The Jewish Fairy Book (Gerald Friedlander)/The Magic Lamp

The Jewish Fairy Book by Gerald Friedlander
V. The Magic Lamp (from Shalsheleth Hakkabalah)



THERE once lived in Paris, in the good olden days, a great Jew called Rabbi Jechiel. He was a wonderful man, deeply read in the mystical lore of Israel. He was a student of the Kabbalah, or mystic science of the Hebrews. People said that he was a past master in the use of spells and magic. In fact he was supposed to be able to perform miracles by means of the formulae current among the Kabbalists. Some people went so far as to say that he was a wizard, for strange things happened in his house. True he had many disciples who came every morning and every evening to listen to the words of wisdom that fell from his lips. Did he not have a magic lamp? He never bought oil, and in those good olden days oil was the only known means of obtaining illumination.

The story that Rabbi Jechiel had a wonderful magic lamp passed from mouth to mouth, till at last it reached the ears of the King of France. The tale sounded so extraordinary that the King determined to ascertain whether this story was mere idle rumor without any foundation, or whether the Rabbi really had a marvelous lamp. He accordingly ordered his attendants to fetch the Rabbi and to bring him to the royal presence.

As soon as Jechiel entered the salon where the King sat on his throne, he made a profound obeisance and remained standing. The King greeted him in a cordial manner and requested him to be seated. When Jechiel had obeyed the King's command he waited for the Monarch to question him.

"I have sent for you because I hear strange stories about you. You are undoubtedly a very wise man, but some of the people say that you are a magician. You are said to possess a magic lamp which you are able to burn without oil. Are you so skilled in witchcraft as to be able to do this miracle? Speak freely and have no fear. I promise to give you my protection, come what may."

Rabbi Jechiel replied,—

"Your Majesty must pardon me if I do not appear to be as frank as I might be. I cannot reveal the secrets of the Kabbalah. One versed in the Kabbalah can certainly do much more than one who is not acquainted with the ancient and wonderful teaching. Now as regards the magic lamp. I do not admit that it is a magic lamp. What I possess is a lamp the like of which your Majesty has not probably seen. This little lamp gives me sufficient illumination to suit my purpose, and true it is that I do not use any oil with this lamp."

"Now, good Rabbi, please tell me a little more about this lamp."

"Your Majesty's will is my pleasure. Now before I explain the nature of my lamp, I think it my duty to assure your Majesty that the Jewish religion is utterly opposed to magic and witchcraft. What we are, however, permitted to do — nay, we are even commanded to do it — is to study nature and to subdue it. Man is the King of all things in the universe. If my lamp can give light without oil, it is because nature has provided a substitute. People have imagined that I have this magic lamp because I do not buy oil. They do not pause to think and to ask themselves. Can we obtain illumination by any other means? The whole purpose of the Kabbalah is to teach man the duty of studying nature, and how to wrestle with it till we discover its secrets."

"I am greatly obliged to you," said the King, "and I shall be glad to see your lamp one day."

The Rabbi was then dismissed and returned to his home. The King was not entirely satisfied with Jechiel's explanation. If anything the royal curiosity was increased by what the Rabbi had said. The King determined to call on the Rabbi one evening and to take him by surprise in order to see what sort of lamp he really used.

In the good olden days of which we are speaking, there were not a few people in France who were far from being friendly to the Jews. This hostility arose from jealousy and ignorance. The Jews were steady-going people, avoiding taverns and gambling-dens, preferring to live among themselves in peace and happiness. Their religious observances were also totally unlike those of their neighbors. Church was not Synagogue, Jew was not Christian. Hence arose suspicion and misunderstanding. The city ruffians made capital of this and they were ever ready to pillage the Ghetto, or the quarter where the Jews resided. Moreover, the fame of Rabbi Jechiel, now that he had been received at court by the King, increased the excitement of the mob.

Every one wanted to see the magic lamp. The poor Rabbi had no rest. His lessons were constantly interrupted. He would begin to teach and lo! there was a knock at the door. The Rabbi would hasten to open the door and there stood before him an idle good-for-nothing asking whether he might see the magic lamp. The Rabbi replied,—

"I have no magic lamp, and even if I had I cannot spend all my days in satisfying idle curiosity."

The magic lamp soon become a source of worry to Jechiel.

"What would the Rabbi do?" asked his pupils.

"I will put a stop to this nuisance," he replied, "and you will see that we shall soon have peace."

The Rabbi discovered by means of the Kabbalistic science a method of preventing a continuance of the annoyance. He had in the floor of his study a large nail. Whenever he struck the head of the nail with the hammer, the ground outside his street-door began to give way. When a person came to vex the Rabbi and began to knock at the door, the Rabbi fetched his hammer and knocked the head of the nail in his study. The unfortunate man at the street-door felt the ground beneath his feet beginning to give way and he hastened away as quickly as his legs would carry him. The device worked so splendidly that at last the Rabbi was left alone.

One winter's night when the snow was on the ground the Rabbi was alone in his study. Outside his door stood the King with two of his attendants. The King had long determined to take the Rabbi by surprise so as to discover what sort of lamp he used. The King knocked at the door. Rabbi Jechiel paid no heed and went on reading the Zohar, the great book of the Kabbalists. Again the King knocked and this time as loudly as he could.

"Ah!" cried Jechiel, "some of my old customers have come to-night; they know that I have given my pupils a holiday and they think I have nothing better to do than to show them my lamp. Where's my hammer? Here it is"; and he picked it up, and struck the nail on its head. "Now be off, idle busy-bodies!"

Meanwhile the King and his attendants began to sink into the ground. With an effort the King managed once again to knock at the door and to cry aloud for help. Jehiel heard only the knocking, for the wind was blowing hard. Once again he seized the hammer and knocked the nail on its head, when it sprang out of the floor. This gave the Rabbi a tremendous shock.

"This can only happen," cried he in terror, "if the King or an angel were at my door."

At the same moment when the nail sprang out of the floor the ground outside the door began to rise again. Without a moment's delay Jechiel opened the street-door, and there sure enough stood the King of France with his two attendants. The King did not say a word. Jechiel fell on his face to the earth, but the King commanded him to rise up as snow was on the ground. The Rabbi obeyed and said,—

"I pray your gracious Majesty forgive me. I knew not that you were at my door. I crave your Majesty's pardon."

The King smiled and gave him his hand. The King was more than surprised, in fact he was rather terrified, as he did not know what next to expect. Such a strange experience as he had just gone through was more than enough for one evening. Here indeed was more to be wondered at than at any magic lamp.

"Well, good Rabbi," at last the King managed to say,—

"Do you not call this witchcraft and magic? Here I and my attendants have been descending into the earth as far as our hips and up again we come; what does it all mean? Please explain. I confess that I do not like such sudden shocks, and I must request you not to continue your experiments at my expense."

"That I promise most faithfully," said the Rabbi with a profound bow; "meanwhile let me beg your gracious Majesty to enter my humble home. I have a nice fire burning and your Majesty and your attendants will need warmth before you will feel at all comfortable. I will lead the way and you will soon be warm."

The King and his attendants followed Jechiel and they all entered his best room where there was a nice fire on the hearth. Jechiel gave his guests wine and cake, and once more gave expression to his deep sorrow for what had happened. He said, — "Your Majesty will, I hope, pardon my unfortunate mistake. Had I known that your Majesty was at my door, I should have opened it even before you had knocked."

"Say no more about it," said the King. "I forgive and forget. Now tell me why did the ground under my feet fall in and rise again?"

The Rabbi told the King all about the nail, and why he had recourse to this unusual way of answering a knock at his door.

"Very clever indeed," exclaimed the King, "but I do not suppose you will tell me how you manage to work this magic nail. Well, well! I did not come out on this wretched night to inquire about your nail."

"May I ask your Majesty, then, why am I honored by your gracious presence, especially on such a night as this? I hear the wind howling outside my windows and the snow is falling fast. Your Majesty has surely some purpose in coming to my home, and as your Majesty now knows, there is some risk in gaining admission."

"Good Rabbi, I like your ready wit. It does me good to hear your clever talk."

"Your Majesty must realize that you were in danger, for had I not knocked a second time on the head of my nail, your Majesty and your attendants would have gradually sunk deeper and deeper into the ground. This is the fate that befalls all the wicked ruffians who come here merely to disturb me in my sacred studies."

"Well, good Rabbi," said the King with a smile on his face, "it is extremely lucky for me and for you that I was not swallowed up alive. At all events I am most grateful to you for saving my life. As to the purpose of my midnight visit to you, let me tell you at once why I am here. You will remember when you came to my palace I asked you whether you had a magic lamp. You told me that you had a lamp which required no oil, but you denied that it was a magic lamp. Not only have I heard so much about your magical powers, I have to-night experienced how powerful your skill is in witchcraft. I have come to see your lamp and I now ask you to show it to me."

"With pleasure. Will your Majesty be good enough to follow me and I will show you the lamp, which I keep in my small sitting-room!"

They entered the little room and on the table in the center of the room there was a marvelous little lamp.

The King looked at it and said: "Wonderful! there is no oil here." The lamp was a crystal mortar full of phosphorus which had been melted some years previously in a few drops of olive-oil.

Naturally as this was the only source of illumination in the dark room it emitted light enough to enable one to see the different objects in the room.

"This is truly wonderful," exclaimed the King.

"Do not be astonished at this," said Jechiel. "God has given us various means of obtaining light without combustion. Have you never heard of plants that evolve light? Well, there are such plants. Has your Majesty never heard of the luminosity of decaying wood? There are even insects, such as the glow-worm and other beetles, which throw off light. Fish and other living things, such as sea-pens, are also luminous. The same can be said of a number of mineral substances, such as fluor-spar and calcium. Then again we have lightning. Truly knowledge is light, and the laws of God are a lamp on the way of life."

The King was astounded to hear such marvelous wisdom from a Jew. He had never heard anything like it in all his life. Not one of his counselors had ever spoken of nature and her secrets in a similar strain.

"I thank you ever so much for all you have taught me. I have been well repaid for coming to see you. Henceforth you will be one of my counselors of state and I hope you will also be my personal friend. You will live in a suite of rooms in my palace and you will be able to continue your studies undisturbed. Now accept this ring as a token of my esteem."

The King took from his finger a beautiful ring, which he placed on the Rabbi's finger. Then the King departed, greatly pleased with all that he had seen and heard.

Rabbi Jechiel was now established at court. He was the King's favorite. He even taught the King some of the secrets of alchemy. All this aroused the jealousy of the other courtiers and counselors. One day some of them remarked to the King,—

"We do not understand how your Majesty can tolerate a Jew living in your palace. You do not know the nature of a Jew. He is so unlike a Christian. It will surprise your Majesty to learn that he actually despises you, and of course all of us."

"How dare you say this?" cried the King in warmth.

"We can prove it, if your Majesty would but let us do so," said they.

"How so?"

"If your Majesty would give him a glass of wine of which you have tasted but one drop, he will indignantly refuse to empty the glass, he would not even drink a drop. He is so proud and vain. Is the conduct of such a man not a direct insult to your gracious Majesty and to the Kingdom of France?"

The King held his peace.

Next day when the Rabbi came to visit the King, all the counselors and courtiers were also in attendance.

"Give me a glass of wine," cried the King, "and also a little fruit, for I feel somewhat faint."

The page brought the wine and the fruit on a golden salver. The King ate the fruit and sipped the sparkling wine. Then turning to the Rabbi, who sat near the throne, he said in a loud voice so that all present might hear,—

"Jechiel, my friend! this is most excellent wine; I have just tasted it, but I do not feel faint now, for the fruit has quite revived me. Here, drink the wine whilst I rinse my hands. It would be such a pity to waste it, and to whom could I give it with more pleasure than to you, my friend and companion."

The courtiers and counselors listened with strained ears to every word, and they now looked at Jechiel to see what he would do.

The Jew put forth his hand and took the glass from the King's hand. He then put it down on a little table at his side. He arose from his seat and said,—

"May I crave your Majesty's indulgence? At the moment I do not care to take wine. I have a good reason. I must keep my head cool, for your Majesty has to discuss with me urgent matters of state. But do not think I am not fully sensible of the great honor which your Majesty is good enough to confer upon me in asking me to drink the wine which you find so excellent. I promise, however, before I take my leave this morning to drink even more than your Majesty proposes."

The listeners could hardly believe their ears.

"What," thought they, "will the Jew drink with Christians?"

When the King had rinsed his fingers with rose water in a golden bowl, the Rabbi arose and took the bowl from the page and laid it beside the glass of wine.

"What's that for?" exclaimed the King in surprise.

The Rabbi arose, and taking hold of the golden bowl said in a fearless voice, —

"With your gracious Majesty's permission I will now drink this water which has just been used by you, my King and friend. I may drink this water, for the hands of a good and just King are always clean, and therefore the water is as fresh as when it was brought to your Majesty. My religion permits me to drink water but not wine. The wine is forbidden because it very often happens that wine used by Kings is also used by priests for religious purposes." Whereupon to the great surprise of all present Jechiel drank the rose water and resumed his seat.

The wise King saw all this and understood.

"Now I know," cried he, "how greatly this good Jew loves me, and I rejoice to think that he loves his God and his religion with all his heart. Happy am I to have such a friend; would that all my servants were as zealous and as faithful."

Shalsheleth Hakkabalah       
(ed. Amsterdam, 1697 p. 44b).