Folktales of the Jews, Volume 3
Tales from Arab Lands
Edited with commentaries by Dan Ben-Amos
Jewish Publication Society, 2011, 844 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 9, 2011
This superb and comprehensive volume not only has sixty legends, moral, humorous and folk tales, it also introduces readers into the world of Jews in Arab lands, the cultures at various times, the histories, and thought processes. These added materials include well informed commentaries on the tales, explanations of terms, comparisons with other Jewish and non-Jewish stories, notes filled with information that will satisfy readers with stronger curiosities, and much more. These materials are a university education, as if readers were taught by the school's most-friendly, articulate, and well-liked professor. The sixty tales probably take up no more than about 150 pages; the other close to 700 pages contain this exemplary and entertaining education.
For example, pages 79-86 have a comprehensive explanation of the biblically mandated counting of days, popularly called "counting of the omer," between Passover and Shavuot. It explains that we really have no idea why this 49 day period was converted into a time of mourning during the middle ages and why a middle day, the thirty-third day of the counting, called lag b'omer, became a happy day in the middle ages. Rabbis, as is well-known, explain that the 49 days was the time that the students of Rabbi Akiva, who participated in the Bar Kochva rebellion against Rome in 132-135 died – some say in a plague, others in battle, the numbers also vary. This is a good homily, but is unlikely. The commentary also reveals similar customs in other countries among non-Jews.
Before this, on pages 71 and 72, the book tells the tale of how Rabbi David Alshqar knew when he would die, used the day to give his friends a final message, a shroud magically appears, his friends dig his grave, he gets in and dies, they cover the grave, walk home, and because the day is Friday and the Shabbat is fast approaching, the sun stands still for them until they reach their homes. In pages 73-79, there is interesting information about the rabbi, the cultural, historical, and literary background to this miracle tale, how both Jews and Arabs give significance to gravesites, about other tales where a person foretells the time of his death, and about miracles, interment, descending into a grave, and about songs sung to commemorate deaths of "holy" men.
Another example is the legend about Rabbi Shelomoh, a very pious man, who runs from Arabs, enters a cave, sees a lion with a thorn in its paw, and pulls it out. This one page tale tells how the thankful lion protects the saint. The commentary discloses similar fables in other cultures, such as the famed "Androcles and the Lion," and how the Irish anti-Christianity playwright George Bernard Shaw used his two-act play "Androcles and the Lion" in 1912 to mock Christianity.
Virtually every fact and every tale is interesting. There is the fact that many Arab saints are really Jewish, but the Arabs took them over and gave the hero an Arab name, and the Jews did the same to the Arabs. There is the tale that threatens the listener that if he shaves and violates what the story teller feels is a biblical prohibition "you will be reincarnated as an ass." There is the story of a resurrection created by a small inanimate Torah scroll that was once taken from the community and brings itself back. The story is followed by a discussion about magic, among other things. There is a fable of how the Baal Shem Tov approached a picture containing Jesus, pulls him out of the picture, and uses him to stop a blood libel against the Jews. The rabbi travels to the picture at warp speed and the commentary discusses, among other matters, other tales of such magical traveling. Some stories have jokes within them, others draw on ancient myths, such as King Solomon and the king of the demons, many have anachronisms, some give comfort, some encourage obedience to Torah laws such as the Sabbath, some take dreams as their theme, or speak of friendship, riddles (such as "which direction does God face?), the evil eye, the court Jew, astrology, the power of a fish, and many others. In short, this is a book that everyone will enjoy and smile about.