Sunday, March 4, 2012

From the Talmud To Don Quixote - A Stick of Gold!

The following story is found in Tractate  Nedarim 25:

A man with a monetary claim upon his neighbour once came before Raba, demanding of the debtor, 'Come and pay me.' 'I have repaid you,' pleaded he. 'If so,' said Raba to him, 'go and swear to him that you have repaid.' Thereupon he went and brought a [hollow] cane, placed the money therein, and came before the Court, walking and leaning on it. [Before swearing] he said to the plaintiff: 'Hold the cane in your hand'. He then took a scroll of the Law and swore that he had repaid him all that he [the creditor] held in his hand.2  The creditor thereupon broke the cane in his rage and the money poured out on the ground; it was thus seen that he had [literally] sworn to the truth.3

An eerily similar story is found in Don Quiote chapter XLV - After the fool Sancho Panza is appointed (as a joke) as the governor of an Island:

At this instant there came into court two old men, one carrying a cane by way of a walking-stick, and the one who had no stick said, "Senor, some time ago I lent this good man ten gold-crowns in gold to gratify him and do him a service, on the condition that he was to return them to me whenever I should ask for them. A long time passed before I asked for them, for I would not put him to any greater
straits to return them than he was in when I lent them to him; but thinking he was growing careless about payment I asked for them once and several times; and not only will he not give them back, but he denies that he owes them, and says I never lent him any such crowns; or if I did, that he repaid them; and I have no witnesses either of the loan, or the payment, for he never paid me; I want your worship to put him to his oath, and if he swears he returned them to me I forgive him the debt here and before God." 

"What say you to this, good old man, you with the stick?" said Sancho. 

To which the old man replied, "I admit, senor, that he lent them to me; but let your worship lower your staff, and as he leaves it to my oath, I'll swear that I gave them back, and paid him really and truly." 

The governor lowered the staff, and as he did so the old man who had the stick handed it to the other old man to hold for him while he swore, as if he found it in his way; and then laid his hand on the cross of the staff, saying that it was true the ten crowns that were demanded of him had been lent him; but that he had with his own hand given them back into the hand of the other, and that he, not recollecting it, was always asking for them. 

Seeing this the great governor asked the creditor what answer he had to make to what his opponent said. He said that no doubt his debtor had told the truth, for he believed him to be an honest man and a good Christian, and he himself must have forgotten when and how he had given him back the crowns; and that from that time forth he would make no further demand upon him. 

The debtor took his stick again, and bowing his head left the court. Observing this, and how, without another word, he made off, and observing too the resignation of the plaintiff, Sancho buried his head in his bosom and remained for a short space in deep thought, with the forefinger of his right hand on his brow and nose; then he raised his head and bade them call back the old man with the stick, for he had already taken his departure. They brought him back, and as soon as Sancho saw him he said, "Honest man, give me that stick, for I want it." 

"Willingly," said the old man; "here it is senor," and he put it into his hand. 

Sancho took it and, handing it to the other old man, said to him, "Go, and God be with you; for now you are paid." 

"I, senor!" returned the old man; "why, is this cane worth ten gold-crowns?" 

"Yes," said the governor, "or if not I am the greatest dolt in the world; now you will see whether I have got the headpiece to govern a whole kingdom;" and he ordered the cane to be broken in two, there, in the presence of all. It was done, and in the middle of it they found ten gold-crowns. All were filled with amazement, and looked upon their governor as another Solomon. They asked him how he had come to the conclusion that the ten crowns were in the cane; he replied, that observing how the old man who swore gave the stick to his opponent while he was taking the oath, and swore that he had really and truly given him the crowns, and how as soon as he had done swearing he asked for the stick again, it came into his head that the sum demanded must be inside it; and from this he said it might be seen that God sometimes guides those who govern in their judgments, even though they may be fools; besides he had himself heard the curate of his village mention just such another case, and he had so good a memory, that if it was not that he forgot everything he wished to remember, there would not be such a memory in all the island. To conclude, the old men went off, one crestfallen, and the other in high contentment, all who were present were astonished, and he who was recording the words, deeds, and movements of Sancho could not make up his mind whether he was to look upon him and set him down as a fool or as a man of sense. 

However this isn't the end of it.  According to the book Ariadne's Thread, this story has been reworked numerous times. The author traces the story back to a Roman tale of Brutus, offering a stick filled with gold to Apollo - This is a story about the original Brutus, at the time of the end of the Roman monarchy - and hence potentially an older tale than Rava.  Brutus fools those around him, into thinking he gave an unworthy offering to the god - and hence is not seen as competition to the king. (Sadly the pages dealing with the story are not all available, so I don't know if she knew the Talmudic story).

I thought that it is really interesting how a story has worked its way through different cultures. I was also quite amused that our esteemed Rava is replaced with a mere Sancho Panza!

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