Jewish Studies Narrative in the Talmud
by
Mira Wasserman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0116

Introduction

Narrative in the Talmud is a relatively new subject for scholarly attention. Neither the Talmud itself nor its traditional commentaries have a concept of narrative as a distinct form or genre. Instead, traditional rabbinic writings distinguish between Halakhah, or Jewish law, and Aggadah, any material within classic rabbinic literature that is not directly relevant to the determination of law. In this traditional scheme, Aggadah is a broad and loosely defined category that includes diverse forms of narrative, as well as homilies, aphorisms, recipes, spells, exegesis, and more. For much of the history of the Talmud’s reception, higher learning in rabbinical academies was focused almost exclusively on legal discussion, and all forms of Aggadah, including narrative, were either dismissed as nonessential fancy, or excerpted and repackaged for the edification of popular audiences. During the 19th century, with the rise of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement for the scientific study of Judaism, university-trained scholars began to probe rabbinic literature for evidence of Jewish life in antiquity, and read the Talmud’s narratives about the lives of the ancient rabbis as historical testimony. It was only during the latter half of the 20th century that scholars of rabbinic literature began to treat narrative within the Talmud as a subject for study in its own right. Within the last generation, critical scholarship on narrative in the Talmud has flourished. Some leading scholars have fruitfully applied the methodologies of literary criticism to the Talmud’s narrative traditions. Others have developed and refined methodologies for contextualizing talmudic stories within the diverse religious and sociopolitical cultures of late antiquity. While the particular focus of this article is on narrative within the Babylonian Talmud, conventionally designated as “The Talmud,” some of the most important studies of rabbinic narrative engage stories that appear in other works of rabbinic literature including the Mishna, the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud, and the classic works of midrash.

General Overviews

Recent scholarship on talmudic narrative has been dominated by two major scholars: Yonah Fraenkel and Jeffrey Rubenstein. Fraenkel established the study of rabbinic narrative as a field, and developed a theoretical approach that serves as a foundation for all subsequent work. Fraenkel 2001 provides a succinct and thorough overview, and is the closest thing we have to a handbook for the poetics of talmudic narrative. Fraenkel 1981 offers readings of talmudic stories as windows into the values, beliefs, and experiences of the rabbinic storytellers. Unfortunately, neither of these has been translated from Hebrew. Among English readers, the study of talmudic narrative is dominated by Jeffrey Rubenstein, who critiques aspects of Fraenkel’s approach, even as he upholds him as a model. (For a discussion of how Rubenstein departs from Fraenkel, see Talmudic Narrative as Literary Art). Rubenstein 1999 offers an introduction to the topic of talmudic narrative that is concise and comprehensive.

  • Fraenkel, Yonah. ‘Iyyunim be‘olamo haruhani shel sipur ha’aggada. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Ha-meuchad, 1981.

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    Each chapter investigates a different theme, such as death and miracles. The stories are presented verbatim with accompanying interpretations.

  • Fraenkel, Yonah. The Aggadic Narrative: Harmony of Form and Content. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2001.

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    This collection of essays written over the course of Fraenkel’s entire career surveys the main literary features of talmudic narrative. Each chapter presents a distinctive feature of talmudic storytelling, together with a host of exemplary narratives. In Hebrew.

  • Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

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    The introductory chapter offers an overview that is erudite, succinct, and accessible. Subsequent chapters present six exemplary talmudic stories together with rich literary analyses.

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