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Exempla of the Rabbis


EXEMPLA OF THE RABBIS , a collection of more than 300 Hebrew stories – the largest collection of its kind compiled in the Middle Ages – so entitled by M. Gaster, who discovered them in manuscript and published them (1924). Most of the stories, especially in the beginning of the book, are similar to, or identical with, those in the talmudic-midrashic literature, although in the latter part, there are some longer, more developed, stories, not found in the Talmud or Midrash. While the manuscript is undoubtedly of medieval times, Gaster maintains that the collection itself is a very early one, predating the Talmud. Furthermore, he tries to prove that for their stories the talmudic sages did not use oral sources, but rather a narrative Hebrew literature, of which the only extant specimen is this collection. This he concludes on the basis of the organization of the work in accordance with literary principles. No proof, however, exists for Gaster's conclusions. It is much more logical to suppose that the compiler of the Exempla collected stories from the talmudic-midrashic literature, adding to them medieval stories, with which he became acquainted through oral or written sources. All this material he organized together according to strict literary principles. The existence of two other medieval compilations of this sort –*MidrashAseret ha-Dibberot and Rabbenu *Nissim of Kairouan's Sefer ha-Ma'asiyyot (which was written in Arabic) – seems to corroborate the theory that Gaster's manuscript belongs to a medieval tradition, according to which later authors tried to provide their contemporaries with a selection of narrative material in the talmudic-midrashic literature. Although the exact date of this collection is unknown, it may be assumed that it was not compiled before the 11th or the 12th century. Literarily the collection presents a unified structure, in that every story opens with either Ma'aseh ("A story") or Tanu rabbanan ("The sages taught"). More important, however, is the purposeful arrangement of the stories: each is related, in content and ideas, with those preceding and following it, thus forming an interconnected chain of stories. Abraham's search for the true God, for instance, is preceded by the story of his destruction of the idols and subsequent trial by Nimrod and is followed by the account of Hadrian's attempt to present himself as a god. The book, a collection of stories of many types, contains only a few which properly belong to the literary type known as the *exemplum.

See also *Fiction, the Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages.


M. Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis (1924, repr. 1968). add. bibliography: J. Dan, Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim: Iyyunim be-Yoldotav (1974); A. Alba, Cuentos de los rabinos (1991).

[Joseph Dan]

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