Aesop among the Jews

Aesop among the Jews

Aesop among the Jews

India the Probable Source

Research has shown an intimate relation between the fables associated with the name of Æsop and the "jatakas", or birth-stories of the Buddha. Sakyamuni is represented in the "jatakas" as recording the varied experiences of his previous existences, when he was in the form of birds, of beasts, and even of trees. Such legends as these may very well be the natural sources of tales like those of Æsop, which represent beasts as acting with the sentiments and thoughts of human beings. The "jatakas" are extant in Pali versions, derived from Ceylon. It is surmised that a number of them were introduced into the Greek-speaking world by a Cingalese embassy that visited Rome about the year 50, as the fables that can be traced in classical literature later than that date resemble the Indian fables much more closely than the earlier fables of Æsop, as represented by Phaedrus. It is probable that these later Indian fables were connected by the Greeks with the name of a Libyan, called Kybises: Babrius, a writer of fables in the third century, couples him with Æsop. Thus, in the first century, there were two sets of fables—one associated with the name of Æsop, and the other with that of Kybises—while in the second century these two sets were included in one compilation, running to three hundred fables, by a rhetor named Nicostratus. In the third century these fables were turned into Greek verse by Babrius.

Known to "Tannaim"

It would appear, from references in the "Talmud", that the Talmudic sages knew of the fables, both in their separate and in their collected forms. It is said of Johanan ben Zakkai (about the year 80), "He did not leave out of the circle of his studies ... the speech of angels, of demons, and of trees, the "Mishlot Shu'alim" and the "Mishlot Kobsim" ("Suk." 28a). The author of this article has suggested that, as the phrase "Mishlot Kobsim" has no meaning except "fables of the washermen," the word "kobsim" is a misreading for Kubsis; and interprets the passage as stating that Johanan was acquainted with Æsop's Fables and with the Fables of Kybises, the latter of which had just been introduced from Ceylon to the Greek-speaking world. In the next century it is stated ("Sanh." 38b) that "R. Meir had three hundred Fox-Fables," which statement is interpreted as a reference to the collection of Nicostratus. The latest reference to fables in the "Talmud" is in the "Mishnah" ("Soṭah", ix. 15), "With the death of R. Meir [about 190] fabulists ceased to be." The importance of the Talmudic references in the critical history of the Æsopic fables is the evidence it affords of a separate collection under the name of Kybises.

That a number of the rabbis of the "Talmud" were acquainted with fables similar to those of Greece and India is evidenced by the list of Talmudic fables collected by Dr. Back (in "Monatsschrift", 1876-86).

Talmudic, Indian, and Greek Fables

Of about thirty fables found in the "Talmud" and in midrashic literature, twelve resemble those that are common to both Greek and Indian fable; six are parallel to those found only in Indian fable (Fables of Kybises); and six others can be paralleled in Greek, but have not hitherto been traced to India. Where similar fables exist in Greece, India, and in the "Talmud", the Talmudic form approaches more nearly the Indian, whenever this differs from the Greek. Thus, the well-known fable of "The Wolf and the Crane" is told in India of a lion and a crane. When Joshua ben Hananiah told that fable to the Jews, to prevent their rebelling against Rome and once more putting their heads into the lion's jaws ("Gen. R." lxiv), he spoke of the lion and not of the wolf, showing that he was familiar with some form derived from India. The Talmudic fables are, therefore, of crucial importance in distinguishing between the later Æsop's Fables—derived directly from India—and the earlier ones, in which a direct Indian source is difficult to prove.

It is absolutely impossible for these fables to have been invented by the Talmudic sages, inasmuch as they were extant in Greece and India in their time; nevertheless there is, in the Bible, evidence of fable literature among the early Hebrews.

The Medieval Æsop

Throughout the Middle Ages, Æsop's Fables were known mainly from the Latin prose versions of Phædrus, which were translated into Old French and other languages. A number of additional fables, however, are found among those of Marie de France (about 1200); and these show traces of Oriental origin. Here again Jewish literature helps to solve the problem of the sources of these new fables. There is extant a collection of one hundred and seven fables, with the Talmudic title "Mishle Shu'alim", compiled by one Berechiah ha-Nakdan, containing fifty-three stories found in the work of Marie de France; of these, fifteen are peculiar to her and are not to be found in the classical Æsop. Hence, there can be no doubt that Berechiah derived these fables from the same source as Marie de France; and it has been suggested that this common source was an English translation by Alfred Anglicus of an Arabic version of the fables. He is known, from Roger Bacon's reference to him, to have translated from the Arabic. Marie de France declares that the source from which she derived her fables was an English version of Æsop made by King Alfred, which claim, being based on a mistake that could easily have arisen through confusion of the two Alfreds, is not tenable. Berechiah, as has been proved, lived in Oxford about 1190, and was known there as Benedictus le Puncteur. A further suggestion has been made that Alfred and Benedict worked together; Alfred producing the English version, from which Marie de France derived her fables, and Benedict, the Hebrew set. A careful collation of Benedict's fables with those of Marie de France should solve this problem in much the same manner as the Talmudic fables decided the question of the provenience of the classical ones (see Berechiah ha-Naḳdan).

Berechiah's fables seem to have been the chief source from which the Jews of the Middle Ages derived their knowledge of Æsop's Fables; and versions of Berechiah's fables exist in Yiddish (see Abraham ben Mattathias and Moses Wallich).

The only version of Æsop in Hebrew was first published at Constantinople in 1516, together with the "Midrash" on the death of Moses; and from the title it appears to be derived from one of the French versions, since Æsop is there called Ysopet. The Syriac of Syntipas is found written in Hebrew characters, which fact gave rise to Landsberger's theory that the fable was invented by the Hebrews.


* Landsberger, "Die Fabeln des Sophos," 1859;
* Back, in "Monatsschrift," 1876-86;
* Hamburger, "R.B.T." s.v. "Fabel";
* Joseph Jacobs, "The Fables of Æsop," 1889, i.110-24, 168-78.

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