Book of Legends
Legends from the Talmud and Midrash
By H. N. Bialik and Y. H. Rawnitzky
Schocken, 1992, 920 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 16, 2010
The great twelfth century rational philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote in his work Chelek that people who believe that what is contained in aggadah is true are fools. The terms midrash and aggadah, the two words used in this book's title, are virtually synonymous. Midrash is based on the Hebrew derash meaning "sermon" or "deep inquiry." Aggadah means "telling" or "relating." Both are expositions that are attached to biblical verses. The difference between the two is that there are two types of midrash: expositions used to derive legal norms from Scripture and expositions that are stories that contain moral lessons. Aggadah is only the latter. This book contains the latter, what the authors call "legends."
There are two ways to read midrash and aggadah. One is a scholarly evaluation of the story to see what prompted the legend's author to derive the legend from a particular verse: was he led to the story by some biblical word, by the absence of a word, by a strange word or other phenomenon. The second is to read the tale in total disregard of the biblical passage, to simply enjoy the story as a person might enjoy Aesop's Fables or to read the tale to discover the moral that the author is trying to teach. This volume takes the second approach and disregards the biblical passages.
Bialik and Rawnitzky selected the tales from the Talmuds and Midrashim and published the book in 1910. They added many explanations that made the tales more understandable and more interesting. The book has been published in many editions and is very popular.
Many of the tales that the authors collected were known before the authors collected them and the tales helped mold Jewish behavior and thinking. There are stories that expand upon the biblical narrative, show how people related to God and to difficulties, relate interesting interpretations of important Jewish ceremonies and holidays, give insights into biblical characters, as well as many others.