The Sephardic genre of story


Now, I’m not one to paint with a broad brush, but recently I’ve been delving into the stories produced out of the Sephardic culture, and I have to say – they’re different. Remarkably so!

Granted, it’s early days for me, but so far the differences are pronounced, and a little challenging. Not in a negative way, mind you, but in a way that presents a quite a hurdle for me as a Maggid / storyteller accustomed to reaching a culturally “familiar” audience. If you know me at all, this is an exciting development!

For example, the Ben Ish Chai ZT”L – Hakham Yosef Chaim –¬†was a Sephardic rabbi and kabbalist of the 1800’s CE (and into the 1900’s). Like others of prominence, he is known by the principal text he authored: “Ben Ish Chai,” which is functionally the Sephardic “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch,” or abbreviated code of Jewish law. He also authored a number of parables, like this one (my very abbreviated telling):

There once was a wealthy man who was traveling to a distant town when he came across a beggar in the road, crying out for money. He took pity on the beggar, and tossed him a coin, but the beggar was barely relieved. “How else can I help you?” he asked.

“Could you give me a ride to my home in the next town? I am too weak to walk.”

The wealthy man agreed, and seeing how badly off the beggar was, he placed him in the saddle, a more comfortable spot, and gave him the reins, sitting behind them as they rode.

When they reached the center of the next town, he told the beggar to get off, but the beggar refused, claiming in a loud voice that this horse was his last possession, and that this wealthy thief was trying to steal it from him! A crowd gathered, a scene ensued, and eventually the two of them were brought before the court.

After hearing both sides, the judge spoke to the wealthy man, saying, “I believe your story is true. But the evidence is against you – after all, who gives the reins of his horse to another?” And with that, he awarded the horse to the beggar.

How strange! The lesson, to my ears and those in my community, seems to be to be skeptical, even cynical towards the unfortunate, and even better, to shun their pleas! Of course, this is not the intended lesson.

The beggar symbolizes the Yetzer haRa – the evil inclination – that we all struggle with. And, while there are useful ways in which the Yetzer haRa can be put to use – building cities, for example, or procreation – we must be careful not to turn over the reins of our “self” to it, for it will attempt to seize complete control of our lives.

So, nu? What’s with these stories?

We need a different set of eyes and ears – and a different cultural “nose!” – to grasp the meaning of these tales. They seem to involve a greater deal of trickery, and a slightly darker sense of humor. But time will tell, as will I: look for frequent “retellings” here as I explore this new territory!

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