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Rabbinic Fantasies

Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature

DAVID STERN
MARK JAY MIRSKY
Copyright Date: 1990
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 376
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bqg1
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    Rabbinic Fantasies
    Book Description:

    This remarkable anthology of sixteen narratives from ancient and medieval Hebrew texts opens a new window onto the Jewish imagination. Presenting the captivating world of rabbinic storytelling, it reveals facets of the Jewish experience and tradition that would otherwise have remained unknown and examines the surprisingly deep connection between the values of classical Judaism and the art of imaginative narrative writing.Virtually all the narratives appear here in English for the first time. Sometimes pious, sometimes playful, and sometimes almost scandalous, they are each accompanied by an introduction and notes. The selections are framed by essays by David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky that examine the various moods and forms in which the rabbinic imagination found expression and explore the impact that this unique form of narrative has had on modern fiction. The translations are by Norman Bronznick, Yaakov Elman, Michal Govrin, Arthur Green, Martha Himmelfarb, Ivan Marcus, Mark Jay Mirsky, Joel Rosenberg, David Ruderman, Raymond Scheindlin, David Stern, and Avi Weinstein.Yale Judaica Series

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14364-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-30)
    DAVID STERN

    This anthology presents sixteen translations of imaginative narrative from classical Hebrew literature. Spanning a chronological period of nearly seventeen hundred years, from the second century in the Common Era to the nineteenth, the selections in this book reflect the numerous types of narrative found in Hebrew literature from early rabbinic times until the very dawn of the modern age. As the Israeli scholar Joseph Dan has aptly remarked, “There is no generation in Hebrew literature without its original narratives.”¹

    Yet despite its constant presence in Jewish culture, narrative—fiction in particular—does not possess an acknowledged existence of its own...

  5. A NOTE ON THE SELECTIONS AND THE TRANSLATIONS
    (pp. 31-34)
    DAVID STERN and MARK JAY MIRSKY
  6. 1 RABBINIC PARABLES
    (pp. 35-46)

    Themashal, or parable, is the most common narrative form used by rabbis in midrash to interpret the Torah. The literary tradition of themashalis very ancient. Parables are to be found in the Bible, and there almost certainly existed a popular, oral tradition of parabolic literature between the biblical and rabbinic periods. Little of this tradition has survived, however, and it is ironic that our earliest testimony for the types of narratives in rabbinicmeshalimare those preserved in the parables attributed to Jesus in the three synoptic Gospels. There is little doubt that Jesus’ parables are part...

  7. 2 TWO NARRATIVES ABOUT GOD
    (pp. 47-58)

    The following two narratives are preserved in Lamentations Rabbati, the amoraic midrash on the Book of Lamentations, as part of apetihta, or proem. Thepetihta, as its name suggests, was a sermon of introduction, originally perhaps to the weekly Torah reading in the synagogue or, as in this case, to the reading from the Book of Lamentations, which may possibly have been delivered on the Ninth of Av, the fast day in the Jewish liturgical calendar commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

    Thepetihtain which these narratives are found is an exegesis of Isaiah 22:1–...

  8. 3 JONAH AND THE SAILORS from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
    (pp. 59-66)

    Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer(The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer) is a late midrashicaggadic work that probably was composed sometime in the eighth century. Because the work contains a number of allusions to Islamic belief and shows its influence (sometimes in polemical terms), scholars believe that the final text was edited in a country that was part of the Islamic empire. No further facts about the work’s literary history are known.

    Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezeris often described as an example of the genre known as the rewritten Bible. This genre consists of texts that present more or less independent stories that elaborate...

  9. 4 SEFER ZERUBBABEL
    (pp. 67-90)

    Sefer Zerubbabel, theBook of Zerubbabel, is perhaps the most influential of the medieval Hebrew apocalypses. Its picture of the last days made a deep impression on liturgical poets, on the authors of later apocalypses, and even on the followers of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Zvi a millennium later.¹

    An apocalypse is a work in which an angel, or sometimes God Himself, reveals secrets to a great figure of the biblical past. These secrets typically involve the contents of the heavens or the coming end of days, and the revelation usually takes the form of a guided tour of the...

  10. 5 MIDRASH ON THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
    (pp. 91-120)

    “Midrash on the Ten Commandments” is a medieval compilation, structured loosely on each of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1ff.). It represents the transition in Jewish literature from interpretation of Scripture to pure fiction, in a more modem sense of the term. It was probably completed by the beginning of the eleventh century, somewhere in Iraq. There are numerous versions of this work, some having as few as thirteen and others as many as forty tales. The present translation is based upon the text edited by Galit Hasan-Rokem,Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot (Nusah Verona) 5407[1647](Jerusalem: Akademon, 1971).

    Despite its name, it...

  11. 6 THE TALE OF THE JERUSALEMITE
    (pp. 121-142)

    “The Tale of the Jerusalemite,” “Maaseh Yerushalmi,” is one of the masterworks of medieval Hebrew fiction. Though traditionally attributed to Abraham, the son of the great Maimonides, little is actually known about its history. Modern scholars have disputed the time and the place of its composition. Moses Gaster, who first published an English translation in 1931 and acclaimed the work “one of the earliest fairy-tales accessible to European readers” (Folklore42 [1931]: 157), dated it to thirteenth-century Egypt. Joseph Dan (inHa-Sippur ha-Ivrit bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim) has suggested that it may have derived from an Ashkenazic (German) locale in the twelfth...

  12. 7 MIDRASH ELEH EZKERAH or The Legend of the Ten Martyrs
    (pp. 143-166)

    Midrash Eleh Ezkerah(“These I Will Remember”) takes its title from Psalm 42:5, “These I will remember, and my soul melts within me”—a verse that traditionally served the rabbis as an occasion to commemorate the victims of the Jewish War in 68–70 c.e. as well as the martyrs of later persecutions. Elsewhere the midrash is known as “The Legend of the Ten Martyrs,” and its account of the execution of the ten greatest sages of Israel is among the central traditions of Jewish martyrological literature in the early Middle Ages.

    The idea that ten sages were collectively executed...

  13. 8 THE ALPHABET OF BEN SIRA
    (pp. 167-202)
    DAVID STERN and MARK JAY MIRSKY

    “The Alphabet of Ben Sira,” an anonymous medieval work, has been preserved in several versions, which differ in both major and minor details. A composite text, its core is a series of twenty-two aphorisms arranged in alphabetical order and organized into a rough narrative. In most versions this alphabet is preceded by the fantastic and provocative story of the conception and birth of Ben Sira and his early education. The final section of the work deals with Ben Sira in the court of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and consists of another series of twenty-two episodes. These comprise the various ordeals...

  14. 9 PARABLES FROM SEFER HA-BAHIR
    (pp. 203-214)

    Sefer ha-Bahir, literally “the book of brilliance,” is the first literary work to develop the mystical concepts and symbolism that come to fuller expression in later Spanish kabbalistic works like theZohar. As with so much in Jewish mysticism, nearly all we know aboutSefer ha-Bahirderives from Gershom Scholem who has discussed at length the difficulties connected to theBahir:its mysterious appearance in southern France in the twelfth century; its problematic place in the history of Kabbalah; and the convoluted and often unresolved questions concerning the work’s text and plain meaning. About its literary character, Scholem has written...

  15. 10 NARRATIVE FANTASIES FROM SEFER HASIDIM
    (pp. 215-238)

    Rabbi Judah the Hasid, or “the Pietist,” (d. 1217) was the founder of pietism, or Hasidut, an original religious doctrine that transformed Judaism in the Rhineland towns of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz during the thirteenth century. One of the main literary vehicles for Judah’s religious teachings was the exemplum, the narrative tale illustrating a religious truth. Judah’s writings are peppered with narratives, short and long. This is most evident in his summa,Sefer Hasidim(The Book of Pietists), a work he composed for the religious guidance of his followers. It contains almost two thousand thematically arranged passages of biblical commentary,...

  16. 11 LOVE IN THE AFTERLIFE A Selection from the Zohar
    (pp. 239-252)
    MICHAL GOVRIN and MARK JAY MIRSKY

    TheZoharis the most important text of Jewish mysticism, unique in its influence on Jewish thought, law, and apocalyptic dreaming. It claims to be the document of a second-century talmudic sage, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. This attribution, challenged even in the thirteenth century when theZoharappeared, was contradicted in the twentieth by Gershom Scholem, who held it to be the pseudonymous work of Moses de Leon, a Spanish Jewish author.

    Why should it be so crucial whether theZoharwas written in the second century or the thirteenth? The reason is that its fantasies have so broadened the...

  17. 12 ASHER IN THE HAREM
    (pp. 253-268)
    Solomon Ibn Saqbel

    “Asher in the Harem” is the first known Hebrew fiction from medieval Spain. According to current opinion, it dates from the first half of the twelfth century. The author, Solomon Ibn Saqbel, is otherwise virtually unknown, only one other story being attributable to him. Of that story so little has been preserved that hardly anything can be said about its contents.

    Our story is to be read against the background of ideas of courtly love that were current in medieval Europe. Christians and Muslims studied the phenomenon of love; they developed it into a ritual, celebrated it in poetry, and...

  18. 13 THE MISOGYNIST
    (pp. 269-294)
    Judah Ibn Shabbetai

    “The Misogynist,” by Judah Ibn Shabbetai (1168–ca. 1225), is the main Hebrew contribution to the theme of love’s revenge, a theme rooted in Euripides’ Hippolytus. It is also an early example, certainly the first extensive one, of Hebrew parody. Its structural highlight is a tour de force in which the author unexpectedly steps into the narrative, ex machina, as it were, to provide the denouement. It is thus a work of exceptional interest on thematic, generic, and structural grounds.

    Unfortunately, its narrative does not get quickly off the ground. The heavily rhetorical, dramatically static, and simply overlong opening has...

  19. 14 THE SORCERER from Meshal Ha-Kadmoni
    (pp. 295-312)
    Isaac Ibn Sahula

    Ibn Sahula’s bookMeshal ha-Kadmonibelongs to the tradition of international wisdom literature that came into vogue in the Hebrew literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

    Although purporting to be a treatise on morality, its morality is not particularly Jewish. Five chapters are devoted to wisdom, repentance, counsel, humility, and piety, but none of these virtues is dealt with as part of the Jewish religious tradition. The stories, animal fables, and maxims to which the chapters are devoted have their analogues in the gnomic literature of the world.

    The book is written in the rhymed-prose style associated with the...

  20. 15 JOB’S NOVELLA from A Valley of Vision
    (pp. 313-332)
    Abraham ben Hananiah Yagel

    A Valley of Vision—its title taken from Isaiah 22:1—was composed by Abraham ben Hananiah Yagel, the Italian Jewish physician and writer, sometime after 1578. In this unusual Hebrew work the author describes the unpleasant circumstances leading to his incarceration in the municipal prison of Mantua, his dream encounter with the soul of his recently deceased father, who appears in his prison cell, and their subsequent heavenly journey. In the course of the two nights of their journey, Yagel is instructed in the meaning of life and the sublime mysteries of the divine universe.

    That Yagel chose this literary...

  21. 16 THE “DREAM-TALKS” OF NAHMAN OF BRATSLAV
    (pp. 333-348)

    Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1810) is known to students of Jewish literature as a spinner of fantastic yarns. His collectedTales, his most famous writings, combine folk motifs, biblical images, and kabbalistic symbols to create works of a startling mythic profundity. Master of a small but intensely loyal band of Hasidic followers, Nahman managed to transcend the literary conventions of that movement, offering his teachings garbed in fantastic narrative as well as in traditional homiletics.

    Among his blessings Nahman was able to count a faithful disciple, Nathan of Nemirov, a man of humble spirit but of considerable literary talent....

  22. IN A TURN OF THE SCROLL: AN AFTERWORD
    (pp. 349-364)
    MARK JAY MIRSKY

    I was first wound into the world of rabbinic fantasy as a child of six or seven at the Beth El Hebrew School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Still vivid is the story of Abraham smashing idols in his father’s face, told to me on a cold November afternoon that streaked the classroom windows with frost. I recall the details of a shop crowded like a lamp store with fragile glass globes. Sometimes I wonder if the Book of Genesis doesn’t literally describe it so.

    I also remember the shock of discovering rabbinical fantasy in place, in the folios of the Talmud...