Morality Begins at Home


Wise… and Not So Wise—Ten Tales from the Rabbis
Selected and retold by Phillis Gershator
Designed and illustrated by Alexa Ginsburg
95 pages. Jewish Publication Society. $15.95.
Ages 6 and up.

Flying rabbis, loaves of bread that began as twigs, observant cows, and goats that carry bears on their heads: Is this a psychedelic experimental film or a children’s book of Talmudic and Midrashic tales? Oddly, if you guessed the latter, you’re right. Phillis Gershator, inspired by tales that her late father-in-law once told, has compiled a terrific collection of stories called Wise… and Not So Wise—Ten Tales from the Rabbis.

The often unusual cast of characters that populate this book illustrate Jewish morals in a way that’s entertaining for children. But don’t let the large type and illustrations fool you. This isn’t simply a children’s book; it’s a family book, one that parents should read to their children and then discuss with them. If you’re a parent whose knowledge of Jewish texts is decidedly rusty or non-existent and your goal is to impart a few simple, moral lessons to your kids, this may be the book for you. The stories are understandable and pleasant enough to read, and Gershator provides background material and questions to ponder following each story. There's even a glossary at the end of the book so that those with no previous knowledge of Jewish history or traditions can comfortably share these stories with their children.

I'd recommend reading all of the stories and the explanations through one time before sharing this book with your kids. That way, if questions come up during the story, you’ll be better prepared to answer them right away, without having to first consult the supplemental material. Fortunately, the stories are interesting enough to read more than once.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the book jacket, the lovely illustrations by Alexa Ginsburg come only in black and white. Certainly the book would have been enhanced by color illustrations, both to illuminate the subjects of the stories, and to better hold the interest of young readers. After all, this isn’t a book that kids would necessarily choose on their own, so why not make it more attractive and captivating for them?

Several themes run throughout the book, including the Jewish observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest, the occurrence of miracles (especially to poor, humble, observant Jews who deserve to have miracles happen to them), and the selfish qualities that occur most often in the extremely wealthy. Gershator files the hardworking and pious Jews under “wise,” while saving the “unwise” category for nosy, jealous, lazy, and greedy Jews and gentiles. If you’re looking for complexity, look elsewhere. These stories lean toward an overly simplistic morality, with clear delineations between good and evil. For younger children, this black or white vision of morality may be as much as they can digest, but older kids may find it preachy.

In the first story, “Making It Rain,” we encounter Honi the Circle Maker, a character from another Gershator book, Honi's Circle of Trees, and his grandson, Abba Hilkiah. Abba Hilkiah, while enormously wise and pious, is also quite shy and poor. Gershator is drawn to characters that meet this profile, as they demonstrate how good things happen to good people. Abba Hilkiah is devoted to God and has the ability and willingness to pray for rain in times of drought. When two wise men come to Abba Hilkiah to ask him to pray for rain, they are struck by the rainmaker’s strange behavior as he ignores their presence while he goes about his work. While Abba Hilkiah ultimately makes it rain and answers their questions, there are still questions unanswered at the end of the story, due in part to the author’s decision to tell only portions of this story from the Babylonian Talmud.

The stories with the most appeal to youngsters will undoubtedly be the ones in which miracles happen, such as “Hanina’s Stone,” “Teacher in the Cave,” and “What’s Cooking.” In “What’s Cooking?,” when the poor wife of Rabbi Hanina Ben Dosa has no flour to bake bread for the Sabbath, she burns twigs in her oven so that at least her neighbors will see smoke coming from the chimney and won’t feel sorry for her. But when a nosy neighbor comes to the door to humiliate the poor woman for having no food for Sabbath, the twigs miraculously turn to delicious baked bread and Hanina’s wife is spared the embarrassment. Gershator adds her own twist to this story from the Babylonian Talmud, as the poor woman offers her nosy neighbor a loaf of the miracle bread, despite the neighbor’s initial intention of embarrassing her. This heavy-handed addition drives home the extent of the poor woman’s goodness and generosity.

In “Everything for the Best,” one bad thing after another happens to Rabbi Akiva, yet he continues to believe that whatever God does is for the best. Rabbi Akiva’s optimism is held up as an example for children, as the author asks, “Today, when things go badly for us, how do we keep our spirits up?… How can everything be for the best?” In the post-9/11 age, this overly simplistic lesson may be a hard one to make stick with children.

“The Observant Cow” is perhaps the preachiest of the tales. In it, a hardworking cow rests along with his owner when he observes the Jewish Sabbath. When the cow is sold to a gentile who tries to force it to work on the seventh day of the week, the cow refuses, despite the new owner’s beatings. When the gentile complains to the cow’s former owner, the Jewish man explains to the cow, “Dear Cow, when you worked for me, we did celebrate the Sabbath. But now that you work for a non-Jew, you no longer observe God’s day. So please, be a good cow and do as he wishes.” And the cow does! But the gentile, witnessing this exchange, thinks the Jew is a wizard. When the Jew explains that the cow was simply obeying God’s commandment to honor the seventh day, the gentile is so impressed that he exclaims, “If a cow does as God commands, how can I, made in the image of God, do any less?” He goes on to convert to Judaism and become a famous scholar. While children may be charmed by an observant cow and a gentile inspired by such a cow to become Jewish, this tale requires some discussion to get past its seeming simplicity. Gershator offers some discussion-starters after the story, which should help children get to the nuances of the story.

The stories in Wise… and Not So Wise were obviously chosen for their relative simplicity and potential appeal to children. But while the ancient books of the Talmud and Midrash were written to answer questions about Judaism, Gershator’s retelling of these ten stories answers some questions, but asks a lot more. Kids will need the help of an involved parent to get the most out of this collection.