Jewish Studies The Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages
Eli Yassif
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0175


Hebrew narratives of the Middle Ages covers a period of about a thousand years, starting approximately from the Moslem invasions in the mid-7th century to mid-17th century. It also covers a great variety of cultural spaces, from Palestine to Babylon (Iraq), Europe, North Africa, and parts of the New World. It should be emphasized that Hebrew was not the only language in which narratives were created and disseminated in Jewish culture of the time; Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, and Judeo-Spanish were among the Jewish dialects in which narratives were created. However, the following article will deal with Hebrew narratives only, which, like medieval Latin narrative, was the all-inclusive Jewish language that could establish communication between the various communities and cultural spaces. Hebrew narrative of the period is characterized by a great diversity. This is seen from the sources in which these narratives were included: collections of tales, historical chronicles, biblical and Talmudic interpretations, legal (halachic) codices, philosophical tractates; travel journals, sermons, mystical visions, and more. However, the world of Jewish storytelling in the Middle Ages stood for many years in the shadow of Hebrew poetry of the period, due to cultural and social Jewish ideologies of the 19th century, that continued into the 20th century. It was not until the late 1960s that this discipline was established as a legitimate branch of Jewish literature. Since then it became a full field of study: research of individual tales to full study of large collections of medieval Hebrew tales; critical editions of central books; studies of typical genres such as fables, exempla, legends, and demonological and fabulous tales; and studies of surveys of seminal archives and libraries as the Geniza and the Bodleian Library. Studies also center around the main stages and historical events of this long period: the establishment of Jewish medieval communities, the transfer of Jewish wisdom centers from the East to the West, the events around the Crusader movement, the expulsion from Spain in late 15th century: actually every major or local event in Jewish history of the time was followed by narratives of some kind. Hebrew narratives of the Middle Ages, was an essential part of Jewish culture of the period. It did not only react to the major historical events but also reflected important aspects of Jewish life that were not known from any other historical or legal sources. It also, and even more important, took part in the major debates and controversies that conducted Jewish life of the time, and reflected its diversity and changes.

General Overviews

“The Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages” is a new field of knowledge. It started, “officially,” with the understanding that Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages cannot, and should not, include poetry only. The breakthrough was made by Dan 1974, which included both the theory, the historical context and description of some of the basic texts. However, it will be unfair to disregard 19th-century studies as those of Steinschneider 1967 (first published in 1845–1847), one of the greatest scholars of the 19th century, who discovered many of these narrative materials while working on his catalogues of Hebrew manuscripts and located them in the relevant cultural context. Güdemann 1880–1888 was interested in the intersection of life and cultural creativity in Western Europe and was among the first to present the stories as an authentic reflection of both. A similar approach with the insights of a great, modern historian was further developed by Baron 1958, who considered the social and cultural functions of the narrative materials. Limor and Yuval 1997 continues the historical route opened by Baron, concentrating on the complex relationships between Christians and Jews of the time. Yassif 1999 pays special attention to the medieval narrative texts as folk-literature and to their generic characteristics. Zfatman 1993 concentrates, while studying a central narrative, on the movement of Hebrew narratives from the East to Western Europe. As any developing discipline, the Hebrew Story of the Middle Ages needed a basic bibliography. The first one was appended to Dan 1974 and included both texts and studies. Yassif 1986 is a general bibliography on the study of Jewish folklore but included most publications on medieval Hebrew narratives up to 1980. While Yassif 1999 concentrates on the generic characteristics of these narratives and their meaning, Yassif 2002 describes the development of the study of this field and its cultural context.

  • Baron, Salo. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Vols. 6–7. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

    Hebrew narratives of the Middle Ages is discussed in Baron’s history—one of the most important and influential history books of the 20th-century—as part of Jewish life, history, and culture. It deals mainly with Jewish medieval chronicles, but its special attention to the historical context of the narratives paved an important venue for future studies of other narratives as well.

  • Dan, Joseph. Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri bi-Ymey ha-Beinayim: Iyyunim be-Toldotav. Jerusalem: Keter, 1974.

    A path breaking survey which coined, for the first time, the phrase “The Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages” and started a new approach to the history of Hebrew literature. The book introduces the main sources of medieval Hebrew narratives and discusses some central tales. It opens with an essay that locates Hebrew narratives of the period within the history of Hebrew literature and in its historical context. Should be considered as an opening note that later studies developed and changed.

  • Güdemann, Moritz. Geschichte des Erziehungswesens und der Kultur der abendländischen Juden während des Mittelalters. 3 vols. Wien, Austria: A. Holder, 1880–1888.

    An early and pioneering attempt to look at the “culture of the Jews” in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, from a rich and diversified points of view. It is also one of the earliest attempts to locate Jewish narratives of the time and understand it in this rich and diversified cultural context.

  • Limor, Ora, and Israel Yuval. Beyn Yehudim le-Notzrim. Jews and Christians in Western Europe: Encounter between Cultures in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Unit 8: Images of the Past. Tel-Aviv, Israel: Open University Press, 1997.

    As part of a larger perspective on medieval Jewish history in Western Europe, the authors deal here with a central cultural phenomena—the narratives. In addition to a general overview of the importance of Hebrew storytelling for understanding the relationships between the Christian majority and Jewish minority, it deals also with specific narratives as the romance of Alexander the Great, Toldot Yeshu (the polemical Jewish Life of Jesus), and more.

  • Steinschneider, Moritz. Jewish Literature From the Eight to the Eighteenth Century. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1967.

    This introduction to the literature of the Middle Ages, was written in 1845–1847, as an encyclopedia entry, by one of the greatest and pioneering scholars of Jewish studies in the second half of the 19th century. It is a pioneering attempt to survey all branches of medieval Jewish writings. This is the first attempt to suggest an overview of Jewish legends, translations, historical chronicles, fables, and other types of narratives in Jewish culture of the period.

  • Yassif, Eli. Jewish Folklore: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1986.

    An attempt to enlist and review all studies of Jewish folklore, from the mid-19th century to the early 1980s. The bibliography includes hundreds of critical references to studies of medieval narrative and is actually the first attempt to enlist and summarize these publications.

  • Yassif, Eli. The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

    The chapter “The Middle Ages: External Perils and Internal Tensions” (pp. 245–370) is part of a general survey of Hebrew folk narratives. The chapter is organized according to the main narrative genres of the period: expanded biblical stories, exempla, historical legends, fables and animal tales, and saints’ legends.

  • Yassif, Eli. “The Study of Medieval Hebrew Narrative.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, 270–294. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A survey of the major texts and studies published on Hebrew narratives of the Middle Ages since the 19th century. The survey defines the main research directions, either literary or folkloristic, and their relationships to the history and culture of the time.

  • Zfatman, Sara. Bein Ashkenaz le-Sefarad: Le-Toldot ha-Sippur ha-Yehudi Biymey ha-Beinayim. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1993.

    On the surface, the book deals with only one medieval folktale: “A Tale of a Bride and Two Bridegrooms.” However, through this impressive medieval tale, it opens a large perspective on the place of Jewish storytelling in medieval life and beliefs. The considerable contribution and achievement of this book is its emphasis on the tangled relationships between the Hebrew and Yiddish narratives of the Middle Ages

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