his two dreams:  one about seven scrawny cows eating up seven fat cows, and one about seven withered ears of grain eating up seven fat ears of grain.

And I spoke to the soothsayers, but none of them was a maggid for me.  (Genesis/Bereishit 41.24)

maggid = telling; an announcer, reporter, explainer, interpreter (from the root verb naggid = to tell)

Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams rings true for Pharoah, so he is a good maggid.

The word maggid does not appear again until the book of Judges, when Samson poses a riddle to 30 guests at his wedding party.  If they guess the answer to the riddle by the end of the seven-day party, he will give them 30 suits of clothing, but if they fail, they will give Samson 30 suits of clothing.  The guests learn the answer by cheating, and Samson, in a rage, kills 30 men in another town and strips off their clothing to give the wedding guests.

… and he took their clothes and he gave the sets of clothing to the tellers (maggidai) of the riddle.  (Judges/Shoftim 14:19)

In this reference, as in the story of Joseph, a maggid is someone who interprets a mystery.  But we get another meaning of the word maggid  in the second book of Samuel, which refers several times to messengers describing events to King David.  A young Amelekite maggid brings David the crown of King Saul, and gives his eye-witness account of how Saul was fatally wounded in battle, and asked someone to finish him off.  The maggid claims he himself did the deed—a mistake, since David responded by having the maggid killed.  Later David explains that the maggid thought he was bringing good news, but David did not see it that way.  This is a good reminder to me that the same story will be received differently by every listener.

Someone bringing news is called a maggid twice during the struggle between David and his son Absalom for the kingship.  One maggid reports to David that the hearts of the Israelite men are turning toward Absalom; David takes this bit of interpretation seriously and flees Jerusalem.  Another maggid reports to David’s general Joab, describing how he encountered Absalom riding a mule, and when Absalom ‘s long hair was caught in some tangled tree branches, his mule kept on going, leaving Absalom hanging by the hair.  Joab takes this comic story seriously, finds Absalom hanging by the hair, and stabs him to death.

The book of Jeremiah also uses the word maggid to mean a messenger who tells the news orally.  But the word  acquires more  gravity in the book of Isaiah, where God calls Itself a maggid.

I told of the first things, and they came to be; now I am a maggid of new things, before they sprout up, I announce.  (Isaiah/Yeshayahu 42:9)

I am God, speaking rightly; a maggid of  uprightness.  (Isaiah 45:19)

I am a maggid from the beginning to the end, and from the origin of things that had not happened.  (Isaiah 46:10)

So in the Hebrew bible, a maggid interprets dreams and riddles; tells eyewitness stories of real events; and (when God is a maggid) foretells the future—or speaks the future into reality.

In the Talmud, a maggid told stories (aggadah, an Aramaic word from the same Hebrew root word as maggid) to communicate subtle truths, while a darshan explained religious laws and technical points in the Torah.  The book that Jews still read at Passover is the haggadah (also from the same root as maggid) and everyone at the table who helps to to tell the story of the Exodus is a maggid.

By the Middle Ages, a maggid was an itinerant preacher who quoted from the Torah and offered his own interpretations, and also told other Jewish stories, in order to inspire uneducated Jews to become more devout.  A darshan gave the equivalent of a sermon at Jewish services, speaking about the weekly Torah portion and finding an inspiring message for the congregation.

The work of the maggid reached its greatest glory in Eastern Europe during the 17th through 19th centuries, when the chassidic movement fostered leaders who combined the jobs of maggid, darshan, and rabbi.

The old Eastern European model of the maggid faded away during the 20th century.  But now a new interest in the maggidic calling is rising, and I know of at least two formal programs to train maggids.  I am one of seven women who are completing the first two-year training program offered by Rabbi David Zaslow and professional storyteller Devorah Zaslow.

In some ways I have already been serving as a maggid.  This blog, now in its third year, is a series of
drashot (or “drashes”,  in colloquial American Jewish parlance):  commentary on Torah portions that explores meanings we can consider today.  I have also been a darshan (one of many!) for my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, for many years.  And my Torah monologues are a creative form of drashot.  The only part of a maggid’s job that I used to lack was Jewish storytelling.  During the last two years, while I have been studying with David and Devorah Zaslow, my drashot have become deeper, and I have learned how tell traditional Jewish stories.  (I always rewrite the stories to make them more interesting or meaningful to me and my audience—but that, too, is part of the Jewish storytelling tradition!)

This January 27-29, in Portland, Oregon,  the seven of us graduating from the maggid program will lead both Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services, using both traditional liturgy and  some creative approaches to prayers, and giving seven drashot on different pieces of the Torah portion for that week, Bo (Come!).  That Saturday evening we’ll tell Jewish stories in a storytelling concert, and on Sunday we’ll have our graduation ceremony.

Because I need to spend all my spare time the next two weeks preparing for the big graduation weekend, I will not be posting any blogs on the first two Torah portions of the book of Exodus/Shemot.  If you would like to read my previous blogs on the Torah portions Shemot and Va-Eira, go to and click on the tab “Blogs by Torah Portion”.

And for my next blog?  Part of my preparation will be writing a four-minute drash on one of the inner meanings of the  locust plague in Bo.  Look for it in blog form at the end of the month!

Meanwhile, I have become more aware that human beings not only need to tell stories, but we need to hear and read stories to help us interpret our own inner stories, to help us interpret our dreams and our mysterious yearnings and the personal histories we are continually rewriting for ourselves.  Ultimately, maybe good stories have the same purpose as good religion and good psychology:  the discovery of meaning in our lives.

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