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ALLEGORY, a narrative in which the agents and the action, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived not only to make sense in themselves, but also to signify a second correlated order of things, concepts, or events (Abrams).

In the Bible

A pure parable differs from a pure allegory in two respects: (1) it is simple and credible in itself; it begins by saying that case A is like case B. The parables in the Midrash and Gospels are of this sort (e.g., prodigal son: Luke 15:11–32; fatherless steward: ibid. 16; the 11th hour: Matt. 20:1–16). There are, however, some parables which tell a tale simple and credible in itself but do not begin by saying case A is like case B, but rather leave the hearer wondering, or – at first – deliberately mislead him (e.g., Nathan's parable, I Sam. 12:1–7; the "story" told by the anonymous prophet in I Kings 20:39). The latter might be called quasi-allegories or crypto-allegories. These stories are not as contrived as Ezekiel 17:1ff., which only makes sense as a "riddle" (ḥidah; Ezek. 17:2). This is not an allegorically applied parable but an allegory pure and simple. A similar quasi-allegory is the "Song of the Vineyard" in Isaiah 5:1–6, which, however, has an allegorical element (cf. verse 6 b) in the story as well as being allegorically interpreted in verse 7. The fact is that biblical Hebrew was hardly aware of a distinction between simile, metaphor, parable, and allegory. Thus, in Ezekiel 24:3 the word mashal designates a metaphor, whereas in 17:2 it introduces, together with the word ḥidah, a typical allegory (Ezek. 17:3–24). In fact, both these words cover the gamut of figurative language, including not only parable and allegory, but fable, tale, enigma, maxim, and proverb.

Beside allegorical figures, such as kindness (grace; ḥesed), faithfulness (emet), righteousness (ẓedek), integrity (shalem) in Psalms 85:11–12, 14 and 89:15, wisdom (ḥokhmah, ḥokhmot) in Proverbs 1:20; 8:1, 12;9:1; 14:1, and folly (kesilut, ivvelet) in Proverbs 9:13, 14:1, maiden Israel, fair (lit. daughter) Zion, fair Jerusalem, and similar expressions in various poetical books, there are two principal kinds of allegory in the Bible. The first occurs when the narrative is based upon an image that suggests the intended subject. Allegories of this kind are often found in Ezekiel, perhaps the first Hebrew poet to make an extensive use of the metaphor. Thus, in Ezekiel, 16:3–63, Jerusalem appears as an adulteress, and in Ezekiel 23:2–45, the two adulterous sisters Oholah and Oholibah represent Samaria and Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 19:2–14, there is a twin allegory, in which the lioness and the vine stock symbolize the people of Israel. This allegory is perhaps partially inspired by an originally Sumerian lyric, The Message of Lú-dingir-ra to His Mother (see M. Civil, in: JNES, 23 (1964), 1–11; J. Nougayrol and E. Laroche, in Ugaritica, 5 (1968), 310–19, 444–5, 773–9). Another allegory of the vine stock is found in Psalms 80:9–17. In Ezekiel 31:3–18, the fate of the Cedar of Lebanon symbolizes the destiny of Pharaoh, while the allegory of the shepherds and the flock in Ezekiel 34:2–16, 17–22, alludes to the kings of Israel. Ezekiel's allegorical descriptions are sometimes followed by an interpretation of all the figurative elements, a method found later in apocalyptic literature; symbolic visions are explained by a heavenly being or a man of God. This occurs first in Ezekiel 17:3–24, one of the finest pieces of allegorical imagery, which represents the king of Babylon as an eagle and the house of David as a cedar. The same proceeding is found in Ezekiel's vision of the resurrection of the dry bones (37:1–14), an allegory of Israel's restoration. The description of the invaders' army in Joel 2:1–11 portrays in reality the invasion of locusts, which the poet considered a sign of the Lord's anger. The shepherd's allegory in Zechariah 11:4–14 is a kind of apology of the divine Providence toward Israel. Some visions of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel 4:7–24 or 7:2–27, are akin to allegory inasmuch as the details have an assigned meaning. The allegory of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:1–7 is, in its individual figures, somewhat akin to a riddle.

The second kind of allegory occurs when the literary composition has a complete meaning contained within itself, independently of the moral or spiritual framework that lies beyond it. There is perhaps one sustained allegory of this type in the Bible, namely the Song of Songs, which is an artistically elaborate anthology of love lyrics. Some scholars have nevertheless attempted to see it as an allegorical narrative about the relations between God and His people. An allegorical interpretation may be imposed by others on a work whose author did not intend it to have any meaning on other than the literal level. The allegorical exegesis of the Song of Songs may reflect such a creative approach to a work, which originally had no allegorical meaning at all. In fact, allegorizing interpretations made their way into Judaism in the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E.

[Edward Lipinski]

In Talmudic and Medieval Literature

Allegory was used in the talmudic period, and especially in the medieval period, in three types of literature, each using allegory in its own, different way: (a) homiletical literature used allegory in trying to translate facts and ideas known to the public, into ethical teaching, by discovering the hidden meaning behind the well-known phenomena; allegorical interpretation of Scripture was frequently used in this literary type; (b) fiction, both poetry and prose, used allegory in order to develop a multi-level story or poem; (c) theological literature, especially medieval philosophy and Kabbalah, used allegory as a means to express the idea that the phenomena which are revealed to the senses are but a superficial and sometimes false part of the divine truth, whereas allegory can penetrate to deeper and truer levels.

The preachers of the talmudic and midrashic literature seldom used complete and systematic allegorical constructions. An attempt has been made to prove that two schools of allegorists existed in talmudic times, the doreshei reshumot and doreshei ḥamurot, both of which were frowned upon by the leading talmudic scholars. This may well be, and the result was that allegory is found in a scattered, unorganized way in this vast literature. One of the clearest examples of the use of allegory is to be found in the homiletical discussions of Ecclesiastes 9:15, 16 (Eccles. R., ch. 9). Here the characters in the biblical verse are interpreted in several allegorical ways, but each is complete, and explains every detail in the source, whether it is historical allegory, finding in the verse the story of Israel in Egypt, or ethical allegory, describing the relationship between the good and the evil (inclinations) in man. The midrashic preachers in this case, as in a few others, had no doubt whatsoever that the biblical verse is allegorical in nature; they discussed various possibilities of unveiling this allegorical meaning. This is a completely different situation from that found in the interpretations of the Song of Songs as allegory, for in that case the meaning (e.g., the relationship between God and Israel) preceded the detailed allegorical interpretations.

Later homiletical literature, in the medieval and early modern periods, revealed allegorical meanings not only in biblical verses, but in talmudic and midrashic passages. Obscure sayings of talmudic scholars, strange stories told by them (e.g., the stories of *Rabbah b. Bar Ḥana , allegorically interpreted by R. *Naḥman of Bratzlav in the first years of the 19th century), all served as material for allegorical interpretation, usually within an ethical, moralistic framework. However, here also systematic, allegorical structure is very rare.

The clearest examples of the use of allegory in fiction is to be found in the *maqama of the 12th–14th centuries, especially in Spain. Characters in these works are sometimes allegorical entities, usually with some hidden philosophical meaning. Usually it is difficult to distinguish between a well-developed fable and allegorical elements in these works, but some allegorical tendencies are evident. Most of the writers of this school followed examples, or even definite works, by their Arab predecessors or contemporaries. In Hebrew poetry of the period, especially sacred poetry but sometimes also in the secular, allegorical elements may be found. However, it is difficult to point out a separate allegorical school. Abraham *Ibn Ezra 's Ḥai ben Makiẓ is one of the best examples of allegorical works of this period.

It is not surprising that theological allegory is to be found more in the homiletical and exegetical works of medieval Hebrew philosophers and mystics than in the "straight" theological works. Allegory was used mainly to reconcile ancient lore with contemporary theology, and homiletics and exegetical literature are usually the meeting place of the old and the new. However, some use of allegory is to be found in stories and fables incorporated in theological works, e.g., in *Baḥya ibn Paquda's Ḥovot ha-Levavot," in the writings of R. Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera , or even in Maimonides' famous "parable of the Palace" (Guide, 3:51).

The philosophers used allegory not only to explain away the physical attributes of God in the Bible and the talmudic literature. They interpreted whole biblical stories as allegory. This tendency is less evident in the early development of Jewish medieval philosophy; it came into its own only in the 13th century, in the writings of Maimonists like R. Zerahiah Ḥen (see *Gracian ), in his polemical letters and his exegesis of the book of Job, or R. Jacob *Anatoli , in his homiletical work, Malmad ha-Talmidim. In works like these, one plot is substituted for another: the story of Abraham and Sarah, for example, becomes a parable of the relationship between matter and form, and Noah's three sons represent the three Platonic social classes.

[Joseph Dan]

In Kabbalah

Allegory does not occupy a prominent place in kabbalistic thought and insofar as kabbalists used it, they were influenced by philosophical exegesis. The specific domain of kabbalistic thought is the aspect of sod ("mystery"), that is, viewing the processes of the world or interpreting the Scriptures in a manner which refers them to the mystery of the Godhead and its hidden life. However, opposed to sod is remez ("allusion"), which is allegory. Philosophical commentaries did not talk of processes within the divine world revealing themselves through symbols; but of parallelism between biblical data, e.g., the stories of the Bible, and philosophical views derived from Greek and Arab tradition. Such commentaries recur in certain parts of the Zohar, especially in the Midrash ha-Ne'lam concerning the stories of the patriarchs and Ruth, where these stories were interpreted as allegories of the fate of the soul in its descent from above into the human body, its vicissitudes inside the body, and the future allotted to it after death and in the world to come. Here and there such commentaries are also found in the main body of the Zohar. In kabbalistic literature this type of allegorical interpretation is prominent among those kabbalists who tended (especially in the 13th and 14th centuries) to seek a compromise between philosophy and Kabbalah, and to develop mystical views beyond the specific theosophical system of *Sefirot . The main representative of this conception is *Isaac b. Latif . In the wide-ranging commentary on the Pentateuch of *Baḥya b. Asher the allegorical parts ("rational exegesis") were separated from the kabbalistic parts ("exegesis in the manner of the Kabbalah"). Allegorical interpretations are also found in the writings of kabbalists like Joseph *Ibn Waqar and Samuel *Ibn Motot . Allegory of the type which interprets the words of the Scriptures as referring to the history of man and his fate is found in abundance in the ḥasidic literature which combines the manner of the allegoristic and aggadic interpreters with the style of the kabbalists.

[Gershom Scholem]

One of the major kabbalists who systematically used philosophical allegories, especially Maimonidean ones, was Abraham *Abulafia . He describes this exegetical method as the fourth in his sevenfold system and applies it widely to the biblical texts in his Commentary on the Torah entitled Sefer ha-Mafteḥot. Moreover, unlike most of the other kabbalists and philosophers who allegorized the sacred scriptures, Abulafia composed some of his prophetic writings as allegories, inventing dramas whose specific meaning he himself interpreted by resorting to Maimonidean psychology or metaphysics.

The impact of his allegoristic approach is evident in Johanan *Alemanno , and in some instances of Ḥayyim *Vital 's exgesis.

[Moshe Idel (2nd ed.)]

Modern Literature

Influenced by kabbalistic symbolism modern Hebrew (and later also Yiddish) literature developed the allegorical drama, of which the most outstanding examples are the moralistic dramas of Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto (e.g., La-Yesharim Tehillah). As to prose writings, while it is probable that the stories of R. Naḥman of Bratslav are of an allegorical nature, as they were later interpreted, there is no distinct allegory until the appearance of Di Kliatshe (Heb., Susati) of Sholem Yankev *Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim). Also some of the writings of I.L. *Peretz and S.Y. *Agnon (e.g., Pat Shelemah, Shevu'at Emunim) were interpreted as allegories. Note should also be made of many political allegories which flourished during the years of Jewish underground activities in Ereẓ Israel in times when writers had to disguise their message for fear of the censors. Further examples may be found in the early stories of Abraham B. *Yehoshua (e.g., Mot ha-Zaken, 1962) and in some prose works of Yitzḥak *Orpaz, as both writers seek to explain the tensions within the personal and collective subconscious. The allegorical names given to some opf the characters are interwoven with realistic features (e.g., in Orpaz's novel Or be-ad Or, 1962). In his novella Nemalim ("Ants," 1968), Orpaz describes how a horde of mysterious, demonic ants invade an apartment, threatening to destroy the home of a couple on the verge of a divorce. The menace of the ants has been interpreted as an allegorical story about the horror of the modern family as well as the destructive forces among the Arabs. Benjamin Tammuz´s novella Ha-Pardes ("The Orange Grove," 1971) is likewise an allegory about the relations between Jews and Arabs, set against the background of pre-State Israel.

[Anat Feinberg (2nd ed.)]


E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898), 748–54; A.M.J. Lagrange, in: RB, 6 (1909), 198–212, 342–67 (esp. 347–55); C.G. Montefiore, in: JQR, 3 (1912/13), 623–4; O. Eissfeldt, Der Maschal im Alten Testament (1913), esp. 14–16; H. Gunkel and H. Gressmann, in RGG2, 1 (1927), 219–20; A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1 (19584), 179–80; F. Hauck, in: G. Friedrich (ed.), Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 5 (1954), 741–59 (esp. 744–6). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (1971), 4; J. Fraenkel, Darkhei ha-Aggadah ve-ha-Midrash (Heb., 1996), 197–232; idem, Midrash ve-Aggadah (1996), 181–99; M. Idel, Language, Torah and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia, tr. M. Kallus (1989).

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