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Although hagiographies, embellished accounts of biblical worthies, are not unknown in previous ages, particularly in the apocrypha (e.g., Lives of the *Prophets and Martyrdom of *Isaiah ), in the Middle Ages they developed as a specific genre of literature, of which they constitute a major type (see *Fiction, Hebrew ). These may be divided into two main categories according to the protagonist portrayed: (a) hagiographies whose heroes are ancient Jewish sages and martyrs (biblical and talmudic characters); (b) hagiographies whose heroes are medieval scholars, rabbis, and martyrs.

Different fields of medieval literature have adapted the hagiography to their specific needs. Ethical literature used it to exhort in the footsteps of the hero (see *Exemplum ); Hebrew historical writings usually substituted the hagiography for the biography of medieval and ancient Jewish scholars. Medieval collections of Hebrew stories abound with hagiographic material; while in kabbalistic and ḥasidic literature, the hagiography was a formal literary device to convince the reader of the veracity of the Jewish mystics' visions.

Use of Biblical and Talmudic Material

Biblical and talmudic stories were freely adapted. In *Midrash Va-Yissa'u (in A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 3 (19382), 1–5), a narrative about Jacob and his sons, the characters are portrayed as medieval knights who fight over Shechem and other cities, in the same way as the Crusaders had fought in the capture of a city. Abraham and Moses were also subjects of individual works, embellished by hagiographic additions. So were the lives of talmudic sages; the medieval Midrash Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, for instance, opens with a hagiographic account of *Eliezer b. Hyrkanus . One of the most typical examples of medieval hagiography is the story of the *Ten Martyrs , known also as Midrash Elleh Ezkerah (ed. by A. Jellinek, 1853). Some of the material is drawn from talmudic sources, but most of its treatment is within the framework of medieval themes and literary conventions. It is an account of the tortures inflicted by the Romans on 10 martyrs, most of them tannaim (the 10 martyrs had not been contemporaries and could not have been executed together); the story also inspired the composition of prayers and piyyutim, and became the cornerstone of Hebrew medieval martyrologic hagiography.

Use of Contemporary Stories and Personages

Hagiography of the Middle Ages which centered around medieval characters contains historical and biographical details, as well as fiction. Some of the legends included are entirely original, while others thematically belong to international hagiographic motifs. The miracle associated with Rashi when still in his mother's womb (that a wall opened to let his pregnant mother hide from a group of soldiers) is told about many other sages, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Rashi's personality or biography. Sometimes the heroes of such legends are purely fictional, and the hagiography thus is not even related to a historical personality.

The development of the hagiography in the Middle Ages is perhaps best exemplified by the evolvement of cycles of hagiographies centered around the leaders of the Ḥasidei Askhenaz: *Samuel he-Ḥasid , R. *Judah he-Ḥasid , his son, and *Eleazar ben Judah of Worms . The earliest known versions were found (in manuscript) and published by N. *Bruell (Jahrbuecher fuer Juedische Geschichte und Literatur, 9 (1889), 1–71). Different versions are extant in many later Hebrew and Yiddish collections. There are no hagiographies about these rabbis from their own time (12th and 13th centuries); the stories begin to appear in the 14th and 15th centuries. However, many of the hagiographies from these cycles point to the fact that the elaborate narrative about one of these rabbis sprang from a much simpler story that was told and written by that writer himself. In the simple narrative, the hero's name is not mentioned nor did he see himself as the hero. In one of his theological works, R. Judah he-Ḥasid has a five-line story about a rabbi who miraculously discovered some clothes that had been stolen from one of his pupils. A hagiography written in the 15th century, about R. Judah, contains a long and well-developed legend about the rabbi's discovery of a treasure which had been entrusted to a Jew and stolen from him, thus endangering the lives of a whole Jewish community. The core of the narrative is the same, but the plot was elaborated upon, many details were added, and the anonymous hero became R. Judah he-Ḥasid himself. Short descriptions, such as the one by R. Judah he-Ḥasid in Ḥasidei Ashkenaz literature of sorcerers and demons, were later expanded into hagiographies describing contests between the pietist sages and gentile sorcerers in the working of miracles and sorcery. While these early theological works receded into oblivion, the stories to which they gave birth survived and evolved into the fully developed genre of hagiography.


One of the most prominent heroes of medieval Hebrew hagiography was R. Abraham *Ibn Ezra . Nothing in his actual biography justifies the stories told about him, except that he was a traveler, and visited many countries in the East and in the West. Abraham ibn Ezra became the "traveling hero" of a cycle of hagiographic legends. Disguised so that nobody would recognize him, in a dramatic moment he would reveal his true identity. In these tales, Ibn Ezra pokes fun at proud rich men, helps Jews in danger, and is the hero of both popular jokes and tragic legends. Ibn Ezra was a hero of fiction up to modern times, and in the 19th century, stories describing his miraculous adventures were still being printed.

Other Spanish Jewish scholars also became central figures of hagiographies. The beginnings of the Jewish center of learning in Spain were described by Abraham *Ibn Daud in his Seder ha-Kabbalah by means of the hagiographical story "The Four Captives." *Judah Halevi 's pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the focus of a cycle of hagiographical stories; and this most rationalistic of Spanish Jewish scholars did not escape legends which told about his later adherence to the Kabbalah.


The martyrologic hagiography developed especially in Germany during the Crusades of the 11th–13th centuries. Thousands of Jewish martyrs became subjects of legends. The best known revolves about R. *Amnon , the alleged author of the prayer *U-Netanneh Tokef . Many other martyrs were described in a similar hagiographic manner in collections of historical writings and stories.


The most powerful creative force of Jewish hagiography in the Middle Ages was the Kabbalah. Kabbalists of the 12th and 13th centuries told legends about their teachers and mystical mentors. The first kabbalistic scholar in Provence, head of a school of kabbalists, Rabbi *Isaac Sagi Nahor ("the blind"), was described by his disciples as capable of distinguishing between a "new" and an "old" soul, i.e., between persons whose souls had entered the human form for the first time and souls that had transmigrated from previous existences (see *Gilgul ). In Spain, there were kabbalists who wove wonderful tales about the mystics of Germany. R. Isaac ha-Kohen of Segovia (the second half of the 13th century) told about the powers of Eleazar of Worms who, according to him, traveled on a cloud whenever he had an urgent trip to make.


The Zohar is full of hagiographic references to R. *Simeon b. Yoḥai , his son *Eleazar , and his disciples. Their wondrous deeds are incorporated into the homiletics that make up the whole work. When R. Simeon b. Yoḥai studied, for example, birds stopped flying all around, fire encircled him, and wonderful events happened to people in his vicinity. Among the many miracles attributed to him and his disciples by the author of the Zohar, some are founded solely on myth, e.g., the legends about his contradicting God's will and his prevalence, or his fight with the powers of darkness, the Sitra Aḥra ("The Other Side," i.e., Satan). The Zohar influenced later kabbalistic writings in which the same approach toward the mystics is adopted. Two anonymous 14th-century Spanish works, Sefer ha-Kaneh (Prague, 1610) and Sefer ha-Peli'ah (Korets, 1784), have for their central characters members of the family of the tanna R. *Neḥuna b. ha-Kaneh . A whole set of hagiographical stories is woven around each member of the family. Many of these stories describe a meeting of the heroes with heavenly powers.

The deterioration of the situation of the Jews in Spain (at the end of the 14th and during the 15th century) gave birth to a new kind of hagiography, also associated with the Kabbalah: stories about sages who had attempted to hasten the redemption in one way or the other. Some of these include much historical data, like the stories about the martyr Solomon *Molcho; others are purely fictional, like the story about *Joseph Della Reina , who almost succeeded in overcoming and enslaving Satan and *Lilith , but at the last moment, failed and became enslaved by them instead. From this period onward, Jewish hagiography is mostly concerned with messianic expectations and activity.


The hagiographic cycle of stories about Isaac *Luria , who lived in Safed in the years 1570–72, were the first to be compiled into a book. His disciples preserved and wrote legends describing his superhuman powers. There are two main versions of the cycle of stories about him: Shivḥei ha-Ari, a collection of letters written by R. Solomon Shlumil of Dreznitz, who described not only Luria, but other sages in Safed, and a later work, *Toledot ha-Ari which was dedicated to Luria almost exclusively. It includes more than 50 stories. Some of them describe mostly his supernatural knowledge, his ability to know the past and the future, what was happening at great distances and in heaven, and his power to read the thoughts and the hearts of other people. The other stories, which seem to be later additions to the original cycle, describe miracles which he was said to have performed. Even when taking into consideration these later additions, the dominant hagiographic motif in these cycles is the supernatural knowledge of Luria, and not the miracles he performed. Luria's greatest pupil, R. Ḥayyim *Vital , unlike his teacher, did not leave it to later generations to write and to compile the hagiographic stories about him. He did it himself. He kept a diary which was published under the title Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot (1866) and previously, in a shorter version, as Shivḥei Rav Ḥayyim Vital (1826). Like his teacher Luria, Vital also had messianic aspirations. Basing himself on the conjurations of witches, sorcerers, his own visionary dreams and his teacher's sayings, he saw himself destined for great deeds. Luria and Vital are also connected with the first famous version of "The Dibbuk" story (told in different versions in Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot and in Shivḥei Rav Ḥayyim Vital). The theme of the *dibbuk later became one of the standard motifs in Jewish hagiography: the ability to drive out evil powers or strange souls which had taken hold of a human body.

The stories about the great sages of Safed spread throughout the Jewish world. Their development varied in form and according to geographic locales. In the east, hagiographic cycles had for their central figures especially R. Ḥayyim Joseph David *Azulai and R. Ḥayyim b. Moses *Attar ; in the west and in Eastern Europe R. *Judah b. Bezalel Loew and R. Joel Ba'al Shem became the heroes of such legends. In the 18th and 19th centuries up to the beginning of the 20th century hagiographic stories about sages of later ages (after Luria) were still being collected and published.

Modern Jewish Hagiography

Modern Jewish hagiography is connected with the ḥasidic movement which began in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 18th century. With the publication of Shivḥei ha-Besht (Berdichev, 1815) the genre was brought to its highest artistic expression. The book is a compilation of hagiographic stories about the founder of the ḥasidic movement and his disciples, collected from manuscripts. The stories, written both in Hebrew and in Yiddish (since the 16th century, Yiddish being the main medium of expression for hagiographic stories in Eastern Europe), had circulated among the Ḥasidim since the *Baal Shem Tov's death in 1760.

Later ḥasidic leaders and their followers used the Shivḥei ha-Besht as a model for the writing of hagiographic stories about later ḥasidic sages. Consequently, there are hagiographic collections about almost every major ḥasidic rabbi, even those who lived in the early 20th century. The stories in these compilations are often about several sages and may be arranged according to a main theme, e.g., The Revelation of the Ẓaddikim, a collection of stories about the ways in which the greatness of the ḥasidic sages was revealed (see, e.g., S. Gavriel, Hitgallut ha-Ẓaddikim (1905)).

Side by side with the development of ḥasidic hagiography, another kind of hagiography came into being. These were hagiographies about the *Lamed-Vav Ẓaddikim , the thirty-six anonymous and mysterious holy men, because of whose humble manner, just deeds, and virtue the world continues to exist. Many of the motifs of this cycle of legends are taken from older tales and hagiographies. Together with the ḥasidic stories, they take Hebrew hagiography into the 20th century.


J. Meitlis, Das Ma'assebuch (1933); idem, in: Di Goldene Keyt, 23 (1955), 218–234; G. Scholem, in: Tarbiz, 6 (1935), no. 2, 90–98; idem, Judaica (Ger., 1963), 216–25; Mishnat ha-Zohar, ed. by F. Lachover and J. Tishby, 1 (19572), introd.

[Joseph Dan]

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