another version of the story, Jacob was angry at Serah for reminding
him of the loss of Joseph, the most painful incident in his life. He
jumped up and said to her, in a mixture of rage and sarcasm, "You
should have such long life!" And indeed she did.
This legend, translated more or less literally from the Aramaic, is one
of 670 stories collected by the author in a hefty volume of what he
calls "Jewish mythology," i.e., an impressive anthology of oral
traditions about God and the creation of the world, the evolution
of heaven and hell, the holy tongue and sacred time, saints and the
Holy Land, exile and redemption.
The author is a professor of English literature at the University of
Missouri in St. Louis who has done extensive research in the subject of
Jewish folk literature. In this book, he cites materials culled from
every branch of Jewish literature, from the Bible and pseudoepigrapha,
the Talmud, the Midrash and ancient mystical lore, kabbalistic
writings, the literature and thought of the Middle Ages, Jewish legal
texts, memoirs, Hasidic legends of the last few generations, and the
ethnic folktales of different Jewish communities. In particular, he has
drawn on the Israel Folktale Archive (IFA) at the University of Haifa,
founded in honor of Prof. Dov Noy.
Translated from Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish (sometimes for the first
time), the stories are sorted into 11 chapters, accompanied by
commentary, analysis and references to previous research (mostly by
scholars writing in languages other than Hebrew). The 17-page
bibliography is a testimony in itself to the tremendous effort invested
in the tracking down the material, not to mention organizing,
translating, annotating and compiling footnotes.
The section about Serah, for instance, is a composite of stories about
this wondrous woman told by the rabbis of the Talmud, the midrash
"Bereishit Rabba," an Aramaic translation of the Bible, a medieval text
from Europe, "Sefer Hayashar," a collection of midrashim from 13th
century Yemen, a story told by a Jew from Afghanistan cataloged in the
IFA, and a story the author heard from an elderly woman in
Schwartz brings all this material together and creates something new.
While his narrative is not identical to any of the individual stories,
it constitutes a lively retelling of all the traditions associated with
Serah, from Eretz Israel of ancient times to America today. Each
story is followed by a discussion that can be brief or quite lengthy.
In the case of Serah, Schwartz probes the biblical basis for the
tradition regarding her longevity and sums up references to her in
other sources. He discusses the psychological reasoning behind the
brothers' decision not to tell their father about Joseph's important
stature in Egypt, leaving it up to an innocent girl who does not
realize the significance of the role she is being asked to play.
Serah bat Asher's name crops up in other places in the book, in light
of her important role in the Exodus from Egypt. She reveals to Moses
where Joseph's bones are buried, as we are told in the Midrash, and she
is the head of one of the hekhalot (palaces) in the Garden of Eden,
according to the Zohar. Schwartz's discussion of this remarkable woman
is thus comprehensive in scope and an important companion to the texts
At the same time, this is not simply dry academic research that breaks
down Jewish literary traditions, analyzing their origins, evolution,
textual differences and ties to non-Jewish traditions. It is a colorful
anthology written for educated readers (Jewish or not) who want
the overall picture, rather than a scholarly debate on such issues as
biblical chronology, authorship in Eretz Israel or the Diaspora, or the
pros and cons of different exegetic approaches. Critical scholars will
have to go back to the sources cited by Schwartz and interpret them in
their own way - not necessarily the way he does.
In this respect, the book resembles Bialik's and Ravnitsky's "Sefer
Ha'aggadah," which might also be described as an anthology of adapted
stories, which is useful to scholars only as a jump-off point for
researching the original texts. But unlike Bialik and Ravnitsky's book,
which focuses on rabbinical lore, Schwartz stretches the limits,
branching out into unknown and uncharted territory. He deserves special
thanks for allotting considerable space to ethnic Jewish folktales,
which are cited in the same breath as early and more authoritative
is a daring and commendable act, I think, to bring the existence of
these oral traditions, which are still being passed down (or were,
until the last generation), to the knowledge of his readers. Through
these stories, time-honored motifs continue to live on, and shape the
thinking of the storytellers and their audiences. This book is proof
that the gargantuan
efforts of Prof. Noy and his students in collecting and archiving these
stories have paid off. Every text that resparks our cultural awareness
of this treasure trove of Jewish lore deserves our highest praise.
Here they are, lined up one after another in an endless procession
famous legends and forgotten ones, legends at the core of our
collective culture and legends lurking on the sidelines. They speak of
worlds that preceded our world; of the relationship between the
Shekhina and her partner, God; of the pleasures enjoyed by the
righteous in Garden of Eden; of the bitter fate of sinners in hell; of
dybbuks and liliths; of angels with strange names like Sandalphon and
Tzadkiel; of Satan and his henchmen; of the symbolism of the candle in
the havdalah ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath; of Abraham the
patriarch's daughter; of
cherubs in the Temple in Jerusalem; of the Golem of Prague; of the
Sambatyon River at the edge of the world; of celestial Jerusalem; of
the destruction of Sodom; of the character and names of the Messiah.
And this is just a tiny taste of the delights that await readers of
book, with its cornucopia of texts (rewritten and translated into
English) on every imaginable subject, from every historical era, in
every conceivable genre.
The big question that remains after reading this engrossing collection
of tales is inherent in the subtitle: "Jewish mythology." Everyone
talks about mythology, but what is it? There have been endless attempts
to define this term. In a long and detailed introduction to the book,
full of scholarly footnotes, Schwartz offers a definition of his own:
"Myth refers to a people's sacred stories about origins, deities,
ancestors and heroes. Within a culture, myths serve as the divine
charter, and myth and ritual are inextricably bound."
This is very broad definition, which some may argue with, but it gives
the author considerable leeway in his choice of material. One doubts he
has left out any story he found interesting, or new, or able to
contribute in some way to our knowledge of the literary-fictional
that have been part of Jewish life over the ages, in every community
and at every rung of the social ladder.
I prefer a narrower definition of myth, incorporating the idea that one
of its chief objectives is to explain reality and interpret phenomena
we encounter in our lives. Using that criteria, not all the 670
selections in this book would fit into the category of myth. What is
mythological, for example, about the story of Serah? The most one could
say is that a
tradition revolving around a very long-lived individual - Serah lived
to over 200 - harks back to ancient myths that explain why human life
became shorter and limits were placed on age.
But even the subtitle of the book and the broad definition of myth do
not detract from the impressive achievement of this book, with its
splendid collection of stories, brilliantly categorized and annotated.
A detailed index enhances its user-friendliness and helps readers find
their way around. A minor quibble: "Serah bat Asher" is listed as
"Asher, Serah bat," which makes it hard to find.
I began with Serah because her name appears in the introduction, in the
very first footnote. Schwartz brings her as an example of a woman who
teaches Torah to her peers in the Garden of Eden. I will end with the
title of the book, "Tree of Souls." In the Garden of Eden, the story
goes, there is a tree on which souls grow until they are ripe enough to
go down to the world and fulfill their mission. All the souls that have
been created and will ever be created grow on this tree. When the tree
sheds its last soul, the world will end.
This legend can be traced back, at least in part, to the Babylonian
Talmud, the Book of Hanoch, various midrashim, the Zohar and other
kabbalistic texts, and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's "Likutei moharan."
If all souls come from this one lofty tree, then all the literary
traditions of these souls, which have emerged over the generations, in
different places and different styles, can be addressed as a
Together, they constitute a flourishing orchard of creativity, full of
imagination and spirit - an orchard that has fertilized the human mind
and will continue to do so for as long as humankind soars above the
reality in which it has been placed.
Prof. Avigdor Shinan teaches in the department of
Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.