This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Special Delivery*

You would have to be a very naive optimist to assume that, after you have sent off a gift, it will always arrive promptly and undamaged at its destination.

If this cautionary observation holds true in our age of well-policed roads and sophisticated modes of transportation, then imagine how perilous it was to deliver a valuable gift in more primitive times, when the roads were infested with highwaymen and vulnerable to assorted natural and human menaces.

This may have been the reason why, according to a story from the Talmud, the Jewish authorities chose Nahum of Gimzu to convey a valuable cargo that was being sent as a tribute to the Roman authorities. Nahum had a knack for seeing the silver lining in every cloud, so much so that rabbinic legend related that he would greet every mishap with a cheerful "This too [in Hebrew: gam zu] is for the best!" Nor did it hurt that he had a reputation for attracting obliging miracles.

And so it happened that, as he was transporting his valuable gift, Nahum spent the night at a certain inn, where the masters of the house broke into his luggage and made off with its valuable load of priceless jewels. They cleverly filled the container with earth, so that the oblivious messenger would not even realize that a crime had been committed.

Of course, when Nahum arrived at the imperial court, and proudly opened his crate to show the emperor the magnificent token of his people's esteem, His Majesty was incensed to see its worthless contents; and he presumed that this was a deliberate affront to him on the part of those insolent and rebellious Jews. He immediately commanded that Nahum be executed for his impudence.

Our hero did not flinch at the prospect, convinced as always that everything would turn out for the best. And indeed, his trust was quickly rewarded with an opportune case of supernatural intervention.

In the familiar tradition of Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah showed up in the guise of one of the Roman courtiers. He suggested to the Caesar that, far from being worthless, the earth lying in Nahum's crate might actually be a secret weapon of enormous strategic usefulness to the imperial forces.

Conveniently, this emperor happened to be well versed in the Hebrew scriptures and their rabbinic embellishments. Accordingly, Elijah reminded him of the prophet Isaiah's depiction of the patriarch Abraham: "He gives them as the dust to his sword, as the driven stubble to his bow" (41:2). From this passage, he concluded that Abraham had been in possession of a wondrous variety of dust that could transmogrify itself into deadly swords. Perhaps (the disguised prophet now suggested to Caesar) the innocent-looking Hebrew dirt lying in Nahum's crate was of that same unique variety, and would therefore be an invaluable addition to the royal arsenal.

After some preliminary testing under combat conditions, the Romans established that this was indeed the case. The monarch was overcome with gratitude and appreciation for Nahum, and ordered his subjects to load up his luggage with precious jewels and to send off Nahum in full pomp and circumstance.

On his way back home, Nahum showed up at same nefarious inn, to the utter amazement of the hosts, who had likely written him off for dead. He told them how the emperor had rewarded him generously for his gift. When the astonished scoundrels asked him what it was exactly that he had delivered to Caesar, Nahum replied unassumingly that it consisted of "what I took from here"--possibly hoping to elicit a confession from the culprits. Upon hearing this, their greedy eyes lit up at the prospect of exchanging their earth for valuables. They set to work demolishing their inn so that they could excavate an enormous pile of dirt to bring as a gift to the palace, which they presented ceremoniously before the emperor.

Of course, since this was your ordinary civilian kind of dirt, and not the special Elijah-enriched military issue, the emperor was decidedly underwhelmed, and was convinced that he had been the victim of a malicious prank. The larcenous perpetrators were executed, suffering the fate that they had tried to inflict on the righteous Nahum.

This delightful tale provided generations of Jewish readers with an edifying lesson about the rewards that are meted out to those who trust in the Lord, and the severe retribution that befalls evildoers.

Some commentators had a bit of trouble accepting the more fantastic elements of the story. For example, the Maharal of Prague insisted that the dust had not literally been transformed into sabres, but merely that it contained high-quality iron ore suitable for the manufacture of weapons-grade blades and missiles.

Variations on this theme crop up in later eras of Jewish literature. The most famous of these was probably the charming children's poem in rhymed prose by the doyen of modern Hebrew poets, Hayyim Nahman Bialik. which first appeared in 1923 under the title "The Duke of Onions and the Duke of Garlic." The popularity of this work is attested not only by its frequent reissues and numerous translations, but also by its adaptation into a popular musical play, and the existence of an obscure "Duke of Onions" street in Tel-Aviv, conveniently situated near one of the city's produce markets.

In Bialik's whimsical farce, a prince sailed off in search of wisdom and found himself in an exotic island, where he was entertained regally with the most elaborate of feasts. He realized, however, that there was something odd about the otherwise exquisite local cuisine; and it soon dawned upon him that the flavour of onion was lacking from their culinary creations.

When he discovered that the onion was entirely unknown in this island, the enterprising prince decided to introduce it to the natives as a precious delicacy. The onions that he imported from his homeland impressed his hosts, both for the delicate beauty of their form, and for the sublime contributions that they made to the quality of the cooking. As in the talmudic legend about Nahum of Gimzu, the rulers of the island rewarded the prince generously with treasures of gold and precious stones, and they solemnly elevated him to the aristocratic rank of "Duke of Onions."

After he returned to his homeland and told people about his lucrative voyage, another prince, an ambitious ne'er-do-well, was inspired to improve his own fortunes by imitating the success of the Duke of Onions. He conducted a bit of market research to discover that there was another condiment lacking on the island: garlic. Accordingly, he paid a visit to the island, introduced the hosts to the glories of garlic, and his gastronomic offering was greeted with similar enthusiasm and appreciation. He too was inducted into the local aristocracy, as the exalted "Duke of Garlic."

Like his predecessor, the Duke of Garlic was rewarded with a chest filled with the island's most precious valuables. Only this time, it was neither cash nor jewels that he received.

His contribution was honoured with the gifts that the islanders now held in the highest regard--a crate full of...onions!

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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