Some of the most satisfying moments in literature are those episodes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories where Sherlock Holmes meets a total stranger and proceeds to recount the person’s life history, personal habits, recent travels—and in some cases, what they are thinking. While the observers stand in jaw-dropping amazement, assuming that the detective has access to secret sources of information, or even a gift of ESP, he goes on to rattle off all the visible clues and straightforward deductions that led him to his conclusions.
The ability to peer inside a person’s soul and read it like a book—with special reference to previous reincarnations—is indeed an aptitude that was ascribed to great kabbalistic and Ḥasidic masters like Rabbi Isaac Luria or the Ba’al Shem Tov. However, Jewish tradition also knows of people with Sherlock-Holmesian talent for keen observation and inference. In fact, this ability was presented as a characteristic trait of the Jewish mind.
Let me illustrate this theme with a story that is preserved in rabbinic literature in two versions. The first version is found in the Midrash on Lamentations where it forms part of a sequence of encounters in which Jews, especially Jerusalemites (several of them small children) outsmart Athenians—who fancied themselves the wisest of nations. This specific tale involves an Athenian who journeyed to Jerusalem hoping to study wisdom, but failed in his quest (presumably because the Jewish academic standards were too demanding for his limited mental capacity). To assist him on his homeward journey he purchased a one-eyed Jewish slave whom the seller had touted as remarkably clever and farsighted.
As soon as they left the city, the slave advised his master to try to join up with a party that was traveling ahead of them on the road. Given that no travelers were visible from their vantage point, the Athenian asked his slave for more information. The slave proceeded to provide a detailed description: the party included a one-eyed female camel, pregnant with twins and bearing packs on each side, one filled with wine and the other with vinegar. The camel-driver was a heathen and they were less than four miles ahead of them.
When the dumbfounded Athenian asked his slave how he had arrived at such precise conclusions, the lowly Jewish slave replied in true Holmesian style: that the animal was one-eyed is evident from the way it grazed from only one side one side of the road. The imprint of the twins in her belly was still visible to a discerning eye in the places where she had crouched on the ground. Evidence of the cargos of wine and vinegar remained in the spots where the liquids had dripped; the wine was absorbed into the ground while the vinegar could be recognized from the way it bubbled to the top. Traces of urine on the road proved that the traveler was a heathen, since Jews would not relieve themselves so immodestly. And everyone knows that camel tracks are no longer discernible beyond a distance of four miles. Elementary, my Athenian master! Elementary!
The same story was also recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, but with some interesting differences. Perhaps the most striking of these variations relates to the historical setting. The midrashic tale evidently took place while Jerusalem stood in its full glory, and it served to demonstrate the greatness of the city and the brilliance of even its lowliest citizens (exemplified by a half-blind Jew who was reduced to slavery). The talmudic story, on the other hand, was set on Mount Carmel in the aftermath of Jerusalem’s destruction, and it involved a pair of Jewish protagonists, prisoners whose conversation was overheard by their captor as he was following behind them. The captor seems familiar enough with the Bible to berate his captives for belonging to a “stiff-necked people”; but this insult takes on an ironic flavour as he comes to admire their extraordinary intellectual and deductive acumen.
The Talmud introduced its tale as an explication of the verse in Lamentations that bewails the destruction of the city that had been “great among the nations, and princess among the provinces.” Rabbi Yoḥanan expounded the latter expression as implying that “wherever they go, they become princes to their masters.” This lesson is spelled out explicitly in the concluding observation that the Talmud appends to the narrative. After their heathen captor verifies the accuracy of their deductions, he is so impressed with with their brilliance that he kisses them on their heads and honours the stiff-necked prisoners with a festive banquet. He personally dances before them while reciting “Blessed is the one who chose the seed of Abraham, bestowing his wisdom upon them so that wherever they may go they become as princes to their masters.” In the end he sets them free and allows them to return safely to their homes.
Some manuscripts and medieval citations include additional exchanges between the captor and the prisoners that further illustrate their keen powers of observation as well as their chutzpah. They notice that the master’s aristocratic bearing is concealing his less savoury paternity; his real father was an executioner. On questioning, his mother confesses that indeed her son was conceived from an illicit liaison on her wedding night. In a similar vein they perceived that the lady was serving him meat from sheep that had been fed dog milk as well as wine from a vine that had been planted over his father’s grave.
This exercise in detection has the result of effectively making the Jewish captives the moral and social superiors of their ostensible overlord, even as the one-eyed slave in the tale from the Midrash proved to be more perceptive than his two-eyed master.
These ancient texts, which were composed long before the advent of the familiar murder mystery, nevertheless suggest that the classic detective story format provides an instructive strategy for Jewish survival under foreign oppression or in exile–if we learn to derive the appropriate lessons not necessarily from the hardboiled, two-fisted private eyes of the American genre, but from figures like Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe and other great sleuths whose sharply honed minds give them a decisive edge over the brawn and weaponry of their foes.
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