One of the most beloved literary treasures of the ancient world was the corpus of fables that the Greeks ascribed to the storyteller Aesop, a legendary figure whom they situated some time between the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. As befits a genre that derives from oral traditions, Aesop’s fables circulated in numerous collections that differed with respect to which tales were chosen for inclusion, and in the details of their plots and characters.
In ancient times as in our own days, you did not have to be an expert in Greek literature to be familiar with fables from the Aesop collection. Today, tales such as “the hare and the tortoise” or “the grasshopper and the ant” belong to the minimal level of literacy, even for those who do not know exactly where those stories originated. Probably this was also true in the Jewish rabbinic circles that produced the Talmud and Midrash.
Thus, the Talmud tells of Rav Ami and Rav Asi, two disciples of Rabbi Isaac Nappaḥa, who sat before their master imploring him to lecture to them (a scenario that should warm the heart of any educator). The problem was that one of the students insisted on a lesson in halakhah, religious law, while the other wanted aggadah, a discourse on a moral or inspirational theme. Whichever topic Rabbi Isaac began, one of the students would immediately interrupt.
In order to convey his frustration to his uncooperative students, Rabbi Isaac illustrated his predicament with the help of a parable: Once there was a man who was married to two wives, a young one and an older one. The young one would pluck out her husband’s white hairs and the old wife would remove his dark hairs. In the end, between the two of them, the husband emerged with a completel bald head!
The moral of the story was that as long as each of his students refused to compromise on his demands, they would end up with no lesson whatsoever. After making his point, Rabbi Isaac went on to deliver an erudite discourse that masterfully combined legal and homiletical themes.
Rabbi Isaac Nappaḥa’s parable was, in fact, a fable that was well-known from the Aesop collections. While this fact is of interest in itself, it is particularly fascinating to compare the rabbinic version with its Greek and Latin counterparts, with respect both to the details of the story and the moral lessons that were derived from it.
The Aesop fable has been preserved in a number of different versions. Its earliest appearance is in a compilation known as the Augustana, considered to be the oldest of the surviving collections. Its telling of the story of the two wives is remarkably similar to Rabbi Isaac’s, but some of the differences are of interest. For one thing, it fills in a few more details about the characters and their motivations. It states clearly that the man was “half-grey,” a circumstance that is only implied in the Jewish story. Whereas Jewish law allowed polygamy, so that the parable could be depicted within a marriage, the Greeks and Romans who were strictly monogamous had to situate the protagonists within non-marital relationships. The women were “beloved ones” or concubines whom the man visited alternately. The older lady was moved by shame at her lover’s youth, whereas the younger was put off by his advanced age.
To my mind, the most extreme differences between the versions are to be discerned in their respective moral lessons. As noted, the talmudic tale does not provide us with an explicit moral, but the context implies that it has to do with the self-defeating consequences of stubborn inflexibility. The official moral of the Augustana Aesop fable reads “An anomaly (or: unbalance) is hurtful.” This has been generally understood to refer to the deviant nature of the romantic triangle.
Other collection of Aesop’s fables were composed in verse. Such were the Greek compendium by Babrius and the Latin by Phaedrus both of which offered the story as an object lesson about the perils intrinsic to the female sex. To be sure, Babrius introduces the male hero by mocking him for his mid-life crisis, still pursuing liaisons and carousals that were inappropriate to his mature age. However, the main focus soon turns to the women themselves who by their selfish interferences have succeeded in leaving each other a bald lover. Aesop’s stated purpose in telling this fable is “to demonstrate how pathetic is a man who becomes a victim of women. They are like the sea—first it laughingly entices them, and then it smothers them.”
Phaedrus’ fable is even more aggressive in its hostility to the unfair sex. The moral, set forth at the outset, is that “men are always fleeced by women, whether they are the lovers or the beloved.” The older sweetheart is painted as a “cougar,” a seasoned temptress who has mastered the cosmetic ploys for concealing her advanced age. In this version, the sweet young thing is impelled not so much by a desire to make her boyfriend seem more youthful, but because she wants to appear closer to his age. The narrative also deals with the question of how the plucking was accomplished without the man protesting. It was not (as I would have imagined it) that the ladies went about their shearing while their victim was asleep--rather, they were able to persuade him that he was being pampered and coiffed.
When I compare the Talmud’s use of the fable to the competition, I find it more satisfying from a number of perspectives. The fact that the ménage à trois has been domesticated into a family setting is perhaps the least of its virtues. On the whole, Rabbi Isaac’s terse reticence about the characters’ motives comes across as refreshingly non-judgmental, so that the anecdote radiates a gentle and whimsical humor. The husband is not censured as an aging playboy or ridiculed for his fickleness or his poor choice or mates. Nor are the wives taken to task for marrying outside their appropriate ages, nor for their vanity or for any of the numerous other faults that Aesop’s transmitters found in their personalities. The fact that we are not told about their underlying motives implies that these should not be our main concern. The tragedy (and a rather innocuous one at that) was occasioned not by the characters’ failings, but by the predicament itself. The fable thus functions as a general lesson about intractable stalemates of any sort, and is not specifically addressing marital harmony or male-female relationships. Unlike the Greek and Roman versions, it certainly does not contain a blanket vilification of the female populace.
In the end, what I find most remarkable about all this is how effectively the Talmud has taken a story that originated in a foreign culture and reflects alien values and conventions, and successfully transformed it into a consummately Jewish fable, one that speaks to some central institutions of rabbinic culture, such as marriage and the vigorous dynamics of Torah study.
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