In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Folklore

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Jewish Folklore Scholarship
  • Bibliographies and Encyclopedias
  • Collected Studies
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Research Institutes and Centers

Jewish Studies Folklore
Dan Ben-Amos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0105


Four interrelated qualities distinguish Jewish folklore: (a) extended history depth, (b) continuous interdependence between orality and literacy, (c) national dispersion of the nation, and (d) linguistic diversity. The Hebrew Bible, the earliest Jewish written text, contains evidence of older oral tradition. Once canonized, its ritual reading spawned new oral exetical and metaphorical oral narratives and its retelling retrieved traditions that literacy excluded. The written records of Jewish traditions of Late Antiquity also include folklore of that era. With the rise of the Diaspora Jewish communities had their own regional folklore that synthesized local with Jewish traditions and was performed in new languages that were spoken in these communities, such as Judeo-Arabi, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish, and Yiddish. During the long history of the Jewish Diaspora, geographically and linguistically distinct Jewish communities consolidated into three basic groups: Ashkenaz, located in central and eastern Europe; Sephardic Jews, primarily living in the Mediterranean basin; and Jews residing in Arab lands. Following migrations to the New World, South Africa, Australia, and Israel, new communities formed, and their experience generated new folklore themes and forms. In the land of Israel, during the Yishuv period and later after the establishment of the State of Israel, the emerging new folklore corresponded, in part, to the ideology of cultural revival and, in part, to the new cultural contacts of ingathered exiles and to the encounter with the Near Eastern Arab culture. The folklore of the Jews, like that of other peoples, is represented not only in words, but also in behavior, music, dance, and visual art. Modern scholarship on Jewish folklore started anew at least three times in the 19th century, in the recordings of Leopold Weisel (b. 1804–d. 1870), a non-Jewish country physician who recorded tales in the Old Jewish Town in Prague (J. Dolezelova, “Questions of Folklore in the Legends of the Old Jewish Town Compiled by Leopold Weisel, 1804–1870,” Judaica Bohemiae 12 (1976), 35–50), with the article of Moritz Steinschneider, “Über die Volkliterature der Juden, Archiv für Literaturgeschichte 2 (1872): 1–21, and with the circular letter that Max Grunwald (b. 1871–d. 1953), then a young rabbi in Hamburg, Germany, sent in 1896, together with a questionnaire, urging its recipients to engage in field collection of Jewish folklore (F. Talmage, ed., Studies in Jewish Folklore[Cambridge, MA: Association for Jewish Studies, 1980]).

General Overviews

Steinschneider (Steinschneider 1872) was the first to introduce the term folk literature (Volkslitteratur) into Jewish studies, encompassing a wide range of religious and nonreligious books that were in popular circulation. Since this introduction, Jewish folklore studies have developed in different directions, and A. S. Rappoport wrote a comprehensive survey of many aspects of Jewish folklore ranging from myth, magic, medicine, and demonology to customs, folktales, proverbs, and rituals (Rappoport 2007 [originally published in 1937]). Written after the Holocaust, Bergmann 1953 surveys the same subjects in a more popular fashion. Noy 2007 is an encyclopedic essay that relates to all fields of Jewish folklore as they are represented in diverse Jewish ethnic groups. It discusses some aspects, such as songs, for example, that previous surveys missed. Patai (Patai 1983) takes an anthropological approach to folklore in essays he wrote over thirty years, and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2008 takes a similar approach in the discussion of eastern European Jewish folklore. Jason 1975 and Jason 1990 apply ethnopoetic methodology in the studies of Near Eastern Jewish folklore, and Ben-Amos 1999 concentrates on folk literature in its historical, ethnic, and generic representations.

  • Ben-Amos, Dan. “Jewish Folk Literature.” Oral Tradition 14 (1999): 140–274.

    The transition from orality to literacy is not an automatic process that the invention of new communication media generates. It involves social control and ideological, religious, literary, and commercial goals. The documenters of oral traditions are cultural mediators who shape traditions for future generations. Therefore, part of the Jewish oral tradition was preserved and another part became extinct. In Hebrew: Ha-sifrut ha-′amamit ha-yehudit (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2006).

  • Bergmann, Y. Ha-Folḳlor ha-Yehudi: Yediʻat ʻam Yiśraʼel, emunotaṿ, tekhunotaṿ u-minhagaṿ ha-ʻamamiyim. Sifriyat Dani le-madaʻ populari 43. Jerusalem: R. Mas, 1953.

    Historical and ethnical examination of basic issues in Jewish folklore such as life-cycle rituals, annual holiday cycle, folk literature, folk belief, veneration of the tombs of saints, folk medicines and customs, folk heroes and scholars, and material culture. Translated as “Jewish folklore: The lore of the Jewish people, its beliefs, features, and folk customs.”

  • Hasan-Rokem, Galit. “Jewish Folklore and Ethnography.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen, and David Sorkin, 956–974. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Folklore is a unique form of cultural expression in Jewish societies. Proverbs, riddles, narrative motifs, and customs are available in the Bible; the rabbinical literature, which includes also hagiography and even poetic fragments; and folktales that have become available in the medieval and the modern periods from diverse sources and communities. An extensive scholarship deals with all of these manifestations of folklore.

  • Jason, Heda. Studies in Jewish Ethnopoetry: Narrating, Art, Content, Message, Genre. Taipei, Taiwan: Orient Cultural Service, 1975.

    The ethnopoetry of the Near Eastern Jews is multidimensional, consisting of formal, thematic, and social aspects. Its analysis is concerned with generic principles, narrative structure, and its temporal and spatial dimensions, and it is illustrated by a study of the sacred legend and the numbskull tale and their social functions.

  • Jason, Heda. “Study of Israelite and Jewish Oral and Folk Literature: Problems and Issues.” Asian Folklore Studies 49 (1990): 69–108.

    DOI: 10.2307/1177950

    The issues in the study of Israelite and Jewish oral and folk literature concern the distinction between folk and learned literature, the interrelations between various cultural traditions, and the use of multilingualism. These issues are also general in nature and are applicable elsewhere.

  • Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. “Folklore, Ethnography, and Anthropology.” In The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Edited by Gershon D. Hundert, 521–526. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    The study of Jewish folklore, ethnography, and anthropology in eastern Europe began as early as 1823 with a programmatic essay by Leopold Zunz (b. 1794–d. 1886) and it was continued by scholars and institutions in eastern Europe and America during the 19th and 20th centuries when scholarly attention turned to Jewish immigrant communities in the United States and Canada.

  • Noy, Dov. “Folklore.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol. 7. 2d ed. Edited by Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum, 95–113. Detroit: Macmillan, 2007.

    A comprehensive presentation of Jewish folklore and its scholarship that includes folk literature and its different genres, such as narrative, song, proverb, riddle, and drama from Antiquity to modern times as well as folk art, customs, magic and folk medicine, life-cycle and annual holiday rituals and celebrations.

  • Patai, Raphael. On Jewish Folklore. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983.

    A collection of essays written over a period of thirty-five years by the founder of the Palestine Institute of Folklore and Ethnology. Patai addresses fundamental issues of Jewish folklore and ethnography, ranging from programmatic essays to biblical and Talmudic subjects, the Jews of Meshhed, Sephardim and Oriental Jews, and peripheral Jewish communities.

  • Rappoport, A. S. The Folklore of the Jews. Kegan Paul Library of Jewish Studies. London: Kegan Paul, 2007.

    Jewish cosmology, demonology, magic, medicine, life-cycle rituals, together with a collection of annotated folktales drawn from traditional literary sources, are the subject of this introduction that concludes with a chapter on proverbs and a discussion concerning the influence of folklore on religion in Jewish society.

  • Steinschneider, M. “Über die Volkslitteratur der Juden.” Archiv für Litteraturgeschichte 2 (1872): 1–21.

    The first essay in Jewish studies that includes the concept of “folk literature” in its title, encompassing not only oral works, but also a broad range of literature in popular use, from religious texts to popular publications. Translated in Hebrew as “′Al ha-sifrut ha-′amamit shel ha-yehudim” (translated by N. Ben-Ari and U. Ben-Ari, edited by E. Yassif, Pe′amim 129 [2011], 161–199) and in English as “About the folk literature of the Jews.”

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