This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Did You Hear the One about the Parrot...?*

I am sure that most of my readers have had occasion, at some point in their lives, to guffaw or groan at one of those inane jokes about talking animals. Typically, they begin with a guy walking into a saloon with dog, and challenging the barflies to a bet that the creature is capable of speech.

The corpus of Jewish humour contains its own distinctive variations on the theme. For example, there's that one about the dog who could chant the High Holy Days services in a beautiful cantorial tenor...; And you must have heard about the fellow who spent a fortune to surprise his mother with a Yiddish-speaking parrot on her birthday. The punch-line, of course, goes It was delicious!

It turns out that tales about loquacious pets have an ancient pedigree in Jewish literature. Some might even argue that the Torah's narratives of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Balaam's talking ass belongs to this genre.

A most elaborate (and genuine) instance of such a shaggy-dog story was reported by a prominent Jewish scholar in medieval Egypt.

The scholar in question, Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel ha-Sefaradi al-Kinzi (died in 1125) migrated in the eleventh century from Spain to Egypt, where he achieved distinction as an authority on Jewish religious law. His literary output included commentaries to books of the Bible and Talmud, as well as responsa and liturgical poems; and he was appointed to the local religious court. He was politically well connected with the administrative head of the Egyptian Jewish community, Mevorakh ben Sa'adia, who held the eminent title of Nagid (prince).

A lost commentary by Rabbi Isaac was cited by a 15th-century Yemenite author. In this passage, Rabbi Isaac described a remarkable spectacle that he witnessed while in the court of the Nagid in Fustat (Cairo).

The office of the Nagid carried with it both religious and political authority. In keeping with the spirit of the times, it was expected that the prestige of his position be given tangible expression through the trappings of regal pomp and ceremony, an abundance of honorific titles, and the insertion of mandatory blessings for his welfare in marriage contracts and synagogue worship.

One of the benefits of a high political office is the entitlement to valuable tributes from petitioners and visiting dignitaries. In this manner, the Nagid Mevorakh came into possession of a parrot that had been presented to him by a Jewish traveler from India. Like those familiar birds in the jokes, this one had been well educated until it was capable of reciting several sacred Hebrew texts.

Rabbi Isaac attested that he had personally heard the clever bird intone the opening verse of Judaism's central declaration of faith, the Shema Yisra'el: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord.

Not content with pronouncing the words correctly, the parrot even conformed to the correct liturgical custom of drawing out the last word, ehad (one), as devout Jews are instructed to do in order to underscore the Almighty's absolute uniqueness.

And, for good measure, the parrot proceeded to declaim some appropriate passages from Psalms: David's Psalm of praise. I will extol you, my God, O king; and I will bless your name for ever and ever; and Save, Lord; the king will answer us on the day when we call.

Though in our superficial world, the image of an erudite parrot might be used for not much more than a joke or a barroom wager, traditional Jewish writers were able to put it to more edifying uses.

An instructive instance may be found in the writings of Rabbi Judah Halevy, a younger contemporary of Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel (died in 1141). Judah has enriched Hebrew literature with some of its most moving and eloquent lyrics that express the poet's longings for Zion. He was the author of such poignant verses as My heart is in the east, though I am at the extremes of the west and It would seem to me to be easy to leave all the good of Spain, as the dust and destruction of the sanctuary has become precious to my eyes.

The great scholar eventually fulfilled his spiritual yearnings by forsaking his comfortable life in Toledo, Spain and embarking on a journey to the holy land.

In his philosophical magnum opus, the Kuzari, Rabbi Judah had some acerbic things to say about Jews who were less consistent than he was in actualizing their professed reverence for their ancestral homeland.

He reminded them that the standard prayers, recited thrice daily by observant Jews, contain unequivocal declarations of our belief in the centrality of the Land of Israel, and of our desire that the dispersed exiles of our people will be imminently gathered together in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Judah therefore found it incomprehensible that pious Jews could continue to mouth these passages by rote without drawing the obvious conclusions and setting sail towards their true spiritual home.

With this inconsistency in mind, Judah wrote: When such a person recites the phrases 'Worship at his holy mountain' (Psalms 99:9), 'Worship at his footstool' (99:5), '...;who restores his presence to Zion,' and similar texts, his pronouncement resembles the speech of a starling or a parrot. We are attaching no substance to what we are saying, neither with respect to this matter nor with any other.

Ouch. Indeed, many of us become all too comfortable about living with the inconsistencies between our ideals and our realities.

Until recently, some doubts persisted about how diligent Judah Halevi had been about following his own advice, since there was an apparent lapse of a decadde between the time that he declared his resolution to travel to Israel and the date of his actual journey. We hear of him leaving Alexandria for Israel in 1141.

However, recent manuscript discoveries have revealed that he did make an earlier departure in 1129, but was forced to return to Spain because of problems with his travel arrangements. Clearly, he viewed his commitment very seriously, and was not merely parroting platitudes.

Sometimes it takes a pious bird to remind us that it is not enough to just talk the talk.

And that's no joke.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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