MAYSE-BUKH ("Book of Stories"; Heb. מַעֲשֶׂה, "story"). Like many other folk-books, the Mayse-Bukh is a vast anonymous collection of stories and folktales, legends and oral traditions handed down from generation to generation orally and later recorded in writing in Yiddish. The book contains much from the talmudic aggadah and Midrash, here translated into the vernacular and copied and recopied by various writers who also adapted and judaized material from other traditions.
The Mayse-Bukh was first published in Basel in 1602 under the title Eyn Shoen Mayse Bukh by Jacob b. Abraham of Mezhirech (also known as Jacob Pollak or Bukhhendler), who is known to have been a compiler of religious textbooks, printer, publisher, and bookseller. The Mayse-Bukh with its 255 stories was compiled in the latter part of the 16th century, certainly not before 1580, the year when the book Kaftor va-Feraḥ by the mystic Jacob Luzzatto was published in Basel, from which the author of the Mayse-Bukh borrowed several stories to supplement his collection. However, it is clear that much of the narrative lore included in the book derived from earlier generations; extant manuscripts of Yiddish mayses ("stories") bear witness to a lively and continuous productivity in the field of creative narrative traditions.
The Mayse-Bukh is part of the folk-literature in Yiddish designed for the use of the common man untutored in the holy language and its literature, and for women who for the first time had access to a written language and through it to education. The rhetorical style mirrors the transition from an oral to a literary tradition. The collection became quite influential, in that the mayse became such a foundation for later prose narrative that, even up to the present, Yiddish authors have continued to draw inspiration from it. The book aims to provide a substitute for the widely circulated popular secular literature of the period, which the compiler of the Mayse-Bukh, like many others before him, considered impious. His collection, intended to replace this literature and provide a new kind of "aggadah in the vernacular," is permeated with a spirit of piety to strengthen the reader's faith.
The mayse corresponds to the Christian exemplum and serves to teach conduct and ethical principles, while also providing entertainment for the masses. As such, the Mayse-Bukh follows the example of numerous medieval Hebrew collections designed to inculcate a moral dictum by way of a narration. It thus had a powerful influence on Old Yiddish didactic literature. The moral of the story was usually appended at the end of the tale and concluded with the hope for an early arrival of the Messiah. Despite his piety, the compiler of the Mayse-Bukh did not resist the trend of his time, but, according to popular taste, he included various anecdotes, merry tales and fabliaux, often in keeping with the Italian or French conte and German fable collections, with their licentious, sometimes satirical, tone. The author drew profusely on non-Jewish sources, altering the plot or its characters where possible and adapting the tale to suit a Jewish sensibility. In this rich collection, Eastern themes mingle with Western material, and midrashic stories with legendary lore. A product of its times and a reflection of its own problematics, the Mayse-Bukh provides a key to understanding Ashkenazi literature, culture, and society in their Germanic context of the early modern period. Between the first edition of Basel in 1602 and the year 1763, 12 subsequent editions were published. Even in the 19th century several shorter and modernized versions appeared. The popular Mayse-Bukh nourished to a great extent ethical literature in Yiddish and served as a model for similar collections which were later composed and incorporated into folk-literature.
The Mayse-Bukh consists of three parts. The main section is devoted to stories from Talmud and Midrash, drawn in part from the Ein Ya'akov. The second contains a cycle of 27 legends and narrative traditions centered around R. Samuel and his son R. *Judah he-Ḥasid (the "Pious"), the great mystics of medieval Germany, and the authors of the Sefer *Ḥasidim. These stories early entered the oral tradition and were later recorded in Hebrew as well as in Yiddish. The third part consists of a variety of narrative material: medieval stories about *Rashi, *Maimonides, and the story of the Jewish pope.
M. Gaster, Ma'aseh Book, 2 vols. (1934); idem, in: Jewish Studies in Memory of George A. Kohut (1935), 270–9.; J. Maitlis, Ma'aseh in the Yiddish Ethical Literature (1958); idem, Das Ma'asebuch (1933); Minkoff, in: The Jewish People, Past and Present, 3 (1952), 157f.; I. Zinberg, Geshikhte fun der Literatur bay Yidn, 6 (1943), 210–26; M. Erik, Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Literatur (1928), 353–64. add. bibliography: A. Starck, Un beau livre d'histoires. Eyn shön Mayse bukh. Fac-similé de l'editio princeps de Bâle (1602) (2004); E. Timm, in: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur, 117 (1995), 243–80; S. Zfatman, in: Sifrut 28 (1979), 126–52; idem, Ha-Sipporet be-Yididish: mi-Reshitah ad Shiveḥei ha-Besht, 1504–1814 (1985); I. Zimt-Sand, in: The Field of Yiddish 2 (1965), 24–48.
[Jacob J. Maitlis /
Astrid Starck (2nd ed.)]