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From Encyclopedia Britannica article on Judaism, the section The Judaic Tradition, Myth and Legend


Sources and development:  Myth and legend in the Hellenistic period

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 JamshidA

Myth and legend in Talmud and Midrash:  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.


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.”

Sources and development:  Myth and legend in Talmud and Midrash

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.

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.
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.
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.
Myth and legend in the medieval period:  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.

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 Romance, based 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.

Myth and legend in the medieval period:  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.

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.
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) Josippon, composed 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 Jashar, a 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.

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 EHiih'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.

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.

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.


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.

Myth and legend in the modern period:  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'hK a“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.

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 tzaddiqim, or 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.

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.

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.

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