Read an Excerpt
Selected Classical Jewish Folktales
By Micha Joseph bin Gorion, Emanuel bin Gorion, I. M. Lask
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1990 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
In Bible Days
The Four Guardians of the World
This medieval midrash is an exegesis of the biblical verses The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; By understanding He established the heavens. By His knowledge the depths were broken up, And the skies drop down the dew (Proverbs 3:19–20). This fragment relates directly to the phrase by His knowledge the depths were broken up, articulating a cosmology of balance between opposing forces, cultured and wild, in the created, animated world. The contrasting pairs are humans vs. demons, domesticated vs. wild animals, fowl vs. birds of prey, and small vs. large fish. In each case there are divine or mythical figures that in specific seasons protect the physically weaker of the two. Source: A. Jellinek, ed., Bet ha-Midrasch 3:64–66.
The Holy and Blessed One created humankind, and as against them He created demons and evil spirits and set the terror of them among men. Had it not been for His manifold mercies and the rules He made for them, men would not be able to withstand these evil spirits and demons and monsters of the night even for a single hour. Now what were these rules? Year by year during the month of Nisan in the early spring the seraphim grow powerful and raise their heads on high, and they terrify the harmful spirits and demons and sprites, and cover humankind over with their pinions in order to spare them the harm that might be caused. "He shall cover you with His pinions. ... You need not fear the terror by night," as it says in Psalm 91.
He created domestic beasts and gentle beasts, and as against them He created lions and leopards and bears. Had it not been for His manifold mercies and the special provision He made, the domestic and gentle beasts would never have been able to withstand the lions and the leopards and the bears. And what was His special provision? As against them He created Behemoth in the Thousand Mountains, and throughout the month of Tammuz in early summer the Holy and Blessed One gives strength to Behemoth, who grows mighty and raises his head and roars but once. Yet his voice passes through all settled lands and the beasts hear it; and the dread of him falls upon the lions and leopards and bears and all the evil beasts for a whole year. Otherwise the domestic and gentle beasts could never have withstood the evil beasts.
He created clean and unclean birds, some in settled places and others elsewhere, and as against them the vulture and the eagle, which are not in settled places. Had it not been for His manifold mercies and the provision He made, the birds would not have been able to withstand the vulture and the eagle. What was the provision He made? Whenever the month of Tishri comes in early autumn, the Holy and Blessed One gives strength to the great bird Ziz-Sadai, who grows powerful and raises his head and sets it between his wings and soars aloft and gives voice; and the birds hear his voice and the dread of him falls on vulture and eagle year after year.
In the sea He created fishes great and small. Now how vast is the greatest? Some of them are a hundred or two hundred or three hundred or even four hundred leagues long. Had it not been for His manifold mercies and the provision He made, the large ones would have swallowed the small. And what was this provision? He created Leviathan. Every month of Tebet which marks the onset of winter Leviathan raises his head and gathers his strength and breaks wind in the water and sets it seething; and the dread of him falls on the fish in the sea. Otherwise the little ones would never have been able to withstand the big ones.
Do you suppose they think highly of themselves when they rejoice? They do not think highly of themselves but give praise and laudation and glorify and exalt the One who spoke and the world came about. For they will end by being dust again and nothing will be left save the Holy and Blessed One in His Unity, may His Name be praised and the mention of Him be exalted. "For the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day" (Isa. 2:17).
The Bird Milham
Only in Jewish medieval sources is the mythical immortal bird called Milham; in the Babylonian Talmud it has an Aramaic name, Urshina, and in Palestinian midrashic literature it is called Hoi or Hul. The latter appears as an exegetical interpretation of the biblical verse im kini egva ve-ka-hol arbeh yamim, "I shall die with my nest and like Hoi my days will be many" (Job 29:18). The Septuagint, and subsequent European translations, render the word Hoi as "Phoenix"; yet it is not clear whether this is the original biblical meaning or an anachronistic meaning of the term. A city of immortals, which appears in the conclusion of the tale, is mentioned also in talmudic-midrashic literature, and its name is Luz. Source: M. Steinschneider, Alphabetum Siracidis, pp. 27a, 28b–29b.
Nebuchadnezzar asked Ben Sira: "Why does the Angel of Death hold sway over all creatures save the offspring of Milham the Bird?" And he answered:
When Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and gave to her husband so that he ate with her, she grew envious of the other creatures and gave them all to eat. She noticed Milham the Bird and said to him: "Eat of what your comrades have eaten." But he told her: "Is it not enough that you have transgressed before His Blessed Name and have been the cause for the future death of others, but you come to me and try to entice me to disregard the commands of the Holy and Blessed One so that I should eat and perish? I shall not listen to you."
A Divine Echo immediately resounded and said to Eve and Adam: "You received a command and did not keep it but sinned, and came to Milham the Bird to cause him to sin as well, yet he would not do so but feared Me even though I gave him no command, but he observed My decree. Therefore he shall never know the taste of death, neither he nor his offspring."
In due course the Holy and Blessed One told the Angel of Death: "You have authority over all creatures and their seed except the offspring of a bird whose name is Milham, who are not to taste death." Then the angel said to him: "Lord of the Universe! Keep them far away because they are righteous, otherwise they will learn from the behavior of the remaining creatures and sin before You, though they are not supposed to know sin." Thereupon He gave the angel permission and he built them a great city and declared: "It has been decreed that neither my sword nor any other sword shall rule over you, and you are not to taste death till the end of all ages."
Leviathan and the Fox
This story; a tale from the Indian collection of tales known as the Panchatantra, is an example of the influence of Oriental narrative tradition upon medieval Jewish folk literature. Source: M. Steinschneider; Alphabetum Siracidis, pp. 27b-28b.
Nebuchadnezzar asked Ben Sira: "Why are the images in the world to be found in the sea as well save the likenesses of the fox and the mole, which are not in the sea?" "Because," said he, "the fox is shrewder than all other creatures."
When the Angel of Death was fashioned and raised his eyes and saw the many creatures found in the world, he promptly said to Him: "Lord of the Universe, give me authority to slay them." And the Holy and Blessed One answered: "Fling a pair of each of the creatures into the sea and you shall hold sway over those who are left." This he did at once and flung a pair of each species into the sea, where he drowned them. When the fox saw this, what did he do? He promptly stood stock still and began to weep. "Why are you weeping?" the Angel of Death asked him; and he answered: "Because of my companion whom you have flung into the sea." "And where is your companion then?" asked the angel. Thereupon the fox went over to the seashore and the Angel of Death saw the fox's reflection in the sea, so he thought that he had flung some other pair instead of him and said to him: "Clear away from here." Thereupon the fox fled and saved himself.
The mole met him and he told her what had happened and what he had done. She went and did the same and also escaped.
A year later Leviathan gathered all the creatures in the sea together. The only ones missing were the fox and the mole, which had never entered the water. He sent to inquire and was told what the fox had done in his wisdom, together with the mole. And they told him that the fox was exceedingly wise. When Leviathan heard that the fox was clever, he became envious of him and sent big fishes after him and commanded them to mislead him and to bring him to his place.
They went and found him strolling by the seashore. When the fox saw the fishes playing there, he was surprised and joined them. When they saw him, they asked him: "Who are you?" "I am a fox," said he. "Why," they told him, "do you know how greatly you are held in honor, for it is to you that we have come." "How is that?" he asked them. "Leviathan," they explained, "is sick and on the verge of death, and has ordered that none may reign in his place save the fox; for he has heard that you are wise and more understanding than all creatures. So come with us, since we have been sent in your honor." "How can I enter the sea without perishing?" he asked them. "Ride upon one of us," they said, "and he will carry you above the surface so that the sea does not touch you with a single drop even on the tip of your paw until you reach the kingdom. There we shall bring you down, though you will feel nothing, and you will reign over them all and be king and rejoice all your life, and you will no longer need to go in search of food, nor will savage beasts that are larger than you come and strike you and consume you."
When he heard their words he believed them and rode on one of them, and they set out across the sea. When he reached the waves, he began to regret it. He felt uneasy and said: "Woe is me! What have I done? These fish have mocked me more than all the mockery I have ever made of other creatures, and now I have fallen into their hands and how can I be delivered?" So he said to them: "Since I have now come with you and am in your power, tell me the truth. Why do you desire me?" "We shall tell you the truth," they answered. "Leviathan has heard that you are exceedingly wise, so he has declared: T shall rip his belly open and eat his heart and then I shall be wise." "Now why did you not tell me the truth earlier?" said he to them. "For then I would have brought my heart with me and I would have given it to King Leviathan and he would have honored me. But as it is you are going wrong." "You do not have your heart with you?" they cried. "Oh no," said he, "for it is our practice to leave our hearts in our own places when we go hither and thither. If we need it we take it, and if not, we let it remain in our own place."
"Well then," said they, "what shall we do now?" "My place and dwelling," he informed them, "are by the seashore. If you like you can take me back to the spot where you found me, and I shall take my heart and come with you and give it to Leviathan so that he honors me and you, too. But if you conduct me thus without a heart, he will be angry with you and consume you. As for me, I do not need to be afraid, because I shall tell him: 'My lord, they did not tell me to begin with, and when they did tell me I advised them to go back with me so that I could take my heart, but they did not wish to.'" Thereupon the fishes said: "He speaks well." And they turned back to the spot whence they had taken him on the seashore. There he climbed off the fish's back and began dancing and rolling in the sand and laughing. "Come, take your heart quickly," they said to him, "and let us go." "Clear off, you fools!" said he. "If my heart had not been with me, I would not have entered the sea with you. Or do you have any creature that moves about and does not have its heart with it?" "You have tricked us," said they. "Oh, you fools!" he answered. "I laughed at the Angel of Death, and can most certainly laugh at you."
Shamefacedly, they returned and told the tale to Leviathan. "Indeed," said he, "he is cunning and you are silly, and of you the verse was uttered: 'The waywardness of the silly shall slay them'" (Prov. 1:32). And he ate them up.
Ever since, every species of all creatures, and even of Adam and his wife, is to be found in the sea with the exception of the fox and the mole. You will not find them there.
The application of animal metaphors to stages of drunkenness occurred in the literature of the late antiquities and was popular in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The association between wine and Satan suggests an Islamic influence, since in the Koran wine is considered the work of Satan (5:92). Source: Midrash Tanhuma, "Noah," No. 18.
Our sages of blessed memory told this tale:
When Noah began to plant a vine, Satan came and stood before him and said to him: "What are you planting?" "A vine," said he. "And what is that?" asked Satan. "A vine," explained Noah, "has fruit that is sweet both wet and dry, and from it men will make wine that makes their hearts joyful." "Come," said Satan, "and let us both share in this wine." "Let it be so," said Noah.
And what did Satan do? He fetched a sheep and slew it under the vine. After that he fetched a lion and slew it, and after that he fetched a swine and slew that. After that he fetched an ape and slew that under the vineyard. And the blood of all these beasts dripped through that vineyard and watered it.
By this Satan wished to let him know: Before a man drinks wine, he is as innocent as any sheep that knows nothing, and silent as a ewe lamb before her shearers. If he takes a good drink, he is as brave as a lion and declares: There are none to compare with me in the world. But once he drinks too much he becomes like a swine, messing himself with urine and ordure. When he is properly drunk, he becomes like an ape that stands and dances and plays and utters all kinds of filth in the presence of all people and does not have the slightest idea what he is doing.
Now all those things happened to Noah the Righteous. And if it happened so with Noah the Righteous, whom the Holy and Blessed One Himself praised, how much more does it befall the rest of mankind!
Who Holds the Fortress?
This legend belongs to a narrative cycle about Abraham's discovery and confirmation of the existence of a single God in the universe. In all of the narratives of this cycle, Abraham reaches this religious awareness in childhood and through being intellectually inquisitive, rather than in adulthood and through mystical revelation. Source: Mordecai Margulies, ed.y Midrash Haggadol on the Pentateuch: Genesis, pp. 210–211, 12:1.
"You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has chosen to anoint you with oil of gladness, over all your peers" (Ps. 45:8). This verse was said in respect of our Father Abraham, who loved the Holy and Blessed One and came under the wings of the Shekinah and hated the idolatry of his father's household.
He used to meditate and thought to himself: "How long are we going to prostrate ourselves before our own handiwork? It is unfitting to serve and prostrate oneself to anything except the earth, which brings forth fruits that keep us alive." But when he saw that the earth requires rains and that if the heavens did not open and permit the rain to fall, the earth would grow nothing, he changed his mind and said: "There is nothing worthy of worship except the heavens." Then again he saw the sun give light to the world and make the plants grow, and he said: "This alone is worthy of worship." But when he saw that it sets, he said: "This cannot be a god." Then in turn he considered the moon and the stars, which give light at night, and said: "These are worthy of worship." Yet when the morning star arose, they all faded away; and he said: "These cannot be gods either." And he used to worry and say: "If these have no leader, why does one set and the other rise?"
This can be compared to a person who was on the road and saw a great and lofty fortress. He wished to enter it and went all around it, yet could find no entry. He shouted and shouted but none gave him answer. He raised his eyes and saw red woolen garments stretched on the roof. Then he saw white linen cloth. Said he to himself: "There must certainly be somebody within this fortress, for if there were no person here, why would these be taken away and those put in their place?" When the keeper of the fortress saw that he was puzzled and grieved by this, he said to him: "Why do you worry? I hold the fortress!"
Excerpted from Mimekor Yisrael by Micha Joseph bin Gorion, Emanuel bin Gorion, I. M. Lask. Copyright © 1990 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.