EXEMPLUM


EXEMPLUM, legend or anecdote from the lives of the sages to suggest emulation as instruction. In medieval Hebrew literature it is very difficult to distinguish between the legend and *hagiography, historical fiction, and various kinds of fables. The exemplum is not defined by its own, intrinsic literary character, but rather by the intent of the author which is not always known and not always clearly expressed in the story. An anecdote is an exemplum only if it is known that its purpose was to serve as an ethical model to be followed. To discover this purpose, however, is not always possible.

Talmudic-midrashic literature, for example, preserved hundreds of stories and anecdotes describing the lives of the tannaim and the amoraim. Many of these were related by pupils in admiration of their teachers after the latter's death; others out of pure historical interest to preserve the fame of the great rabbis for posterity. The rabbis themselves told autobiographical anecdotes and some parables served only to prove a halakhic or midrashic point. The Middle Ages used the corpus of these stories, whatever the original character or intent of the tales, as exempla: that is to say, a pious Jew had to learn how the old sages behaved so that he might emulate them and achieve the same high moral and religious standards. In the late Middle Ages, this process of turning biographies and hagiographies into exempla continued. In the 16th century, the pupils of the kabbalist Isaac *Luria of Safed evolved a cycle of hagiographies about him which became very popular in Eastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and were included in many ethical and kabbalistic works. When the Ḥasidim evolved their own cycle of legends around their leader *Israel Baal Shem Tov, they used many of the tales woven around Luria, giving them a sometimes factual basis. It is evident, therefore, that both in fact and in popular tradition the Baal Shem Tov used legends about Luria as exempla for emulation, or at least he was described by his pupils as following in the ways of Luria. Medieval literature produced a few works which used talmudic-midrashic narrative material as exempla for their own generations. This was the purpose of collections like The *Exempla of the Rabbis, a large collection of talmudic stories and medieval additions, and Sefer ha-Ma'asiyyot of R. *Nissim of Kairouan. The latter was originally written in Arabic, in order that the general public, not familiar with talmudic literature, could read the stories and benefit from them. Another example is the early *Midrash Aseret ha-Dibberot (see *Fiction, the Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages). Most of the stories included in these works, especially in the last one, are not exempla in the ordinary sense. Though their intention is to teach ethical and religious behavior to the average Jew, the examples they set forth are often so extreme that no one would be expected to follow their teachings exactly. In Midrash Aseret ha-Dibberot, for instance, a story which is intended to demonstrate the importance of observing the Sabbath relates how a cow that had belonged to a Jew refused to work on the Sabbath, and only when the Jew explained to the cow that gentiles may work on the Sabbath did the animal comply. Another story illustrates the commandment not to give a false oath in the name of God. It describes the misfortunes which befell a man who refused to swear under any circumstances, even to the truth. R. Nissim, in his collection, tells the story of a man who, using most of his income to help the poor, was told by Heaven that he still was not perfect. He then sold his wife into slavery and gave the money to the poor. These tales have an extreme, unrealistic standard of moral behavior which is more closely connected with Muslim fanatic sects than with talmudic Jewish ethics. They are exempla in the sense that they demonstrate the extent to which a saintly person has gone in order to fulfill one of the commandments; they are not exempla intended to teach moderate, everyday behavior to the wider public.

A large body of exempla, short anecdotes, and more developed stories was introduced into Hebrew literature in Spain through Arabic sources, and was included in Jewish philosophical and ethical-philosophical works, as well as in more narrative form in the *maqamat and romances of the time. Most of these exempla are of Indian origin, transmitted, by way of Persian and Arabic literature, into Jewish works. They are models of wisdom and not only of ethics. There is also a strong Sufi element in those found in the works of *Bahya ibn Paquda or Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera. Some medieval writings served as exempla without having been written for that purpose, specifically the Jewish martyrologies; "The Ten Martyrs" (A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 2 (19382), 64–72, under the title Midrash Elleh Ezkerah), a medieval work describing the death of the *Ten Martyrs in Roman time, became a model of behavior for Jews in the Middle Ages. The corpus of historical chronicles describing the massacres in Germany and northern France during the Crusades, though written primarily as historical works, served for centuries as exempla to any Jewish community under threat of conversion or death. Contemporaries of the expulsion from Spain repeatedly complain of those who did not follow the example set by their Ashkenazi brothers during the Crusades, but preferred conversion to exile. History itself, or historical chronicles, served in this case as exempla in the full sense of the term.

The largest body of exempla in medieval Hebrew literature is to be found in Sefer Ḥasidim (see bibliography), the main ethical work of the *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz in the 12th and 13th centuries. The book includes hundreds of exempla; however, where generally the exempla tend to specify men whose undoubted virtue should prompt emulation of their deeds, the exempla in Sefer Ḥasidim are always anonymous. Where the name is mentioned (e.g., "a certain Joseph or Mordecai"), it has no associative meaning. Most of the exempla start with: "There was a Jew who…" or "It is told about a Ḥasid who…" The tendency toward anonymity was part of the ethical ideology of *Judah he-Ḥasid, the author of most of the book. The ideology based itself on the concept that if great deeds are told about a person, he, or his family, might take sinful pride in the fact (pride being regarded by the Ḥasidim as one of the cardinal sins). Unlike the exempla influenced by Islam, the exempla of Sefer Ḥasidim are concrete, reflecting everyday life and everyday ethical problems. It is possible that many of the episodes actually happened, the author using true anecdotes to illustrate his ethical standards. Many of the exempla describe the behavior of Jews during the persecutions of the Crusades; these served as models of behavior to many communities. Most of the exempla, however, describe the right, ethical way to behave when tempted by pride, by the evil powers lurking in man, how to conduct oneself toward women, gentiles, etc.

In the Ashkenazi ḥasidic exempla there is a class of anecdotes which expound ways of repentance involving the use of extreme self-mortification. Exempla of the same sort are found 300 years later in 16th-century Safed when mystic sages (some of them tried to remain anonymous) used the same type of mortification as a means to repent for their own sins and for the sins of the people of Israel.

In a sense, modern ẓasidic narrative literature served also as exempla, but its purpose was different. The wonderful stories told about the ẓaddikim were not models of conduct to be followed implicitly by Ḥasidim. The ẓaddikim had a different code of behavior from their believers, and the stories of their behavior were intended to provoke meditation, to bring the ḥasid into deeper understanding of the ways of the ẓaddikim and the ways of God, and thereby to some extent to influence the ḥasid's own ethical behavior.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

M. Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis (Eng. and Heb., 1924, 19682 with introd. by Braude); J. Meitlis, Das Ma'assebuch (1933); J. Wistinetzki and J. Freiman (eds.), Sefer Ḥasidim (1924, repr. 1955); A. Jellinek (ed.), Beit ha-Midrash, 6 vols. (19382); J.R. Marcus, Jew in the Medieval World (1960), 225–83. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Dan, Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim: Iyyunim be-Toldotav (1974); A. Alba, Midrás de los Diez Mandamientos y Libro precioso de la Salvación (1989); idem, Cuentos de los rabinos (1991).

[Joseph Dan]


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