This past week we read a number of stories from the Jewish folktale tradition. In some ways these tales were very similar to other tales we have read so far. For example, many of them included an element of magic which was taken for granted in the story. In “The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf” for example we see two elements of magic which are accepted as part of the folktale world. The first of these elements is the magic ring picked up by the Rabbi and which grants him wishes, including unlimited wealth. The second element is the transformation of humans into animals, as when the Rabbi is turned into a werewolf and then back again into a man and when his wife is turned into a mule. In “The Magic Mirror of Rabbi Adam” we see more instances of magic including a magic mirror which shows different events around the world, a magic arrow that always finds its target or else returns to the archer, and a magical staff into which was tied the life-force of an evil sorcerer. In these tales we also find the archetypal “trickster” character, often but not always embodied by a Rabi. In the story of “The Rabbi and the Inquisitor” the Rabbi outwits the Catholic inquisitor to secure his innocence in a murder case. In “A Dispute in Sign Languages” on the other hand a local poultry dealer uses his wits to save his neighbors from the oppression of the church.
This sense of oppression is one of the major elements which set the Jewish folktales we have read apart from the other tales. All the tales take place in the Jewish diaspora and are under-laden with a sense of otherness and discrimination, often it seems at the hands of the Catholic church in particular. Another element setting these tales apart is the nature of the trickster. In many tales a trickster hero is not necessarily seen as good or moral, whereas the trickster in Jewish folktales is often seen as a moral man, who is portrayed as a wise trickster as opposed to a devious one. This sense of morality is woven through many of the tales and emphasis, in addition to wisdom, the humility and selflessness of the rabbi (or other hero such as the poultry dealer).