Guest Author - Michelle Roberti
The Beauty of the Jewish Folktale
Jewish folklore comes to us from every corner of the world and over the many ages of time. Some have reached us from such a timely distance as ancient Babylonia with numerous tales arriving up until today. Many thanks are due in part to the Israel Folktale Archives for attaining the many Jewish oral tales still in circulation and translating them from the many different languages by which they are told. Various tales consist of such Biblical legendary heroes such as King Solomon, Elijah and Moses, as well as, exceptional rabbis. But what makes Jewish folklore unique is the loveliness of its adaptability. This essence is found in the midrashdic tale. The midrash concerns itself with filling in the gaps of discrepancies found in the Torah. Although midrash stories do not hold the same authority as those found in the sacred texts, they are nevertheless encouraged to help answer questions to contradictions and inconsistencies found within the Torah.
Though both secular and sacred, Jewish folklore contains many of the same elements of the “familiar” fairytale, such as enchanted forests, good and evil supernatural beings, as well as, the important role of teaching morals and lessons. However, rather than the common use of intercession by magical enchantment, Jewish folktales rely of God’s Divine intervention. For example, King Solomon’s ring, engraved with the name Ineffable Name of God, has the power in and of itself to render even the most powerful of demons defenseless. (This supernatural power of the name of God is called Tetragrammaton.) Undoubtedly it is the beautiful display of faith in God that is so prevalent within Jewish literature.
In 1 Kings 6:7, King Solomon was directed by God to make no use of any variety of iron tools particularly when constructing the Temple’s altar. To explain how he accomplishes this feat is the midrashdic tale King Solomon and Asmodeus. This drash (biblical exegesis) becomes a quest when Solomon is informed by his wise men of the Shamir, a miniscule entity no bigger than a grain of barley, that have the unique ability to cut through mountains. In his desire to obtain these creatures, Solomon conjures up two demons who inform him that the King of Darkness, Asmodeus knows of the Shamirs whereabouts. King Solomon’s first general, Benaiah, is sent on the mission to kidnap Asmodeus from his Kingdom of Darkness and bring him to King Solomon. However, before leaving, Benaiah is given four items by Solomon to assist him on his undertaking: a chain, (on which every link is engraved with the Ineffable Name of God,) the King’s personal ring (on which the Ineffable Name of God is engraved,) wine and wool.
Once Benaiah reaches his destination he lays in wait for the demon king. Upon seeing Asmodeus’ hideous appearance, Benaiah and his men are horrified, but they never lose heart for they put their trust in God. Quietly observing the actions of Asmodeus, who carefully scrutinizes that the seal of his cistern has not been tampered with, he takes drink. When Asmodeus leaves, Benaiah quickly drains the cistern, re-plugs it with the wool and refills it with wine. When Asmodeus returns, he once again examines his cistern for intrusion and perceiving it has not, begins to drink. Despite the realization that his drink is not water, he is reassured that his cistern has not been corrupted by investigating it once more. Content with the results he continues to drink the wine. Eventually he gets drunk and falls asleep. Benaiah and his men quickly chain Asmodeus.
Upon awakening Asmodeus finds himself chained. Despite his rage he finds he cannot break free for they contain the power of God. Benaiah and his men come out of hiding while holding up the king ring shouting “The Name of your Master is upon you!” Asmodeus is rendered powerless and can no longer resist his imprisonment. Asmodeus is brought to King Solomon where he tells him how to obtain the desired Shamir. Benaiah returns to the Mountain of Darkness where he is able to capture the Shamir hence allowing the Temple to be built according to God’s elucidation.
This one folktale, amongst many, is the true embodiment of Jewish folktale literature. Not only are they to be enjoyed by only those of the Jewish faith, but for those who enjoy folklore, fairytales and exegeses.