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Hebrew:
Hebrew Fiction


Hebrew: Table of Contents | The Aleph-Bet | Revival of Hebrew


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Narrative creative writing has been a constant in Hebrew literature and can be found in every period of Jewish culture.

- The Story in Talmudic-Midrashic Literature
- Development of Separate Stories Based on Midrashic Motifs
- The Retelling of Bible Stories
- The Reawakening of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
- The First Collections of Stories
- Stories Included in Hebrew Historiographical Works
- The Romance in Hebrew Literature
- The Story in Hebrew Ethical Literature
- The Story in Ashkenazi-?asidic Literature
- The Narrative in the Kabbalah
- The Hebrew Story in the Italian Renaissance
- The Hebrew Story in Palestine in the 16th Century
- The Hebrew Story in the 17th and 18th Centuries
- The ?asidic Story

The Story in Talmudic-Midrashic Literature

The earliest biblical texts include stories, and the telling and retelling of stories continued in every age of Hebrew literature. The long talmudic-midrashic period, however, from the first tannaim to the first geonim is different from previous or later periods in that the Hebrew story was not regarded as an independent form of expression, nor were stories written as separate works; they formed part of the midrashic literary form, and were subordinate to its didactic and moralistic purposes. No collections of stories as such were published in that epoch. The Hebrew narrative of this period, as it reached medieval Jewish culture, was an integral part of the vast talmudic-midrashic literature with no special or specific literary standing. A great part of the narratives preserved in the Midrash developed the biblical story to conform to the exegetical purposes of the talmudic scholars. Frequently, the stories are biographies of early sages to serve as exempla to expound some moral, ethical, or halakhic doctrine. Other stories were included because of nothing more than a vague association with the problem under discussion; this connection, however flimsy it might be, was the only justification for their inclusion.

The subordinate status of the story did not, however, prevent a wealth of narrative material from being included in the talmudic-midrashic literature. L. Ginzberg has shown that this literature contains a complete retelling (in more than one version) of the biblical narrative from the creation to Ezra and Nehemiah; detailed, though sporadic, biographies; stories connected with most of the more important tannaim and amoraim; stories based on historical facts and legends covering the period of the Second Temple to the *Bar Kokhba War and after; and hundreds of popular stories (usually written in Aramaic, the vernacular of the time). Thus, while the literary aspect of the narrative was insignificant during this period, the narrative creative impulse did not disappear – it only lacked intellectual status as a separate, independent vehicle of expression. The Hebrew story in the Middle Ages opens, therefore, with the slow process of the genre achieving these aims: a separate status and an independent literary form.

The Development of Separate Stories Based on Midrashic Motifs

In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, a large group of independent Hebrew stories based, to some extent, on motifs included in the earlier midrashic literature emerged. Their literary form and content, however, developed independently of that tradition. While talmudic literature merely described the death of some tannaitic martyrs at the hands of the Romans, the medieval narrative "Aggadat Aseret Harugei Malkhut" ("The Legend of the Ten Martyrs," also known as "Midrash Elleh Ezkerah" in A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 1 (19382), 64–72) used the talmudic stories about R. *Akiva 's death and that of other martyrs, and developed a new type of story: the *exemplum for Jewish martyrs in the Middle Ages. Historical truth, evident to some extent in the talmudic stories, was absolutely disregarded here, and the death of the ten tannaim, who had lived and died in different periods, was described as taking place at the same time.

Talmudic eschatology nursed the idea of two Messiahs, one the son of Ephraim and the other, the final deliverer, a descendant of the House of David. Sefer *Zerubbavel (ibid., 54–57), a medieval tale, developed this idea into an apocalyptic eschatology. It describes, in biblical language, the visions of the last ruler of the House of David who was shown by an angel what is going to happen at the end of time. The main characters in the narrative are the Messiah's mother Ḥefẓi-Bah and Satan, called *Armilus , described as the son of a beautiful stone statue. These are literary figures unknown to talmudic legends. The writing shows independence of form (it is a separate work dedicated to one visionary story) and of content (the addition of new figures and new heroes not mentioned in older tradition).

Another example of this process is found in the tales told by *Eldad ha-Dani (ibid., 2 (19382), 102–13; 3 (19382), 6–11; 5 (19382), 17–21), who, at the end of the ninth century, traveled through Babylonia, North Africa, and Spain, telling strange stories about his travels and adventures. He described his native land, supposedly the home of four of the Lost *Ten Tribes , and his travel to the land of the other six tribes. Out of a few scattered remarks found in talmudic literature, Eldad spun a coherent and organic picture of the life of these tribes: their number, purity, wisdom, and military power. His description of the pure and holy life of the sons of Moses (the Levites), who live beyond the river *Sambatyon , is drawn both from Jewish and Moslem sources. A minor midrashic motif was here turned into a detailed and well-developed story which has been preserved in 17 different versions, some of them old and authentic, others including many later additions. This is an instance of a Hebrew medieval story coming into its own, achieving a new form, and developing an old theme in a new way. Eldad's stories about the Lost Ten Tribes later became part of the messianic eschatology when the belief developed (for which Eldad was not directly responsible) that the tribes were going to come with the Messiah and serve as his armies in the apocalyptic wars at the End of Days.

Using talmudic motifs, the medieval writers also developed the arts of biography and hagiography. They took material from the Talmud about some of the great sages and wove around them new legends, independent in form from their original talmudic setting (see *Hagiography ).

The Retelling of Bible Stories

Medieval storytellers continued in the tradition that every period in Jewish culture retells the biblical story according to its own beliefs, views, and literary convention. This was also done in the first centuries of the Middle Ages when many anonymous writers freed the biblical story from its close connection with the exegetical Midrash and developed an independent literary form. The process took two directions: the telling of a short biblical episode as a fully developed independent short story whose plot revolved about a biblical hero or a biblical event; and attempts to retell great portions of the Bible in a new medieval manner.

To the first category belong "Ma'aseh Avraham Avinu" (ibid., 1 (19382), 25–34), a legend about Abraham; "Divrei ha-Yamin shel Moshe Rabbenu" ("The Chronicles of Moses," ibid., 2 (19382), 1–11); "Midrash Va-Yisse'u" (ibid. 3 (19382), 1–5), a story about the battles of the sons of Jacob. Each of these is a short story using most, or even all, of the pertinent material in the Bible and in the Midrash, but reshaping it into a coherent independent plot, and usually adding many details with no source other than the author's imagination. In "Midrash Va-Yisse'u," biblical and fictional wars fought by Jacob and his sons in the area of Shechem are depicted in terms of medieval war strategy and medieval military practices. The valor of the sons of Jacob is characterized by medieval chivalry and knighthood concepts.

Other authors attempted to retell the biblical story in wider scope. The author of *Josippon (tenth century, Italy) dedicated most of his work to the war against the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple. The work, however, starts with a short recapitulation of Jewish history, told in a medieval, fictional style. The more ambitious author of Sefer ha-Yashar (probably 11th century, Spain) retells, at great length, the story from the creation to the time of the Judges, i.e., the whole story of the Pentateuch. It is the most complete example of this type of medieval writing using biblical motifs, aggadic material, and fictional innovations to weave a new and captivating story. The literary scope of the work was unequaled by any later medieval writing.

The authors of Josippon and Sefer ha-Yashar added another aspect to the medieval story about biblical times: they attempted, and frequently succeeded, to incorporate non-Jewish legends, history, and mythology (especially Greek and Roman) into the biblical story. The Jews of the Byzantine Empire, Italy, and Spain accepted the legends and history of the people among whom they lived as being part of the history of the world, and argued that as such they form part of the Bible which was believed to include all the important events in human history. These authors, and others, therefore, developed a system of synchronization and analogy to establish a connection between non-Jewish stories and biblical heroes and chronology. The medieval Hebrew narrative, therefore, broke away from its cultural isolation which had prevailed, to a large extent, in the midrashic story, and it became an open form which accepted and drew on the wealth of non-Jewish stories that had become available to the scattered Jewish communities in the East and in Europe.

The Reawakening of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

One of the most significant differences between talmudic-midrashic literature on the one hand, and Second Temple literature and medieval Hebrew literature on the other, is the attitude toward the literature of the Second Temple, which was not included in the biblical canon. This literature was preserved in Greek, Latin, and other languages, and only recently have some Hebrew originals been found. During the long centuries of the development of the talmudic-midrashic literature, this material was almost completely ignored. The themes, ideas, and stories in the Book of *Jubilees , in the different versions of the Book of *Enoch , in *Tobit , in *Judith , and even in the historical Books of the *Maccabees are hardly mentioned.

After seven centuries of neglect, these works were again incorporated into the framework of Jewish culture by the Hebrew medieval writers. The process began in the early seventh century with *Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer , which includes subjects from the Apocrypha. The author also used the Satan motif from the books of Enoch and Jubilees; his adaptation of the Bible story is deeply influenced by this long-disregarded or suppressed literature.

Early medieval Hebrew writers created different versions of the stories of Judith and Tobit usually stylistically influenced by popular folktales, and of stories based on the Books of the Maccabees, especially the story of the mother and her seven sons who were martyred by Antiochus. The story of the fallen angels, vividly told in the Book of Enoch, became the story of Uzza and Azael in the Middle Ages; it was transformed into a folktale, and used as a theological motif by kabbalists.

It is very doubtful whether the Hebrew medieval authors of these works had before them the Hebrew originals of the Second Temple literature, though it is not impossible. It would seem, however, that they used the Christian versions of the Septuagint and the Vulgate. It is also probable that some of the writers had no direct knowledge of the Greek and Latin versions either, but heard the stories from their non-Jewish friends, since there are some significant variations between the originals and the medieval versions. Whatever the origin from which medieval writers drew their material, an important source of Jewish narrative literature, closed during the talmudic-midrashic period, became a living part of Hebrew medieval writing.

The First Collections of Stories

In the early Middle Ages another new literary form emerged, unknown to Hebrew literature, and scarcely found in other literatures of the time: collected stories in book form. The phenomenon indicates that the Hebrew story had taken its rightful place in Jewish literature. Books, devoted entirely or mainly to stories, began to be written. Four major works of this type were written between the 8th and 12th centuries:

(1) Midrash Aseret ha-Dibberot (in A. Jellinek, op. cit., 1 (19382), 62–90; "Midrash of the Ten Commandments"), which is not a Midrash at all but a collection of about 50 stories (in different redactions the number varies) loosely associated with the Ten Commandments. The stories are interspersed with some midrashic aphorisms, but, their importance is clearly secondary. The Hebrew story thus completely reversed the previous situation. The literary aspect of the story, secondary and unimportant in talmudic-midrashic literature, became the main purpose, while the midrashic elements became merely ornamental.

Some of the stories included in the collection were taken from talmudic literature; others are based on the Apocrypha; many of them are new and were written for the first time in Hebrew, though they might have been previously told as folktales. The narratives are meant to serve as exempla, but do so in a peculiar way. There is no intention of teaching man to fulfill the Ten Commandments; this is so elementary, that it is obviously not the purpose. The aim of the work is to demonstrate the extremes of obedience demanded by the commandments. The moral expounded is usually excessive, without any practical didactic value. This tendency shows the first influence of Moslem ethics in Hebrew literature.

(2) "Alfa Beta of Ben Sira" ed. by M. Steinschneider (1858), a pseudepigraphical work attributed to *Ben Sira , which is in fact a medieval (ninth century?) collection of stories and epigrams. The aim of the work is a protest against accepted norms of Judaism. The stories ridicule some of the biblical figures, like David and Jeremiah, and parody the rabbinic way of learning. Some of the stories carry a bitter note, protesting against the way God conducts the world. These lively humorous tales structurally attained the highest artistic form to be found in early medieval Hebrew storytelling.

(3) Sefer ha-Maasiyyot ("Book of Stories," also Ḥibbur Yafeh me-ha-Yeshu'ah, ed. by H.Z. Hirschberg, 1954) by *Nissim b. Jacob of Kairouan (11th century), was originally written in Arabic. The Arabic original was forgotten; however, early Hebrew translations made the collection a part of Hebrew medieval literature. R. Nissim used mainly talmudic-midrashic stories and episodes, but added many medieval folktales, some of which had their origin in Judaism, others in Moslem and Arabic sources. His declared purpose was to strengthen the faith in God of a friend who had suffered some misfortune. The body of the collection, however, is not devoted only to this aim. The stories fall into all of the main categories of medieval popular narratives, such as stories about good and bad women, about witches and evil powers, about lust and repentance. In later Hebrew medieval writings, R. Nissim's stories had a life of their own, independent of their thematic and plot value in the original collection. They were told separately, and were included individually in many later collections.

(4) The Exempla of the Rabbis, a collection of stories published from a manuscript by M. Gaster (1924; 19682), by far the largest to be compiled in the Middle Ages. It includes more than 200 tales. Most of them are talmudic, but many, especially in the second half of the collection, are medieval Hebrew folktales told in a captivating manner, Gaster claims that the collection is extremely old, and even suggests – without basis – that it was a source for the Talmud. The collection was most probably compiled in the 11th or 12th century, and shows that some artistic effort had been made to turn it into an organic and unified literary work by arranging the stories into different sequences, each connected to the other through the ending of the preceding narrative.

These four early collections of Hebrew stories mark the beginning of the medieval Hebrew story as a separate literary form, independent of the Midrash, and claiming its own place in Jewish culture.

Stories Included in Hebrew Historiographical Works

Simultaneous with the emergence of the Hebrew story as an independent literary form, Hebrew historiography evolved separately and in the process helped to preserve many Hebrew stories. The dividing line between history and legend, not clearly defined by the medieval historiographer, led to the literary genre of "fictional history" which tried to describe the history of a period, but succeeded mainly in collecting the major stories of it. A classical example is Megillat *Ahima'az ("The Chronicle of Ahimaaz," ed. by B. Klar, 1945), which was written in rhymed verse in Italy and describes the history of the Jews in southern Italy from the 8th to the 11th centuries. Most of the work is devoted to stories, which might have some historical foundation, but the writer was mainly interested in telling fables of wonder and mystery connected with the period: Abu Aaron, an eastern mystic living then in Italy, is the hero of a collection of these stories in which such things as his supernatural powers are described.

In Abraham *Ibn Daud 's Sefer ha-Kabbalah, a more serious attempt to distinguish between history and legend is made. Some legends and tales are, however, included: e.g., the story of the four captives from Babylonia who, after they had been rescued, spread Jewish culture in many communities; and the legendary material interwoven in the descriptions of the beginnings of Jewish culture in Spain. The same situation is found in many other and later historiographical works. A later example of this kind of "fictional history" is to be found in Gedaliah b. Joseph *Ibn Yahya 's Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah ("The Chain of Tradition"), written in and influenced by Renaissance Italy. It is mainly a collection of stories, hagiographies, and exempla about great medieval scholars, including many demonological and supernatural tales.

The same lack of distinction between fact and fiction is to be found in another literary genre which developed in the Middle Ages: the peregrinations of great travelers, who had returned home full of wonderful and strange tales about faraway countries. Though these travel writings have much important historical data, most of the writers found special pleasure in telling fabulous stories (e.g., those by *Benjamin of Tudela , *Pethahiah of Regensburg , and Ḥayyim Joseph David *Azulai ). Historiography and itineraries, therefore, formed part of the development of the Hebrew story in the Middle Ages.

The Romance in Hebrew Literature

From the 12th century, Hebrew literature began to include many detailed, long, and well-developed romantic stories. Most of the romances do not have their origin in Hebrew culture, but belong to the general medieval stock of fiction. Some are direct translations from Latin, Arabic, or other languages, while others show special Jewish adaptation as they passed from the original language into Hebrew. Most of the romances have more than one Hebrew rendition, and the Jewish elements in them, therefore, vary from one version to another.

Among the direct translations, to which very few or no Jewish motifs were added, are the 13th-century Hebrew version of the romance of King Arthur (Artus) and the Round Table (see *Arthurian Legend ), and the Tales of Sendebar (ed. by M. Epstein, 1967), the classic cycle of stories about the faithfulness and unfaithfulness of women and sons, known in the West as the romance of "The Seven Sages of Rome." Whereas only one Hebrew version of the Arthurian legends is known, the Tales of Sendebar is found in many manuscripts and in several versions of various length and number of legends included.

The classic romance, "The Gests of Alexander of Macedonia" (The Book of the Gests of Alexander of Macedon, ed. and translated into English, by I.J. Kazis, 1962), exists in Hebrew in no less than five versions; four of them are based on Latin and Arabic sources in which some Jewish elements were added, the fifth seems to be an almost totally original work, bearing little affinity to the original classic Greek. The Jewish elements fuse well into the legends mainly because in the Greek original there are already a few anecdotes which associate Alexander with the Jews, and in the talmudic-midrashic tradition there are nearly a dozen stories about Alexander. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the Jewish version of the romance, Alexander even encounters the Lost Ten Tribes, is circumcised, and comes to believe in the God of the Jews.

Another medieval cycle of fables, *Kalila and Dimna (ed. by J. Derenbourg, 1881), which probably originated in India and was transmitted into European literature via Persian and Arabic writings, has two medieval Hebrew versions, one translated by a certain R. Joel (probably in the 12th century) and the other by R. Jacob b. Eleazar, a little later. Ma'aseh Yerushalmi ("The Story of the Jerusalemite," ed. by J.L. Zlotnik (1946)), a romance about a man who through a miracle had come to the land of the demons and was there forced to marry *Asmodeus ' daughter, is only known from the Jewish original, though the motif exists both in Arabic and Latin literatures. Six Hebrew versions written from the 13th to the 17th centuries are found in Eastern and Western Jewish literatures. The differences in the texts are substantial; many, however, can be explained as a result of the development of the legend within Jewish literature and thought, and not because of non-Jewish literary influences. This is an example of a romance, which was probably first written down in 12th-century Europe, and was preserved, as well as developed, within Jewish culture, becoming one of the standard stories in every Hebrew collection.

The Hebrew view of Jesus' life found full expression in a well-developed and detailed medieval Hebrew romance. The legend, which is the Jewish answer to Christian versions about the birth, life, and death of Jesus, is of an earlier date; in the Middle Ages, however, it had grown into an independent, detailed work, Sefer *Toledot Yeshu . Mary is not unfavorably portrayed, and the author also shows some understanding of Jesus' deeds. It seems that hate itself could not support the development of the story, and when it became a romance, some sympathy had to be shown toward the main characters. Other medieval romances, mainly those originating in the East, reflecting Indian, Persian, and Arabic influences, were incorporated into Hebrew literature as tales in verse, mainly in the *maqama form, which in Hebrew is usually regarded as a poetic rather than a prose genre. The full acceptance of the medieval romance into Hebrew literature, both in its various forms and independent development, signifies that from the 12th century onward Hebrew fictional prose writing became apart of general medieval fiction. It used the stock heroes and plots of medieval fiction, but infused them with special Jewish motifs.

The Story in Hebrew Ethical Literature

With the development of Jewish ethical literature in the 11th century, the story found another major outlet, as well as a wide field for its development. Writers of ethical works, trying to reach as wide a public as possible and educate it according to their own ethical ideology, used every literary form which would popularize their works. This desire for a wider public made the use of stories, fables, legends, exempla, hagiographies, anecdotes, epigrams, imperative within the framework of ethical literature. As a result, many ethical works became treasure houses of all sorts of Hebrew fictional writings as well as the different literary genres devoted to the story exclusively.

Jewish philosophy, the first movement to develop Hebrew ethical literature (written mainly in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew), contributed little to the development of the story. Its authors were hostile toward narrative literary forms, going so far as to voice contempt for the narratives in the Bible itself. *Baḥya b. Joseph ibn Paquda in the preface to his Ḥovot ha-Levavot ("Duties of the Heart"), one of the most famous and influential philosophical-ethical works, explains that the narratives in the Bible were included by God to distinguish between the wise who will disregard them and study the wisdom in the Bible, and the fools, who will follow the narratives and thus reveal themselves as fools. The attitude was widely held by many Jewish medieval intellectuals, and even the *Zohar used the same fable that Baḥya did to demonstrate his contempt of the biblical narratives and narrative literature in general.

Despite their hostile attitude, the medieval philosophers did use the story, mainly in the form of long and well-developed fables and short anecdotes; philosophical-ethical writings, therefore, became another means through which the body of Jewish literature was enriched with anecdotes, epigrams, and fables. Many of them were taken from Arab philosophical and moralistic writings whose origin, as often as not, was in Indian literature. Views, too radical to be plainly stated, were often couched in fables; the wide disparity between the fable and the author's explanation served as an indication of the real views of the radical thinker. Baḥya himself often used this method in his work.

While philosophical-ethical literature did not contribute a great deal to the development of the Hebrew story, the two other main schools of Jewish medieval thought, the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz and the kabbalists, in their theological and their ethical works, were the main outlet for the fictional narrative which was to become inherent in popular Jewish culture.

The Story in Ashkenazi-Ḥasidic Literature

The writings of R. *Judah b. Samuel he-Ḥasid (d. 1217) and his disciples, both theological and ethical, are one of the main sources of the Hebrew narrative in the Middle Ages. The reason for this is at least partially theological. The Ḥasidei Ashkenaz believed that God's will and presence were not to be found in common phenomena of the everyday world and in laws of nature, but in miraculous wonderful happenings, If a Ḥasid, therefore, wanted to learn God's ways and essence, he had to look for unusual phenomena and deduce God's power from them. This attitude, naturally, caused the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz to write down and preserve stories and anecdotes about the exceptional, which was to them theological truth.

Most of these stories have some demonological elements and many describe meetings between men and witches, werewolves, demons, spirits, and ghosts. These supernatural powers did not represent any evil to the Ḥasidim; they regarded them as a part, though a dangerous and mysterious one, of the world created by God. Their theology made the Ḥasidim look for "true" stories which they could believe had actually happened. This is the reason that the literary element was neglected and most of the stories are "eyewitness" anecdotes. Consequently also 12th- and 13th-century German demonology is depicted and not traditional Jewish demonology and superstition. Many of the stories, told by the Ḥasidim as short anecdotes in the 12th century, were collected and developed 700 years later by the Grimm brothers as main stories of German mythology and folklore.

The second motive for the use of the story in Ashkenazi-ḥasidic literature was the ethical fanaticism of the Ḥasidim, as it is reflected in Sefer Ḥasidim, the major ethical work of Ḥasidei Ashkenaz. The extreme demands made by the Ashkenazi Ḥasidim on their followers were demonstrated in hundreds of exempla in which stories are told about men who succeeded in achieving the nigh impossible ethical standards set by the ḥasidic teachers. The latter, in turn, became heroes of cycles of legends (see *Legend ; *Hagiography ), written in the 13th, 15th, and 16th centuries and translated into Yiddish, in which supernatural deeds are attributed to them. Some of the later hagiographical legends sprang from original Ashkenazi-ḥasidic stories in which the heroes were anonymous.

Ashkenazi-ḥasidic ethical literature was one of the main influences on later Jewish ethics whose exponents made extensive use of Sefer Ḥasidim and other Ashkenazi-ḥasidic writings. The narratives of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz were thus preserved long after the movement had died out (late 13th century), and this body of stories became one of the standard sources of later Hebrew fictional writing.

The Narrative in the Kabbalah

The Kabbalah, which flourished in Provence and Spain in the 12th century (reaching its maturity at the end of the 13th century), developed the medieval Hebrew narrative in three different forms:

(1) The hagiography. The teachers of the Kabbalah were treated by their disciples and followers as men of God who possessed secret knowledge and supernatural powers. Contemporaries of these sages and the following generations created hagiographical cycles of stories about them. The kabbalistic sages themselves also wrote hagiographies, often attributing their works to tannaitic sources, and describing the tannaim hagiographically. Works like the *Zohar , Sefer ha-*Kanah , and others include countless stories about the early sages.

(2) The mythological story. By introducing mythological elements into Jewish theology, the kabbalists opened many new possibilities to the Hebrew story (see *Kabbalah ). The idea that processes in the divine spheres and the war between the divine powers of good and evil could be told in a narrative manner led the kabbalistic imagination to endow the saintly being with power to intervene in the divine spheres. The literary genre of the mythological story came to the fore only in later centuries, e.g., the story of R. *Joseph Della Reina (first recorded in 1519, published in 1913), and the stories and legends about *Shabbetai Zevi , who was regarded as having divine power by his believers.

(3) The mystical story. Mystical elements in the Kabbalah led kabbalists to describe their divine revelations and visions, through which they acquired mystical knowledge, in narrative form (see *Visions ). The characteristics of the narrative were influenced by the individual kabbalist author: how he viewed his experience and his attitude to the form, Kabbalistic mysticism thus developed the aspect of the individual visions in the story.

The Kabbalah, between the 12th and 15th centuries, did not try to reach a wide public, and its exponents usually kept their knowledge and revelations a secret. Only at the end of the 15th and in the 16th centuries did the Kabbalah begin to reach wider and wider circles in the various Jewish communities and, therefore, it is in the later Middle Ages that the influence of the Kabbalah on the Hebrew narrative became predominant. It is in 16th-century Jerusalem, Safed, and Italy, and 17th-century Eastern Europe that the kabbalistic story came into its own.

The Hebrew Story in the Italian Renaissance

The Hebrew story in 16th-century Italy was influenced not only by the spirit of Italian Renaissance art and literature, but also by the catastrophe of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. The combination of these two influences is reflected, for instance, in the dialogues found in Shevet Yehudah, a fictional-historical work by Solomon *Ibn Verga . It is devoted mainly to historical descriptions of the various catastrophes which befell the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple. The originality of the work lies in the fictional dialogues between Christian kings, bishops, and scholars, sometimes also involving Jewish scholars and ordinary persons. Ibn Verga's views as to the causes of the catastrophes are unusual for his time. He states that the Jews themselves are to blame for their misfortunes which occurred because of their arrogance, fanaticism, and intolerance. The shock of the expulsion is fused here with the spirit of tolerance of the Renaissance to produce a work whose views were not again to come to the fore before the 19th-century Reform movement in Judaism.

The shock of the disaster of Spanish Jewry gave birth to messianic literature; the most famous examples are the autobiography of David *Re'uveni who styled himself as an emissary of the Lost Ten Tribes to the Pope and kings of Europe, and the autobiographical sketches and kabbalistic visions of Solomon *Molcho who felt that it was his destiny to announce the coming of the Messiah. Many more messianic stories were written in that period.

One of the most important literary contributions of the period to the Hebrew story was the art of autobiography (see *Biography and Autobiography ). Ḥayyei Yehudah by Leone *Modena is one of the most intimate and revealing autobiographies written in Hebrew during the Middle Ages. Abraham *Jagel (Caliko) in one of the stories in Gei Ḥizzayon ("The Valley of Vision") relates how the spirit of his dead father visited him in prison and took him to the heavenly spheres. On their way, father and son met many spirits, good and wicked, who told their stories, and Abraham also told what had happened to him after his father's death. This literary form bears the mark of the Italian novella of that age, and the stories themselves were only slightly Judaized.

This period is marked by two conflicting developments in the Hebrew narrative. On the one hand, there is a closer connection and mutual influence between Hebrew and Italian cultures which benefited the Hebrew story. On the other hand, the Jewish situation of the time caused the Hebrew story to reflect the growing messianic hopes, resulting in a tendency toward isolation from outer influences. The Hebrew story thus came to express the emotions and tensions of a people torn between catastrophe and messianic hope.

The Hebrew Story in Palestine in the 16th Century

Concurrent with the Hebrew renaissance in literature in Italy, there was a Jewish literary and mystic renaissance in Palestine, especially in Safed. Kabbalistic thought, which prevailed in Safed at the time, filled the hearts of almost all the Jewish scholars with messianic expectations. At the beginning of the 16th century, from Jerusalem, came the first version of the story of Joseph Della Reina who tried to bring about the redemption through magic and Kabbalah. Here attention was focused on Nevu'at ha-Yeled ("The Prophecy of the Child" in Jacob Ḥayyim Ẓemaḥ's Nagid u-Meẓavveh, Constantinople, 1726), a story about a wonder child who revealed in obscure Aramaic prophecies the time of the redemption.

In Safed, stories were told about various sages who had performed unusual deeds and undergone all kinds of torture, in order to repent for the sins of all Israel, and in this way hasten the coming of the Messiah. In Safed also appeared R. Isaac *Luria whose teachings revolutionized the Kabbalah and gave it messianic direction; there the first body of hagiographical stories, preserved in various versions (see *Hagiography , *Toledot ha-Ari ), was created around Isaac Luria and his school; and there Luria's foremost pupil, R. Ḥayyim *Vital , wrote his Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot ("Book of Visions") in which he describes his dreams of glory, believing Luria to be the Messiah who was to be a descendant of Joseph, and himself, the Messiah who was to be a descendant of David.

Many other kabbalists and non-kabbalists contributed to the development of the Hebrew story in Palestine at this period, At the beginning of the 17th century, their works began to spread to Eastern Europe, where most of the Jews and most of the more important communities were then located. Unlike the Hebrew literature of the Italian Renaissance, the literature of Safed had an enormous influence in shaping the culture of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Therefore, the further development of the Hebrew story in the 17th and 18th centuries was a direct continuation of the Safed revival and not of the new forms supplied by the Hebrew renaissance literature in Italy.

The Hebrew Story in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Two major processes paved the way for the development of the Hebrew narrative in this period. The first was the spreading of the Lurianic Kabbalah throughout the Jewish world; the hagiographical cycle of stories woven around Luria was repeated in many versions, in many works, with similar stories told about other sages, most of them kabbalists. The second was the Shabbatean movement, which, although it did not produce much narrative literature, did lay the foundations for a new kind of legend: the messianic legend about Shabbetai Ẓevi who had styled himself as the Messiah. Some legendary biographies of Shabbetai Ẓevi and his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, were preserved, but there was probably much more narrative material which was either lost or suppressed by the opponents of Shabbeteanism. This had some delayed influence on ḥasidic literature.

Another change marking the development of the Hebrew story in Eastern Europe in this period was the wider use of Yiddish which had become the spoken, and often the written, language of the Jews. While sacred works in the field of halakhah and Kabbalah were always written in Hebrew, popular works, like stories and ethical literature, were either written only in Yiddish, or in Hebrew with a Yiddish translation. From this period on, it is impossible to distinguish between the development of Hebrew and Yiddish stories. Many originally Hebrew stories were written down in Yiddish, and many popular stories, which were told in Yiddish, were written down in Hebrew.

The wide use of printing also affected the field of narrative literature, and old and new stories were collected and published in small booklets and sometimes in larger collections. Attempts to collect medieval stories have been made by scholars in the East and West. Ḥayyim Joseph David Azulai, an eastern rabbi, wrote down and compiled the stories he had heard throughout his long life and wide travels. Unfortunately, he usually gave only a short description of the story and seldom went into details. Other eastern rabbis in the 18th and early 19th centuries collected hundreds of medieval stories; these, however, have remained in manuscripts until this very day. In the West, collections of stories were published more often; the largest and most important of them being the Oseh Pele ("Wonder Worker"). Modern scholars have taken an interest in this rich mine of narrative literature, and the greatest modern collection, which includes also a full bibliography of earlier collections, is M.J. Berdyczewski's Mi-Mekor Yisrael (19662).

The Ḥasidic Story

The Hebrew narrative in its medieval form continued to develop in the modern period. Haskalah literature did not serve as a substitute for continued creative effort in the old types and forms of Hebrew narrative writing; on the contrary – the Hebrew story, in its medieval form, reached its zenith with the emergence of Haskalah literature. This phenomenon is due to the modern ḥasidic movement, founded by *Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (late 18th century) from which the medieval narrative drew new life.

Though Ḥasidism began much earlier, ḥasidic narrative literature as a written art came to the fore only at the beginning of the 19th century when *Shivḥei ha-Besht and the stories of R. *Naḥman of Bratslav were published (Berdichev, 1815). Later, hundreds of ḥasidic tales were compiled and published. They very often included not only ḥasidic material but also stories about medieval sages. The sanctity accorded to the story in ḥasidic life and ideology helped to preserve not only the ḥasidic story itself, but countless medieval narratives which would have been lost had the authors of ḥasidic narrative anthologies not looked for them and saved them from oblivion. The ḥasidic narrative and the medieval stories that were drawn into the body of ḥasidic literature did not use the wide range of literary forms which came into being in the Middle Ages and have been described above. The modern form almost exclusively belongs to the field of hagiography, and the stories were sometimes used as exempla. The other literary forms ceased to be a vehicle of expression; their place and possible development in Hebrew literature form part of the history of modern Hebrew literature, and not ḥasidic literature. For later developments see *Hebrew Literature .


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

M.J. Bin Gorion (Berdyczewski), Die Sagen der Juden (19622); J. Dan, Torat ha-Sod shel Ḥasidut Ashkenaz (1968), 184–202, 265–7 (incl. bibl.); idem, in: Molad, 23 (1965), 490–6; idem, in: Tarbiz, 30 (1961/62), 273–89; idem, in: Zion, 26 (1961/62), 132–7; idem, in: PAAJR, 35 (1967), 99–111; G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1965), 158–204; Zinberg, Sifrut, vols. 1–3; I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 1 (19572), 1–98; J. Even-Shemuel (Kaufmann), Midreshei Ge'ullah (1954); Kitvei Rabbi Avraham Epstein, 1 (1950), 1–209, 357–90; A.M. Habermann, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 190–202; J.L. Zlotnik, in: Sinai, 18 (1946), 49–58; F. Baer, in: Sefer Dinaburg (1949), 178–205; D. Flusser, in: Zion, 18 (1952/53), 109–26; idem, in: Tarbiz, 26 (1956/57), 165–184; L. Ginzberg, Al Halakhah ve-Aggadah (1960), 205–62; M. Guedemann, Ha-Torah ve-ha-Ḥayyim be-Ẓarefat u-ve-Ashkenaz (19682), 157–81; Y. Raphael, in: Aresheth, 2 (1960), 358–77; 3 (1961), 440f. (Shivḥei ha-Besht, incl. bibl.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Dan, Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim: iyyunim be-Toldotav (1974); idem, Ha-Sippur ha-Ḥasidi (1975); A. Alba, Midrás de los Diez Mandamientos y Libro precioso de la Salvación (1989); idem, Cuentos de los rabinos (1991).

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