C.H. Gordon's thesis that "Greek and Hebrew civilizations are parallel structures built upon the same Eastern Mediterranean foundation," stressing the Mediterranean diffusion by different oral vehicles, has not been accepted by biblical scholarship. The premise of general oral relationships between the Jewish and the Greco-Roman oral lore during the Hellenistic and talmudic periods serves as a basis for any comparative approach to the myths as preserved in the apocryphal, pseudepigraphic, and talmudic-midrashic literatures. Many etiological motifs in later Jewish folktales are remnants of ancient myths. In most cases they sanction newly invented or imported and Judaized customs, by stressing their antiquity and dating their origin and first observance to the creation, Noah's ark, the patriarchs, etc. Thus, for example, a midrashic etiological tale (d 20) relates the custom of looking at the fingernails during the ceremony (Sh. Ar., 298:3) to Adam, who, endowed with God-like wisdom, brought down fire and light from heaven. The resemblance between this legend and Greek (Prometheus) and cognate myths on the origin of fire (Motif 1414) by means of theft – a culture hero steals it from its owner (Motif 1415) – is evident (Ginzberg, Legends, vol. 5,113 n. 104). Similarly, most of the prevailing Jewish etiological stories explaining the origins of fascinating and strange phenomena and of established customs lacking authoritative, written explanations, are elaborated biblical narratives which are based on universal mythical concepts. The process is also manifest in European folklore. Thus the original midrashic story (Tanḥ, Noaḥ 13; Gen. R. 36:3–4; cf. Ginzberg, loc. cit., 190 n. 58) of Noah planting the vineyard with the help of Satan was transformed in European folklore into a typical etiological tale explaining the characteristics of wine (Motif 2851). Its four qualities, as well as those of the drunken man, stem from the characteristic traits of the four animals sacrificed by Satan while planting the vineyard: the lamb, the lion, the monkey, and the pig. In Jewish and non-Jewish variants of the story some of the above animals are replaced by the peacock, the billy goat, etc. Unlike most of the non-Jewish variants, which are of an etiological character and not of a moralistic nature, the Jewish variants are didactic, severely condemning intoxication – the cause of all sins and the ruin of individuals.
Playing a most important role among Jewish folktales, the two main themes of the religious tale are theodicy ("God's justice vindicated") and reward and punishment. Several of the widespread universal religious folktales are of Jewish origin; among the best known are 759, "The Angel and the Hermit," which is representative of the theodician tale, and 757, "The King's Haughtiness Punished" or "The King in the Bath," which exemplifies the reward and punishment theme. In 759 an angel commits many seemingly unjust acts which arouse deep astonishment and strong words of protest from his companion the hermit; the hermit, however, upon learning the truth is convinced that each of the strange deeds was just. In many Jewish "legendarized" versions of 759 God, or the Prophet Elijah, plays the role of the angel, whereas the companion who learns his lesson ("The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice," Deut. 32:4) is a hero in Jewish legend concerned with social justice: Moses (cf., Moses addressing God in Ex. 32:32 "Blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book"), *Joshua b. Levi, or Abraham *Ibn Ezra. Folktales starting with the hero's (a ḥasidic rabbi) enigmatic smile, whose significance is revealed as the plot unravels, also belong to this pattern of theodician tales.
There are a wealth of wonderful Jewish folktales and other texts that are not overtly religious. Many of these folktales do tend to showcase a more out-dated, “old country,”depiction of Jews, but that is still a part of who we are and where we come from. My children will never get to meet my amazing Bubby, but I can sort of show them what she was like through these stories. Here are some of the less religious, stellar standouts that we have read over the years.
The hilarious, action-packed plot draws on classic Jewish folktales, Talmudic teachings and the timeless wisdom of the wise men of Chelm. As always, Rabbi Harvey protects his town and delivers justice, wielding only the weapons of wisdom, wit and a bit of trickery. He also gets a bit of help from Abigail, the town’s quick-thinking school teacher—a woman, it appears, who just may have captured his heart.