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FABLE, an animal tale (according to the most general and hence most widely accepted definition), i.e., a tale in which the characters are animals, and which contains a moral lesson. The genre also includes tales in which plants or inanimate objects act and talk.


Definitions vary according to the importance ascribed to the thematic factor (the animal story) or the functional factor (its didactic tendency). As a literary creation, the fable developed out of oral folklore, and it can thus be asserted that the thematic element is closely related to those popular origins, while the didactic quality is the product of a more sophisticated cultural level, usually of an individual whose specific aim is to educate (e.g., the Greek pedagogues, the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the darshanim, and the priests of the various churches during the Middle Ages). Because the earliest sources of the European literary fable and the oldest known collection are connected with the name of the Greek Aesop, the animal fable has often been called the Aesopian fable.

While the animal society of the fable operates very similarly to its human analogue, the activity, in general, remains exclusively within the realm of the animal world. Some fables, however, do depict interaction between humans and animals. A similarity between the fable and the fairy tale (maerchen, Heb. ma'asiyyah) is seen in this fanciful conception of animals functioning as human beings. Yet within the fable itself, the plot is usually realistic and seldom contains magical elements, such as metamorphoses, revivals of the dead, and ghosts. The fable further differs from the fairy tale in its being mono-episodic. A series of episodes related or written together have developed into the beast epic, but each of those episodes can be isolated from its wider context. Like the fairy tale, though, the fable too uses universal motifs and stock characters. The latter are either stereotyped or endowed with conventional functions within the animal society.

The source of the fable lies in the observation of animals in their natural setting, and the tale often remains etiological. More sophisticated plots and the didactic application of the concrete story to the realm of ethics result from the tendency to draw obvious parallels and to develop potential analogies. In these cases, the two possible narrative forms are the metaphorical and generalizing fables.

Among various conjectures as to the origin of the fable, the 19th-century scholar, Julius Landsberger, maintained that the fable originated with the Jews (Hebraeer), pointing out the similarity between the names Aesop and Asaph. While this theory has been contradicted (by Joseph *Jacobs and others), some of the Hebrew fables are nevertheless among the most ancient that are extant in literary form. These are traced back to the 15th–14th centuries B.C.E., and a still earlier oral tradition can be assumed.

The Hebrew term for fable, mashal (מָשָׁל), is linked, in popular etymology, to the two homonymic roots mshl, meaning respectively "to liken," and "to rule." This is explained by the fact that meshalim were narrated by rulers or related to future rulers in order to instruct them in just ways.

In the Bible

The biblical term refers to the proverb, aphorism, and to allegorical prophecy. Later interpretation applied the term to allegory (Ezek. 17:3–12), to the parable (II Sam. 12:1–4), and to the fable. Of the latter there are two prime examples: Jotham's fable told to the citizens of Shechem on Mount Gerizim (Judg. 9:8–15), in which he likens their king, Abimelech, to the bramble which became the king of the trees; and the fable of the thistle and the cedar of Lebanon in the answer given by Jehoash, the king of Israel, to Amaziah, the king of Judah (II Kings 14:9; II Chron. 25:18). One interpretation of II Kings 5:13 (where Solomon is said to have spoken of trees and animals) is that it refers to Solomon's writing of fables, a field in which the Semitic wise man (e.g., *Ahikar ) characteristically engaged.

In the Talmud and Midrash

A much richer source of fables is the talmudic-midrashic literature, which mentions several outstanding fabulists, notably *Hillel (Sof. 16:7), and his pupil, *Johanan b. Zakkai (Suk. 28a; BB 134a; Sof. 16:6). Johanan mastered three genres: fox tales, palm tales (lit., "the talk of palm trees"), and washerman tales. (The last, mishlei kovesim, has been interpreted by Landsberger (see bibl.) as referring to the first century C.E. Libyan fabulist, Kybisses, a view rejected by D. Noy (see bibl. Mahanayim, 91), and others.) According to the Talmud, the most prolific of the fabulists was R. *Meir , a tanna in the last generation (Sanh. 38b–39b); he was reputed to have known 300 fables, but only three were transmitted to his students. (The numbers are formulistic and perhaps exaggerated.) It is even said that when he died "the composers of fables ceased" (Sot. 49a). J.L. *Gordon argues that R. Meir's fables were Aesopian and that he had heard them from his teacher, *Elisha b. Avuyah , who was acquainted with Greek culture. *Bar Kappara , in the following generation, is said to have known as many fables as R. Meir (Eccles. R. 1:3). It is interesting to note that the fox, the hero of a great number of European fables, is a central figure in the talmudic tradition of animal fables. In the Midrash, the fox himself is depicted as a teller of fables (Gen. R. 78:7).

The same period reflects an increased affinity with the Aesopian tradition and the Indian animal tales (as they are known from the Jatakas and the Panchatantra). According to Jacobs, of 30 talmudic fables only six lack Greek or Indian parallels; many show both. I. *Ziegler maintains that the fables as taught by the rabbis were adapted to their audience more than their Greek counterparts: the insistence on moral and theological teaching is stronger with the rabbis, as seen in the following comparison of epimythia (i.e., the proverb-like statements concluding the narrative). In the fable of the fox who ate too many grapes and was required to fast before he was able to leave the vineyard, the Aesopian version concludes that time takes care of everything, whereas Ecclesiastes Rabbah brings a moralizing quotation from Ecclesiastes (5:14): "As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return."

In the Middle Ages


Among the stories in this work are the fable of Leviathan and the fox, an etiological fable about the enmity between cat and mouse; and other stories containing motifs from international folklore and possibly based on folktales. The 1698 Amsterdam edition was printed with "Musar al-pi ha-Ḥidah," a fragment of a collection of fables, printed in the early 16th century under the name Ḥidot Isopeto. ("The Riddles of Isopet"). The name Isopeto, for Aesop, appears in other Jewish writings, and parallels the name Ysopet in the Romance languages.

ḤIBBUR YAFEH MIN HA-YESHU'AH ("The Book of Redemption")

In the 11th century Rabbenu Nissim, from Kairouan (see *Nissim b. Jacob b. Nissim ibn Shahin ), wrote this book of tales, which also includes two fables. The work, originally written in Arabic, was discovered in 1896; prior to that, only the Hebrew translation (Ma'asiyyot she-ba-Talmud, Constantinople, 1519) was known.


Translated into Latin as Directorium Vitae by the apostate *John of Capua, this composition was of great importance to European fable literature; it became the basis of all translations. According to A.S. Rappoport, the Greek translation of Kalila and Dimna (ed. by J. Derenbourg, 1881) was also made by a Jew, Simeon, in 1080. The original is to be traced back through the eighth-century Arabic translation to an origin in the Indian Panchatantra. This line of influence from India nourished the prose fiction of the Jews of Muslim and later of Christian Spain and of Provence.

SEFER SHA'ASHU'IM ("Book of Delights")

Written at the end of the 12th century by Joseph b. Meir *Ibn Zabara – whose cultural environment was clearly Muslim – this work bears some relation to the Taḥkemoni of Judah *Al-Ḥarizi , and to the maqamat of the Arabic poet Al-Ḥariri. It contains a fable which deals with a conflict between the strong leopard and the sly fox and which in turn forms the framework for another fable and for four other stories, describing faithless women (one of them the widow of Ephesus, which also appears in Petronius' Satyricon). One of the stories is a version of the fable of the fox in the vineyard, completely devoid, however, of the homiletic bent of the Midrash. The book shows traces of Arabic, Greek, and Indian culture, and has parallels in collections of medieval exempla literature. It was translated into English by M. Hadas as The Book of Delight (1960).

BEN HA-MELEKH VE-HA-NAZIR ("The Prince and the Hermit")

Translated into Hebrew by Abraham ibn Ḥisdai in Spain at the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century (first printed edition, Constantinople, 1518), this work was discovered by Steinschneider to be a translation and adaptation of the Greek "Barlaam and Joasaph." Indian in origin (c. eighth century), it is a typical example of lndian wisdom literature, in which the stories are told by a wise man as he tutors a young prince.


This work was written by R. *Berechiah b. Natronai ha-Nakdan who lived during the creative period of Jewish fable literature (end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century), and was printed in Mantua in 1557. The use of the name Mishlei Shu'alim, identical with a genre of fables mentioned in the Talmud (Suk. 28a; Sanh. 38b), is explained on the title page by the statement that the fox is the most cunning of animals, and therefore the cleverest. The number of fables included in this collection varies between 107 and 115 with the different manuscripts. They are written in the form of maqamat, in a clear, lively style; structurally each has an epimythium, the first two lines of which comprise the promythium as well (i.e., a proverb-like statement at the opening of the narrative). The religious tendency of the Midrash, totally absent in Sefer Sha'ashu'im, appears vaguely in Berechiah's composition. Its tone is clearly Jewish: biblical references are numerous, other sources are echoed in it, mythological creatures are changed to men. A talmudic reference to R. *Akiva (Ber. 61) is the source of Berechiah's story of the fox and the fish. On the other hand, the work also displays many parallels to the West-European Aesopian tradition, including the Old-French compilation of Marie de France and the Directorium Vitae. Some parallels also appear in the popular late-medieval beast epic Roman de Renart (High German, Reinhart Fuchs; Low German, Reynke de Vos). It is possible that Marie de France and Berechiah had common sources in the West European Isopet traditions, in which case the title and the printer's remark can be explained by the immense popularity of fox fables at that period.

Mishlei Shu'alim became part of European Jewish culture: a Yiddish translation by Jacob Koppelman appeared as early as 1588 in Freiburg, and was reprinted several times in Prague, Vilna, and Warsaw, Several reprints in Hebrew were also rendered in different parts of Europe. Popular among non-Jews as well, it appeared in a Latin translation by Melchior Hanel (Prague, 1661), and the German author, G.E. Lessing, translated seven of the fables into German (Abhandlung ueber die Fabel, 1759). M. Hadas published an English translation, Fables of a Jewish Aesop (1967).

MESHAL HA-KADMONI ("The Fable of the Ancient")

The Spanish Hebrew writer, Isaac ben Solomon ibn *Sahula , aspired to create a Hebrew fable independent of foreign influences, and titled his book Meshal ha-Kadmoni, so as to stress the fact that its sources were in the Talmud and Midrash. In fact, however, he did not succeed in completely eliminating foreign influences. Written in the form of a maqama, the fables are cast in dialogue. Their moral lessons are Jewish, and the animals, well versed in Jewish learning: the deer is an expert in Talmud, the rooster, a Bible scholar, and the hare knows the posekim. They are also knowledgeable in such fields as logic, grammar, and biology. Neither characterization nor plots are fabular in the popular or traditional sense, which, according to Heller, renders Sahula's fables less important than those of Ibn Zabara or of Berechiah. Meshal ha-Kadmoni was first printed in 1480. The Venetian edition of 1546 is amply and imaginatively illustrated with pictures of the disputing animals. The book, which gained popularity, was translated into Yiddish by Gershon Wiener (Frankfurt, 1693).

SEFER HA-MESHALIM ("The Book of Riddles")

The 13th-century kabbalist Joseph *Gikatilla compiled this non-kabbalistic collection of approximately 140 riddles, essentially didactic in nature, and often lacking the ingenuity of a genuine riddle. (Some manuscripts, however, include only about half the number of riddles.) The basis of comparison in these riddles varies among plants, animals, and inanimate objects. It was published by I. Davidson in 1927.

IGGERET BA'ALEI ḤAYYIM ("The Animals' Collection")

A translation by *Kalonymus b. Kalonymus (Arles, 1316, in seven days) of the end of the 25th book of a Muslim encyclopedia, its first printed edition appeared in Mantua in 1557 (ed. by J. Landsberger, 1882). Its sources include Greek and Arabic but are primarily Indian. Several elements of this work are not characteristic of the fable: the animals, for instance, dispute throughout the book with human beings before the king of ghosts, and the plot is not mono-episodic. On the other hand, the context of law courts and the depiction of animals functioning like human beings do resemble the fable. The Jewish element in the translation is the addition of a Jew to the Muslim who represents men in the trial. There is clearly a relationship between Iggeret Ba'alei Ḥayyim and the Bidpai literature, and parallels to some of its "characters" are found in Kalila and Dimna. The popularity of this work is evidenced by the fact that it was printed several times and translated into Yiddish.

MISHLEI SENDABAR ("The Tales of Sendabar," Sindbad)

Translated into Hebrew the same year as Iggeret Ba'alei Ḥayyim (1316), these tales exist in eight Oriental versions (Greek, Syriac, Old Spanish, three Persian ones, Arabic, and Hebrew), all under the same name. (In all the major Western languages they appear as The Seven Sages.) M. Epstein suggests the possibility of a Hebrew origin on the basis of a similarity to Vashti the Queen in the Book of Esther. The wickedness of women is the central theme of both the frame tale and those told by the sages. One of the sages of the Hebrew version, Lokman, is, according to tradition, the Arabic Aesop. The distinctive feature of the Hebrew Mishlei Sendabar is the freeing of the woman at the end; in other versions she is killed or otherwise severely punished. The intermediary between the Indian and the Arabic versions is generally held to be Pahlevi. Epstein points out, however, that the Hebrew alone bears some features which distinguish the Western from the Eastern version. According to others, the bridge is either the Byzantine Empire or the Crusaders. A.M. *Habermann 's view is that the book was translated to Hebrew from Arabic, although this has not been proved to be the only possibility. Modern editions include M. Epstein's (Tales of Sendebar, 1967) and A.M. Habermann's (Mishlei Sindbad, 1946). (See *Sindabar .)

MISHLEI IRASTO ("Tales of Irasto")

Translated by the early 16th century rabbi of Amsterdam, Isaac *Uziel , this work is very similar to Mishlei Sindabar, but the coarse elements have been excluded. It was translated, according to Habermann, from Italian; according to A. *Elmaleh (editor of Mishlei Irasto, 1945), from Latin.

In the Post-Medieval Period


This most popular collection of Yiddish fables in Europe is known only in Moses Wallich's edition (Frankfurt, 1687). Its name is taken from an earlier compilation of the same name, no longer extant, which was printed in 1555 by Abraham b. Mattathias. While it apparently included parts of Mishlei Shu'alim and Meshal ha-Kadmoni, its fables are not direct translations; it also includes stories in the typical Renaissance style of Decameron. A modern German translation by R. Beatus was published by A. Freimann in 1926.


The various ideological schools of medieval Jewry employed fables as religious exempla. The rationalists, the Hasidei Ashkenaz, and the representatives of the Kabbalah in its various stages all used fables allegorically or metaphorically to support and to exemplify their ideas. It is quite likely that fables were used by darshanim after the Middle Ages as well, although few examples are extant. Fables with a clear homiletical tendency appear among the meshalim of Jacob of Dubno ( Jacob *Kranz , better known as the Dubno Maggid), one of the outstanding darshanim of the Musar Movement. It is somewhat exaggerated, however, to call him "the Jewish Aesop," as M. *Mendelssohn did, since he drew the background material for his fables primarily from everyday life; as H. Glatt (He Spoke in Parables, 1957) has said, "he was more of a parablist than a fabler." One of his fables is the Aesopian "One Donkey for Two People." Other classical fables in his repertoire include "The Crafty Woodcock" (i.e., the Aesopian "The Fox, the Cock, and the Dog") and "The Utensils that Gave Birth" (cf. Kalila and Dimna and Panchatantra). The stories in his commentary to Pirkei Avot also contain fables.

In Modern Hebrew Literature


Modern Hebrew literature, highly didactic in its early stages (late 18th–early 19th centuries), found the fable a useful literary device. Isaac ha-Levi *Satanow wrote the pseudepigraphic Mishlei Asaf (2 vols., Berlin, 1788–91). Imaginatively attributed to Asaph b. Berechiah (I Chron. 6:24), the work is stylistically imitative of Proverbs and the Wisdom of *Ben Sira . Its animal fables, which tend to be allegorical, are composed in the talmudic and the Aesopian traditions. In the same period, such writers as Joel *Loewe and Isaac Euchel dealt with the fable from a theoretical standpoint.

Shalom ben Jacob *Cohen 's Mishlei Agur (Berlin, 1799; 1911) includes verses and verse-dramas, which sometimes have fabular characteristics. The Yiddish satirist Solomon *Ettinger , who associated with the Zamosc maskilim, differed from most of his contemporaries in stressing style more than ideology. Influenced by German drama and fable literature (Lessing, Gellert), Ettinger added Jewish content to the foreign themes. Many of his fables are essentially epigrammatic.


Later in the 19th century, the poet J.L. Gordon published Mishlei Yehudah (1860), a collection mainly of translations of La Fontaine's fables. In the preface to this work, he gave a history of the Hebrew fable. Gam Elleh Mishlei Yehudah, another collection of fables, appeared in 1871. While Gordon essentially collected and transmitted fables from the European tradition to Hebrew, A. *Paperna wrote a book of fables Mishlei ha-Zeman (1894), essentially a long discourse among various animals on the question of who was the happiest of them all. Irony is the dominating tone of the work, and amusement apparently its primary purpose, although it may also have some practical implications. In verging on the comic, this work resembles the 18th-cen-tury German fables. In 1893 Joshua *Steinberg published his Mishlei Yehoshu'a which are mainly epigrams. Collections of East European Jewish fables such as these were published as far east as Baghdad.


A number of (He-brew) translations of fables appeared in the 19th century, including: I.L. *Jeiteles ' translation of Lessing's fables; Solomon Pundy's (b. 1812) of the German folklorist Pfeffel's fables; Benjamin Kewall's (1806–1880) adaptation of 52 of Aesop's fables Pirḥei Kedem (1843). The Italian Jewish writer S.D. *Luzzatto in Kinnor Na'im (Vienna, 1825), translated fables by Aesop and Lessing. Krylov's fables were translated by Meir Wolf Singer (1885) and by Chayim Susskind (1891). In the beginning of the 20th century a new translation of Lessing's fables was made by Moses *Reicherson (1902), and a translation of Krylov by S.L. *Gordon (1907). More than 400 years after its translation into Hebrew, Kalila and Dimna was retranslated by Elmaleh (1926).


Few literary fables have been written in the 20th century. Among Jewish works, the most important is probably that written by Eliezer *Steinbarg and published in Romania (Shriftn, 2 vols., 1932–33), shortly after the death of the author. The two volumes, written in rich, rhythmic Yiddish verse, include 150 fables of animals and inanimate objects alike. (His fables were published earlier (1928) with wood-cuts by A. *Kolnik .) Some of the fables have epimythia; others convey the moral lesson through the tale itself.

Hananiah Reichman, who translated the fables of Krylov (1950), includes in his epigrammatic collections much fabular material, adapted to his own concise and ironic verse form. His books include Mi-Mishlei ha-Ammim u-mi-Pi Ḥakhamim (1941), Pitgamim u-Mikhtamim (1955), and Devash va-Okeẓ (1960). He also translated Steinbarg's fables into He-brew (1954). An interesting contribution is E. *Fleischer's Meshalim (1957), a book of fables which was sent to Ereẓ Israel from a prison camp in Eastern Europe. The author used the pseudonym Bar-Abba. Written basically in the classical vein of La Fontaine and Krylov, these fables have new themes and combine humor with bitter social satire.

The religious fables (a minority among parables, as Yalkut Meshalim (ed. S. Sheinfold) generally in the case of exempla) of the Ḥafez Ḥayyim ( R. *Israel Meir ha-Kohen from Radin) were published in Tel Aviv in 1952. From the oral tradition, Naphtali Gross' Mayselekh un Mesholim (1955, 19682) shows a low percentage of fables in the East European Jewish tradition. Less than five percent (27 of the 540 fables) in the collection are fables. H. Schwarzbaum's commentary shows that these few have a great affinity to both the European Aesopian tradition and to the traditional Jewish sources. The percentage of animal fables is still lower (less than two percent) in the collections of the Israel Folktale Archives.


The fable in general, and Jewish fable in particular, has almost disappeared from the oral tradition. The largest number of Jewish fables is found in the talmudic-midrashic literature in the Near East, and in the medieval European Jewish collections. Foreign influences upon these fables are decisive, but it is clear to both reader and scholar that some of the early stages of the history of the fable, as far as it can be reconstructed at the present, point to Ereẓ Israel.


B. Heller, in: J. Bolte and G. Polivka (eds.), Anmerkung zu den Kinder-und Hausmaerchen der Brueder Grimm, 4 (1930), 315–64; J. Landsberger, Die Fabeln des Sophos (1859); D. Noy, in: Mahanayim, 56 (1961); 69 (1962); 79 (1963); 84, 91, and 92 (1964); 111 (1967); idem, in: Yeda-Am, 1–8 (1948–63); I. Ziegler, Die Koenigsgleichnisse des Midrasch beleuchtet durch die roemische Kaiserzeit (1963); H. Schwarzbaum, Talmudic-Midrashic Affinities of some Aesopic Fables (1965), incl. bibl.; M. Buber (ed.), Tales of Hasidim, 2 vols. (1947–48); idem (ed.), The Tales of Rabbi Nachman (1962); Zinberg, Sifrut, 5 (1959); 6 (1960); A.S. Rappaport, The Folklore of the Jews (1937); Waxman, Literature, index; Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, index.

[Galit Hasan-Rockem]

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