Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A short history of Hebrew literature

VERY SHORT: A short history of Hebrew literature, from Genesis to Etgar Keret. It's Hebrew Book Week, and the perfect time to glance back at Hebrew writing from biblical times to the post-modernist escapists (Elon Gilad, Haaretz). And not without omission or error. Excerpt:
Apocalypse soon

The Book of Daniel is an early version of the apocalyptic literature that became popular in the last two centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. and the first C.E. This end-of-days theme generally has God destroying the planet, eliminating the wicked and elevating the righteous. The fate of animals in this scenario is generally neglected.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 135 C.E., fond expectations of imminent messianic salvation were tempered by serial false messiahs. Apocalyptic literature gave way to legal writing, codified in the Mishnah by Judah HaNasi in about 220 C.E., and its accompanying Tosafot (addendums). This literature concerns how a Jewish life is to be lived in the here and now: it is practical, not poetic, philosophical or literary.

In addition to these legal halakhic texts, the late classical-early medieval period saw the birth of Midrash, a fanciful interpretation of the Bible, supposedly revealing the texts true hidden meanings. Another form of Hebrew writing to flower in this period is piyut, religious poetry, written in incredibly obscure Hebrew.

With these exceptions, other Jewish writings of this period were written nearly exclusively in Aramaic, which gradually pushed out Hebrew as the language of the Jews. The commentary in the Mishnah, the Talmud and Gemara is almost entirely in Aramaic, not Hebrew.
The Mishnah is mostly in Hebrew, not Aramaic. The addenda to the Mishnah are called the Tosefta, not the Tosafot. The latter are medieval commentaries on the Talmud. Apocalyptic literature continued to be produced and copied by Jews in Hebrew into the Islamic period: for example, the Apocalypse of Zerubbabel, the Apocalypse of Elijah, and the Apocalypse of David. See also on Sefer HaRazim below.

Mystical and magical literature are almost completely ignored in this survey. One would expect more coverage in the section on philosophy:
Philosophy books also began appearing in Hebrew, many in response Maimonides’s "Guide for the Perplexed," which was translated by Samuel ibn Tibbon. The greatest number of Hebrew philosophy books at this time was in the field of ethics, featuring ethical wills written by fathers to sons, explaining how one should live his life. An early example of these is one written by Eliezer of Worms in the 11th century.

This period also gave rise to a great deal of mystical literature, including the famous Zohar, the foundational work of kabbalah, written by Leon of Modena in the 17th century.
The Hebrew magical tractate Sefer HaRazim (the Book of the Mysteries) goes back to the Talmudic period and there are many Hebrew incantation texts recovered from the Cairo Geniza (although many are also in Aramaic or Judeo-Arabic). The pre-Kabbalistic mystical, mostly Hebrew, Hekhalot literature is not mentioned at all. Eliezer of Worms is also well known for his transmission and development of Hebrew (and Aramaic) mystical and magical traditions. And the last paragraph quoted above is quite a howler. The Zohar was published in the thirteenth century by Moses de León in Spain and it is in Aramaic. Leon of Modena debunked the Zohar in the 17th century.