Jewish mythology is a body of stories that explains or symbolizes Jewish beliefs. Jewish folklore are the tales, legends, and superstitions that exist within the oral history of the Jews. There is very little early folklore distinct from the aggadah literature. However, some forms of folklore have survived among the Jewish people in all eras of its history.
In Biblical times
Scholars of religion hold that people in the time of the Hebrew Bible had beliefs and superstitions analogous to those found among their contemporaries, and among some modern peoples. This view is echoed among some of the medieval religious rationalists such as Maimonides.
Many scholars of religion hold that some of the early Israelite views about the creation of the world and of humanity are derived from the mythology and folklore of the surrounding ancient near-eastern nations, such as Babylon, Sumerian and Akkadia. This is discussed in the article on Biblical mythology.
Mythologists hold that parallels found between Biblical and ancient pagan views can throw light on the former only when the connection of the latter with some wider view is established. Thus, when the Biblical principle that blood is life is found among the Yorubas of the west coast of Africa, the parallel is interesting, but has no further instruction. When, however, the custom that the younger sister must not marry before the elder, found in the case of the biblical matriarchs Leah and Rachel, is found also among the Nias (Rosenberg, "Malayische Archipel." p. 155), among the Hahmaheras (Riedel, in "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie," xvii. 76), in Java (Winter, in "Tijdschrift Voor Nederl. Indie," i. 566), and China (Gray, "China," i. 190), it becomes probable that such a practise has natural roots in polygamous societies.
The "soul-hunting" referred to and reprobated in Ezekiel 13:17 et seq. may be analogous to the practise observed among the Canadian Indians by the Jesuits ("Relations des Jésuites," 1637, p. 60, quoted by Frazer, l.c. i. 139). The Canadian wizards sent out familiar spirits to seek the souls of their enemies, which they brought back in the shape of stones, and the wizards then broke these with swords or axes, and by this means destroyed their enemies. Thus mythology by comparative research may throw light upon certain Biblical practises, but they are just those practises that are opposed by the Hebrew prophets.
In the Talmud
The natural tendency to create myths, denigrated as it had been by the Jewish prophets, returned with force during the Talmudic period, probably under the influence of the Babylonian and Persian populations. The "Shedim", or demons, became as ubiquitous to the populace of the ordinary Jews in Talmudic times as microbes are thought of today, to which they present remarkable analogies.
The classical rabbis themselves were at times not free from sharing in the popular beliefs. Yet there are found instances of exceptional freedom from mythological influences. Thus, while there is a whole catalogue of prognostications by means of Dreams in Ber. 55 et seq., and Rabbi Johanan claimed that those dreams are true which come in the morning or are dreamed about us by others, or are repeated (Ber. 56b), Rabbi Meïr declares that dreams help not and injure not (Gittin 52a, and parallels).
In the Talmud (חולין נט ע"ב - ע"ב) exists a discussion about a giant deer and a giant Lion which are both originated in a mythical forest called "Dvei Ilai". The deear is called "Keresh". The lion is said to be such as big that there is space of 9 feet between his lobs of his lung. The Roman Caesar once asked a Rabbi to show him this lion, since every lion can be killed, but the Rabbi refused and pointed out that this is not a normal lion. The Roman Caesar insisted, so the Rabbi turned into the lion of "Dvei Ilai". He roareds once from a far distance and all constructions and the city walls of Rome tumbled down. Then he came nearer - but still in a far distance - and roared again and the teeth of all Roman men fall out.
The authorities of the Talmud seem to be particularly influenced by popular conception in the direction of Folk-Medicine. A belief in the Evil eye was also prevalent in Talmudic times, and occasionally omens are taken seriously, though in some cases recognized as being merely popular beliefs. Thus, while it is declared to be unlucky to do things twice, as eating, drinking, or washing (Pesachim 109b), Rabbi Dunai recognized that this was an old tradition (ib. 110b). A remarkable custom mentioned in the Talmud is that of planting trees when children are born and intertwining them to form the huppah when they marry (Gittin 57a). Yet this idea may be originally Persian; it is found also in India (W. Crookes, in "Folk-Lore," vii.)
A custom like that of walking on the sidewalks when the plague was in the town, and in the middle of the street when the town was healthful, might have been founded upon some particular experience, but the reason given, that the Angel of Death walks about openly in time of plague, and sneaks near the houses at other times, is little more than a metaphorical repetition of the experience.
It may be possible to distinguish in the haggadic legends of Biblical character those portions that probably formed part of the original accounts from those that have been developed by the exegetic principles of the haggadists. In the later Haggadah there are some elements probably derived from Indian and Greek fables (see Fable), while others resemble the quaint plays of fancy found in modern drolls in the so-called "Lügenmärchen" of German folklore. In one particular direction the Talmud is of extreme interest for folklore investigation, namely, the transition from maxim to proverb, which can be clearly observed.
While there is a considerable number of anonymous Proverbs, there is a still larger number of wise sayings, which, owing to the Talmudic principle, "say a thing in the name of the man who says it," can be traced to their authors, and are therefore maxims; for example, the saying "Descend a step to choose a wife; ascend a step to choose a friend" would be considered a proverb if it did not happen that one is able to trace it to its original author, Rabbi Meïr.
In post-Talmudic times
After the dispersion of the Jews it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of specifically Jewish mythology. Spread among all the peoples of the earth, the Jews appear to have borrowed customs from each of them, and when found among them today it is most difficult to determine: first, whether the custom is at all Jewish; and, secondly, if non-Jewish, whether it belongs to the country where the particular mythological item is found, or has been brought thither from some other country.
Thus among the Jews of Lithuania and England is found the German remedy against toothache, to look at the hole of a mouse and pronounce the German formula commencing "Mausele, Mausele!" As the Lithuanian Jews still use this formula, the custom has clearly been brought by them from Germany. Or, again, as early as the twelfth century, the Teutonic test of murder was to bring the suspected murderer into the presence of his victim, when, if guilty, the wounds of the murdered man bled anew. This is found in the Sefer Hasidim, No. 1149, and, five hundred years later in Manasseh ben Israel's "Nishmat Hayyim," iii. 3.
A variation in custom is sometimes found between one set of Jews and another which enables the inquirer to determine the origin of them. Thus, English Jews sometimes show a disinclination to sit down with thirteen at a table, probably copied from their Christian neighbors who connect the superstition with the Last Supper of Jesus; whereas Russian Jews consider thirteen as a particularly lucky number, as it is the gematria of "echad" (one), the last and most important word of the Shema. [aleph (1) + khet (8) + daled (4) = 13]
When, therefore, the custom of covering mirrors after death, usual among the Jews, is found also in Oldenburg (Wuttke, "Der Deutsche Aberglaube," § 728), it may be safely assumed that the Jewish custom was derived from the German, and not vice versa. Again, the custom of "sin-buying" observed among the Jews of Brody ("Urquell," iii. 19) has its analogue in the "sin-eater" of Wales ("Folk-Lore," iv.). In the Jewish practise a ne'er-do-well would take upon himself the sins of a rich man for a definite sum. Cases have been known where a person who has taken another's sins upon himself has felt compunction upon the death of the original sinner, and has visited his tomb and in the presence of witnesses deposited upon the tomb the sum originally paid for the sin, begging the dead man to take back his sins. Though found among Jews, there is little probability of this practise being originally Jewish.
On the other hand, there are customs among Jews which can be explained only from specifically Jewish notions, and are rightly included in Jewish mythology. Thus, in Minsk there is a belief that if for thirty days you are not "called up" to the Law you are ritually dead, and a Cohen must not approach you, just as he must not approach a corpse. To ascertain whether you are really dead or not, when you are called up after the thirty days, look at the letters of the scroll of the Law, and if you can discern one letter from another there is some mistake and you are not dead, for the dead when called up at night in the synagogue can not read. Here the whole conception is a development of Jewish ideas, and so far it may be regarded as a genuine item of Jewish mythology. Or, again, the curious belief that the resurrection of the dead will take place in the valley of Jehoshaphat, and that, therefore, the corpse must have a three-pronged fork to tunnel his way to Jerusalem if buried out of the Holy Land, is a specifically Jewish corollary to the veneration of Jerusalem. Or, again, the belief that any piece of iron will turn rusty if exposed on the four "tekufot," or seasonal changes of the year, appears to be specifically Jewish, yet later than Talmudic times.
It might seem likely that the Jews would be favorable media for transplanting tales and customs from one nation to another, owing to their continuous migrations; their social isolation, however, has prevented much of this kind of intermediation, and no decisive evidence has been adduced in regard to it. On the other hand, in the literary transmission of Indian folk-tales from East to West, Jews have played an important part. The Bidpai literature was transferred from the Orient to western Europe entirely by Jewish means (see Kalilah wa-Dimnah), and the same applies to the Sindbad, Barlaam, and other sets of Oriental tales. For the medieval legends which relate to Jews see folktales.
The mutual relations between Jews and Christians, mostly antithetical, have given rise to a certain amount of folklore, in which may be included the myths of the blood accusation, and of host-piercing, besides such tales as that of the "Three Rings" and of "Shylock."
The Jews themselves have very little folklore connected with Christians or Christianity, the Jewish legends about Jesus in the "Toledot Yeshu" being, as proved by Krauss ("Das Leben Jesu nach Jüdischen Quellen," 1903), mainly derived from Christian sources. Among the Russian Jews it is considered unlucky to meet a priest, but a very natural interpretation could be given to this belief. To prevent the ill luck the remedy is to throw some straw over the back.
Folktales and myths as stories
Stories usually containing incidents of a superhuman character, and spread among the folk either by traditions from their elders or by communication from strangers. They are characterized by the presence of unusual personages (dwarfs, giants, fairies, ghosts, etc.), by the sudden transformation of men into beasts and vice versa, or by other unnatural incidents (flying horses, a hundred years' sleep, and the like). Of a similar kind are the drolls of the nursery, generally consisting of a number of simple "sells." A number of haggadic stories bear folktale characteristics, especially those relating to Og, King of Bashan, which have the same exaggerations as have the "Lügenmärchen" of modern German folktales. There are signs that a certain number of fables were adopted by the Rabbis either from Greek or, indirectly, from Indian sources.
In the Middle Ages
Though there is little evidence of Jews having had folktales of their own, there is considerable evidence of their helping the spread of Eastern folk-tales in Europe. Besides these tales from foreign sources, Jews either collected or composed others which were told throughout the European ghettos, and were collected in Yiddish in the "Maasebücher." Numbers of the folk-tales contained in these collections were also published separately (see the earlier ones given by Steinschneider in "Cat. Bodl." Nos. 3869-3942). It is, however, difficult to call many of them folk-tales in the sense given above, since nothing fairylike or supernormal occurs in them.
There are a few definitely Jewish legends of the Middle Ages which partake of the character of folktales, such as those of the Jewish pope (see Andreas) and of the golem, or that relating to the wall of the Rashi chapel, which moved backward in order to save the life of a poor woman who was in danger of being crushed by a passing car in the narrow way. Several of these legends were collected by [[Tendlau[[ ("Sagen und Legenden der Jüdischen Vorzeit").
In the late 1800s many folk-tales were gathered among Jews or published from Hebrew manuscripts by Israel Lévi in "Revue des Etudes Juives," in "Revue des Traditions Populaires," and in "Melusine "; by M. Gaster in "Folk-Lore" and in the reports of Montefiore College; and by M. Grunwald in "Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volkskunde" (see Index to part vi., s.v. "Erählungen"); by L. Wiener in the same periodical; and by F. S. Krauss in "Urquell," both series.
Altogether some sixty or seventy folk-tales have been found among Jews of the present day; but in scarcely a single case is there anything specifically Jewish about the stories, while in most cases they can be traced back to folk-tales current among the surrounding peoples. Thus the story of "Kunz and His Shepherd" (Grunwald, "Mitteilungen," ii. 1) occurs in English as "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"; and "The Magician's Pupil" (No. 4 of Wiener, in "Mitteilungen," x. 103) is also found widely spread. The well-known story of the "Language of Birds," which has been studied by Frazer ("Archeological Review," iii., iv.; comp. "Urquell," v. 266), is given in "Mitteilungen," i. 77. No. 4 in the collection of Wiener is the wide-spread folk-tale of "The Giant's Daughter," which some have traced back to the legend of Medea. Two of the stories collected by Grunwald, No. 13, "The Birds of Ibycus," and No. 14, "The Ring of Polycrates," appear to be traceable to classical sources; while his No. 4 gives the well-known episode of the "Thankful Beasts," which Benfey traced across Europe through India ("Kleine Schriften," i.). Even in the tales having a comic termination and known to the folk-lorists as drolls, there are no signs of Jewish originality. The first of the stories collected by Wiener is the well-known "Man in the Sack," who gets out of his difficulties by telling passers-by that he has been unwillingly condemned to marry a princess (see Jacobs, "Indian Fairy Tales").
Aggadah and folklore compilations
- "The Legends of the Jews", by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, is an original synthesis of a vast amount of aggadah from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds and Midrash. Ginzberg had an encyclopedic knowledge of all rabbinic literature, and his masterwork included a massive array of aggadot. However he did not create an anthology which showed these aggadot distinctly. Rather, he paraphrased them and rewrote them into one continuous narrative that covered five volumes, followed by two volumes of footnotes that give specific sources.
- The Ein Yaakov is a compilation of the aggadic material in the Babylonian Talmud together with commentary.
- Sefer Ha-Aggadah, "The Book of Legends" is a classic compilation of aggadah from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds and the Midrash literature. It was edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky. Bialik and Ravnitky worked to compile a comprehensive and representative overview of aggadah; they spent three years compiling their work. When they found the same aggadah in multiple versions, from multiple sources, they usually selected the later form, the one found in the Babylonian Talmud. However they also presented a great some aggadot sequentially, giving the early form from the Jerusalem Talmud, and later versions from the Babylonian Talmud, and from a classic midrash compilation. In each case each every aggadah is given with its original source. In their original edition, thy translated the Aramaic aggadot into modern Hebrew. Sefer Ha-Aggadah was first published in 1908-11 in Odessa, Russia, then reprinted numerous times in Israel. In 1992 it was translated into English as "The Book of Legends", by William G, Braude.
- Mimekor Yisrael, by Micha Josef (bin Gorion) Berdyczewski. Berdyczewski was interested in compiling the folklore and legends of the Jewish people, from the earliest times up until the dawn of the modern era. His collection included a large array of aggadot, although they were limited to those he considered within the domain of folklore.
In the past century (and further, but especially in the last), there have been many retellings of Jewish myths (mostly from the Torah). They have mostly been in the regions of science-fiction; as Isaac Asimov noted in his introduction to More Wandering Stars:
"...Can science fiction be part of Jewish culture? From fantasy stories we know?/ And as I think of it, it begins to seem to me that it is and we do know. And the source? From where else? From the Hebrew source for everything-- From the Bible. We have but to look through the Bible to see for ourselves."
He goes on to show parallels between Biblical stories and modern science-fiction:
- 'Let there be light!' was an example of advanced scientific mechanisms.
- God is an extraterrestrial.
- Adam and Eve as colonists on a new planet.
- The serpent was an alien, as Earth snakes don't speak or show any intelligence (and they're trayf, as well).
- The flood was a story of a world catastrophe, and the survivors (like in Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon").
- The Tower of Babel (like Metropolis, which it inspired in part).
- Moses vs. the Egyptian magicians is advanced technological warfare.
- Samson as Sword-&-Sorcery.
- First chapter of Ezekiel is a UFO account.
And the Hugo Awards, one of the highest distinctions for a science-fiction writer, have plenty of directly Biblical stories on their lists, for instance:
- Arthur C. Clark's "The Star". (On a certain star)
- Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream". (When God is angry)
- Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon". (An explanation of Noah's flood)
- Harlan Ellison's "The Deathbird". (A retold Genesis)
Most stories in the Bible have come to be used as science-fiction, in some way or other. The above examples give a broad variety to start with, but not close to an end.
In comic book circles is it accepted that the two Jewish creators of the "Superman" comic, which was essentially the beginning of superhero comics and comic books, based their idea in part on the Golem of Prague.
- Ausubel, Nathan, ed. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: The Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, and Wisdom of the Jewish People NY: Crown Publishers, 1990.
- Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales, Micha Joseph bin Gorion, translated by I. M. Lask, Trans. Three volumes. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1976
- Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales Abridged and Annotated Edition Micha Joseph bin Gorion. This is a one volume abridged and annotated version, with an introduction and headnotes, by Dan Ben-Amos. Indiana University Press. 560 pages. ISBN 0253311586.
- Folktales of Israel Ed. Dov Noy, with the assistance of Dan Ben-Amos. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1963
- Jewish Folktales from Morocco, Ed. Dov Noy, Jerusalem, 1964.
- Jewish Folktales from Tunisia, Ed. Dov Noy, Jerusalem, 1964
- "Hebrew Parallels to Indian Folktales," Journal of the Assam Research Society, 15 (1963), pp. 37-45.
- Jerome R. Mintz Legends of the Hasidim: An Introduction to Hasidic Culture and Oral Tradition in the New World Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968
- Four Master Folklorists And Their Major Contributions Peninnah Schram, from Opening Worlds of Words, Peninnah Schram and Cherie Karo Schwartz