Jewish folklore

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Reb Burech trinkt Lechaim.jpg

Jewish folklore are legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, stories, tall tales, and customs that are the traditions of Judaism. Folktales are characterized by the presence of unusual personages (dwarfs, giants, fairies, ghosts, etc.), by the sudden transformation of men into beasts and vice versa, or by other unnatural incidents (flying horses, a hundred years' sleep, and the like). A number of haggadic stories bear folktale characteristics, especially those relating to Og, King of Bashan, which have the same exaggerations as have the lügenmärchen of modern German folktales.[1] There are signs that a certain number of fables were adopted by the Rabbis either from Greek or, indirectly, from Persian and Indian sources.[citation needed]

Middle Ages[edit]

There is considerable evidence of Jewish people helping the spread of Eastern folktales in Europe.[2] Besides these tales from foreign sources, Jews either collected or composed others which were told throughout the European ghettos, and were collected in Yiddish in the "Maasebücher".[2] Numbers of the folktales contained in these collections were also published separately.[3] It is, however, difficult to call many of them folktales in the sense given above, since nothing fairy-like or supernormal occurs in them.[2]


Rabi Loew and Golem by Mikolas Ales (1899).

There are a few definitely Jewish legends of the Middle Ages which partake of the character of folktales, such as those of the Jewish pope Andreas and of the golem, or that relating to the wall of the Rashi chapel, which moved backward in order to save the life of a poor woman who was in danger of being crushed by a passing carriage in the narrow way. Several of these legends were collected by Abraham Moses Tendlau (de) (Sagen und Legenden der Jüdischen Vorzeit).[4]

In the late 19th century many folk-tales were gathered among Jews or published from Hebrew manuscripts by Israël Lévi (fr) in the Revue des Etudes Juives, in the Revue des Traditions Populaires, and in Melusine; by Moses Gaster in Folk-Lore and in the reports of Montefiore College; and by Max Grunwald in Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volkskunde;[5] by L. Wiener in the same periodical; and by F. S. Krauss in Urquell, both series.

Altogether some sixty or seventy folk-tales have been found among Jews of the present day; but in scarcely a single case is there anything specifically Jewish about the stories, while in most cases they can be traced back to folk-tales current among the surrounding peoples. Thus the story of "Kunz and His Shepherd"[6] occurs in English as King John and the Bishop; and "The Magician's Pupil"[7] is also found widely spread. The well-known story of the "Language of Birds," which has been studied by James Frazer,[8] is given in Mitteilungen, i. 77. No. 4 in the collection of Wiener is the widespread folk-tale of "The Giant's Daughter," which some have traced back to the legend of Medea. Two of the stories collected by Grunwald, No. 13, "The Birds of Ibycus," and No. 14, "The Ring of Polycrates," appear to be traceable to classical sources; while his No. 4 gives the well-known episode of the "Thankful Beasts," which Theodor Benfey traced across Europe through India.[9] Even in the tales having a comic termination and known to the folk-lorists as drolls, there are no signs of Jewish originality. The first of the stories collected by Wiener is the well-known "Man in the Sack," who gets out of his difficulties by telling passers-by that he has been unwillingly condemned to marry a princess.[10]

Aggadah and folklore compilations[edit]

  • The Legends of the Jews[11] by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, is an original synthesis of a vast amount of aggadah from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds and Midrash. Ginzberg had an encyclopedic knowledge of all rabbinic literature, and his masterwork included a massive array of aggadot. However he did not create an anthology which showed these aggadot distinctly. Rather, he paraphrased them and rewrote them into one continuous narrative that covered five volumes, followed by two volumes of footnotes that give specific sources.
  • The Ein Yaakov is a compilation of the aggadic material in the Babylonian Talmud together with commentary.
  • Sefer Ha-Aggadah, "The Book of Legends" is a classic compilation of aggadah from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds and the Midrash literature. It was edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky. Bialik and Ravnitzky worked to compile a comprehensive and representative overview of aggadah; they spent three years compiling their work. When they found the same aggadah in multiple versions, from multiple sources, they usually selected the later form, the one found in the Babylonian Talmud. However they also presented a great some aggadot sequentially, giving the early form from the Jerusalem Talmud, and later versions from the Babylonian Talmud, and from a classic midrash compilation. In each case each every aggadah is given with its original source. In their original edition, they translated the Aramaic aggadot into modern Hebrew. Sefer Ha-Aggadah was first published in 1908-11 in Odessa, Russia, then reprinted numerous times in Israel. In 1992 it was translated into English as "The Book of Legends", by William G, Braude.
  • Mimekor Yisrael, by Micha Josef (bin Gorion) Berdyczewski. Berdyczewski was interested in compiling the folklore and legends of the Jewish people, from the earliest times up until the dawn of the modern era. His collection included a large array of aggadot, although they were limited to those he considered within the domain of folklore.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ G. Dennis, "Og," The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism
  2. ^ a b c Joseph Jacobs, "Folk-Tales", Jewish Encyclopedia
  3. ^ See the earlier ones given by Moritz Steinschneider in Hebrew Books in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Catalogus Librorum Hebræorum in Bibliotheca Bodleiana), Berlin, 1852-60), Nos. 3869-3942
  4. ^ Frankfurt a.M.: Kauffman, 1873
  5. ^ see Index to part vi., s.v. "Erzählungen"
  6. ^ Grunwald, Mitteilungen, ii. 1
  7. ^ No. 4 of Wiener, in Mitteilungen, x. 103
  8. ^ Archeological Review, iii., iv.; comp. Urquell, v. 266
  9. ^ "Kleine Schriften," i.
  10. ^ see Joseph Jacobs, Indian Fairy Tales. London: D. Nutt, 1892
  11. ^ "The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg". 2001-04-13. Retrieved 2013-08-12.