Differences between a Jewish and non-Jewish tale

There are many instances where both Jews and non-Jews tell stories with some variations on the same plot. In many of these instances, the Jewish version attempts to use its version to teach Jews proper behavior. The following is an example.

Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving (1783-1859) published “Rip Van Winkle” in 1820 and the tale became the first internationally famous American short story. It made Irving internationally famous. Rip had an aversion to all kinds of profitable work. He found it impossible to keep his farm in order. He was a rather simple, lazy, good-natured, kind, lovable man to everyone but his wife who was exasperated by Rip’s failure to do his chores. She hen-pecked poor Rip daily. But his wife’s behavior gained him universal popularity, for the constant complaints and threats of a termagant wife is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long-suffering. Rip’s only escape from the labors of the farm and the clamor of his wife was to stroll away into the woods and sit at the foot of a tree.

One day as he was sitting under his tree, a strange man (later identified as a ghost of a long-dead inhabitant of the area) approached him and enticed him to drink a delicious intoxicating liquor. Rip drank liberally and soon fell asleep.

When he awoke, he saw that everything had changed. A new stream was in the area. His beard had grown a foot longer. When he arrived at his town, he discovered that he had been asleep for twenty years. Many of his friends had died. His wife was also dead. (Rip was unsure whether he should be happy or sad about being released from petticoat government.) His son was now grown, but was as lazy and unproductive as he had been. But his daughter was also grown, had married, and brought Rip to live at her house, and Rip found a place to sit daily on the bench at the door of the local inn.  

There are many versions of such tales in various cultures. The following is a Jewish version.

Honi Hamaagel

Honi Hamaagel (Honi the circle maker) was an especially pious Jewish man who lived during the first century BCE. The Talmud states that he was so pious that he had a special relationship with God and was able to be a miracle worker.[1] He would be able to pray for rain when the populace needed the precipitation. He would draw a circle, step inside it, and inform God that he would not step out of the circle until it rained. Due to his piety, he was always successful; God did not want to see this pious man stranded in a circle.

According to Talmud,[2] while traveling Honi saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “How long would it take (for this tree) to bear fruit?” The man answered, “Seventy years.” He then asked, “Are you sure that you will live another seventy years?” The man answered, “No. But I’m not planting this (tree) for myself, but for the next generations and the ones that follow.” Honi shrugged his shoulders and left. Later, when he sat down to rest, he slept for seventy years. When he awoke and retraced his prior walk, he saw a man plucking carobs from a tree. He asked, “Did you plant this tree?” The man answered, “No. My grandfather planted it. My father told me that his father planted this tree for me.”

Similarities

  1. Both stories focus on men well-liked by their communities.
  2. Both sleep for an unusual length of time and awaken to see changes in their surroundings.

Differences

  1. Rip was lazy, did little to help his wife and nothing to aid his community. Honi devoted himself to helping the general population.
  2. Honi was pious and loved by God because of his piety. Rip only thought of leisure.
  3. God is not mentioned in Rip’s story.
  4. Rip slept for twenty years, one generation, while Honi slept for seventy years, using the number seven that appears frequently in Jewish tales and which makes it possible for readers to see the impact of the action taken in the story two generations after the first act.
  5. Rip’s wife is disparaged in his tale. No women appear in Honi adventure.
  6. Rip does not change. He was lazy before he slept and lazy when he awoke. He made no contribution to his fellow citizens before and after the sleep. Honi changed. He did not seem to understand why the man planted a tree for a future generation before he slept; he left the man shrugging his shoulders. Later, the story tells the impact upon the man’s family and presumably both the reader and Honi learnt a lesson from what they saw/read.
  7. Rip’s story is fun to read but has no lesson for the reader. Honi’s tale teaches a profound lesson. 

[1] Babylonian Talmud Taanit 19a and 23a.

[2] Taanit 23a.

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