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Animal Tales

ANIMAL TALES, stories in which animals are the principal characters, with the plot revolving around them and the setting mainly in the animal world. A man in an "animal tale" is an intruder in a strange world inhabited, ruled, and dominated by animals. One of the oldest forms of the narrative folktale, the animal tale is found at all culture levels in all periods. Very often it was used by later narrators and writers as an exemplum in fable form in which the social background and the animal traits reflect those extant in the human world. Animal tales and animal characters were used as a vehicle to protest against and expose immediate local conditions, ethnic or social conflicts, and human behavior in general, and the narrator remained immune from censorship, while the audience grasped and understood what the tale really intended to convey.


Many metaphorical and allegorical animal references in different literary forms are to be found in the Bible: Numbers 24:8–9 speaks of "God… is for them like the horns of the wild ox; they shall devour enemy nations, crush their bones… they crouch, they lie down like the lion; like the king of beasts"; Ezekiel 17:3–12 contains the prophetic *parable (mashal) and the riddle (ḥidah) about the two great eagles with great wings and long pinions; Ezekiel 19:2–3 is an allegorical lament (kinah) about a lioness among lions that reared her whelps: "And she brought up one of her whelps, he became a young lion… and they brought him with hooks unto the land of Egypt." In Proverbs the animal portraiture serves mostly to teach exemplary behavior: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise" (Prov. 6:6–8); ants, rock-badgers, locusts, spiders are seen as small animals which are exceedingly wise (Prov. 30:24–28); the lion, the greyhound, and the he-goat are stately in their march (Prov. 30:29–31). They are also depicted in riddles not necessarily prophetic (the lion in the Samson story, Judg. 14:12 ff.). There are also full-length "true" animal tales in the Bible as well, including two plant tales related as fables by Jotham (Judg. 9:8–15) and by King Jehoash (II Kings 14:9).

Talmud and Midrash

In talmudic and midrashic literature the 36 preserved Hebrew and Aramaic animal tales are designated as "fox fables," though the fox features in only 11, mostly as a clever and sly trickster. Probably, the fox was the main character in many of the oral animal tales of the tannaitic period which for various reasons were not written down. Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai (Suk. 28a) is said to have included "fox fables" in the realms of his studies, yet none adapted or written by him is known. Similarly, only three of the "300 fox fables" associated with R. Meir (Sanh. 38b) were known three generations after the sage's death. The name of each (a biblical verse) is recorded in the Talmud, but not the plot or the gist of the tale. They were retold in a different way by later interpreters such as Hai Gaon and Rashi. The fact that the animal tales of R. Meir (see Sot. 9:15, "When R. Meir died there were no more makers of parables") have not survived is in contrast to the fact that so many of his other statements have. Even if one regards the number as exaggerated and formalistic (see the numerous references to the number 300 in the aggadah, in the index of Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), 474), an explanation is nevertheless needed. The opposition of R. Meir's contemporaries to the Greek literary heritage, including the rich Aesopian fable tradition, may be one reason.

The obscure phrase מִשְׁלֵי כּ(וֹ)בְסִים, mishlei k(o)vesim, in the panegyric to Johanan b. Zakkai's extensive knowledge has led to a variety of interpretations centering around the animal tale and its nature. The word כּ(וֹ)בְסִים, k(o)vesim, has been explained as "washermen" (vulgar stories popular among people dealing with "unclean" matters) and as "Kybises" (referring to the famous first-century Libyan fabulist). The word has also been identified with כְּבָשִׂים, kevasim ("sheep"). The latter has its roots in the hypothesis that aggadic animal tales are structurally based mainly on the confrontation between the cunning and unscrupulous clever fox and the naive and gentle (foolish) sheep. The hypothesis is not corroborated by textual evidence of "fox-and-sheep fables," but might have been among the suppressed and lost material (cf. the Aesopian fables of the wolf and the sheep, ed. Chambry, nos. 217, 218, 220–2, 230–1; ed. Span, indicating Hebrew parallels, nos. 45–46, 52–54, 56–57).

Most of the animal tales found in the aggadah are also extant in the fable collections of India (the Jataka: the birth stories of the Buddha, and the Panchatantra), and in Greek fables (Aesop's fables as formulated by the later Latin fabulists Phaedrus and Babrius). Where narrative parallels exist between Indian, Greek, and aggadic fables, the Jewish version is closer to the Indian one; e.g., the animal tale used by R. Joshua b. Hananiah (Gen. R. 64:10) as a means to persuade the Jews not to rebel against Rome, has for its hero the lion, like "Javasakuma" in the Jataka, whereas the hero in the Aesopian parallel is a wolf (Phaedrus 1:8; ed. Chambry, 224, ed. Span, 41).

Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, animal tales were current among European Jews. These had reached them in three ways: (1) through the Jewish and local oral tradition; (2) through the traditional aggadic compilations; and (3) through West European "bestiaries" or beast epics (Roman de Renart) and Latin (Avianus, Romulus) or Old French fables (the Fables of Marie de France, written around 1170–80), the adaptations of ancient Greek texts, and of European translations of *Kalila and Dimna . The threefold influence is evident in the 119 Mishlei Shu'alim ("Fox Fables") of *Berechiah ha-Nakdan (12th- or 13th-century fabulist) which is the main source of the later Yiddish animal tale (see Moses b. Eliezer *Wallich ). The direct Hebrew rendering of Aesopian fables (Mishlei Ysopeto, printed in Constantinople, 1516) had no essential effect on the Jewish animal tales, neither on their literary formulations by Hebrew (see J.L. *Gordon ) and by Yiddish (see E. *Steinbarg ) fabulists, nor on the oral tradition current among Jewish storytellers in the East and in the West.

Modern Period

Among the 8,000 Jewish folktales collected from oral tradition in Israel and preserved in the Israel folktale archives, there are only 140 animal tales, a percentage lower than in any national archive, or in any current non-Jewish folktale collection. Similarly, in the Yiddish collection of 540 East European folktales of Naphtali Gross (New York, 1955), only 24 are animal tales. Of the 300 international animal-tale types only 40 are represented in Jewish oral tradition. Five of the types are Jewish oikotypes (local ethnic narrative type), the most common among them being no. 184 (see bibl., Aarne-Thompson): in it man insults the animal (camel) which later avenges itself (six versions).

Many animal tales still bear their etiological character and have not been transformed into fable. The tale of the camel that asked for horns and lost his ears (Sanh. 106a) is, for example, moralistic and didactic, directed against discontent, haughtiness, overweening ambitions, and immoderate and unreasonable requests; at the same time, however, it explains the origin of the camel's short ears. Most of the animal tales combine the explanatory and didactic motifs.

It is difficult to determine the dividing line between the literary and the oral (folk) animal tale. Literary tales as those of the aggadah have been drawn from, and then again become part of, the oral tradition. An analysis of their contents proves that the main line of distinction is functional. The original oral animal tale was meant either to entertain or to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of mankind interested in the animal world. It reflected the fantasy of the masses, but it can also be seen as an early stage of the study of zoology. The literary animal tale tends to be a fable and is essentially didactic and moralizing, reflecting the ideas of the normative leadership and of the ruling elite.


A. Aarne and S. Thompson, The Types of the Folktale (1961); Brunner-Traut, in: Saeculum, 10 (1959), 124–85; N. Gross, Mayselekh un Mesholim (1955); T. Gutman, Ha-Mashal bi-Tekufat ha-Tannai'im (19492); Harkort, in Fabula, 9 (1967), 87–99; D. Noy, Ha-Mashal be-Sifrut ha-Aggadah (1960); idem, in: Maḥanayim, 79 (1963), 50–61; 91 (1964) 34–40; 105 (1966), 116–21; 121 (1969), 126–39; H. Schwarzbaum, in: IV International Congress for Folk-Narrative Research, Athens, 1964, Lectures and Reports (1965), 467–83; S. Span, Mishelei Aisopos (19612).

[Dov Noy]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.