Jewish Pseudepigraphy

To earn respect, a genre of Jewish texts assigns authorship to biblical figures and sages of previous eras.

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Late in the Byzantine period, Sefer Zerubavel, attributed to the last Jewish ruler descended from King David who lived in the sixth century BCE, describes a revelation to Zerubavel about the victory of the Messiah and the Messiah's mother over the wicked Armilus, who represents the Christian Emperor of Byzantium. Written during the period of Islamic rule in the land of Israel, the midrashic work Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, attributed to the tanna (early rabbinic sage) R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus (first century CE), retells Biblical history, but incorporates lots of material from the Pseudepigrapha of the Second Temple period, and especially materials from the books attributed to Enoch. The inclusion of descriptions of the Muslim Omayyad caliphate indicate a date during the beginning of the eighth century CE.

In the 13th century, Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon, a disciple of the kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla (a Jewish mystic), composed a variety of pseudepigraphs. One, the Testament of R. Eliezer the Great, also attributed to the tanna Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, reuses the earlier model of the revelation of wisdom on the deathbed. De Leon's most significant works, however, were attributed to the tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and became known as the Midrash haNe'elam (the lost Midrash). This work formed the basis of the multi-volume mystical magnum opus known as the Zohar.

Nathan of Gaza, the supporter of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Zevi, also produced a pseudepigraph attributed to an earlier, medieval pietist, Avraham Hasid, who "predicted" the birth and life of Shabbetai Zevi. The work allegedly convinced the not-too-reluctant Shabbatai Zevi that he was, in fact, the messiah. The Polish kabbalist and pseudepigrapher Samson ben Pesach Ostropoler wrote a commentary to an otherwise unknown and thoroughly obscure work called Karnayim, authored by an unidentified Aaron from the town of Kardina (also unidentified). The book is so difficult and Ostropoler's commentary so clever, that it is clear that he wrote both the pseudepigraphic book as well as the commentary.

Within Hassidic circles, stories have been attributed to this or that rebbe. The popular Tzavva'at haRivash, which purports to be the ethical will of the Baal Shem Tov, (the founder of Hassidism) actually is composed almost entirely of the sayings of Dov Baer of Mezrich. This work goes back to the early, testament model of pseudepigraph.

During modern times, the thirst for the byline or the need to pad one's resumé with publications might make this Jewish penchant for pseudepigraphy incomprehensible. Yet, with the advent of the information explosion, creative writers need any advantage they can gain to get their ideas read. To note one widely-observed example, several years ago, someone wrote a great address to graduating MIT students ("to the class of '97: wear sunscreen"). No one read it, however, until it was spread across the internet as the speech of writer Kurt Vonnegut.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.