About this book
The Talmud — which has been preserved to our day in two different versions — is the key repository of the laws, legends, stories, and philosophical insights that have shaped and informed Judaism for nearly two millenia. Most modern people, however, think of this religious literature as musty and obsolete, complicated and arcane — a literature for old men, certainly not for children.
In fact, the Talmud is like the handwritten version of the Internet, featuring freewheeling discussions of countless subjects, and filled with colorful tales. These include stories about the lives of the Talmudic teachers themselves, described with wonderful detail and insight. In The Tree Jumped, the River Ran Backwards, Lawrence Bush has selected eighteen of these stories, lent them a fairy-tale aura and some very modern twists, and shaped them into a thoughtful, delightful children’s book.
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Children’s stories from the Talmud?
For many years I’ve been saying, Why not? How is the 2,000-year-old tale of Rabbi Akiva and his beloved Rachel any less romantic than the 400-year-old fairytale of Sleeping Beauty and her Prince? How is an argument that causes a tree to jump and a river to run backwards any less fantastic than a magic spell that turns a pumpkin into a stage- coach? With just a bit of playful interpretation and elaboration, I have argued, the stories of the Talmud would make exciting literature for kids — and would help both them and the adults in their lives share some very rich discussions about life’s deep questions.
Recently, when I was once again talking about this idea, my wife Susan rolled her eyes and said, “What are you waiting for? Write the book, already, so that we can read it to our grandchildren some day!”
Good idea, Susie!
So here it is: eighteen stories about the teachers of ancient Israel, based mostly on traditional tales that are between twelve and twenty centuries old.
The Talmud is a huge collection — thousands of pages! — of teachings, laws, stories, and discussions that were written down by the rabbis (“rabbi” means “teacher”) who were the leaders of Jewish society way back when.
Actually, there are two Talmuds — one collected in ancient Israel and published in the 4th century CE, the other collected in Babylonia and published about one hundred years later. This all happened about a thou- sand years before the printing press was invented, so every single edition of the Talmud, with its many, many, many, many pages, had to be lettered by hand.
In the Talmud, Bible stories are told and retold, discussed and interpreted. Religious laws are applied to hundreds of different situations. Life in Jeru- salem and other cities is described in detail. Complaints are made about the cruelty of the empire of Rome, which dominated ancient Israel (and most of the rest of the world) and then destroyed all of its cities, including Jerusalem, during two terrible wars.
Curses and blessings are spoken. Jokes are told. The natural world is dis- cussed — the sun, the moon, the oceans, the animals, the human body
— along with big subjects like birth and death, health and sickness, love and marriage, parents and children, men and women, and much, much more.
Throughout, the Talmud shares words that the teachers themselves spoke, and tells stories about their per- sonalities, their families, their jobs, their rivalries and friendships, their wisdom and their unusual powers. These are the stories I’ve focused on for my book: stories of the teachers.
However, I’ve changed them in many ways. In the Talmud, the Bible is called “Torah” — but I call it “the Teaching” (which is what the word “Torah” means). In the Talmud, all the teachers are men — but I’ve added women. In the Talmud, they live in different periods of time — but I’ve brought them into the period of “once upon a time.”
One way I haven’t changed the original stories, though: I’ve kept them nice and short, which will give readers plenty of time to talk about them before trading a good-night kiss.
"The Emperor's Dagger"
Evening was falling as Susannah bat Sosrati, a teacher from Tiberias, arrived in the splendid, gigantic city of Rome. There was just enough daylight left for her to read the announcement that was nailed to the door of the inn where she was staying, and to the door of every public building in every neighborhood throughout the city.
The Emperor of Rome, said the proclamation, had lost his favorite dagger while galloping on his war horse through the streets. The weapon had a diamond blade and a handle of gold and was worth a fortune. Whoever found it and returned
it to the Emperor’s palace within thirty days would be honored and paid a generous reward. Whoever was discovered with the dagger after thirty days would be killed with it!
That night, as Susannah went to check to make sure that her donkey was being well cared-for, she found the Emperor’s shining dagger lying in the dirt alongside the stable. Susannah picked it up in amazement, then hid it in her cloak, looked in on her donkey, and retreated to her room at the inn.
She did not bring the dagger to the Emperor’s palace the next day. She did not bring it the day after that. For thirty days, Susannah hid the weapon in her room, beneath her mattress, as she went about her business in Rome. Then, on the thirty-first day, she rode her little donkey to the gates of the Emperor’s palace and presented herself with the precious dagger.
She was summoned before the Emperor. “When did you arrive my city?” he demanded to know.
“Thirty-one days ago,” the teacher responded. “That’s when I found your dagger.” “Did you read my proclamation?”
“I did, on the very day I arrived,” said Susannah.
“But I could have your head!” the Emperor replied. “Why did you wait more than thirty days to return my dagger?”
Susannah looked him boldly in the eye. “I waited so that people would not say I returned it because I wanted the reward — or because I feared Your Majesty.”
“Then why did you return it to me?” the Emperor roared.
“Because it is yours,” Susannah said.
Based on Bava Metzia 2:5, 8c (Jerusalem Talmud)
"The Most Precious Thing"
Yoshi and Ruth had been happily married for ten years, but they were unable to have a baby together, and no doctor could tell them why. Since they both wanted to have children and felt lonely without them, they decided to end their marriage and look for other partners.
The couple visited Shimon ben Yohai, a teacher in their city of Tzidon, who had led their wedding ceremony ten years earlier, to they told him their decision: Ruth was going to move back to her parents’ house, Yoshi to his.
“If that is the case,” Shimon replied, “you should make a party. You celebrated your wedding with food, drink, games, music and dancing. Now you should do the same for your divorce.”
Ruth and Yoshi thought this was a very strange suggestion, since their day of separation would be such an unhappy occasion for them both. Still, Shimon ben Yohai was a wise man and a beloved teacher, so they followed his advice and prepared a huge party at their house for their friends and neighbors.
During the party, Yoshi drank too much wine and became very sleepy. Before closing his eyes, he said to his wife: “Dear Ruthie, I want you to pick whatever you need from our house to make your life comfortable, and take it with you when you leave tonight. In fact, I want you to take the most precious thing you can find. It’s your treasure to keep.”
Then he fell into a snoring sleep on their couch.
Ruth immediately called her friends near and asked them to help her lift up the couch on which her husband slept. Together they carried him, undisturbed, down the road to her parents’ house.
In the morning, Yoshi woke up and called out, “Where am I?” “Don’t be afraid,” said Ruth. “You are in my parents’ house.”
“What am I doing in <your parents’ house? I’m supposed to be in my parents’ house!”
“You told me last night,” she said, “to find the most precious thing in our house and take it with me. Well, you are the most precious thing in our house, Yoshi, and you are my treasure to keep!”
Hearing this, he rose from the couch to hug his beloved. Together they returned to their home, hand in hand, just as Shimon ben Yohai finished placing a flower on the pillow of their bed. He was gone through the back door as they arrived at the front.
Based on Song of Songs Rabbah 1:4