Painting of a man fleeing from the cops in 1948.

My Ten Favourite Jewish Folktales

I was reading through A Treasury of Jewish Folklore. It was first published in 1948 and has since gone out of print. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend running away with it. For your health, of course.

The book has many, many different Jewish folktales, parables and legends. These are my ten favourites.

He Ran for His Health

It was in the days of Czar Nicholas II. Two Jews were walking along a boulevard in Moscow. One had a residence permit, the other didn’t. Suddenly, a policeman appeared.

“Quick—run!” whispered the one without the permit. “When the policeman sees you run, he will think you have no permit, so he will run after you. This will give me a chance to get away, and it won’t hurt you any because you can show him your permit.”

So, the Jew with the permit started to run. As soon as the policeman saw him do so, he went in hot pursuit. After a few moments, he caught up with him.

“Ahah!” gloated the policeman. “So you have no permit!”

“No permit! What makes you think I have no permit?” asked the Jew, showing it to him.

The policeman looked bewildered.

“Why then did you run away when you saw me?”

“My doctor told me always to run after taking a physic.”

“But didn’t you see me running after you?”

“Sure, I did. But I thought your doctor had given you the same advice!”

Chelm Justice

A great calamity befell Chelm one day. The town cobbler murdered one of his customers. So he was brought before the judge, who sentenced him to die by hanging.

When the verdict was read, a townsman arose and cried out, “If your Honor pleases — you have sentenced to death the town cobbler! He’s the only one we’ve got. If you hang him, who will mend our shoes?”

“Who?” cried all the people of Chelm with one voice.

The judge nodded in agreement and reconsidered his verdict.

“Good people of Chelm,” he said, “what you say is true. Since we have only one cobbler, it would be a great wrong against the community to let him die. As there are two roofers in the town, let one of them be hanged instead!”

The Poor Are Willing

The rabbi had prayed long and fervently.

“And what have you prayed for today?” asked his wife.

“My prayer is that the rich should give bigger alms to the poor,” answered the rabbi.

“Do you think God has heard your prayer?” his wife asked.

“I’m sure He has heard at least half of it,” replied the rabbi. “The poor have agreed to accept.”

All Right

There was once a rabbi who was so open-minded that he could see every side of a question. One day, a man came to him with the request that he grant him a divorce.

“What do you hold against your wife?” asked the rabbi gravely.

The man went into a lengthy recital of his complaints.

“You are right,” the rabbi agreed when the man finished.

Then, the rabbi turned to the woman.

“Now let us hear your story,” he urged.

And the woman, in her turn, began to tell of the cruel mistreatment she had suffered at her husband’s hands.

The rabbi listened with obvious distress.

“You are right,” he said with conviction when she finished.

At this, the rabbi’s wife, who was present, exclaimed, “How can this be? Surely, both of them couldn’t be right!”

The rabbi knitted his brows and reflected.

“You’re right, too!” he agreed.

The Fine Art of Fanning

For a full hour, Mrs. Gutman from Suffolk Street handled every fan on the pushcart, feeling them, smelling them, weighing them, trying to decide which one to buy.

“I’ll take this penny fan,” she finally said, giving the disgusted peddler her coin.

She then went home with her purchase.

The following morning, bright and early, the peddler saw her standing, big as life, before him.

“What is it now?” he asked.

Mutely, she held up the broken remnants of the fan she had purchased the day before.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I want my money back!” she demanded.

“How much did you pay?”

“A penny.”

“And how did you use it?”

“What kind of a foolish question is that? Naturally, I waved it in front of my face from side to side.”

“Is that what you do with a penny fan, Mrs. Gutman, eh?” cried the peddler, outraged. “That’s what you do with a five-cent fan! With a penny fan, you hold the fan still and wave your head!”

The Modest Saint

A disciple once boasted rapturously before strangers about his rabbi:

“My rabbi, long life to him! He fasts every single day except, of course, on the Sabbath day and on holidays.”

“What a lie!” mocked a cynic. “I myself have seen your rabbi eating on weekdays!”

“What do you know about my rabbi?” the faithful disciple snorted disdainfully. “My rabbi is a saint and very modest in his piety. If he eats, it is only to hide from others the fact that he is fasting!”

Truth in Fine Clothes

The Preacher of Dubno, Jacob Krantz, was once asked why the parable has such persuasive power over people. The Preacher replied, “I will explain this by means of a parable.

“It happened once that Truth walked about the streets as naked as his mother bore him. Naturally, people were scandalized and wouldn’t let him into their houses. Whoever saw him got frightened and ran away.

“And so, as Truth wandered through the streets brooding over his troubles, he met Parable. Parable was finely decked out in beautiful clothes and was a sight to see. He asked, ‘Tell me, what is the meaning of all this? Why do you walk about naked and looking so woebegone?’

Truth shook his head sadly and replied, ‘Everything is going downhill with me, brother. I’ve gotten so old and decrepit that everybody avoids me.’

“‘What you’re saying makes no sense,’ said Parable. ‘People are not giving you a wide berth because you are old. Take me, for instance; I am no younger than you. Nonetheless, the older I get, the more attractive people find me. Just let me confide a secret to you about people. They don’t like things plain and bare, but dressed up prettily and a little artificial. I’ll tell you what. I will lend you some fine clothes like mine, and you’ll soon see how people will take to you.’

Truth followed this advice and decked himself out in Parable’s fine clothes. And lo and behold! People no longer shunned him but welcomed him heartily. Since that time, Truth and Parable have been seen as inseparable companions, esteemed and loved by all.”

A Lesson in Talmud

One day, a country fellow came to his rabbi. “Rabbi,” he said, in the tongue-tied fashion of the unlettered in the presence of the learned, “for a long time, I have been hearing of Talmud. It puzzles me not to know what Talmud is. Please teach me what Talmud is.”

“Talmud?” The rabbi smiled tolerantly, as one does to a child. “You’ll never understand Talmud; you’re a peasant.”

“Oh, Rabbi, you must teach me,” the fellow insisted. “I’ve never asked you for a favor. This time I ask. Please teach me what Talmud is.”

“Very well,” said the rabbi, “listen carefully. If two burglars enter a house by way of the chimney and find themselves in the living room, one with a dirty face and one with a clean face, which one will wash?”

The peasant thought awhile and said, “Naturally, the one with the dirty face.”

“You see,” said the rabbi, “I told you a farmer couldn’t master Talmud. The one with the clean face looked at the one with the dirty face and, assuming his own face was also dirty, of course, he washed it, while the one with the dirty face, observing the clean face of his colleague, naturally assumed his own was clean, and did not wash it.”

Again, the peasant reflected. Then, his face brightening, said, “Thank you, Rabbi, thank you. Now I understand Talmud.”

“See,” said the rabbi wearily. “It is just as I said. You are a peasant! And who but a peasant would think for a moment that when two burglars enter a house by way of the chimney, only one will have a dirty face?”

A Rabbi for a Day

The famous Preacher of Dubno was once journeying from one town to another, delivering his learned sermons. Wherever he went, he was received with enthusiasm and accorded the greatest honours. His driver, who accompanied him on this tour, was very much impressed by all this welcome.

One day, as they were on the road, the driver said, “Rabbi, I have a great favor to ask of you. Wherever we go, people heap honors on you. Although I’m only an ignorant driver, I’d like to know how it feels to receive so much attention. Would you mind if we were to exchange clothes for one day? Then they’ll think I am the great preacher and you the driver, so they’ll honor me instead!”

Now the Preacher of Dubno was a man of the people and a merry soul, but he saw the pitfalls awaiting his driver in such an arrangement.

“Suppose I agreed — what then? You know the rabbi’s clothes don’t make a rabbi! What would you do for learning? If they were to ask you to explain some difficult passage in the Law, you’d only make a fool of yourself, wouldn’t you?”

“Don’t you worry, Rabbi — I am willing to take that chance.”

“In that case,” said the preacher, “here are my clothes.”

And the two men undressed and exchanged clothes as well as their callings.

As they entered the town, all the Jewish inhabitants turned out to greet the great preacher. They conducted him into the synagogue while the assumed driver followed discreetly at a distance.

Each man came up to the “rabbi” to shake hands and to say the customary: “Sholom Aleichem, learned Rabbi!”

The “rabbi” was thrilled with his reception. He sat down in the seat of honour surrounded by all the scholars and dignitaries of the town. In the meantime, the preacher from his corner kept his merry eyes on the driver to see what would happen.

“Learned Rabbi,” suddenly asked a local scholar, “would you be good enough to explain to us this passage in the Law we don’t understand?”

The preacher in his corner chuckled, for the passage was indeed a difficult one.

“Now he’s sunk!” he said to himself.

With knitted brows, the “rabbi” peered into the sacred book placed before him, although he could not understand one word. Then, impatiently pushing it away from him, he addressed himself sarcastically to the learned men of the town, “A fine lot of scholars you are! Is this the most difficult question you could ask me? Why, this passage is so simple even my driver could explain.

Then he called to the Preacher of Dubno: “Driver, come here for a moment and explain the Law to these ‘scholars’!”

The Power of a Lie

In the town of Tamopol lived a man by the name of Reb Feivel. One day, as he sat in his house, deeply absorbed in his Talmud, he heard a loud noise outside. When he went to the window, he saw a lot of little pranksters. “Up to some new piece of mischief, no doubt,” he thought.

“Children, run quickly to the synagogue,” he cried, leaning out and improvising the first story that occurred to him. “You’ll see there a sea monster, and what a monster! It’s a creature with five feet, three eyes, and a beard like that of a goat, only it’s green!”

And sure enough, the children scampered off, and Reb Feivel returned to his studies. He smiled into his beard as he thought of the trick he had played on those little rascals.

It wasn’t long before his studies were interrupted again, this time by running footsteps. When he went to the window, he saw several Jews running.

“Where are you running?” he called out.

“To the synagogue!” answered the Jews. “Haven’t you heard? There’s a sea monster there — a creature with five legs, three eyes, and a beard like that of a goat, only it’s green!”

Reb Feivel laughed with glee, thinking of the trick he had played, and sat down again to his Talmud.

But no sooner had he begun to concentrate than he heard a dining tumult outside. And what did he see? A great crowd of men, women, and children all running toward the synagogue.

“What’s up?” he cried, sticking his head out of the window.

“What a question! Why, don’t you know?” they answered. “Right in front of the synagogue, there’s a sea monster. It’s a creature with five legs, three eyes, and a beard like that of a goat, only it’s green!”

And as the crowd hurried by, Reb Feivel suddenly noticed that the rabbi himself was among them.

“Lord of the world!” he exclaimed. “If the rabbi himself is running with them, surely there must be something happening. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire!”

Without further thought, Reb Feivel grabbed his hat, left his house, and also began running.

“Who can tell?” he muttered to himself as he ran, all out of breath, toward the synagogue.


If you liked these Jewish folktales, I know a couple of others you might like, here on the site:

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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