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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Tale Type Indices
  • Anthologies
  • Collections of Studies
  • Early Modern and Hasidic Storytelling

Jewish Studies Jewish Folktales
Eli Yassif
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0108


Jewish folktales are an inseparable component of folklore. It is a creation of folk culture—of the larger segments of society, not by the learned only. It was created and transmitted over many generations and spaces by oral and written channels. Folktales are narratives that, as an outcome of their creation and repetition in different social groups and spaces, expose the basic characteristic of “multiple existence,” meaning that they always appear in various versions and forms. This is why the comparative study of folktales—the exposure and assessment of the variants in which all folktales exit—is the basic and continuous research method used in the field. Folktales belong to various literary genres: myth, fairy tale, legend, fable, joke, and more. Although all are “folktales,” each genre has its specific characteristics, literary structure, and social function, and each has been studied throughout the history of folkloristics using different methods and disciplines. Jewish folktales share these characteristics with general folklore; however, the Jewish folktale has its own history, conceptual and literary elements, and social functions. The history of Jewish folk narratives started not with the Hebrew Bible, as has been suggested, but with Israelite folklore, which existed long before the Hebrew Bible was written down. However, the Hebrew Bible is almost the only evidence of its existence, character, and meaning. Almost every book of the Hebrew Bible includes folk materials, from the myths that accumulate the Book of Genesis, to legends (Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings), fables, and even traces of important narratives embedded in poetical chapters of the Bible. Every major historical and cultural period of Jewish history has created folktales, inherited folktales from previous periods, and transmitted them to the following one. They include Hebrew folktales in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; the rich and diverse folk narratives recorded in the Talmudic and midrashic literature; Jewish folktales of the Middle Ages, which touched on all aspects of Jewish life of the period, and opened new venues in vernacular languages—mainly Jewish-Arabic, Yiddish, and Jewish-Spanish dialects. In the early modern and modern periods, two new and major components entered the long and rich history of Jewish folktales. The first is Hasidic storytelling, which added a new theological interest to Jewish narrative. The second component is the secular one, which was an outcome of the new, secularized ideologies dominating modern Jewish history. It opened before Jewish storytelling a new cultural dimension that did not exist before. On the ruins of the rich Jewish life and culture in Europe before the World War II. These remnants which survived the European Holocaust of the Jewish people, together with the ingathering of the communities from Muslim countries and their specific culture, created the Israeli local identity and culture.

General Overviews

As an outcome of the long history of Jewish culture, general overviews that attempt to describe its narrative world are, as expected, complicated, and never complete or comprehensive. The first scholar, as far as we know, who coined the term “Jewish folk literature,” was not a folklorist, but the greatest bibliographer of Jewish studies. Steinschneider 1872 exposed, for the first time, the centrality of this branch of Jewish culture. It addresses mainly one component Steinschneider was interested in—the translations of Eastern and Arabic narratives into Hebrew, and the Jews as cultural bridges between East and West. An-Ski 1999 can be described as the opposite of Steinschneider’s work and character. An-Ski was not a “desk folklorist,” for he organized the first great folkloristic expedition into the Pale of Eastern Europe, and the narrative materials he collected there are still considered the basic data we have on Jewish folktales. Bergman 1919 (cited under Collections of Studies) and Bergman 1953 are among the first attempts to look at the narratives in the classical sources of Jewish culture, the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic-midrashic literature, as part of Jewish folklore. The work of Bernhard Heller (see Heller 1933–1934) was built mainly on the great anthology Ginzberg 1909–1928 (cited under Anthologies), which used the same materials. But Heller further developed this new perspective. Bin-Gorion 1949 placed Jewish folk narrative into the context of worldwide folklore, and exposed the main sources of Jewish folk narrative. Noy 1974, authored by the founder of Israeli folklore studies and one of the leading folklorists of the 20th century, places Jewish folk literature into the framework of Jewish and world folklore. Ben-Amos 1999 points to the importance of contemporary folkloristic research for the study of Jewish storytelling. This survey is also an effective evaluation of the rich research on Jewish folktales. Yassif 1999 is an attempt to present the place of Hebrew folk narrative in each one of the major periods of Jewish history since the Hebrew Bible, and to understand its function and place in Jewish society during each period.

  • An-Ski, S. [Shloyme-Zanvil Rappoport]. “Jewish Ethnopoetics.” With an introduction by Haya Bar-Yitzhak. Chulyot 5 (1999): 323–392.

    Originally published in Russian in 1908, by one of the first and most original of Jewish folklorists. The essay attempts, on the basis of materials collected during the famous “An-Ski Expedition,” to outline the special characteristics of Jewish storytelling. On An-Ski and his work, see Safran and Zipperstein 2006 (cited under Eastern Europe).

  • Ben-Amos, Dan. “Jewish Folk Literature.” Oral Tradition 14 (1999): 140–275.

    A survey of the history of Jewish folk literature from the Hebrew Bible to its modern manifestations in the modern world—in its various communities and languages. The importance of this overview is its use of recent methods of folkloristic and literary studies for describing and understanding Jewish folk literature at large.

  • Bergman, Judah. Ha-Folklore ha-Yehudi: Yedi’at ‘Am Yisra’el, ‘Emunotav, Tekhunotav u-Minhagav ha-’Amamiyim. Jerusalem: Reuven Mass, 1953.

    A general overview of Jewish folklore, including folk beliefs, folk customs, foodways, costumes, sacred places, and pilgrimage routes. However, the major part of the work is dedicated to Jewish folktales: the various languages, fables, sacred legends, folktales, and their moral teaching. Although this book was written mainly for popular information, it should be considered a genuine contribution to general overview of the field.

  • Bin-Gorion, Emanuel. Shviley ha-’Agada: Mavo le-’Agadot ‘Am shel ha-’Amim ve-shel Yisrael. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1949.

    An introduction to the theory of folk literature, and a survey of Jewish legend-lore. This was the textbook for the study of folk literature in Israeli universities for many years. Although in many aspects—mainly in the general folkloristic theory—it is outdated, it still has an important place in the history Jewish folkloristics.

  • Heller, Bernhard. “Ginzburg’s Legends of the Jews.” Jewish Quarterly Review 24 (1933–1934): 51–66; 165–190; 281–307; 393–418.

    DOI: 10.2307/1451963

    Initially a review of Ginzberg 1909–1928 (cited under Anthologies), which turned into a seminal monograph on the multifaceted relationships between Jewish folktales—mainly the Talmudic-midrashic aggadah—and the narrative cultures in which Jewish communities (Egypt, Persia, India, Babylon) lived, and from which they borrowed and recreated their folk narratives. Continued in Jewish Quarterly Review 25 (1934–1935): 29–52.

  • Noy, Dov. “Folklore, Jewish.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. Jerusalem: Keter, 1974.

    A general survey of the basic components of Jewish folklore, written by the founder of folklore studies in Israel. It includes a description and listing of texts and studies since the first traces of Hebrew folktales in the ancient Near East, to the latest manifestation in modern Israel and beyond.

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

    The first known labeling in modern Jewish Studies of the concept of “folk literature of the Jews,” and its first conceptual study, by one of the founders and central scholars of modern Wissenschaft des Juden. Steinschneider points here at the various forms of Jewish folk literature, and emphasizes the importance of borrowing and translating from other cultures as an essential component of Jewish culture—while the main vehicles were works of folk literature. Translated into Hebrew by Nitza Ben-Ari, with introduction and annotations by Eli Yassif, in Pe’amim 129 (2011): 161–200.

  • Yassif, Eli. The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning. Translated from the Hebrew by Jacqueline S. Teitelbaum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

    A survey of Hebrew folk narratives from the Hebrew Bible to storytelling in modern Israel. The survey is organized by way of historical sequence of the major periods of Jewish history. It organizes the folktales along the major genres of folk narrative. The work attempts to point at the place, meaning, and function of folk narratives in Jewish history. Hebrew edition: Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1994.

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