Tevi: Amelia Bedelia avant la lettre

January 9, 2024
The Jewish Quarterly Review

Ayelet Wenger draws lines between Rabban Gamliel’s slave Tevi and Aesop’s trickster heroes


Rabban Gamaliel’s slave Tevi is pretty famous in rabbinic literature, not least because we know his name at all. While most of the characters peripheral to the rabbis remain only loosely sketched—Anyone know the name of Rav Sheshet’s wife? The oldest child of Shimon bar Yohai?—Tevi, by contrast, emerges in full resolution from the classical rabbinic sources.

In her essay "The Aesopic Wisdom of Tevi: A Tale of Two Tongues," in the current JQR, Ayelet Wenger reads all the extant sources and finds that the rabbis’ Tevi is not one character, but several, depending on the source: “The tannaitic Tevi is pious, the amoraic Tevi is learned,” she says, “and a Tevi portrayed in an episode in Leviticus Rabbah is a smart mouth.” Having become perhaps too clever, she shows, the character of Tevi is erased from later versions.

Tevi the smart aleck appears in a story cycle in the amoraic Leviticus Rabbah in which he—Amelia Bedelia-style—simultaneously outwits and undermines his master. By absurdly over-literalizing an order for a domestic task, he creates a comical situation through which he demonstrates his superior wisdom and opens a new bit of learning to the world. (The rabbis themselves, incidentally, often use hyperliteralism as a straight-faced exegetical tool.)

The stories are terrific, as is the scholarly spadework and insight offered by Wenger. Using deft source analysis, she ties the passage in Leviticus Rabbah to the trickster slave so famous from the wildly popular tales attributed to Aesop traditions. She shows a “deep and prolonged” rabbinic engagement with this Greek literary tradition; this nuanced study allows us to see ever more clearly the ways that the rabbis were not outside of the literary circulation that marked the eastern empire in Late Antiquity.


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The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Jewish Quarterly Review is edited by David Myers, Natalie Dohrmann, and Anne Albert.

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