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The Legends of the Jews

The Waling Wall, c. 1900
The Waling Wall, c. 1900

This is a collection of wonderful Jewish legends and folk tales.


Was sich nie und nirgends hat begeben, das allein veraltet nie.

The term Rabbinic was applied to the Jewish Literature ofpost-Biblical times by those who conceived the Judaism of thelater epoch to be something different from the Judaism of theBible, something actually opposed to it. Such observers held thatthe Jewish nation ceased to exist with the moment when itspolitical independence was destroyed. For them the Judaism of thelater epoch has been a Judaism of the Synagogue, the spokesmen ofwhich have been the scholars, the Rabbis. And what this phase ofJudaism brought forth has been considered by them to be theproduct of the schools rather than the product of practical,pulsating life. Poetic phantasmagoria, frequently the vaporingsof morbid visionaries, is the material out of which thesescholars construct the theologic system of the Rabbis, and fairytales, the spontaneous creations of the people, which take theform of sacred legend in Jewish literature, are denominated theScriptural exegesis of the Rabbis, and condemned incontinently asnugae rabbinorum.

As the name of a man clings to him, so men cling to names. Forthe primitive savage the name is part of the essence of a personor thing, and even in the more advanced stages of culture,judgments are not always formed in agreement with facts as theyare, but rather according to the names by which they are called.The current estimate of Rabbinic Literature is a case in point.With the label Rabbinic later ages inherited from former ages acertain distorted view of the literature so designated. To thisday, and even among scholars that approach its investigation withunprejudiced minds, the opinion prevails that it is purely alearned product. And yet the truth is that the most prominentfeature of Rabbinic Literature is its popular character.

The school and the home are not mutually opposed to each other inthe conception of the Jews. They study in their homes, and theylive in their schools. Likewise there is no distinct class ofscholars among them, a class that withdraws itself fromparticipation in the affairs of practical life. Even in thedomain of the Halakah, the Rabbis were not so much occupied withtheoretic principles of law as with the concrete phenomena ofdaily existence. These they sought to grasp and shape. And whatis true of the Halakah is true with greater emphasis of theHaggadah, which is popular in the double sense of appealing tothe people and being produced in the main by the people. To speakof the Haggadah of the Tannaim and Amoraim is as far from fact asto speak of the legends of Shakespeare and Scott. The ancientauthors and their modern brethren of the guild alike elaboratelegendary material which they found at hand.

It has been held by some that the Haggadah contains no popularlegends, that it is wholly a factitious, academic product. Acursory glance at the pseudepigraphic literature of the Jews,which is older than the Haggadah literature by several centuries,shows how untenable this view is. That the one literature shouldhave drawn from the other is precluded by historical facts. At avery early time the Synagogue disavowed the pseudepigraphicliterature, which was the favorite reading matter of thesectaries and the Christians. Nevertheless the inner relationbetween them is of the closest kind. The only essentialdifference is that the Midrashic form prevails in the Haggadah,and the parenetic or apocalyptic form in the pseudepigrapha. Thecommon element must therefore depart from the Midrash on the onehand and from parenesis on the other.

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Folklore, fairy tales, legends, and all forms of story tellingakin to these are comprehended, in the terminology of thepost-Biblical literature of the Jews, under the inclusivedescription Haggadah, a name that can be explained by acircumlocution, but cannot be translated. Whatever it is appliedto is thereby characterized first as being derived from the HolyScriptures, and then as being of the nature of a story. And, inpoint of fact, this dualism sums up the distinguishing featuresof Jewish Legend. More than eighteen centuries ago the Jewishhistorian Josephus observed that "though we be deprived of ourwealth, of our cities, or of the other advantages we have, ourlaw continues immortal." The word he meant to use was not law,but Torah, only he could not find an equivalent for it in Greek.A singer of the Synagogue a thousand years after Josephus, whoexpressed his sentiments in Hebrew, uttered the same thought:"The Holy City and all her daughter cities are violated, they liein ruins, despoiled of their ornaments, their splendor darkenedfrom sight. Naught is left to us save one eternal treasurealone--the Holy Torah." The sadder the life of the Jewish people,the more it felt the need of taking refuge in its past. TheScripture, or, to use the Jewish term, the Torah, was the onlyremnant of its former national independence, and the Torah wasthe magic means of making a sordid actuality recede before aglorious memory. To the Scripture was assigned the task ofsupplying nourishment to the mind as well as the soul, to theintellect as well as the imagination, and the result is theHalakah and the Haggadah.

The fancy of the people did not die out in the post-Biblicaltime, but the bent of its activity was determined by the past.

Men craved entertainment in later times as well as in theearlier, only instead of resorting for its subject-matter to whathappened under their eyes, they drew from the fountain-head ofthe past. The events in the ancient history of Israel, which wasnot only studied, but lived over again daily, stimulated thedesire to criticize it. The religious reflections upon naturelaid down in the myths of the people, the fairy tales, which havethe sole object of pleasing, and the legends, which are thepeople's verdict upon history--all these were welded into oneproduct. The fancy of the Jewish people was engaged by the pastreflected in the Bible, and all its creations wear a Biblical huefor this reason. This explains the peculiar form of the Haggadah.

But what is spontaneously brought forth by the people is oftenpreserved only in the form impressed upon it by the feeling andthe thought of the poet, or by the speculations of the learned.Also Jewish legends have rarely been transmitted in theiroriginal shape. They have been perpetuated in the form ofMidrash, that is, Scriptural exegesis. The teachers of theHaggadah, called Rabbanan d'Aggadta in the Talmud, were nofolklorists, from whom a faithful reproduction of legendarymaterial may be expected. Primarily they were homilists, who usedlegends for didactic purposes, and their main object was toestablish a close connection between the Scripture and thecreations of the popular fancy, to give the latter a firm basisand secure a long term of life for them.

One of the most important tasks of the modern investigation ofthe Haggadah is to make a clean separation between the originalelements and the later learned additions. Hardly a beginning hasbeen made in this direction. But as long as the task ofdistinguishing them has not been accomplished, it is impossibleto write out the Biblical legends of the Jews without includingthe supplemental work of scholars in the products of the popularfancy.

In the present work, "The Legends of the Jews," I have made thefirst attempt to gather from the original sources all Jewishlegends, in so far as they refer to Biblical personages andevents, and reproduce them with the greatest attainablecompleteness and accuracy. I use the expression Jewish, ratherthan Rabbinic, because the sources from which I have leviedcontributions are not limited to the Rabbinic literature. As Iexpect to take occasion elsewhere to enter into a description ofthe sources in detail, the following data must suffice for thepresent.

The works of the Talmudic Midrashic literature are of the firstimportance. Covering the period from the second to the fourteenthcentury, they contain the major part of the Jewish legendarymaterial. Akin to this in content if not always in form is thatderived from the Targumim, of which the oldest versions wereproduced not earlier than the fourth century, and the most recentnot later than the tenth. The Midrashic literature has beenpreserved only in fragmentary form. Many Haggadot not found inour existing collections are quoted by the authors of the MiddleAges. Accordingly, a not inconsiderable number of the legendshere printed are taken from medieval Bible commentators andhomilists. I was fortunate in being able to avail myself also offragments of Midrashim of which only manuscript copies areextant.

The works of the older Kabbalah are likewise treasuries ofquotations from lost Midrashim, and it was among the Kabbalists,and later among the Hasidim, that new legends arose. Theliteratures produced in these two circles are therefore of greatimportance for the present purpose.

Furthermore, Jewish legends can be culled not from the writingsof the Synagogue alone; they appear also in those of the Church.Certain Jewish works repudiated by the Synagogue were acceptedand mothered by the Church. This is the literature usuallydenominated apocryphal-pseudepigraphic. From the point of view oflegends, the apocryphal books are of subordinate importance,while the pseudepigrapha are of fundamental value. Evenquantitatively the latter are an imposing mass. Besides the Greekwritings of the Hellenist Jews, they contain Latin, Syrian,Ethiopic, Aramean, Arabic, Persian, and Old Slavic productstranslated directly or indirectly from Jewish works ofPalestinian or Hellenistic origin. The use of thesepseudepigrapha requires great caution. Nearly all of them areembellished with Christian interpolations, and in some cases theinserted portions have choked the original form so completelythat it is impossible to determine at first sight whether aJewish or a Christian legend is under examination. I believe,however, that the pseudepigraphic material made use of by me isJewish beyond the cavil of a doubt, and therefore it could nothave been left out of account in a work like the present.

However, in the appreciation of Jewish Legends, it is theRabbinic writers that should form the point of departure, and notthe pseudepigrapha. The former represent the main stream ofJewish thought and feeling, the latter only an undercurrent. Ifthe Synagogue cast out the pseudepigrapha, and the Church adoptedthem with a great show of favor, these respective attitudes werenot determined arbitrarily or by chance. The pseudepigraphaoriginated in circles that harbored the germs from whichChristianity developed later on. The Church could thusappropriate them as her own with just reason.

In the use of some of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphicwritings, I found it expedient to quote the English translationsof them made by others, in so far as they could be brought intoaccord with the general style of the book, for which purpose Ipermitted myself the liberty of slight verbal changes. Inparticulars, I was guided, naturally, by my own conception of thesubject, which the Notes justify in detail.

Besides the pseudepigrapha there are other Jewish sources inChristian garb. In the rich literature of the Church Fathers manya Jewish legend lies embalmed which one would seek in vain inJewish books. It was therefore my special concern to use thewritings of the Fathers to the utmost.

The luxuriant abundance of the material to be presented made itimpossible to give a verbal rendition of each legend. This wouldhave required more than three times the space at my disposal. Ican therefore claim completeness for my work only as to content.In form it had to suffer curtailment. When several conflictingversions of the same legend existed, I gave only one in the text,reserving the other one, or the several others, for the Notes,or, when practicable, they were fused into one typical legend,the component parts of which are analyzed in the Notes. In otherinstances I resorted to the expedient of citing one version inone place and the others in other appropriate places, infurtherance of my aim, to give a smooth presentation of thematter, with as few interruptions to the course of the narrativeas possible. For this reason I avoided such transitional phrasesas "Some say," "It has been maintained," etc. That my methodsometimes separates things that belong together cannot beconsidered a grave disadvantage, as the Index at the end of thework will present a logical rearrangement of the material for thebenefit of the interested student. I also did not hesitate totreat of the same personage in different chapters, as, forinstance, many of the legends bearing upon Jacob, those connectedwith the latter years of the Patriarch, do not appear in thechapter bearing his name, but will be found in the sectionsdevoted to Joseph, for the reason that once the son steps uponthe scene, he becomes the central figure, to which the life anddeeds of the father are subordinated. Again, in consideration oflack of space the Biblical narratives underlying the legends hadto be omitted--surely not a serious omission in a subject withwhich widespread acquaintance may be presupposed as a matter ofcourse.

As a third consequence of the amplitude of the material, it wasthought advisable to divide it into several volumes. Thereferences, the explanations of the sources used, and theinterpretations given, and, especially, numerous emendations ofthe text of the Midrashim and the pseudepigrapha, whichdetermined my conception of the passages so emended, will befound in the last volume, the fourth, which will contain also anIntroduction to the History of Jewish Legends, a number ofExcursuses, and the Index.

As the first three volumes are in the hands of the printer almostin their entirety, I venture to express the hope that the wholework will appear within measurable time, the parts following eachother at short intervals.

Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3 | Volume 4

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