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Masterpieces of Hebew Literature

Selections from 2000 Years of Jewish Creativity

Edited by Curt Leviant Ph.D.

Publication Year: 2008

Masterpieces of Hebrew Literature is a true masterpiece of its own--one of the few collections in which readers can find important works of Jewish tradition and culture by such authors as Rashi, Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and Joseph Caro, all in one place. Curt Leviant includes literature that spans many genres, from fiction and poetry to legal, ethical, and midrashic works; from responsa and Biblical commentary to histories and letters. His brief introductions place the works and their authors in historical perspective.

Published by: Jewish Publication Society


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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

This one-volume anthology was prepared for the reader who seeks (but has hitherto been unable to find) a comprehensive introduction to the more than two-thousand-year mainstream of postbiblical creativity. Some compilations have concentrated on special...

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APOCRYPHA: Introduction

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pp. 1-40

In the diversified Apocryphal literature we find examples of wisdom literature—a popular branch of writing in the Middle East—such as The Wisdom of Ben Sira and The Wisdom of Solomon; religious poetry and...

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pp. 41-55

The Pseudepigrapha refers to that branch of the Apocryphal literature which was anonymously written but attributed to a famous personality of the past in order to gain greater acceptance. This process is not new in Jewish literature—even the Bible contains some examples...

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JOSEPHUS: Introduction

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pp. 56-71

Joseph ben Matthias (37-100 C.E.), later known as Flavius Josephus, was a prolific historian and enigmatic personality over whom controversy—was he or was he not a traitor?—still rages. His works, virtually the sole source for the history of Israel during the period of the Second Temple, include the Jewish War written soon after the events...

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MISHNA: Introduction

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pp. 72-96

The Mishnah and the Gemara, component parts of the Talmud, have been traditionally called Torah sheh-b'al peh, or the Oral Law. During the centuries that the oral tradition had been developing among the Jews in Palestine and Babylonia it was considered sacrilege to write...

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TALMUD: Introduction

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pp. 97-107

The Talmud is the most seminal work in the development of post-Biblical Jewry; it is the text that has molded Jewish religious and social attitudes and shaped the life and thoughtways of a people in exile. The Talmud is composed of the Mishnah and the Gemara (completion, or teaching),....

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MIDRASH: Introduction

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pp. 108-145

Midrash (explication, or commentary) dealt originally with an exegetical formulation of rules; that is, taking a Torah verse, expounding upon it beyond its literal meaning, and deriving a subsidiary statute which might be applicable to a contemporary situation. Thus the Midrash continued...

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ELDAD THE DANITE: Introduction

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pp. 146-153

Eldad's travelogue (880), with its romantic and hopeful description of the Ten Lost Tribes—a perenially intriguing motif —became one of the most widely copied manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and, with the...

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NATHAN HA-BAVLI: Introduction

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pp. 154-157

The Exilarch, civil leader of Babylonian Jewry and a descendant of the Davidic royal line, and the Gaon, its spiritual leader, were the two most important personages in Babylonia, recognized even by the ruling authorities....

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pp. 158-169

Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-975) was like many other leading medieval Jewish figures a physician by profession and a writer by avocation. He was court physician and advisor to Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III in Cordova, Spain, and...

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pp. 170-209

Samuel ha-Nagid (993-1056) of Cordova, Spain, the author of more than 1700 poems, was among the first Hebrew poets to write secular verse. A student at one of the talmudic academies founded by Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Samuel ha-Nagid not only wrote on matters of Talmud and halakha, but was...

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BAHYA IBN PAKUDA: Introduction

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pp. 210-224

The details pertaining to the life of Bahya are rather scanty. He was a representative of the triumph of the opus over the personality—a typical medieval view shared by Jews and Christians that the product of a man's thought...

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RASHI: Introduction

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pp. 225-240

Rabbi Shlomo ben /saac (1040-1105), or more commonly, Rashi (the custom of creating a name by initials was common among Jews), was the greatest medieval commentator on the Torah and the Talmud, and one of the most influential personalities in the history of Judaism during the past thousand years. After studying in academies in Worms,...

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pp. 241-263

The Chronicle of Ahimaaz, written by Ahimaaz ben Paltiel (1017-1060), depicts the history of a family in Southern Italy and provides information about the social status of that Jewry. The author, born in Capua, traces his pedigree back two hundred years—very likely from notes....

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pp. 264-271

From the point of view of Western (in essence, Christian) literature, the Crusades were a glorious and romantic chapter in European history, as indicated by the plethora of literary material—in poetry and prose—lauding the achievements of single heroic knights and of the crusades as...

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RESPONSA: Introduction

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pp. 272-290

Responsa (from the Hebrew, she'elot u' teshuvot—literally, " questions and answers" ), one of the oldest and most widespread genres in Hebrew religio-literary creativity, are questions addressed to scholars and rabbinic authorities either by individuals or communities who sought...

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MAIMONIDES: Introduction

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pp. 291-335

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), known also as Rambam and Maimonides, was born in Cordova, Spain, where he continued in the path of secular and Jewish studies traditional to the Jews of Spain. In 1148 the fanatic Almohades, a Muslim sect that sought to destroy every...

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pp. 336-357

As may be seen by his precise observations on trade and commerce, the twelfth-century Spanish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, was evidently a merchant. However, trade was not the only purpose of his journey. He was also deeply concerned with the state of his fellow Jews in their lands...

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pp. 358-366

Juxtaposed with his contemporary, Benjamin of Tudela, the travels of Petachia offer an interesting comparison. It is important to remember that Benjamin was a representative of the Sephardic tradition, with its more tolerant attitude to secular culture, and that Petachia was a...

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THE BOOK OF YASHAR: Introduction

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pp. 367-377

The Book of Yashar (Sefer ha-Yashar), an anonymous compilation written in Spain in the second half of the twelfth century, is in essence a midrashic amplification of the Pentateuch and some parts of Joshua and Judges. Since one of...

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JUDAH HE-HASID: Introduction

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pp. 378-388

The Book of the Pious (Sefer Hasidim) has come down to us in two versions: an early draft that is long and unmethodic, and a later, well-edited, brief compendium. Some scholars feel that Sefer Hasidim is a collective work, one of whose authors is Judah he-Hasid (the Pious) who died...

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pp. 389-414

The popularity of secular poetry, as expressed by the major figures of the Golden Age in Spain, and the concomitant growth of secular life, prompted the development of poetic fiction, based primarily on the Arabic maqama. The maqama (literally, the marketplace where the people...

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NACHMANIDES: Introduction

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pp. 415-431

In contrast to the turbulent life of Maimonides, the life of Spanish-born Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270), known as Ramban and Nachmanides, was rather peaceful and secure. The most dramatic event of this physician-scholar's career occurred at the age of sixty-nine when he...

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pp. 432-437

Fables—generally considered to be the domain of Aesop, La Fontaine, and Krylov—have also played a role in the Hebrew literary tradition. Jotham's parable of the trees who seek a king (Judges 9:8-16) is a striking example of an ancient Hebrew fable. The prophet Nathan...

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ETHICAL WILLS: Introduction

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pp. 438-457

Whereas a last will and testament commonly refers to financial and material matters, the ethical will—a unique genre in literature—deals with a spiritual and religious heritage that a father leaves his children. Although ethical wills date from about the eleventh century, deathbed....

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ZOHAR: Introduction

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pp. 458-476

The Zohar (meaning "splendor" or "radiance"), composed in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, is the chief text of the mystical tradition known as Kabbala. Like the early Midrash, the Zohar is a symbolic and...

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pp. 477-502

Obadiah Yareh da Bertinoro (1450-1520) was born in Italy and served as rabbi in the city of Bertinoro (and hence his name). Although he led a life of ease and wealth in Italy, he was drawn to the Land of Israel, and...

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DAVID REUBENI: Introduction

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pp. 503-520

David Reubeni (1480-1532) is one of the most intriguing and enigmatic figures of the Middle Ages. Besides his own partly autobiographical diary there is little outside information available about him. He claimed to have been born in Arabia, where his brother, King Joseph, ruled over 300,000...

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JOSEPH CARO: Introduction

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pp. 521-534

Joseph Caro (1488-1575) was born in Toledo, Spain, and was only four years old when the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 made his family refugees. Stemming from a long line of scholars, Caro early proved his brilliance. In 1520, after...

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LEON OF MODENA: Introduction

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pp. 535-550

Leon of Modena (1571-1648) was a son of the Italian Renaissance, who, like the residents of Arab Spain, combined both Jewish and secular learning. His father gave him a comprehensive Jewish education; in addition, he was taught philosophy, natural sciences, mathematics and classical literature,...

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pp. 551-569

Moses Hayim Luzzatto (1707-1747) occupies a unique niche in the history of Hebrew literature. With his belletristic works he is considered to be the founding father of modern Hebrew literature, and with his ethical compositions he is the last great exponent of a genre developed...

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pp. 570-574

Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810), the charismatic Hasidic leader and storyteller, was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Nachman was born in the small Ukrainian town of Medzhibezh, settled in Bratslav...

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pp. 575

The following are corrected versions of misprints in text. A short bar before the line indicates that the line should be counted from bottom of page, not from the top, as the others. For example, –line 13 means the 13th line from the bottom of the page....


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pp. 576-577

E-ISBN-13: 9780827609549
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827608818

Publication Year: 2008