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7. Jewish myth and legend

Jewish myth and legend comprises a vast body of stories transmitted over the past 3,000 years in Hebrew and in vernacular dialects, such as Yiddish (Judeo-German) and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), spoken by Jews in various parts of the world. These stories have played an important role in the history of Jewish religion and culture. (see also Index: Yiddish literature)


Apart from their intrinsic appeal, Jewish myths and legends claim attention for three special reasons: (1) Those incorporated in the Old Testament now form part and parcel of the cultural heritage of the Western world and have exerted a profound influence on its literature and art. (2) During the Middle Ages Jews were among the principal transmitters of Oriental tales to the West, so that many familiar Eastern stories can be traced to Jewish compilations. (3) Since these stories have been accumulated through centuries of constant migration, they provide an unrivalled body of "clinical" material for studying the process by which popular tales in fact travel and are transformed.

Not all of the stories are of Jewish origin; many can be readily paralleled elsewhere and are derived from tales the Jews picked up from their non-Jewish neighbours in the lands of their dispersion. Even what is borrowed, however, is usually impressed with a distinctive Jewish stamp, being adapted to point up some precept of the Jewish religion, to illustrate some facet of Jewish life, or to exemplify some trait of Jewish character and temperament. The dominant overall feature of the stories is, indeed, their religious and moral tone; most of them are, in fact, told specifically as part of the homiletic exposition of Scripture. Such stories are taught to Jews from early childhood as a regular part of their religious education. To the tradition-minded Jew, therefore, they are more than mere literary fancies and assume a kind of doctrinal complexion. Biblical characters and events present themselves to him more in the lineaments of later legend than in their original biblical form; while popular notions about heaven and hell, rewards and punishments, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead derive mainly from this source rather than from Scripture itself.

Virtually all the standard types of folktale are represented. Conspicuously absent, however, are pure fairy tales because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to people the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.

A distinction must be made, of course, between myth and legend. In common parlance, a myth is a story about gods or otherworldly beings. Judaism, however, is a rigorously monotheistic religion; hence, in this narrower sense, there can be no original Jewish myths. Nevertheless, from the earliest times, Jews have not disdained to borrow those of their pagan neighbours and then adapt them to their own religious outlook. If, however, the term is interpreted in a larger sense, to mean the portrayal of continuous, transtemporal concerns in the context of particular and punctual events, myth is indeed one of the essential vehicles by which Judaism conveys its message; for it is only when historical happenings are translated into this wider dimension that they cease to be mere antiquarian data and acquire continuing relevance. In Judaism, for example, the Exodus from Egypt is projected mythically from something that happened at a particular time into something that is continually happening, and it thus comes to exemplify the situation and experience of all men everywhere--their emergence from the bondage of obscurantism, their individual revelations at their individual Sinais, their trek through a figurative wilderness, even their death in it so that their children or children's children may eventually reach the figurative "promised land." By the same token, the historical destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem is transformed by myth into a paradigm of the continuing mutual estrangement of God and man, their exile from one another.

Legend, on the other hand, implies no more than a fanciful embroidering of purportedly historical fact. Unlike myth, it does not transcend the punctual and local.


i) Myth and legend in the Old Testament.

The vast repertoire of Jewish myths and legends begins with the Old Testament. Their overall purpose in Scripture is to illustrate the ways of God with man, as exemplified both in historical events and in personal experience. The stories themselves are often derived from current popular lore and possess abundant parallels in other cultures, both ancient and modern. In each case, however, they are given a peculiar and distinctive twist.

1. Myths.

Old Testament myths are found mainly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. They are concerned with the creation of the world and of man, the origin of the continuing human condition, the primeval Deluge, the distribution of peoples, and the variation of languages. (see also Index: creation myth)

The basic stories are derived from the popular lore of the ancient Middle East and can be paralleled in the extant literature of the peoples of the area. The Mesopotamians, for instance, also knew of an earthly paradise such as Eden, and the figure of the cherubim--properly griffins rather than nightgowned angels--was known to the Canaanites. In the Bible, however, this mythical garden of the gods becomes the scene of man's fall and the background of a story designed to account for the natural limitations of human life. Similarly, the Babylonians, too, told of the formation of man from clay, but in the scriptural version his function is to bear rule over all other creatures, whereas in the pagan tale it is to serve as an earthly menial of the gods. Again, the story of the Deluge, including the elements of the ark and the dispatch of the raven and dove, appears already in the Babylonian myths of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. There, however, the hero is eventually made immortal, whereas in the Bible this detail is omitted because to the Israelite mind no child of woman could receive that status. Lastly, while the story of the Tower of Babel was told originally to account for the stepped temples (ziggurats) of Babylonia, to the Hebrew writer its purpose is simply to inculcate the moral lesson that man should not build beyond his assigned station. (see also Index: Mesopotamian mythology, Syrian and Palestinian religion, flood myth, Atrahasis, myth of)

Scattered through the Prophets and Holy Writings (the two latter portions of the Hebrew Bible) are allusions to other ancient myths--e.g., to that of a primordial combat between Yahweh and a monster variously named Leviathan (Wriggly), Rahab (Braggart), or simply Sir Sea or Dragon. The Babylonians told likewise of a fight between their god Marduk and the monster Tiamat; the Hittites told of a battle between the weather god and the dragon Illuyankas; while from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), in north Syria, has come a Canaanite poem relating the discomfiture of Sir Sea by the deity Baal and the rout of an opponent named Leviathan. (Originally, this myth probably referred to the annual subjugation of the floods.) (see also Index: Nevi`im, Ketuvim, Hittite religion)

Ancient myths are utilized also in the form of passing allusions or poetic "conceits," much as modern Westerners may speak of Cupid or the Muses. Thus, there are references in the prophetic books to a celestial upstart hurled to Earth on account of his brashness and to the imprisonment of certain rebellious constellations.

The prophets used such myths paradigmatically to illustrate the hand of God in contemporary events or to reinforce their forecasts. Thus, to Isaiah the primeval dragon becomes the symbol of that continuous force of chaos and evil that will again have to be vanquished before the Kingdom of God can be established on Earth. Similarly, for Ezekiel the celestial upstart serves as the prototype of the prince of Tyre, destined for an imminent fall; and Habakkuk sees in the impending rout of certain invaders a repetition on the stage of history of Yahweh's mythical sortie against the monster of the sea.

2. Legends and other tales.

Old Testament legends often embellish the accounts of national heroes with standard motifs drawn from popular lore. Thus, the story (in Genesis) of Joseph and Potiphar's wife recurs substantially (with other characters) in an Egyptian papyrus of the 13th century BCE. The depositing of the infant Moses in the bulrushes (in Exodus) has an earlier counterpart in a Babylonian tale about Sargon, king of Akkad (c. 2334-c. 2279 BCE), and is paralleled later in legends associated with the Persian Cyrus and with Tu-Küeh, the fabled founder of the Turkish nation. Jephthah's rash vow (in Judges) whereby he is committed to sacrifice his daughter recalls the classical legend of Idomeneus of Crete, who had similarly to slay his own son. The motif of the letter whereby David engineers the death in battle of Bathsheba's husband recurs in Homer's story of Bellerophon and again in the episode of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet. The celebrated judgment of Solomon concerning the child claimed by two contending women is told, albeit with variations of detail, about Buddha, Confucius, and other Oriental sages; while the story of how Jonah was swallowed by a "great fish" but subsequently disgorged intact finds a parallel in the Indian tale of the hero Shaktideva, who experienced the same thing during his quest for the Golden City. On the other hand, it should be observed that many of the parallels commonly cited from the folklore of primitive peoples may be, in fact, mere playbacks of biblical material picked up from Christian missionaries.

Sometimes, worldwide folktales serve in the Old Testament to account for the names of places in Palestine or for the origins of traditional customs and institutions. Thus, the familiar story of the man who has to struggle with the personified current of a river before he can cross it is localized (in Genesis) at the ford of Jabbok simply because that name suggests the Hebrew word abk ("struggle"); and Samson's felling of 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass is placed at Ramath-lehi because lehi is Hebrew for "jawbone." Similarly, a taboo against eating the sciatic nerve of an animal is validated (in Genesis) by the legend that Jacob was struck in the hip when he tussled with an otherworldly being at Penuel (Face of God); and the custom of annually bewailing the vanished spirit of fertility is rationalized (in Judges) as a lamentation for the hapless daughter of Jephthah.

Besides myths and legends the Old Testament also contains a few examples of fables (didactic tales in which animals or plants play human roles). Thus, the serpent in Eden talks to Eve, and Balaam's ass not only speaks but also "flairs" spirits; while in the celebrated parable of Jotham (in Judges) trees compete for kingship.

Finally, in the Book of Job (38:31) there are allusions to star myths concerning the binding of Orion (called the Fool) and the "chaining" of the Pleiades. (see also Index: Job, The Book of)

3. Contemporary interpretations.

The tendency to interpret biblical tales and legends as authentic historical records or as allegories, or as the relics of solar, lunar, and astral myths, is now a thing of the past. For the modern folklorist, their primary interest lies in the fact that they push back to remote antiquity several tales and motifs long known from later literature. For the theologian, however, they pose the deeper problem of distinguishing clearly between the permanent message of Scripture and the particular form in which it is conveyed. Such a process of "demythologization" is today one of the central concerns of religious thought. It involves recognition of the fact that the natural language of religious truth is myth so that the continuing relevance of ancient scriptures depends not on a total rejection of that vehicle but rather on a constant expansion and remodelling of it--i.e., on remythologization rather than demythologization. In the final analysis, the traditional portrayal of God himself is simply a mythical representation of ultimate reality, but that reality transcends the particular images in which it happens to be expressed. At the same time, it must be clearly understood that expressions that can be reconciled with modern Western patterns of thought only if taken as metaphors were literal statements of fact to ancient and primitive peoples. Gods, for example, were not merely "personifications" of natural phenomena but rather the effective potencies of the phenomena themselves conceived from the start as personal beings, much as a modern child might conceive of a railroad engine as "Mr. Choochoo."

ii) Myth and legend in the Persian period.

When, in 539 BCE, the Jews came under Persian domination, they absorbed a good deal of Iranian folklore about spirits and demons, the eventual dissolution of the world in a fiery ordeal, and its eventual renewal. This introduced a new element into Jewish myth and legend. Hierarchies of angels, archangels such as Michael, Gabriel, and Uriel (modelled loosely upon the six Iranian spiritual entities, the amesha spentas), and the demonic figures of Satan, Belial, and Asmodeus (corresponding to the Iranian Angra Mainyu [Ahriman], Druj, and Aeshma daeva) now entered their popular mythology, and there was a preoccupation with apocalyptic visions of heaven and hell and of the Last Days. Unfortunately, no Jewish texts of this genre from the Persian period itself are extant so that these new elements can be recognized only inferentially from their survival in later times, notably in such products of the ensuing Hellenistic age as the Dead Sea Scrolls. (see also Index: Iranian religion, apocalypticism)

The principal monument of Jewish story in the Persian period is the biblical Book of Esther, and this is basically the Judaized version of a Persian novella about the shrewdness of harem queens. The story was adapted to account for a popular festival named Purim, but this is probably a transmogrification of the Persian New Year. Such leading elements of the tale as the parade of Mordecai through the streets dressed in royal robes, the fight between the Jews and their adversaries, and the hanging of Haman and his sons seem, indeed, to reflect customs associated with that occasion, viz., the ceremonial ride of a common citizen through the capital, the mock combat between two teams representing Old Year and New Year, and the execution of the Old Year in effigy.

iii) Myth and legend in the Hellenistic period.

1. Historiated Bibles and legendary histories.

When, in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great completed his conquest of the Middle East, Judaism entered a new phase. The dominant features of the ensuing Hellenistic age were an increasing cosmopolitanism and a fusion of Oriental and Greek cultures. These found expression in Jewish myth and legend in the composition (in Greek) of stories designed to link the Bible with general history, to correlate biblical and Greek legends, and to claim for the Hebrew patriarchs a major role in the development of the arts and sciences. It was asserted, for instance, that Abraham had taught astrology to the king of Egypt; that his and Keturah's sons had aided Heracles against the giant Antaeus; and that Moses, blithely identified both with the semi-mythical Greek poet Musaeus and with the Egyptian Thoth, had been the teacher of Orpheus (putative founder of one of the then current "mystery cults") and the inventor of navigation, architecture, and the hieroglyphic script. Leading writers in this vein were Artapanus, Eupolemus, and Cleodemus (all c. 100 BCE), but their works are known to us only from stray quotations by Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria, early Church Fathers. (see also Index: Hellenistic Judaism, Greek mythology)

Furthermore, the Jews followed a current Greek literary fashion of retelling Homeric and other ancient legends in "modernized," novelistic versions, well seasoned with romantic elaborations. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls has been found a paraphrase of Genesis in which the biblical narrative is tricked out with several familiar folklore motifs. Thus, when Noah is born, the house is filled with light, just as it is said elsewhere to have been at the birth of the Roman king Servius Tullius, of Buddha, and (later) of several Christian saints. When Abraham's life is threatened he dreams of a cedar about to be felled--the same omen said to have presaged the deaths of Domitian and Severus Alexander. (True, the parallels are of later date, but they illustrate the persistence of age-old popular traditions.) The same trend toward fanciful elaboration of scriptural tales is manifested also in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs ("testaments" meaning last wills), in which the virtues and weaknesses of the sons of Jacob are illustrated by moralistic legends. There is also a lengthy paraphrase of early biblical narratives, mistakenly attributed to Philo, the famous Alexandrian Jewish philosopher of the first century CE.

2. Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

The principal monuments of Jewish literature during the Hellenistic period are the works known collectively as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. The former are certain later writings excluded by Jews from the canon of the Old Testament but found in the Greek Septuagint version. The latter are other late writings not included in any authorized version of the Scriptures and spuriously attributed to biblical personalities.

The Apocrypha include several Judaized versions of tales well represented in other cultures. The book of Tobit, for instance, turns largely on the widespread motifs of "The Grateful Dead" and the "Demon in the Bridal Chamber." The former relates how a traveller who gives burial to a dishonoured corpse is subsequently aided by a chance companion who turns out to be the spirit of the deceased. The latter tells how a succession of bridegrooms die on the nuptial night through the presence of a demon beside the bridal bed. Similarly, in Bel and the Dragon (2nd century BCE) occurs the equally familiar motif that fraud (in this case perpetrated in a temple) is detected by the imprint of the culprit's foot on strewn ashes--a motif that reappears later in the French and Celtic romance of Tristan and Iseult. Again, Susanna and the Elders(also 2nd century BCE) revolves around the well-worn theme that a charge of unchastity levelled against a beautiful woman is refuted when a clever youngster ("Daniel come to judgment") points out discrepancies in the testimony of her accusers. The story has a close parallel in a Samaritan tale about the daughter of a high priest in the 1st century CE; while the motif of the clever youngster who surpasses seasoned judges recurs later in infancy gospels and in the tale of 'Ali Khamajah in The Thousand and One Nights.

The most interesting folktale in the Pseudepigrapha is that contained in The Martyrdom of Isaiah (1st century CE?), which tells how the prophet, fleeing from King Manasseh, hid in a tree that opened miraculously and how he eventually perished when it was sawn asunder. A similar tale is related in the Talmud about a certain Isaac ben Joseph and (later) in the Persian epic Shah-nameh(c. 1000 CE) about the hero Jamshid.

iv) Myth and legend in Talmud and Midrash.

1. Midrash and Haggada.

Toward the end of the 1st century CE, through a process known as "canonization," certain traditional Hebrew writings came to be recognized as an authoritative corpus of divine revelation, later called the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The study of them became, henceforth, an essential element of the Jewish religion. This meant that the sacred text had to be subjected to a form of interpretation that would bring out its universal significance and permanent relevance. The process was known as Midrash (literally "searching the Scriptures"), and a leading constituent of it was the spicing of homiletic discourses with elaborative legends--a pedagogic device called Haggada ("storytelling"). Originally transmitted orally, the legends were eventually committed to writing in that vast sea of literature known as the Talmud (the authoritative compendium of early rabbinic law and lore), as well as in later compilations geared to particular books or sections of the Old Testament, to scriptural lessons read in the services of the synagogue, or to specific biblical characters or moral themes (see also above The literature of Judaism ).

The range of Haggada is virtually inexhaustible; a few representative examples must suffice. In regard to biblical characters, both Moses and David were born circumcised; Cain had a twin sister; Abraham will sit at the gate of hell to reproach the damned on Judgment Day; Aaron once locked the angel of death in the tabernacle; Solomon understood the language of animals; King Hiram, who supplied materials for the Temple, entered paradise alive; the flesh of Leviathan will feed the righteous in the world to come.

In such fanciful elaborations of Scriptures, Haggada does not disdain to draw on classical tales. The men of Sodom, it is said, subjected itinerant strangers to the ordeal of Procrustes' bed; the Earth opened to rescue newborn Hebrew males from the Pharaoh, as it did for Amphiaraus, the prophet of Argos, when he fled from Periclymenus after the attack on Thebes; Moses spoke at birth, as did Apollo; Solomon's ring, cast into the river, was retrieved from a fish that had swallowed it, as was that of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, in the story told by Herodotus; the Queen of Sheba had the feet of an ass, like the child-stealing witch (Onoskelis) of Greek folklore; no rain ever fell on the altar at Jerusalem, just as none was said to have fallen on Mt. Olympus. (see also Index: Greek mythology)

Other familiar motifs also appear. Moses qualifies as a husband for Zipporah by alone being able to pluck a rod from Jethro's garden--a variant of the tale told later about the sword Excalibur in the Arthurian legend; David's harp is played at night by the wind, like that of Aeolus; Isaiah, like Achilles and Siegfried, has only one vulnerable spot in his body--his mouth; Job has a magic belt, which relieves his pains.

Legends are developed also from fanciful interpretations of scriptural verses. Thus, Adam is said to have fallen only a few hours after his creation because the Hebrew text of Ps. 49:12 can be literally rendered "Adam does not last the night in glory." Lamech slays the wandering Cain--a fanciful interpretation of his boast in Gen. 4:23-24. Melchizedek is immortal in view of Ps. 110:4: "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." The first man is a hermaphrodite (this notion has analogues elsewhere) because Gen. 1:27 says of God's creation, "Male and female he created them."

2. Fables and animal stories.

Midrash also uses fables paralleled in non-Jewish sources. Aesop's fable of the "Lion and the Crane" is quoted by a rabbi of the 1st century CE, and the tales of the "Fox in the Vineyard" and of the "Camel Who Got Slit Ears for Wanting Horns" likewise make their appearance. (see also Index: animal)

Sometimes, too, material is drawn from medieval bestiaries (manuals on animals, real or imaginary, with symbolic or moralistic interpretations). Bears, we are told, lack mother's milk; hares and hyenas can change sex; only one pair of unicorns exists at a time; there is a gigantic bird (ziz) that reaches from Earth to sky. (see also Index: bestiary)

3. Contribution of Haggada to Christian and Islamic legends.

Several of the stories related in Haggadic literature were later adopted and adapted by Christian writers. Thus, the legend that Adam was created out of virgin soil was taken to prefigure the fact that the second Adam (i.e., Jesus) was likewise born of a virgin; while the story that the soil in question was taken from the site of the future Temple was transformed into the claim that Adam had been molded out of the dust of Calvary. Similarly, the legend that, at the dedication of the Temple, the doors had swung open automatically to admit the ark of the Covenant was transferred to the consecration of a church by St. Basil; and the Talmudic tale that the bronze Nicanor gates of the Temple had floated to Jerusalem when cast overboard for ballast during their shipment from Alexandria was applied to the doors of a sacred edifice erected in honour of St. Giles. (see also Index: Christianity, Adam and Eve)

Nor was it only the Christians who absorbed Haggadic legends. The Qur`an, the sacred book of Islam, likewise incorporates a good deal of such material in its treatment of such biblical characters as Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon.

v) Myth and legend in the medieval period.

1. Jewish contribution to diffusion of folktales.

The Middle Ages was a singularly productive period in the history of Jewish myth and legend. Jews now began to play a prominent role in the transmission of Oriental tales to the West and thereby enhanced their own repertoire with a goodly amount of secular material. Especially in Spain and Italy, Arabic versions of standard collections were translated into Hebrew and thence into Latin, thus spreading the stories to the Christian world. The Indic fables of Bidpai, for example, were rendered into Hebrew from the 8th-century Arabic version of 'Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa', and from this Hebrew rendering there subsequently developed, in the 12th century, John of Capua's Directorium humanae vitae("Guide for Human Life"), one of the most celebrated repertoires of moralistic tales (exempla) used by Christian preachers. So, too, the famous Senbad-nameh ("Fables of Sinbad"; one of the sources, incidentally, of Boccaccio's Decameron) was rendered from Arabic into Hebrew and thence into Latin; while the renowned romance of Barlaam and Josaphat--itself a Christian adaptation of tales about the Buddha--found its Jewish counterpart in a compilation entitled The Prince and the Dervish, adapted, from an Arabic text, by Abraham ben Samuel ibn Hisdai, a leader of Spanish Jewry in the 13th century. (see also Index: "Barlaam and Josaphat")

2. Hebrew versions of medieval romances.

Here, too, however, the traffic moved in both directions: Hebrew translations were also made from Latin and other European languages. There are, for instance, several Hebrew adaptations of the Alexander Romancebased mainly (though not exclusively) on Leo of Naples' Latin rendering of the Greek original by Callisthenes. The central theme is, of course, the exploits of the great Macedonian conqueror, and the narrative is spiced with fanciful accounts of his adventures in foreign lands and of the outlandish peoples he encounters. There is likewise a Hebrew reworking of the Arthurian legend, in the form of a secular sermon in which Arthurian and biblical scenes are blithely mixed together. Finally, there is a Hebrew Ysopet (the common title for a medieval version of Aesop) that shares several of its fables with the famous collection made by Marie de France in the late 12th century.

3. Jewish contributions to Christian and Islamic tales.

Moreover, apart from these Hebrew translations of Oriental and European works, a good deal of earlier haggadic material is embodied in the Disciplina clericalis of Peter Alfonsi, a baptized Jew of Aragon originally known as Moses Sephardi. This book, composed in the 12th century, is the oldest European collection of novellas and served as a primary source for the celebrated Gesta Romanorum("Deeds of the Romans") of the same period--a major quarry for European storytellers, poets, and dramatists for many centuries.

Haggadic material percolated also to Arabic writers during this period. Not only does the Qur`an incorporate such material but also the Egyptian recension of The Thousand and One Nights seems to have drawn extensively on Jewish sources, as, for instance, in its tales of "The Sultan and His Three Sons," "The Angel of Death," "Alexander and the Pious Man," and the legend of Baliqiyah.

4. Major medieval Hebrew collections.

Between the 11th and 13th century the tendency developed in Europe to compile, both for entertainment and edification, comprehensive collections of tales and fables; standard examples are the British Gesta Romanorum, the Spanish El novellino, and the aforementioned Disciplina clericalis. Among Jews similar collections were made, especially in Morocco as well as in Moorish Spain. Two of the most important are The Book of Comfort by Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim of al-Qayrawan (11th century) and The Book of Delight by Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara of Spain (end of the 12th century). The former, composed in Judeo-Arabic, is a collection of some 60 moralizing tales designed to comfort the author's father-in-law on the loss of a son. It belongs to a well-known genre of Arabic literature, derives mainly from Arabic sources, and is permeated by a preoccupation with divine justice, typical of the Mu'tazilite school of Islamic theology. It was later translated into Hebrew. The Book of Delight consists of 15 tales, largely about the wiles of women, exchanged between two travelling companions--a form of cadre, or "enclosing tale," adopted on a more extensive scale by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, which dates from the same period. Typical is the tale of the "Silversmith and His Wife," which relates how a craftsman, persuaded by his greedy wife to make a statue of a princess, gets his hands cut off by the king for violating the Islamic law against making images, while his wife reaps rich rewards from the flattered princess. Although most of the stories are taken from Arabic sources, some indeed find parallels in rabbinic literature. To the latter category belongs, for instance, the famous tale of the matron of Ephesus, who, while keeping vigil over her husband's tomb, at the same time engages in an intrigue with a guard posted nearby to watch over the corpses of certain crucified robbers. When, during one of their trysts, one of the corpses is stolen and her lover therefore faces punishment, the shrewd woman exhumes the body of her husband and substitutes it. This tale is found already in the Satyricon of Petronius and was later used by Voltaire in his Zadig and by the 20th-century English playwright Christopher Fry in his A Phoenix Too Frequent.

Of the same genre but deriving mainly from west European rather than Arabic sources are the Mishle shu'alim ("Fox Fables") of Berechiah ha-Nakdan (the Punctuator), who may have lived in England toward the end of the 12th century. About half of these tales recur in Marie de France's Ysopet, and only one of them is of specifically Jewish origin. Berechiah's work was translated into Latin and thence became a favourite repertoire of European storytellers.

Among anonymous compendiums of this type is The Alphabet of Ben Sira, extant in two recensions, probably of the 11th century. This is basically a collection of proverbs attributed to the famous sage of the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach). In one of the recensions they are illustrated by appropriate tales. The author is represented as an infant prodigy who performs much the same feats of sapience as are attributed to Jesus in some of the Infancy Gospels.

5. Medieval historiated Bibles and legendary histories.

Two other developments mark the history of Jewish myth and legend during the Middle Ages. The first was a revival of the Hellenistic vogue of compiling large-scale compendiums in which the history of the Jews was "integrated," in legendary fashion, with that of the world in general and especially with classical traditions. Two major works of this kind, both composed (apparently) in Italy during the 9th century, are (1) Josipponcomposed by a certain Ben Gorion, which presents a fanciful record from the creation onward and contains numerous references to foreign nations; and (2) the Book of Jashara colourful account from Adam to Joshua, named for the ancient book of heroic songs and sagas mentioned in the Bible (Josh. 10:13; II Sam. 1:18). There is also a voluminous Chronicles of Jerahmeel, written in the Rhineland in the 14th century. This draws largely on Pseudo-Philo's earlier compilation, mentioned above, and is of special interest because it includes Hebrew and Aramaic versions of certain books of the Apocrypha.

6. Medieval Haggadic compendiums.

The other development was the gathering of Haggadic legends and tales into comprehensive, systematic compendiums. Works of this kind are (1) Yalqut Shime'oni ("The Collection of Simeon"), attributed to a certain Rabbi Simeon of Frankfurt am Main; (2) Midrash ha-gadol ("The Great Midrash"), composed after the death of Moses Maimonides (1204), whom it quotes; and (3) the Midrash of David ha-Nagid, grandson of Maimonides. About 100 years later appeared a similar work, Yalqut ha-Makiri ("The Collection of Makhir"), on the Prophets and Holy Writings, compiled by one Makhir ben Abba Mari in Spain (see above Torah). It has been suggested that the compilation of such works was spurred by the necessity of providing "ammunition" for the public disputations with Christian ecclesiastics that the church forced upon Jewish scholars in this period.

vi) Myth and legend in the modern period.

1. Kabbalistic tales.

In the 16th century, Jewish myth and legend took several new directions. The disappointment of messianic expectations through the dismal eclipse of the pretender Shabbetai Tzevi produced, by way of compensation, an increased interest in occult speculation and in the mystical lore of the Kabbala (esoteric Jewish mysticism). Important schools of Kabbala arose in Italy and at Safed, in Palestine, and tales of the miraculous Faust-like powers of such masters as Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital Calabrese began to circulate freely after their deaths.

Another reaction to the dashing of messianic hopes is represented by the beautiful story of the Kabbalist Joseph della Reyna and his five disciples, who go journeying through the world to oust Satan and prepare the way for the Deliverer. Warned by the spirits of such worthies as Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and the prophet Elijah, they nevertheless succeed eventually in procuring their blessing and help and are sent on to the angel Metatron. The latter furnishes them with protective spells and spices and advises Joseph to inscribe the ineffable name of God on a metal plate. When, however, they reach the end of their journey Satan and his wife, Lilith, attack them in the form of huge dogs. When the dogs are subdued they beg for food. Moved to pity, Joseph gives them spices to revive them. At once they summon a host of devils. Two of the disciples die of terror; two go mad, and only Joseph and one disciple are left. The Messiah weeps in heaven, and Elijah hides the great horn of salvation. A voice rings out telling Joseph that it is vain to attempt to hasten the footsteps of the Redeemer.

The repertory of Jewish tales and legends was seasoned, however, by other elements. During the 16th century--the age of the great navigators--stories began to circulate about the discovery of the Ten Lost Tribes in remote parts of the world.

2. Judeo-German (Yiddish) tales.

It was at the same period that Judeo-German (Yiddish) came increasingly to replace Hebrew as the language of Jewish tales and legends in Europe, a major factor in this development being the desire to render them accessible to women unschooled in the sacred tongue. Not only were the synagogal lessons from Scripture legendarily embellished in a so-called Taitsh Humesh ("Yiddish Pentateuch"), in the more fancifully titled Tze`ena u-re`ena ("Go Forth and See"; cf. S. of Sol. 3:11) by Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi, and in adaptations of the story of Esther designed for dramatic presentation on the feast of Purim, but the Hebrew Chronicles of Josippon also assumed Yiddish dress. More secular productions were a verse rendition of the Arthurian legend, entitled Artus Hof ("The Court of King Arthur"), based largely on Gravenberg's medieval Wigalois, and the Bove Buch by Elijah Levita, which retold the romance of Sir Bevis of Southampton. (see also Index: Yiddish literature)

These "frivolous" productions were in time offset by collections of moral and ethical tales. The principal of these are (1) the Brantspiegel, attributed to a certain Moses Henoch (Prague 1572), and (2) the Ma'aseh Buch ("Story Book"), a compendium of 254 tales compiled by Jacob ben Abraham of Meseritz and first published at Basel in 1602. The latter was drawn mainly from the Talmud but was supplemented by later legends about medieval rabbis. Jewish legends also circulated in the form of ephemeral chapbooks, a large selection of which is preserved in the library of the Yiddish Scientific Institute in New York City.

3. Judeo-Persian and Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) tales.

A similar development, though on a lesser scale, took place among Jews who spoke other vernacular dialects. Major monuments of Judeo-Persian literature are poetic embellishments of biblical narratives composed by a certain Shahin of Shiraz in the 14th century and by Joseph ben Isaac Yahudi (i.e., the Jew) some 300 years later. These, however, are exercises in virtuosity rather than in creative storytelling. In Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) there are versified elaborations of the story of Joseph, entitled Coplas de Yoçef ("Song of Joseph"), composed, in 1732, by Abraham de Toledo and embodying a certain amount of traditional haggadic material. From a revival of literary activity in the 18th century comes a comprehensive "legendary Bible" called Me-'am Lo'ez ("From a People of Strange Tongue"; cf. Ps. 114:1), begun by one Jacob Culi and continued by later writers, as well as several renderings of standard Hebrew collections and a number of Purim plays. Until the Nazi holocaust in the 1940s, Judeo-Spanish folktales were still current in Macedonia and Yugoslavia, but these leaned more on Balkan than on Jewish sources.

4. Hasidic tales.

The rise of the Hasidic sect (a popular pietistic-mystical movement) in eastern Europe at the end of the 18th century begat a host of legends (circulated mainly through chapbooks) concerning the lives, wise sayings, and miracles of such tzaddiqimor masters, as Israel ben Eliezer, "the Besht" (1700-60), and Dov Baer of Meseritz (died 1772). (See also above Jewish mysticism .) These, however, are anecdotes rather than formally structured stories and often borrow from non-Jewish sources.

5. Droll stories.

To the popular creativity of the ghetto belong also the droll tales of the Wise Men of Chelm (in Poland)--Jewish counterparts of the German noodles (stupid people; hence "noodle stories") of Schildburg and of the more familiar English Wise Men of Gotham. These, too, were circulated mainly in Yiddish popular prints. Typical of them is the tale of the two "sages" who went for a walk, one carrying an umbrella and the other without one. Suddenly it began to rain. "Open your umbrella," said the one without one. "It won't help," answered the other, "it's full of holes." "Then why did you bring it?" rejoined his friend. "I didn't think it would rain," was the reply. (see also Index: humour)

6. Modern Israeli folktales.

The gathering of Jews from many lands into the modern state of Israel has made that country a happy hunting ground for the student of Jewish folktales. Assiduous work has been undertaken by Dov Noy of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, aided by enthusiastic amateurs throughout the country. Mainly, however, the stories are retellings of traditional material. (T.H.G.)


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