Stories usually containing incidents of a superhuman character, and spread among the folk either by traditions from their elders or by communication from strangers. They are characterized by the presence of unusual personages (dwarfs, giants, fairies, ghosts, etc.), by the sudden transformation of men into beasts and vice versa, or by other unnatural incidents (flying horses, a hundred years' sleep, and the like). Of a similar kind are the drolls of the nursery, generally consisting of a number of simple "sells."
There is evidence of the existence of folk-tales among the Jews at all stages of their history. Even in the Bible there are Jotham's fable (see Fable), the story of Lot's wife, and the combat between David and Goliath, certain elements of which have all the characteristics of folk-tales.
A number of haggadic stories bear folk-tale characteristics, especially those relating to Og, King of Bashan, which have the same exaggerations as have the "Lügenmärchen" of modern German folk-tales.
There are signs that a certain number of fableswere adopted by the Rabbis either from Greek or, indirectly, from Indian sources (see Fable).In the Middle Ages.
Though there is little evidence of Jews having had folk-tales of their own, there is considerable evidence of their helping the spread of Eastern folk-tales in Europe. Petrus Alfonsi's "Disciplina Clericalis" (about 1110) contained the earliest specimens of Eastern folk-tales in literature; and they were very widely used to give piquancy to sermons. But for Jews the very large collection of stories connected with the names Kalilah wa-Dimnah and Sindbad would probably not have reached Europe at all. As late as the sixteenth century the "Schimpf und Ernst" of a Jewish convert named Pauli became the source for comic stories throughout northern Europe. It has been calculated that nearly one-tenth of the folk-tales of modern Europe have been derived from these sources. For the part taken by Jews in compiling the "One Thousand and One Nights" see Arabian Nights.
Besides these tales from foreign sources, Jews either collected or composed others which were told throughout the European ghettos, and were collected in Yiddish in the "Maasebücher." Numbers of the folk-tales contained in these collections were also published separately (see the earlier ones given by Steinschneider in "Cat. Bodl." Nos. 3869-3942). It is, however, difficult to call many of them folk-tales in the sense given above, since nothing fairylike or supernormal occurs in them.Legends.
There are, however, a few definitely Jewish legends of the Middle Ages which partake of the character of folk-tales, such as those of the Jewish pope (see Andreas) and of the golem (homunculus) of the "Hohe Rabbi Löw," or that relating to the wall of the Rashi chapel, which moved backward in order to save the life of a poor woman who was in danger of being crushed by a passing car in the narrow way. Several of these legends were collected by Tendlau ("Sagen und Legenden der Jüdischen Vorzeit").
Of recent years a certain number of folk-tales have been gathered among Jews or published from Hebrew manuscripts by Israel Lévi in "Revue des Etudes Juives," in "Revue des Traditions Populaires," and in "Melusine "; by M. Gaster in "Folk-Lore" and in the reports of Montefiore College; and by M. Grunwald in "Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volkskunde" (see Index to part vi., s.v. "Erählungen"); by L. Wiener in the same periodical; and by F. S. Krauss in "Urquell," both series. Altogether some sixty or seventy folk-tales have been found among Jews of the present day; but in scarcely a single case is there anything specifically Jewish about the stories, while in most cases they can be traced back to folk-tales current among the surrounding peoples. Thus the story of "Kunz and His Shepherd" (Grunwald, "Mitteilungen," ii. 1) occurs in English as "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"; and "The Magician's Pupil" (No. 4 of Wiener, in "Mitteilungen," x. 103) is also found widely spread. The well-known story of the "Language of Birds," which has been studied by Frazer ("Archeological Review," iii., iv.; comp. "Urquell," v. 266), is given in "Mitteilungen," i. 77. No. 4 in the collection of Wiener is the wide-spread folk-tale of "The Giant's Daughter," which some have traced back to the legend of Medea. Two of the stories collected by Grunwald, No. 13, "The Birds of Ibycus," and No. 14, "The Ring of Polycrates," appear to be traceable to classical sources; while his No. 4 gives the well-known episode of the "Thankful Beasts," which Benfey traced across Europe through India ("Kleine Schriften," i.). Even in the tales having a comic termination and known to the folk-lorists as drolls, there are no signs of Jewish originality. The first of the stories collected by Wiener is the well-known "Man in the Sack," who gets out of his difficulties by telling passers-by that he has been unwillingly condemned to marry a princess (see Jacobs, "Indian Fairy Tales").
As in other branches of folk-lore, modern Jews give strong evidence of having borrowed from their neighbors, and show little originality of invention. A few folk-tales of the European peasantry deal with the Jews, such as the wide-spread one explaining why Jews do not eat pork ("Revue des Traditions Populaires," iv.-vii.).
- J. Jacobs, Jewish Ideals, pp. 135-161.