Tuesday, June 6, 2006

What to tell the Children

(Photo by Jerry Dantzic)

Guest Post From Chabakuk Elisha:

Ahhhh, yes… אקדמות. Maybe, Hirshel, you can help me out with this one:

My children came home from ישיבה, as do many, many, children before שבועות and repeated the well-known “story behind Akdamos.” I’m sure you’ve heard it before – the witchcraft performing priest, the Rabbonim in Medieval Germany who had the dream, R’ Meir’s journey beyond the mysterious Sambatyon river, the old man, R’ Dan, from Shevet Dan, the face-off between the sorcerer-priest and the miracle working mystic with super powers from places unknown, a flying pillar, fire & millstones… etc.

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t know what to make of it. Are we really supposed to believe that this story took place as it is written? I don’t have a problem with a less dramatized version of the story possibly taking place, and I can live with a visitor from beyond Sambatyon - although I don’t believe there is a literal physical rock-spewing-river trapping the ten tribes in some kind of time capsule – but this story is especially hard to believe. Honestly, I always understood the description of Sambatyon as a metaphor (one that I can only speculate as to the meaning of), but that’s just me.

My question is, what about my kids? My oldest son immediately checks with me, “Tatty, it’s true, right? Do you believe it? Should we believe it?”

Now I’m stuck. “No, I don’t believe it took place that way; I believe it might be a parable, a metaphor.” My kids give me a look, they want to believe it. So, what should I do? Am I doing a disservice by, perhaps, weakening their emunah? Am I doing them a service by promoting honesty? Am I undermining their education as frumme yidden? I can go back-n-forth with the pros and cons here, so I figure that I can’t lose much by putting the question “out there” and seeing what comes up…



Anonymous said...

What's the problem? some creative guy with a wild imagination sold the Jews a bucket of stories and they bought it! The question is why they felt the need to attach it to the Akdomus. I guess a plain old Piyut, as holy as it may be, just didn't cut it for the dark days in Crusader Germany, they needed a story with magic and כישוף

Anonymous said...

My answer is: I might believe it. I would need to look into it, find a source.

The Rebbe had no problem saying that he didn't believe a story not told by his father-in-law, other than rare circumstances.

Actually, the expression was that he wouldn't tell a story not told to him. Did the Rebbe ever expressly say that he didn't believe them?

I've actually never heard the akdamos story. Sounds fascinating.

A Simple Jew said...

What is it about this particular story that is harder for you to believe than many of the other stories in our tradition? Is it because it was not included in one of the books of Midrash?

What did you tell your son? I would be interested to know...

By the way, you might also want to check out Akiva's posting here on a related topic

Anonymous said...

why is it worse then any story in shivchei habesht?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps people don't know the story, so I'll give you the short version:

There was a sorcerer priest that killed 600+ Jews with his witchcraft in Germany just prior to Rashi’s lifetime. The Jews had no way to combat him, and the King told them that he was powerless to help, but he would arrange a face-off, if they could produce their greatest tzaddik as a representative.

They had no idea who could face-off against the priest, but that night all the rabbonim had the same dream saying that G-d was angry at them, but if they would go across the Sambatyon River they could find a savior.

The Sambatyon River was uncrossable, since it threw rocks all week long - however it would rest on Shabbos, and because it was a case of pikuach nefesh they could cross it on Shabbos. R' Meir (author of Akdamus) gave his wife a divorce and went together with a representative (that later becomes Rahi’s teacher) to the river. R’ Meir crossed the river (never to return, since it would not be possible to cross back – although I heards that you can find his kever in Israel) and also wrote this tefilla upon leaving.

When he crossed they wanted to stone him for violating Shabbos (since on the “other side” they still functioned as they did in Biblical times), but when he explained the situation, they sent R’ Dan – an ancient man with a long while beard to save the Jews.
The arrangements were made and the Rabbi & priest met to “shoot-it-out.”

I am a little fuzzy on this part, but I think it goes something like this: the Priest magically brings down a piller from heaven and drives it into the ground, after which the Rabbi causes the piller to rise back into the sky. Then the rabbi beings down huge millstones that grind something up, and the priest is suppose to undo it, but he cant. Then the Rabbi brings down a fire that the priest is supposed to extinguish, but he can’t. Then the Rabbi brings down a tree that the priest is supposed to cause to bend over touching the ground – the priest causes it to bend, but the tree springs back throwing the priest into the Pillar and he bounces into the millstones, where he is ground up, spit out, and burnt by the fire. Something like that. This is from an ancient ksav yad.

Now, I tend to accept most stories, but this one…

(I told my kids: “No, I don’t believe it took place that way; I believe it might be a parable, a metaphor.” )

Anonymous said...


stories in the ShivHaBesht don't involve mythical rivers as far as I know.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there a wanderer named Eldad HaDani who claimed to be from the 10 tribes across the Sambatyon? Maybe that's the source for a R' Dan coming from there.

Anonymous said...

I want to offer thanksgiving to the Borei Olam that early Medieval ashkenazi pietism in the form of the Chassidei Ashkenaz has for the most part stopped being an influence on Klal Yisroel. A few vestiges are nice (Anim Zmiros), but others are downright paganish (Kaparos and other Sefer Chassidim stuff.)

Anonymous said...


I believe Eldad was a שבתאי, a phony, no?

Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...

anybody recognize the Yid in the picture? he seems to be a CrownHeightser.

Anonymous said...

The story is from eldad Hadani who we do not nec accept as far as defining falashas as Jews without conversion so why should you accept his stories blindly. In addition it is not simple as to what was added later to his books by others


When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia after the Destruction of the First Temple, among them were the Levites, whose task it had been to sing in the Holy Temple. Nebuchadnezzar commanded them to appear before him with their harps and sing to him.

"How can we sing before Israel's enemy?" they said. "If only we had sung more of God's praises when the Temple still stood, it might not have been destroyed!"

With tears in their eyes, they hung their harps in the willow boughs along the Euphrates River and then slashed their fingers with sharp knives so that they could no longer play. Then they came before Nebuchadnezzar and held up their bloody hands. Enraged at their impudence, the Babylonian king ordered them all executed in the morning.

That night the Levites and their families prayed to God and prepared themselves to die in order to sanctify the Holy Name. But when the morning mist lifted, they found to their surprise that they were no longer in Babylon, but in a strange and beautiful land they had never seen before. Everywhere fruit trees were in blos-som, and the air was filled with a sweet fragrance. On three sides, the land was bordered by the sea, and on the fourth side flowed a wide river in the midst of which boulders rolled and crashed with a ceaseless thunder.

This was the River Sambatyon. For six days of the week, the rocks in the river's midst continued their tireless churning. But on the Sabbath they rested, and the river was as still and smooth as glass. To keep out enemies, a curtain of fire arose on the opposite bank and remained there until the following sunset, when the rocks resumed their weekday commotion.

The Levites soon discovered that their new land was a paradise. The trees and flowers bloomed twice each year, and the seeds sown in the fields produced a hundredfold. Grandparents never saw a grandchild die before them and the old left the earth in perfect health. There were no soldiers, judges, or guards among them, for all was peaceful and just.

Only once did someone not of the tribe of Levi cross the Sambatyon. It happened soon after the Destruction of the Second Temple, when an evil pagan priest, a warlock, ruled Jerusalem and tormented the Jews left behind after the Roman siege. He was a giant of a man, and like Goliath, he challenged the Jews to send a champion to defeat him in wisdom, or he would destroy them all.

The sages in Jerusalem drew lots to choose one of their number to cross the Sambatyon and summon a champion from among the inhabitants there. The lot fell upon one of the youngest among them. Before he left, they made him divorce his wife, for he would have to desecrate the Sabbath to cross the river on the one day that it was still. But they gave him no permission to desecrate the Sabbath to come back.
He traveled for many days and finally arrived at the banks of the Sambatyon. Swiftly he passed through the fiery wall into the lands of B'nai Moshe, the descendants of the Levites, and he told them of his mission. They, too, drew lots, and the lot fell upon a dwarf, hunchbacked and lame. He, too, divorced his wife, crossed the Sambatyon, and made his way to Jerusalem.

When the giant warlock saw the hunchbacked dwarf, he laughed. "So this is whom you have sent to challenge me! Then prepare to lose your lives."

The people of Jerusalem erected a wide platform in the middle of the city for this contest of wits, and the two men climbed up and stood upon it. First it was the warlock's turn. Chanting magic incantations, he made wheat grow right out of the wooden boards of the platform. But the dwarf conjured up roosters that quickly devoured the wheat.

Then it was the dwarf's turn. He made two giant trees sprout up out of the platform. Within seconds their leafy tops pierced the clouds.

"Now show your power," challenged the dwarf. "Bring the treetops down to the ground."

So the warlock summoned all his power and made the treetops bow low to the ground. But as soon as the warlock grabbed hold of the uppermost branches, one in each hand, the dwarf caused the treetops to spring back into the sky, splitting the warlock right down the middle. Then the dwarf conjured up two great millstones that floated in midair and ground the two halves of the warlock's body until nothing remained but dust, which the dwarf scattered to the winds.

And then suddenly he, too, vanished into the air.

info on eldad hadani

yitz said...

A few comments on CE's version [in italics below] of the story. My corrections are based on the English HaModia's article on Akdamus in their Shavuos magazine, & a detailed Hebrew account of the story found in a children's book:

R’ Meir crossed the river (never to return, since it would not be possible to cross back... and also wrote this tefilla upon leaving.

The accounts I read were that he wrote it AFTER he reached the other side, and gave it to the tailor [see below] who went across to defend the Jews.

they sent R’ Dan – an ancient man with a long while beard to save the Jews.

Both accounts mention an unnamed tailor.

The LAST PART of the story goes more like this:
The priest spotted a household mill on the ground, cast a spell on it, causing it to levitate & spin in the air at great speed. Then it was the tailor's turn. He offered the priest a choice of either bending a tall tree to the ground, & having the priest hold it down OR the priest should bend the tree and he would hold it down.
The priest chose the former; the priest tried to hold down the tree, but it shot back upright, throwing the priest high up into the air. He fell back down directly into the mill, which ground him to pieces.
Interestingly, the part about the pillar and the fire are absent in both of these versions.

Finally, hopefully you've all seen A Simple Jew's response here.

Anonymous said...

My version was a hurried and inexact, I make no claims as to the accuracy. I really didn't mean to get into the story - my question is how to handle it with the kiddies... So, with the goal of bringing everyone back on point, any ideas?

Anonymous said...

(BTW, Yitz, I like your version better -
the fire & pillar version was in the photocopies that my kids brought home from school - I think the copies came from a book called "Di Sheinkeit fun Yom Tov" or something like that)

Anonymous said...

My answer would be, the only things we believe without hesitation are Torah Misinai and Torah Shebaal Peh, everything else is subject to validation and trustworthiness of the source.

Jim said...

my version is future, the 10 are bound in a time warp, staying lost, choice place they think. an intersection of the main continuum interrupts, all those things happen, the whole of Jewdom becomes Frum, We all meet in Jerushalm soon. No faith destroyed, the frumme yiddim grow up, read the possibilities, decide for themselves, you are off the hook Imma/Abba. But too, maybe it is 'future'?

Anonymous said...

oiy vey de kinder ?

what do we do about our childrens emunah

the whole question in judaisim ie emunah belief. where do we draw the line?

who are to choose what is true and what is not. based on "wow i cant belive that happened" "most miracles are not rue" statements like that is the "amalek" in our times we make a coldness to judaisim. do you belive in eliyahu hanavi comming to a bris to the pesach seder orthat eliyahu came throught the generations to help peolpe dressed in different ways ?

if we chas veshalom start declaring we cannot believe this "because" we cant understnad the hocus pocus. we are in trouble

did the maharal make a golem?

the basic thing we have to teach our children is emunah in hahsem that everything is possible. der aibershter ken ales tun. hashem can do all. and emunah "vayaminu behashem Uvemoishe avdoi" throught the generations we have had many "moshe avdoi" and that all is possible for hashem. and hashem can do miracles throught. some we see as miracles through blessings from tzadikim. some we see through our own tefilois. some are more amazing like the golem eliyahu hanave or reb dan.

but also as in the gemarah many stories seem weird(for lack of a better word) but did they all happen or are they parables

who arewe to question.

after we teach them emunah. then we can teach them the vort said about the ball shems stories if you belive all ...

but to start pciking this i dont believe this could not of happened. emunah belive without belief we are lost

we need to connect to gd.

Anonymous said...

1. Sambatyon is mentioned in Sanhedrin 65a.
2. About what to tell the kids, perhaps you can doubt the source, or claim not to know if there is a source.
I'm not even sure a reliable one exists.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Here's my $.02.

Crack open a Gemara Berachot 20a and show them:

אמר ליה רב פפא לאביי מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?

Said R. Papa to Abaye: How is it that for the former generations miracles were performed and for us miracles are not performed?

And then try to present an alternative explanation. Tell them what legends are. How they reveal a lot of things about people, what they were like, what they believed, what they hoped for etc.

If you hold your tongue now you may find that you will not be able to 'manage' their emunah later if they decide for themselves that legends presented as true historical facts presented as part of The Emes undermines the integrity of everything. There's nothing wrong with letting children know that their world makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Personally I find it annoying, when in some new editions of this story, some parts are censored out! (Namely about the galach-mechashef). What I ment by "censored out" is, that in older version of this mayse (wich is found in old sforim), Reb Meir went to the galach, who actually was the one who teleported him to the land of the shvotim!! Probably because it doesn't fit into standard view of what is appropriate. However it is probably inappropriate to lay hands on such things.

As for the story itself, I think it's a beautiful classic of our mesoyro. You can find similar stories in Kav haYoshor if you like. Why don't ask if they are authentic? Rational mind can't accept such things, I understand. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of pure rationalism and materialism. That was the trap of “haskolo” and is a very basic mind set of society outside Yiddishkayt.

Probably there is always a hidden "maskil" in every one of us, saying - "Come on! Do you really believe this? It's complete nonsense!". Rebbe z”l once said (as a guzmo), that it’s better to be a fool and to believe everything (and so to believe in true things), than not to believe anything (and so not to believe in true things). The message of this is not to fall the victim of materialism/rationalism (which is challenging, because really to be a fool is not good as well).

And about the land of the shvotim – it is not that far fetched, as it may seem! There were a number of chachomim, who tried to locate that mysterious place. And about teleportation – it is not against our traditions as well J For example, look in Eymek haMelech, where he speaks about 7 lands (Shivo artzoys) and how he explains this concept. You’ll be amazed by that. (Just to give you an idea - he speaks about teleportation between them and etc.). Better look inside yourself, though.

Anonymous said...

I believe it and why not? Do you believe in Krias Yam Suf? Do you believe Hashem created the world just by saying Let There be.....? If you are a Maamin, you believe, that's all.

story did happen said...

I doubt anyone will read this because i am posting years later

However you people are really off the wall