Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales

     Barlaam and Joshaphat.–The Fables of Bidpai.–Abraham Ibn
     Chisdai.–Berachya ha-Nakdan.–Joseph Zabara.

The folk-tales of India were communicated to Europe in two ways. First, there was an oral diffusion. In friendly conversation round the family hearth, in the convivial intercourse of the tavern and divan, the wit and wisdom of the East found a home in the West. Having few opportunities of coming into close relations with Christian society, the Jews had only a small share in the oral diffusion of folk-tales. But there was another means of diffusion, namely, by books. By their writings the Jews were able to leave some impress on the popular literature of Europe.

This they did by their translations. Sometimes the Jews translated fables and folk-tales solely for their own use, and in such cases the translations did not leave the Hebrew form into which they were cast. A good example of this was Abraham Ibn Chisdai’s “Prince and Nazirite," compiled in the beginning of the thirteenth century. It was a Hebrew version of the legend of Buddha, known as “Barlaam and Joshaphat.” In this the story is told of a prince’s conversion to the ascetic life. His father had vainly sought to hold him firm to a life of pleasure by isolating him in a beautiful palace, far from the haunts of man, so that he might never know that such things as evil, misery, and death existed. Of course the plan failed, the prince discovered the things hidden from him, and he became converted to the life of self-denial and renunciation associated with the saintly teaching of Buddha. This story is the frame into which a number of charming tales are set, which have found their way into the popular literature of all the world. But in this spread of the Indian stories, the book of Abraham Ibn Chisdai had no part.

Far other it was with the Hebrew translation of the famous Fables of Bidpai, known in Hebrew as Kalila ve-Dimna. These fables, like those contained in the “Prince and Nazirite,” were Indian, and were in fact birth-stories of Buddha. They were connected by means of a frame, or central plot. A large part of the popular tales of the Middle Ages can be traced to the Fables of Bidpai, and here the Jews exerted important influence. Some authorities even hold that these Fables of Bidpai were brought to Spain directly from India by Jews. This is doubtful, but it is certain that the spread of the Fables was due to Jewish activity. A Jew translated them into Hebrew, and this Hebrew was turned into Latin by the Italian John of Capua, a Jew by birth, in the year 1270. Moreover, the Old Spanish version which was made in 1251 probably was also the work of the Jewish school of translators established in Toledo by Alfonso. The Greek version, which was earlier still, and dates from 1080, was equally the work of a Jew. Thus, as Mr. Joseph Jacobs has shown, this curious collection of fables, which influenced Europe more perhaps than any book except the Bible, started as a Buddhistic work, and passed over to the Mohammedans and Christians chiefly through the mediation of Jews.

Another interesting collection of fables was made by Berachya ha-Nakdan (the Punctuator, or Grammarian). He lived in England in the twelfth century, or according to another opinion he dwelt in France a century later. His collection of 107 “Fox Fables” won wide popularity, for their wit and point combined with their apt use of Biblical phrases to please the medieval taste. The fables in this collection are all old, many of them being Ęsop’s, but it is very possible that the first knowledge of Ęsop gained in England was derived from a Latin translation of Berachya.

Of greater poetical merit was Joseph Zabara’s “Book of Delight,” written in about the year 1200 in Spain. In this poetical romance a large number of ancient fables and tales are collected, but they are thrown into a frame-work which is partially original. One night he, the author, lay at rest after much toil, when a giant appeared before him, and bade him rise. Joseph hastily obeyed, and by the light of the lamp which the giant carried partook of a fine banquet which his visitor spread for him. Enan, for such was the giant’s name, offered to take Joseph to another land, pleasant as a garden, where all men were loving, all men wise. But Joseph refused, and told Enan fable after fable, about leopards, foxes, and lions, all proving that it was best for a man to remain where he was and not travel to foreign places. But Enan coaxes Joseph to go with him, and as they ride on, they tell one another a very long series of excellent tales, and exchange many witty remarks and anecdotes. When at last they reach Enan’s city, Joseph discovers that his guide is a demon. In the end, Joseph breaks away from him, and returns home to Barcelona. Now, it is very remarkable that this collection of tales, written in exquisite Hebrew, closely resembles the other collections in which Europe delighted later on. It is hard to believe that Zabara’s work had no influence in spreading these tales. At all events, Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, all read and enjoyed the same stories, all laughed at the same jokes. “It is,” says Mr. Jacobs, “one of those touches of nature which make the whole world kin. These folk-tales form a bond, not alone between the ages, but between many races who think they have nothing in common. We have the highest authority that ’out of the mouths of babes and sucklings has the Lord established strength,’ and surely of all the influences for good in the world, none is comparable to the lily souls of little children. That Jews, by their diffusion of folk-tales, have furnished so large an amount of material to the childish imagination of the civilized world is, to my mind, no slight thing for Jews to be proud of. It is one of the conceptions that make real to us the idea of the Brotherhood of Man, which, in Jewish minds, is forever associated with the Fatherhood of God.”


J. Jacobs.–The Diffusion of Folk Tales (in Jewish Ideals,
  p. 135); The Fables of Bidpai (London, 1888) and Barlaam
  and Joshaphat (Introductions).

Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 174.

Berachya Ha-Nakdan.

J. Jacobs.–Jews of Angevin England, pp. 165 seq., 278.

A. Neubauer.–J.Q.R., II, p. 520.


I. Abrahams.–J.Q.R., VI, p. 502 (with English translation of the Book of Delight).


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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