The exemplary story in Sefer Hasidim


Sefer Hasidim is one of the most important literary, social and religious documents of mediaeval Jewry. It has been studied from various points of view, including the literary-folkloristic aspect. However, this collection of tales (more than 400 Hebrew stories) has not yet been studied comprehensively. It has not been compared in depth to the vast exemplary literature that flourished in Christian Europe in the same time and place, and no literary analysis has been used in order to understand the complex ideological and social problems reflected in Sefer Hasidim.

This study compares the work with the mediaeval exempla in order to point out both the similarity and the uniqueness of the literary phenomenon demonstrated by Sefer Hasidim. It is shown that, as in the Christian type, the exemplary stories of Sefer Hasidim can be divided into two main categories: the 'literary exemplum' and the 'personal exemplum'. However in a large number of stories (above one hundred) of Sefer Hasidim the leading figure is 'the Hakham', a fictional-literary figure similar to that of the implied author in modern literature. This is, we suggest, a personification of the author of Sefer Hasidim, R. Judah the Pious himself.

Another aspect examined here is that of folk religion. The mediaeval exemplum in Europe played an essential role in disseminating the concepts of Christian folk religion during that period. Sefer Hasidim makes extensive use of the literary techniques of the folktale: its forms, structure and themes. However, the exempla brought here are not folktales. Most of them were composed especially for this work, and they were not subsequently recited as folktales. R. Judah the Pious deliberately used the techniques of folk literature as a popular way of influencing the Jewish community to accept his moral and theological ideals.

In addition to reviewing the comparative and functional aspects of the exempla in Sefer Hasidim, our study shows how the tales illuminate Jewish life in twelfth thirteenth-century Germany. Each becomes a miniature depicting an episode of everyday life, and demonstrates the author's teachings. The primary purpose of these stories was undoubtedly moral, and that also is why they are so brief and condensed. However, they reveal an art of realistic narrative that was very uncommon in mediaeval literature and anticipated realistic literature by many years.

Répertoire bibliographique / Bibliographic Repertory