Jewish Journal

The Battle of the Fishy Folktales

By Lisa Silverman

Posted on Aug. 30, 2011 at 4:35 pm

On page 119a of Tractate Shabbat in the Babylonian Talmud, you will find an 8-line story about a fellow simply known as “Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath”.  It is mildly interesting and has a pithy ending. Here it is in its entirety:

Joseph-who-honors-the Sabbath had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers told him: “Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath will consume all your property. So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water and a fish swallowed it. Subsequently the fish was hauled up and brought to market on the Sabbath towards sunset. ”Who will buy now?” they cried. “Go and take it to Joseph-who-honors-the Sabbath,” they were told, “as he is accustomed to buy.” So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen roomfuls of gold denarii. A certain old man met him and said, “He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him.”

This tale begs to be embellished, and you don’t have to look hard to find the imaginings of others. They appear in various ways, gracing collections of Jewish short stories throughout both adult and children’s literature. Surely, the most unlikely version must be “The Devout Israelite,” one of the many stories in “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” which features a poor man, a stinky fish and a pearl, but, no surprise, leaves out mention of the Sabbath altogether.

Other renderings are sprinkled throughout various short story collections for children, such as “Ten Best Jewish Children’s Stories” by Daniel and Chana Sperber, (“Yosef’s Love for the Sabbath”) “Tales for the Seventh Day,” by Nina Jaffe, (“Yosef and the Sabbath Stone”) and “Wise and Not So Wise,” by Phyllis Gershator (“The Hat in the Fish”).

Each of these tales establishes Joseph as a poor and humble man who is abused in some way by a rich and nasty overlord. He is depicted as a devout Sabbath-lover who spares no expense to create a beautiful Shabbat experience, while forgoing human comforts during the week.

In all versions he is mocked for his piety by a neighbor, a landlord or an overseer who is clearly not Jewish. In the Eastern European version Joseph doesn’t just love and honor Shabbat, he firmly refuses to work on that day and is justly rewarded for his resolve. Versions taking place in the Middle East place a ruby in a turban. European ones might feature a diamond inside a hat. Usually the evil rich man loses his hat/turban when he crosses a bridge, but more colorful versions, like the marvelous 1986 picture book version by Marilyn Hirsh entitled, “Joseph Who Loved the Sabbath,” have him blown overboard into a churning sea, never to be seen again. In all versions, the greedy rich guy flees due to his fears of a prophetic dream that Joseph will end up with all his worldly goods. Master storyteller Hirsh enlivens her tale with an ominous, poetry-spouting genie: 

All you have, your house and lands
Has been earned by Joseph’s Hands.
Before this month’s full moon grows dim
All you have will go to him.

When Joseph finds the ruby in the fish, he sells it to make just enough money to buy all of evil Sorab’s house and lands. Hirsch offers up a tale of greedy merchants, downtrodden yet humble Jews, magical genies and a just reward for proper Shabbat observance. Very satisfying indeed.

Marilyn Hirsh was a beloved author of picture books who died in 1988 at the age of 44. She was such a favored writer of Jewish children’s books that when one of her titles, “The Rabbi and the 29 Witches,” went out of print, children’s librarians protested so loudly that, a couple of years ago, publisher Marshall Cavendish bought the rights and reprinted the book to the delight of many. She was one of those storytellers who knew exactly how to balance tension, excitement, and rhythm to create the perfect flow for a good read-aloud. (Note to publishers: you did it before, please do it again—reissue her “Joseph” book for a new generation of kids!) In fact, no other full picture book version of the famed Talmudic jewel-in-the-hat tale was attempted until the recent publication of “Joseph and the Sabbath Fish,” (Kar-Ben, 2011) by multiple award-winning author Eric Kimmel, of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” fame.

Kimmel chooses a different take on this story, but gives no explanation as to why he does this. (He also makes the surprising error of not including a nod to his source material, which makes it look like the story is his alone.)  This author is a seasoned storyteller with a large collection of international folklore under his belt, so it is likely that he was purposely trying to shift the focus. Only in his version does Joseph start out being rich. Generally, the clarity of the folktale is in the identification of the poor man as a maltreated everyman. He has very little money and a very little house; he works too hard, and he’s exploited by the rich but he devoutly observes his humble Sabbath rituals with joy, study and reverence. In Kimmel’s account, Joseph starts rich and humble, becomes poor and humble (without explanation), and ends rich and humble again. His crabby and greedy neighbor is Jewish. The neighbor fears, then heeds, the same unwelcome prophecy that Joseph will eventually come to control all his worldly possessions.

This adaptation is the first one that takes place solidly in Israel (Tiberius), and illustrator Martina Peluso delightfully combines a palette of blue, yellow and brown watercolors in a warm depiction of the ancient town on the Sea of Galilee. Clearly, Kimmel’s take on this story is to emphasize the virtues of hospitality.  In his retelling, wealthy Joseph opens his Sabbath table to “travelers far from home, beggars from the alleys, young and old, rich or poor, everyone was welcome.” Joseph’s selfish neighbor refuses to open his home to the poor. “Why do you waste money feeding beggars?” he asks. “They would be satisfied with less. Do as I do. Give charity to the beggars, but invite only important people to your Sabbath table.” He then scoffs as Joseph’s fortunes decline and blames it on Joseph’s foolish open hospitality. Then Joseph’s anxious neighbor dreams the prophetic dream, gets frightened and sells all his possessions. He travels to Caesarea to board a ship bound for Africa, and whoosh, off flies his hat with the big fat ruby inside, for which he had traded all his money. Joseph finds his ruby inside a fish he is given as a gift from a grateful merchant, regains his fortunes, and invites another unknown beggar to his Sabbath feast. The beggar turns out to be his old neighbor, Judah, who tells him the story of the ruby sewn into the hat. Joseph, being an honorable man, offers to return the value of his find to his old friend, but discovers that the man has changed: “In my long travels I have learned that some things are more important than riches. Your friendship is one. And the peace and joy of the Sabbath day is most precious of all.”  Joseph helps him to regain his wealth and they both celebrate the Sabbath “with an open door and an open heart”.

Kimmel has developed a bit more of a moralistic tone to his version and taken out some of the zing – those features included by Marilyn Hirsh that captivated kids. Children can certainly handle a little evil talk from the bad guy—especially when he gets his comeuppance and disappears, even as Joseph’s poor family becomes the only beneficiary of a huge fortune. This newest version trades some of that folkloric quality for a beautifully illustrated morality tale featuring the benefits of Shabbat hospitality. But in the end, a good story is a good story. Both versions will be enjoyed by parents and children alike and are certain to be found by clever teachers wishing to embellish lessons that extol the many pleasures of the Jewish Sabbath.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and the children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine

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