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The Universal and Unique Nature of Jewish Folklore

Solveig Eggerz
Fall 1995

Jewish folklore has a vibrant and long history of nearly 4,000 years. It is endlessly diverse in its expression, yet at the same time uniquely Jewish. This seeming contradiction suggests that perhaps what we call Jewish folklore, in all its colorful variety, is nothing but a Judaized version of universal folklore. But according to mythologist, Joseph Campbell, this adaptation of stories to suit a culture’s purposes is the manner in which folklore is both preserved and passed on. It explains also why universally known stories are, like ice cream, enjoyed in such a wide range of flavors.  
The Jews, dispersed around the world for thousands of years, forced to live as peripheral elements within many dominant cultures, have clung to Torah and Talmud as a means for survival. Yet without folklore as the tool for presenting the teachings of Torah and Talmud — folklore as it appears in the stories of Agada and Midrash — the Jewish tradition might have withered away as an esoteric faith for scholars.  
The tendency to Judaize universally known materials dates back to the period when the stories in the Bible were recorded. An example is the story of Noah and his Ark, which features not the irritable gods of parallel deluge stories from that period, but the relationship between man and God. In his book Jewish Folklore, Ralph Patai notes: "Jewish tales, legends, fables, parables and other types of folk literature go back to the narrative parts of the Bible and to the second component of Talmudic literature, the so-called Agada which also includes ethical teachings."  
Oral Tradition  
Those who recorded the oral tradition of the Hebrews also borrowed freely from the lore of surrounding gentile cultures and adapted it for didactic purposes, Judaizing it where necessary. In this manner a large and varied literature was absorbed and, in fact, pressed into service on behalf of the great Jewish tradition of ethical monotheism. The consequence was a rich body of Jewish folklore. That inclusive storytelling tradition, which continued over the centuries in the different lands where Jews dwelt, gave Judaism a universal appeal that helped assure its survival.  
Unlike other groups that share a common folklore, Patai notes, Jews lack a common country, a common culture, a common language and a common race. Instead, Jews are endlessly diverse, having lived scattered over five continents where they have been permeated with the cultures of their respective habitats. Therefore, to assess Jewish folklore, Patai focusses on another criterion, Jewish tradition, the very bond that Tevye, Sholom Aleichem’s dairyman asserted loudly. But Jewish tradition must not be equated with the culture of the Jews, "for in fact it constitutes everywhere only a small part of their culture, the great bulk of which is borrowed from their gentile neighbors."  
At the center of the tradition that unites Jews lies a belief in ethical monotheism. That tradition is law-driven in the sense that the precepts of the Torah, the written law, reside in that same center. Later the oral law, Mishnah, joined the Torah. Finally, Gemara (the completion) was added to help elucidate the ties between Torah and Mishnah.  
Despite the dry, seemingly inflexible nature of a religion based on divine law, or perhaps because of its apparent rigidity, Torah stimulated a ferment of creativity for centuries among Jewish scholars. Like the rippling circles that form around a pebble in a pond, Talmud formed around Torah, Mishnah and Gemara in a manner so dynamic that it has had a profound effect on literature.  
Divine Law  
In order to make their interpretations of divine law appealing to readers Talmudic scholars incorporated illustrative material such as parables and anecdotes, which are drawn largely from the folk tradition. These frequently entertaining materials are known as the Agada (as opposed to Halakah which concentrates more directly on the law) or Midrashim.  
The body of interpretive literature known as Midrash continued to be produced for hundreds of years after the Talmudic centers had been closed. Thus, Midrash describes not only a method for exploring a text in an imaginative way, but it also labels collections of Aggadic or folkloric materials. By becoming a rich literature by itself, Midrash contributed to the continuing folklore tradition among Jews all over the world. This practice of employing ancient legends, parables and exempla for didactic purposes was continued by rabbis down to our own time.  
"Thus, like the complementary interaction between the shuttle and the loom, the Jewish people and their teachers together wove a tapestry of folklore of the most exquisite designs and colors," writes Nathan Ausubel in his anthology A Treasury of Jewish Folklore.  
This process of drawing on folk material to enhance ethical lessons was only increased in the diaspora. For it was here that Talmudists sensed most the threat of extinction of Jewish tradition. While Hebrew and Aramaic remained the principal languages among Jews, in the diaspora Jews began to read and write in Arabic, Persian, Ladino and Yiddish. At the great Talmudic centers, the oral tradition of many cultures was continuously recorded and Agada and Midrash became vast repositories for folklore.  
Keeps Tradition Alive  
The folklorist B.A. Botkin has written that "the transference of oral tradition to writing and print does not destroy its validity as folklore but rather, while freezing or fixing its form, helps to keep it alive and to define it among those to whom it is not native or fundamental." This is precisely what happened in Jewish tradition. "The more that is committed to writing in any age and place, the richer the oral tradition that continues to flow thereafter," Patai notes.  
By virtue of their position in the diaspora, Jews thus not only collected a vast body of Jewish and non-Jewish folk literature, but also served as major disseminators of that literature, albeit in its frequently Judaized form. The process of transmuting literature to suit Jewish ethical purposes entailed the injection of Jewish precepts into the stories. The dominant overall feature of the stories is the religious and moral tone. Yet this does not mean that Jewish folklore bears a solely somber stamp. Interspersed among exhortations to scholarship are stories such as these:  
"One day a stranger came into the House of Study; no one had ever seen him before. Without a word he made his way to the shelves where the books of sacred lore were stored. He began to pull out one huge tome after another, folios of the Talmud, the commentaries of Rashi, Ibn Ezra and the Ramban.  
"At the time, the House of Study was full of scholars. They watched the man at his work with incredulity. ‘What a learned scholar he must be!’ whispered one, awestruck.  
"‘Never in my life have I seen a scholar use so many authorities at one time!’ said another.  
"Methodically, the stranger piled up his big books. Then, to everybody’s amazement, he climbed on top of them and reached for a hard cheese he had hidden on the very top shelf."  
This combination of ethics and humor is best exemplified by the writings of the greatest commentator of the Talmud and of the Bible, Solomon Ben Isaac (1040-1105), popularly known as Rashi. Rather than separate himself from the people and engage only in scholarly pursuits, Rashi made a living from his vineyards. He knew how to attract readers to Torah by combining serious moral principles with poetry, legends and entertaining stories. Consequently his commentaries were widely read in the Jewish community as well as the Christian.  
Nature of A Hero  
What is a hero? He who suppresses the desire to tell a joke. An important aspect of the method of Judaization is the manner in which the hero is treated.  
For example, the story of Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt contains some elements of the heroic epic and has, therefore, been compared with another narrative which involves a quest and depicts the founding of a nation — Virgil’s Aeneid. Both stories are unified around a hero who embodies the normative values of his society; both stories involve a promised land and explain the proper worship of the deity.  
But there the parallel ends, for the traditional heroic epic is humanistic in its glorification of the human (sometimes partially divine) hero. Through the glorification of their superhuman deeds, heroes such as Achilles, Odysseus or Beowulf become godlike. They are perfect warriors of a particular culture, and in their glorious feats they illuminate not only themselves but also the culture which they represent.  
Moses, on the other hand, is merely a flawed and reverent servant of God. It is God, not Moses, who gets the glory. Not human strength, but human frailty, is depicted. Yet the Bible does contain bloodthirsty passages of Hebrews who commit violence on behalf of their people. The Song of Deborah glorifies Jael’s act of driving a stake through the temple of Sisera, the Canaanite leader:  
"Most blessed of women e Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed . . . She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead." Judges 5:24-27.  
Warriors Like Samson  
Yet, in the Midrash, writers tend to feature warriors such as Samson, not so much in battle. The focus is instead on Delila’s treachery in selling Samson’s secret to the Philistines.  
Similarly, David, who has the qualities of a conventional epic hero, is glorified as a singer more than as a slayer of Goliath. The story of David and Goliath tends to be treated as a metaphor for the victory of good over evil. And the prophet Nathan berates David for the sinful manner in which he obtained Bathsheba for a wife.  
The Bible itself favors the gentle scholar Jacob over the fierce huntsman Esau. And in post-Biblical literature Jewish writers substitute the tzaddikim, saintly and righteous wise men, for warrior heroes. They are on a quest for virtue not glory. These "heroes" trip up the enemy with Talmudic dialectics.  
Ironically, Jews experienced a spiritual renaissance in the diaspora which contributed to a flourishing of world literature. For about 700 years, from 589 BCE, the date of the beginning of the Babylonia exile, to 138 CE, the intellectual center of world Jewry was in Babylon. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE the Jews came under the Persian and Chaldean cultural influence. The story of Esther shows the influence of this period. A Persian novella about the shrewdness of a harem queen, the story was Judaized to depict Esther, sometimes called "the Jewish Joan of Arc," as a good Jewess, ready to risk her own life to save her own people.  
It was during the time they lived among the Babylonians, and later among the Persians, that the Jews incorporated into their folklore shedim (demons) and dibbukim (migrant spirits) as well as the angel-demon concept, derived from Zoroastrianism. These influences have remained a part of Jewish literature down to the demon stories of today, especially those if Isaac Bashevis Singer. Demons were frequently the cause for adultery when married men submitted to the seductions of various she-devils.  
Moorish Spain  
After Babylon, the center for world Jewry shifted to Moorish Spain, the site of the Golden Age of Hebrew literature from 1000 CE to 1148 CE. It was here that Jews played a large role as disseminators of literature. Nathaniel Kravitz in his book 3,000 Years of Hebrew Literature, describes this historic phenomenon:  
"Precisely when Christian Europe was enveloped in darkness, and the light of reason was flickering, science, philosophy and literature in the Arab world blossomed forth as never before. Working hand in hand with learned Syrians and Arabs, the Jews became transmitters of culture, the apostles of knowledge; they served also as a connecting link between the biblical world outlook and the philosophical thought systems of classical Greece, as reinterpreted by the Arab thinkers."  
For example, the Jews brought from the east the tales and fables of the Bidpai and Barlaam cycles. The Indic fables of Bidpai were translated from 8th century Arabic to Hebrew and from there, in the 12th century, to Latin to become John of Capua’s Guide for Human Life. This was a collection of tales or exempla which were used by Christian preachers to spice up their sermons much like the Talmudists used stories to liven up Talmudic material.  
The romance of Barlaam and Josaphat is a Christian adaptation of tales about the Buddha and has its Jewish counterpart in The Prince and the Dervish, which had been adapted from an Arabic text by Abraham ben Samuel ibn Hisdai, a leader of Spanish Jewry in the 13th century. The Jews translated the fables of Sinbad from the Arabic into Hebrew and from there to Latin making them thus accessible to Christian Europe.  
Hellenic Influence  
The Jews came under the Hellenic influence in a very serious way through the writings of the Hellenic Jew, Philo of Alexandria. But one of the richest contributions to Jewish folklore was the Alexander legend which depicts the exploits of Alexander the Great. Several Hebrew adaptations of the Alexander story are based on Leo of Naples’ Latin rendering of the original by Callisthenes. Jews viewed Alexander as a relatively humane military hero with an intellectual bent, thanks to his tutor Aristotle. As they transmute the legend to serve Jewish ethical purposes, the Talmudists tend to satirize Alexander for his pride, his lack of virtue, his vanity.  
In The Acquisitive Eye, Alexander is on his way home to Macedonia after conquering the entire world. The great ruler comes to a stream whose waters originate in Paradise. Seeking entry to the gates of Paradise, Alexander is told that "only the pious enter here." When a human eye rolls toward him, he picks it up, puts it in his knapsack and brings it to his wise men and asks them, "what signifies this strange gift?"  
The wise men tell Alexander to place the eye on a scale and try to balance it with gold. Alexander discovers that the eye outweighs all the gold he can load on the opposing scale. The wise men tell the great man: "Know that the human eye is never satisfied with what it sees. No matter how much treasure you will show it, it will want more and still more."  
The wise men then instruct Alexander to remove the gold and place a pinch of dust in the opposing scale. At last the great Alexander learns the Talmudic lesson on greed and materialism as he states: "So long as a man is alive, his eye is never sated, but no sooner does he die when he is as dust. Then his eye loses its impulse and becomes powerless. It can no longer desire."  
Alexander Learns Virtue  
Another story shows how Alexander learns virtue. This time the occasion is his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his teachers are the wise men who come out to meet the conqueror. The ensuing word play demonstrates what Alexander would have learned about himself, had he but read the Talmud! He asks these questions of the wise men:  
"Who is wise?"  
"He who can foresee the future," answer the wise men.  
"Who is a hero?"  
"He who conquers himself."  
"Who is rich?"  
"He who rests content with what he has."  
"By what means does man preserve his life?"  
"When he kills himself." (Here the Talmudist notes that they meant — when a man destroys within himself all passion.)  
"By what means does a man bring about his own death?"  
"When he clings to life." (Talmudist notes — When he holds on to his passions and belongs to them.)  
"What should a man do who wants to win friends?"  
"He should flee from glory and should despise dominion and kingship," the wise men conclude.  
At the end of the Judaization process, the story of Alexander features a humble dictator. While the story does not transform him to Moses, the Talmudic dialectics do bring Alexander the Great down a notch or two.  
Compilation of Collections  
A popular literary activity between the 11th and 13th centuries was the compilation of comprehensive collections of tales and fables. Jews were actively engaged in this endeavor, and thus disseminated a great deal of Aggadic material among the scholars of Europe.  
Peter Alfonsi, a baptised Jew of Aragon who was originally called Moses Sephardi, incorporated much of the earlier Aggadic material in his 12th century collection of novellas, the Disciplina Clericalis. This oldest European collection of novellas served as a primary source for the Gesta Romanorum (the Deeds of the Romans) of the same period which was very widely read. For many centuries, the Gesta served as a major source for European storytellers, poets and dramatists.  
The Jews of Morocco and Moorish Spain were particularly engaged in compiling collections of tales and fables. During the 11th century Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim of al Qayrawan composed in Judeo-Arabic The Book of Comfort, a collection of 60 moralizing tales designed to comfort the author’s father-in-law on the loss of his son.  
At the end of the 12th century Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara of Spain compiled The Book of Delight, a collection of 15 tales, mainly about the wiles of women, exchanged between traveling companions. He used parables and fables gathered from Jewish, Greek, Arabic and Hindu sources. Many of these stories were unknown in Europe until Zabara introduced them into European literature.  
The style is much like that used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales from the same period. A typical story is "The Silversmith and His Wife" in which the wife’s greed causes the husband to have both hands cut off as punishment.  
There are also collections of animal tales such as the Fox fables of Berechiah ha-Nakdan who may have lived in England toward the end of the 12th century. An anonymous 11th century collection of proverbs is The Alphabet of ben Sira.  
Universal Folklore  
Thus, the study of Jewish folklore is really a survey of universal folklore in its Judaized adaptation. The teachers of Jewish faith and ethics have used folklore throughout the ages to make their moral messages more palatable to the folk. The folk in whom the stories struck a chord, absorbed this material and frequently returned it to the story collectors in a embroidered form. This is the story of folklore.  
This tradition has continued into our own time. The most Jewish of folklore elements is the parable. While there are only five parables in the Torah, this form of story abounds in the Agada, the Midrash as well as in the Apocrypha, or non-canonical writings. Jewish medieval literature is also rich in parables. One of the great storytellers was Rabbi Krantz, Dubner Maggid (Preacher of Dubno), who travelled from town to town in the late 18th century in Poland and Lithuania collecting and adapting parables. Ausubel describes the process whereby Jews disseminate parables collected by a man like Rabbi Krantz:  
"Some of the parables he developed from germs of ideas he found in the Talmud and Midrash, but the bulk of them he picked up from the plain folk as he travelled from place to place. They were the folktales of the people, only he, with his creative ingenuity, adapted them to serve didactic ends, in the manner of the sages of the Agada and the Midrash. In turn, the refined parable would go back to the people and undergo ceaseless variation and adaptation at their hands."  
Talmudic Reasoning  
Writers applied the Talmudic art of reasoning to stories in a manner that made them both helpful as well as entertaining. These stories have had tremendous universal appeal down to our day. An example is It Could Always Be Worse which appears as a children’s book, illustrated by Margot Zemach:  
"A man who shared a one room hut with a wife, in-laws and many children complained to the rabbi that he cannot tolerate the noise and confusion. The rabbi suggested bringing the cow, the goat, the chickens into the house. The man did as the rabbi suggested. The situation grew increasingly worse. When he went back to the rabbi, the man was surprised when the rabbi told him to put the cow, the goat and the chickens back in the barn. The man did so. What a pleasure it was to live in a house without animals! By contrast, the house was now quiet, roomy and clean!"  
The manner in which these parables and other elements of Jewish folklore have gone in and out of the Talmud and the shtetl, how they have been Judaized and adapted, demonstrates the vibrant nature of Jewish folklore. It also shows how this literature both reflects and shapes the Jewish tradition. Folklore is part of the spiritual heritage which binds Jews of the world to one another. But, had the Jews not been dispersed around the world, that part of the Talmud out of which these stories came might not have been so dynamic. In fact, it might have withered away for lack of use.  
(Part II of this article will focus on the many types of characters who populate Jewish stories. It will explain how some of the figures who recur in Jewish stories through the ages are uniquely Jewish while others reflect universal qualities known in all cultures.)

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