Leaves from the Garden of Eden by Howard Schwartz
Collections of Jewish tales, of which Howard Schwartz, a professor of English literature at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has published several, have been around for a long time. Excluding classical rabbinic texts like the Talmud and the Midrash, in which many imaginative yarns can be found alongside stories of a more exegetical or historical nature, the earliest such anthology goes back to the 11th century. Compiled in Judeo-Arabic by Rabbi Nissim Gaon of Kairouan, it circulated widely in Hebrew translation under the title Hib-bur Yafeh me’ha-Yeshu’ah, “A Pleasant Treatise On Deliverance.” Its stories were mostly taken from earlier texts, were generally associated with famous rabbis, and had a clear homiletic or moral message. Since at least some were written down from Nissim’s memory, his own inventions sometimes crept into them.
Thus, for example, Nissim retells the talmudic story of Nahum of Gamzo, a saintly but horribly disfigured man—“blind in both eyes, stumped in both hands, and crippled in both legs,” according to the tractate of Ta’anit, which then explains how he came to be that way: he once cursed his own body for reacting too slowly to the plea of a hungry beggar who died of starvation, and his powers were such that his curses came true. So covered was Nahum with sores, according to Ta’anit, that “the legs of his bed stood in four basins of water to prevent ants from crawling over him.”
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.