Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Folklore, Fairytales & Mysticism within the Context of Judaism and the Bible

    I am proud when my own insights and interpretations are later discovered in the rishonim [early authorities] or the early aharonim [later authorities].

    My great-grandfather, Reb Yosef Baer of Brisk [1820-1892], always said that when you travel on a main highway you meet other travelers. When you go on a side road you meet nobody. In other words, when your original ideas are correct, you will encounter others who think your way. However, if you do not uncover support for your thesis, it may very well be incorrect.

    ~The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, Page 196

I've written about an idea of mine here, here, here, and in the most detail (my favorite post as of yet), here.

My idea is simply this: one cannot possibly understand the Torah or Midrash without being well-versed in fairy tales and folklore. The two are inextricably intertwined. Learning fairytales and folklore only supplements and aids you in comprehending the Torah. Not learning them means that you will not understand the way in which these midrashim have been structured, or how they compare and/or differ from the stories they are based on.

I was disappointed, therefore, to find that someone else had already come up with my idea. I had hoped it was original. I then remembered the above quote by Rabbi Soloveitchik and felt a little better. It's a rather odd understanding of originality, what he posits. After all, if you're original, isn't the whole point that no one else has arrived at your idea before? But he interprets originality subjectively. You came up with this by yourself, on your own. No one helped you. It was your insight. And yes, your insight was correct and is corroborated, but it is still yours and you can still feel proud of yourself.

I can't say I completely agree on that definition of originality, but I am always happy when I figure something out for myself.

That having been said, here is the excellent book that lends support to my idea.

This is a little-known book entitled Elijah's Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales. Its copyright date is 1945. The only reason I have it is because it was my mother's. Upon reading this book for the first time, a while ago, I realized that this is not a collection of fairy tales so much as a collection of midrashim. These midrashim have been retold in beautiful language and presented as fairy tales but they are actually taken from the aggadata in the Talmud and other sources. The sources are not actually given in the book; instead the compiler simply notes the country of origin.

I had read this book once and remembered it vaguely. Upon doing some research for a different project of mine, I remembered that a particular midrash was referenced in this book. (I am probably the only person to look through fairy tales in order to find tales from the Gemara.) I happened to glance at the introduction to the book and read it through (I had not done so the first time I read the book.) To my delight, I found that Howard Schwartz corroborates everything I have always thought.
    Tales of magic and wonder can be found in every phase of Jewish literature, both sacred and secular. Among the post-biblical aggadot (legends) and the maaysiot (tales) of Jewish folklore are to be found a number of stories which can readily be identified as traditional fairy tales. Some of these are the universal type of fairy tale set in an enchanted land and populated with a variety of human and supernatural beings, both good and evil, and are Jewish solely by virtue of their source. But many others, perhaps half of the existing body of Jewish fairy tales, have fused some specific aspects of Jewish life and tradition with the archetypal fairy-tale framework. For the fairy-tale version of the world as a stage on which good and evil struggle is fully compatible with the Jewish view of the essential condition of this world, where faith in God can defeat the evil impulse, known as the Yetzer Hara.
    The pioneering work of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson in this field, especially in The Types of the Folk-Tale, has demonstrated convincingly the parallel themes and patterns of fairy tales and other kinds of folktales found throughout the world. The fairy tales collected in the following pages from a wide range of Jewish sources and periods substantiate the thesis of Aarne and Thompson. There are even Jewish variants of such well-known fairy tales as "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," and "The Golden Bird," but at the same time they contain many unique qualities as a result of their origin. Especially those fairy tales which concern Jewish legendary figures have brought with them the customs and settings of the milieu from which they have emerged, and are valuable bearers of the Jewish tradition.

    The entire introduction is fantastic. Schwartz traces the history of fairy tales and Jewish ones in particular, beginning with the Torah and continuing through the modern day. Many of his points are extremely insightful. He explains that Rabbi Nachman's tales, for example, are in fact"complex allegories frequently linked to myths concerning the Shekhinah and the Messiah" (Schwartz 12). This is absolutely correct. He further explains, however, that these tales need not be "read allegorically to be appreciated. The tales have great power in themselves, for Nachman's figures, events, and images are, at once, so primary and so subtle that they evoke the numinous quality of the inner world" (Schwartz 13). Schwartz also mentions the ways in which these Jewish fairy tales allude to the Torah (something I am fond of doing.) In one example, there is the notion of "the kiss of death" whch is echoed in a talmudic legend which "describes the death of Moses as having come from the Kiss of the Shekhinah" (Schwartz 10). As he writes, "for those familiar with the talmudic legend" the fairy tale's echo is "readily apparent, and enriches the resonance of the tale" (Schwartz 10).

    Upon reading through the stories, I was pleased to find that I could go further than Schwartz. He had mentioned the stories that bear a resemblance to Cinderella, Rapunzel and the Golden Bird, but he had not noted that the very story his collection is named after, "Elijah's Violin," is actually a Jewish retelling of "Finist the Falcon!" This amused me. (Those links take you to the full version of each story; they're well-worth reading.)

    An excerpt from "The Demon Princess" that all of you will recognize:

      Soon afterward other demons began to arrive for the morning services, and before long one of them suddenly cried out: "I smell the smell of one born of woman!" and all of the others shouted in agreement and they soon discovered the man among them. But the shammash spoke up and said: "You must not harm this man, for he is under my protection." And because of the respect they had for that demon, they agreed not to harm him, but they wanted to know how he had reached their kingdom, so remote from all human habitation.
      "Jack and the Beanstalk," anyone? (Though that, too, was presumably stolen from another source.)

      You are perhaps wondering why there is a shammash in the kingdom of demons. Schwartz answers this, explaining that "the description of the religious life in the kingdom of the demons, which seems parallel, in every respect, to that of a devout Jew of the Middle Ages [...] is not intended as a mockery, for the Yenne Velt, the world in which demons and other spirits live, was believed to be a mirror image, somewhat distorted, of the world in which we live" (10).

      Fairy tales can be read on several different levels. There is the literal fairy tale, a child's guide to life. It is through reading fairy tales that children realize how the world works, that children are introduced to the concept of good and evil and of justice. This is partially the reason that there are many fairy tales with cruel or unhappy endings; it was to give over the understanding that the world is not a fair place, to teach the child this from the moment he enters the world. This is also the reason my father did not read me these fairy tales as a child; he chose instead to focus upon the ones where good is rewarded and evil punished. In "The Goose Girl," for instance, the scheming maidservant is found out and the humble princess rewarded. That tale is particularly fitting because the Queen chooses her own punishment (indeed, this happens in many fairy tales), an idea which is seen in everything from Haman's inadvertantly choosing Mordechai's reward to kings unknowingly pronouncing judgement upon themselves. The latter is the closer match, of course.

      Then there is the reason for writing a fairy tale. Sometimes fairy tales are written with specific messages or purposes; they are allegorical presentations of important ideas. R' Nachman's "The Exiled Princess" is about the Shekhina. Other fairy tales, as Schwartz explains, cite R' Adam as an Illusionist who helps his people, the Jews, out of many unfortunate circumstances. "It is not difficult," writes Schwartz, "to recognize in these tales the deep frustrations, impotence and isolation experienced by Jews in the medieval period, and to see how the fantasy mechanisms of the fairy tale operate. For it is out of the people's longing to be independant and secure that such tales emerged..." (11)

      From the time I was a child, I was raised on Jewish fairy-tales which were actually retold midrashim. I was not raised on Artscroll books, indeed, upon being finally exposed to them, I remember thinking of them as being very colorless and boring. My favorite Jewish book as a child was The Diamond Tree. I loved this book so much that every Shabbos, when I walked with my father to shul and passed a beautiful tree hung with glittering ornaments and wind chimes, I would exclaim, "The Diamond Tree! The Diamond Tree!" The other book, this one associated with my mother, is the absolutely beautiful work The Uninvited Guest. Both The Diamond Tree and The Uninvited Guest feature dazzling pictures as well; I was as fascinated by the pictures as the stories.

      Unfortunately, very few people know about these books because they are not sold in typical bookstores. My mother, being the very literary person that she is, researched everything I read and made sure to read it herself before giving it to me. As a child, my imagination knew no bounds and I was enthralled by Judaism because it was Judaism that brought me the most delightful stories of Og upon the Ark or the witch who turned children into diamonds. All of these stories are actually midrashim or tie in to the Torah.

      One of the ways to give over the true beauty of Judaism is through delving into its texts. Jewish midrashim, aggadata and folklore is beautiful and complex. For the imaginative child, this is best accomplished by introducing her to works like The Diamond Tree, The Uninvited Guest, The Little Midrash Says, Tales from the Gemara and upon her growing older, Elijah's Violin, The Midrash Says, Legends of the Jews and the like. There are also the beautiful tales of the Ba'al Shem Tov and other miracle-workers. (The most comprehensive version is the four-volume set Tales of the Baal Shem Tov compiled by Yisroel Ya'akov Klapholz, but it is only put out by Mishor Publishing in Bnei Brak and may be difficult to find.)

      Judaism boasts a halakhic, analytical beauty for the rational mind; the halakha and Gemara are a pleasure for the mathematical person. It also boasts a moving, emotional form of beauty in its literature and folklore, and this is what touches the heart of the person who is more focused in humanities. I love that the one religion can encompass so many ways of seeing and learning, that we have room for our homo religiosus and our halakhic man, the man who lives and breathes stories and the other who chooses to refute them in favor of a science that can also be supported within our doctrines. And that both people have the freedom to meet and interact with one another, to sometimes step outside their lines and boundaries and simply wonder aloud, contemplating the world at large and finding it-and each other- to be good.


      Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

      great post!

      Anonymous said...

      Absolutely love this post!
      Chana,there is a certain book you might enjoy reading/add to your library. It's called "The witch must die-the hidden meaning of fairy tales." by Cosdan,Sheldon. The author explores how fairy tales help children deal with psychological conflicts by projecting their own internal struggles between good and evil onto the battles enacted by the characters in the stories.

      Chana said...

      Steg and Anonymous,

      So glad you enjoyed!


      This is amusing; Howard Schwartz actually touches upon that idea in his introduction. He writes, "The identification of the Shekhinah with the imprisoned princess does not differ very much from the way in which the figure of the evil stepmother in fairy tales serves as a mask for our own mothers, permitting the child an expression of fear or anger that might otherwise be repressed" (13).

      Of course, he's speaking specifically about the mothers, while you are addressing the entire idea of the battles between good and evil. I will definitely check out the book when I can, thank you.

      There's a great line that I read once and have been searching for- someone once wrote, "Fairy tales are a child's blueprint of the world" or "map to the world" or "guide to the world," something along those lines. I've always felt that to be true.

      Anonymous said...

      Very enjoyable. I'm also a fan of "Legends of the Jews," although you've certainly spent a lot more time with it than I have.

      Did you ever listen to yuor father's advice and read Dr. Zornberg's books? I don't know exactly what they are, but they're all about Midrashim also. Maybe they should also be on your reading list (then again, I haven't read them, so maybe I shouldn't be vouching for them yet).

      rabbi neil fleischmann said...

      The idea of Rav Soloveitchik reminded me of a story a Rebbe of mine passed on. He was a young yeshiva student in shiur. A fellow bachur suggested an idea and the rebbe said that that idea was in the Ran. The student said, "Wow, I said the Ran's chidush." And the rebbe said, "No. It's yours. You thought of it, so it's your chidush."

      Forgive me if I missed it - have you posted a list of favorite fairy tales, fables, mosholim, midrashim, etc?

      Tobie said...

      I LOVE Elijah's Violin! We had it around the house when I was little and I read it all the time.

      Anonymous said...

      Oh, Elijah's Violin!

      When I began reading your post, I found my thoughts going right to Elijah's Violin, and then I read further and find that much of the post centers on it!

      I first read -- in full? an excerpt of? -- The Exiled Princess in World Over magazine when I was very little. Both the story and the book from which the note said it came seemed so . . . I don't know the words . . . enigmatic, different, unique, a treasure I was lucky to have found and needed to further explore.

      How happy I was several years later to receive the book as a present!

      I miss that book. I miss my childhood.

      Ezzie said...

      I'm too lazy to read the whole thing, but it looks good. :)

      Anyway, regarding the first section... I've always felt more along the lines of R' Soloveitchik. Our rebbeim in elementary and high school would emphasize that it was excellent that we were consistently coming up with the chiddushim of the rishonim/acharonim.

      If anything, what a person may have originally defined as original is often viewed as anything but; more likely, such an understanding was considered and rejected for a variety of reasons.

      Of course, there are those who take this line of thinking too far - any chiddushim are thrown out because "surely the ____ would have thought of such an idea; it must be that he rejected it."

      Chana said...


      I still have to get ahold of Dr. Zornberg's books; my father is impatient for me to do so. :-)

      Rabbi Neil,

      I have not, but I shall now! My favorite fairytales of all time are Russian fairy tales. They have a dark beauty that I have not found anywhere else (and fairytales are a specialty of mine.) Of those, my favorites are Vasilisa the Beautiful and a Ukrainian fairytale which I call "The Sun Princess" (I'll check up its true title tonight.)

      I have always been moved by Oscar Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose.

      My very favorite fairytale is Hansel and Gretel. I used to pretend to be Gretel on my walks home from shul with my father. The reason I love this fairytale so much is because the children are resourceful. I dislike stories where the heroes/ heroines have to wait for others to save them. Cinderella simply sits and cries and waits for her fairy godmother to appear. Snow White needs to be kissed. The Goose Girl has to be persuaded to talk to a fireplace and must be overheard. Hansel and Gretel, however, are clever and proactive. They scatter stones or bread, they hand the witch a chicken bone to feel instead of Hansel's finger; Gretel pushes the witch inside the oven. They bring home jewels to their poor woodcutter father. Gretel has always been my role model, as a child and even now. If you're in a bad situation, you have to get yourself out of it- or try. You have to act. You can't wait for your fairy godmother to save you.

      And the very best collection of fairytales out of every single one I've read, out of every culture I've read, is the original collection entitled Selected Fairy Tales by Barbara Leonie Picard. Her prose is gorgeous and everything she writes is original. If I'm ever able to write like her, I will have been blessed.

      Tobie and Anonymous,

      I'm glad you've read Elijah's Violin. Have you also read The Diamond Tree?

      Anonymous said...

      I recall reading something from the Dubna Maggid, where he answered a question about how he finds an apt moshol for so many points of Torah with another moshol: Of an archer whose arrows are always dead in the bullseye, because he shoots at a bale of straw and then paints the target around the arrow. That is, that he hears a good story, and then figures how to adapt it to teach a Torah lesson. And I always assumed that many of the more fantastic aggaditas were adaptations of well known tales to teach a point.

      yitz said...


      I was happy to see mention of Rebbe Nachman's tales halfway through. (Because how could they be left out?)

      I have two major observations regarding this post:

      1. There are different kinds of people. You are a story-based person. You understand the world primarily through stories. (There are many others who don't. I think. because I'm also a story person, I can never be 100% sure.) It's definitely more complicated than Analytical vs. Humanities people. There are people who see the world as a flow of historical forces. People who see the world as an interplay of legalistic forces. There are also people who see the world as a quilt of overlapping interactions of people. None of these people are story-people exactly. And of course there are many many more kinds.

      2. I think the reason that Jewish tales and fairy tales hit the same themes is because these archetypes are represented in the underlying structure of creation. Fairy tales and Jewish tales are talking about realities that exist. Sometimes it's 3 blind men talking about different parts of the elephant--other times it's two prophets seeing the same vision through eyes that see differently.

      It's not that anyone is necesary copying anyone else (as you astutely hinted to in the beginning of your post--i don't know if you noticed that two people writing virtually the same tale with different characters is the same as two people coming up with the same brilliant idea---if you intended that then I take my hat off to your amazing writing ability. I'm floored.) it's that we're all opening our eyes on the same world with the same underlying structure and lessons and clothing them in the clothing that is familliar to us.

      (I think that is something that becomes clear through Rebbe Nachman's stories davka, because I think Rebbe Nachman was fully conscious of what he was doing in his stories, whereas most authors wrote stories via inspiration and deep 'visions' they may not have fully understood)

      [sorry, i talk a lot]

      e-kvetcher said...

      I think it is neat that you like Russian fairy tales. I am not an expert on fairy tales, but the thing that strikes me as somewhat unique about them is that they are more like a soap opera where various characters reappear over and over again. They are at once familiar yet in many ways they are subtly different from story to story. For example, Baba Yaga, who unlike the more westernized concept of an evil witch, is very ambivalent. Sometimes she is evil, yet many times she will help the protagonist. I think it has to do with the fact that these fairy tales are more like echoes on an ancient, pre-Christian mythology and way of life. Similar to Greek mythology, where like in people, there really is not a clear demarcation between good and evil among the gods.

      BTW, there is a woman who davens at Young Israel, Skokie who I believe is a professor of literature specializing in Fairy Tales, though I don't think it is Russian Fairy Tales...

      Chana said...


      Yes! The Dubno Maggid's parables are another favorite of mine. I love all his parables and stories. I think I've even mentioned him once in a post, in reference to "chocolate-coated pills."


      What an interesting insight on your part! A story-based person. You're very right. I am a story-based person. I understand the world through stories. When I meet people, I want to know their stories. And yes, it absolutely is more complicated; I wanted to try to separate people out into types and then of course there are many different types of people within those categories. But I very much appreciate your points.

      I didn't exactly intend the point you mention because most of the time the different fairy-tales are folklore stolen from others. Of course, you are right that sometimes two people who have no contact with one another write the same story. But what happens more often is that cultures hear stories/ tales (they spread by word of mouth, of course) and adapt them.


      Hey, that's a brilliant observation! That's the reason I love The Brothers Karamazov, for the soap opera element, but I never applied it to fairy tales. Baba Yaga reminds me very much of Asmodeus (in Jewish folklore.) They are both cast on the side of the night, as it were, possibly the Dark, but they are not in and of themselves evil. They have tasks and they can be fair; indeed, they must play by rules and if protagonists follow the rules, they shall be rewarded. I love Baba Yaga.

      As an aside, flying on a mortar and pestle beats a broom any day.

      e-kvetcher said...

      Some more stuff on Baba Yaga in the middle of this article, from a an anthropological perspective.

      Chana said...


      Thanks! I found it very interesting- and yes, I recall reading she pastured her horses in the sea (The Last Unicorn seems to reference that.)


      Do you know, I was thinking about what you'd written and then laughed out loud, because I recalled that I had written this story before ever seeing "Planet of the Apes" or "The Twilight Zone." And yet my story was exactly like theirs (and therefore, unoriginal!) But I had come up with it myself and hadn't seen the other movies.

      What can I say; I guess you've proved your point.

      Unknown said...

      Hi Chana,
      I happened onto your blog. I'm glad that Elijah's Violin has meant so much to you. I agree with most of your commentary on the book. Let me note, though, that the book was published in 1983, not 1945. I was born in 1945. Also, there are sources provided for all the stories at the end of the book. The commentaries on the stories were expanded in a more recent edition of the book, published by Oxford University Press.
      Best Wishes,
      Howard Schwartz