The Folktales of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim

Rabbi Yosef Hayyim (1834-1909) is considered the most prominent Rabbi of the Babylonian (Iraq) Jews in the latest generations. He was renowned in the Jewish world, particularly in all Middle Eastern countries, as a mystic and as a decisor - a Rabbinical authority who presides over Jewish law. He responded to questions from many countries about Jewish law. He authored about two hundred liturgies and published sixty books concerning a variety of topics, including Jewish law, liturgies, sermons, biblical interpretations, and mysticism.

Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, a gifted speaker, used folktales in his sermons. By these folktales, he captured the attention of his listeners and deeply touched their hearts. Every tale had a clear lesson. Rabbi Yosef Hayyim did not author all the folktales that he told. Some of them he heard and some he read and adapted.

The folktales of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim are aimed at benefitting the listeners, teaching them something that would improve their lives and characters. These are educational, didactic stories, dominated by their moralistic message. The characters and plot are illustrations to a message. The tale is only a sweet wrapper for a plot with a bitter pill.

One can find in these folktales intriguing plots, illustrative episodes, dialogues and monologues, direct and indirect speech, heroes and anti-heroes, and more.

Today we may feel that we are distanced from these folktales.

Included in this blog are three folktales that I translated.

In the following folktale, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim prompts his listeners to accept a small transgression
in order for God to save them from a larger transgression.


There once was a man who saw a big boat sailing overseas. He ran to
his home in order to retrieve his merchandise and sail overseas, but before he
reached the boat a nail penetrated his foot, and he could not move. Meanwhile,
the boat left the dock and embarked.
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He began wailing and screaming about his bad luck, because there would
not be another boat going overseas for a year, and his merchandise would remain
with him.

Three days later, he learned that the boat had sunk. He began to sing and
be joyful about his good fortune, and he began kissing the nail that had pinned
his foot, because it had spared his life and his property.

In the following folktale a rich man threw a party. A wise guest confronted him for exalting the rich guests and demeaning the wise guests:

There once was a smart man who came to a party of his friend, and there were some people who were invited to the feast. When the smart man entered the party hall, he saw that the seating was upside down, topsy-turvy. The host had placed the rich people who were unknowledgeable and ignorant at the
top, and the sages that were full of wisdom and knowledge at the bottom, under the rich men. The smart man became furious because of it, and he left the house and returned with one balance and a heavy stone.

He hung the balance free of weight by a rope that came out of the middle of the ceiling of the party hall, and when the two scales of the balance were empty, they stood equally side-by-side.

Then he put the big heavy stone on one of the scales, and the empty scale jumped immediately and came up and the full, heavy one went down. The host asked, "What did you accomplish by this?"

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The smart man answered, "I did the same as you did, that you placed the empty people on the top, and the ones full of wisdom down below."

The moral is that in this world the broken part is larger than the sound portion [...] all the wicked and the robbers and the swindlers take part as the heads of the speakers. All the affairs of the countries and the communities are decided by them, and there is no one wise [among them who walks in] an honest way [...]

In the following folktale, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim illustrates how people are prejudiced concerning
the poor and the rich.

There once were two bridegrooms that entered a synagogue.. One was rich,
and one was poor. First entered the rich, and he was wearing a belt [sash] made
of simple cotton, which he bought for seven silver Dinars. He wore on his finger
a ring with a simple stone that he bought for two silver Dinars that looked like a
precious stone.

People started looking at him, in their usual way, and one of them said t2016-05-20-1463777713-997318-stockphotorichbusinessmanlightingcigarwithdollarbill127785641.jpg

his friend,
"Look how expensive this belt is, certainly its value is fifty gold Dinars."
And his friend responded, "This [is worth]--at least about eighty gold Dinars."
And his friend asked about the ring, if one can find a ring like it for two
hundred Dinars, and his friend said to him, "What are you talking about? A ring
such as this would not be sold even for four hundred gold Dinars!"
Afterward entered the poor bridegroom to the synagogue, and he was
wearing an expensive belt that was worth one hundred gold Dinars that he borrowed
from a rich man for one day only. On his finger there was a ring with a
precious stone that he also borrowed, and it was worth five hundred Dinars.
One of the people in the congregation said to his friend, "What do you
think, how much did this poor man pay for his belt?"
"Ten Dinars at most, because it is made of cotton," his friend responded.
And he asked him about the ring, and he responded, "It is worth two silver
Dinars at most."

Readers find that when the poor man wears the clothing and the jewelry,
they are ugly in the eyes of the world, and he will be [considered] also ugly as
to his deeds and his virtues. However, the opposite is true about the rich man,
as it was said, "money will even legitimize bastards."

For further discussion of the above folktales of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim and other folktales he wrote, please see my book: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Creativity in Babylon, 1735-1950, Purdue University Pres, 2009, pp. 119-136)