The Jewish Fairy Book (Gerald Friedlander)/The Snake's Thanks

The Jewish Fairy Book by Gerald Friedlander
XV. The Snake's Thanks (from the Jewish Chap Book and Tanchuma)



THE following story was told at the court of David, King of Israel. It happened in those good times that an old man was walking along the road on a bitterly cold winter's day. He was feeble and had to support his old body upon a thick stick. On the side of the road he saw a snake, frozen with the cold. He felt very sorry to see one of God's creatures in pain. He went up to it and saw its eyes open and close. "Poor thing," said he, "it will soon die if it remain here much longer. Do we not read in God's Holy Bible that we must be merciful to all things which He has made? I will pick up the poor snake and try to revive it."

He hastened to take it up, and in order to give it a little warmth he put it under his coat close to his chest. It did not take very many minutes to warm it. The man was soon aware of the snake's recovery, for it began to coil its slimy body around him. Its pressure became gradually greater and greater till the man cried out in alarm: "Hold on! What art thou doing? Why dost thou squeeze me to death! Had it not been for my kindness and sympathy thou wouldst by now have perished on the roadside. When I picked thee up thou wast almost frozen to death. I have given thee back thy life and in return thou seekest to kill me. Is it right to return evil for good? Is this thy way of thanking those who help thee?"

"Thou art a very nice old man. But thou dost not seem to remember what I am. Tell me that first."

"Thou art a snake."

"Exactly. I am therefore quite in order in killing thee and any man. Snakes are made to kill the children of men."

"Come, Master Snake. Let us put our case before a judge and let us hear what he has to say."

"Very well, I agree to do this. Before whom shall we state our case?"

"Before the first creature that we meet on the road."

On and on they went till at last they saw an ox coming along. The old man was pleased and called out:

"Please, Master Ox, oblige this snake on my neck and me by standing here for a few minutes."

"What do ye want?"

"We wish thee to judge between us."

"What's the matter?"

"I found this snake perishing with cold. To save its life I put it on my chest under my coat."

"That was indeed most kind," said the ox.

"I then found that as soon as the snake revived it wanted to strangle me. Please decide whether that was right, and if not kindly order the snake to release its hold on me and to depart in peace."

"Now, Master Snake, what hast thou to say for thyself?"

"Yes, I admit that this good man speaks the truth. But I am quite right in trying to kill him."

"How so?"

"Because it is written in God's Book: 'I will put hatred between mankind and the serpent.'"

"Now," said the ox, "I have duly heard both sides. I find that the snake is in the right. It makes no difference that thou hast done it a good service and in return it kills thee. The world always returns evil for good. That is the way of life as far as I know it. Just see how I fare at the hands of my master. I work for him in his field from sunrise to sunset. At night I am shut up in a cold shed with a little hay and some oats for my food. My master sits in his cozy room with a lovely bright fire to warm him. He has a nice supper of fine fish and good meat. He even drinks sweet wine whereas I only get cold water. He sleeps in a clean soft bed whilst I have not even a coverlet over my back. In a year or two when I am no longer able to work in the field he will sell me to the butcher who will kill me."

These words grieved the poor old man very much. "I am not satisfied with this judge," he cried aloud.

Leaving the ox behind he went on his way with the snake coiled around his neck.

"Let us try again, if it please thee," said the snake. "We will ask the next creature that we meet. I am sure I will win the case."

"Wait and see, Master Snake. Ah! here comes thy friend the ass. We will ask him to be the judge."

"By all means."

They both told their story in turn to the ass, just as they had told the ox. The ass also quoted the same words of the Bible as the ox. After a long tale of his own sorrows at the hands of ungrateful man, the ass decided that the snake was in the right.

"See!" cried the snake, "did I not say that I should win? I shall now kill thee and know that I am doing the right thing."

"Stay, Master Snake, let us be fair. We have asked two animals to judge between us. Let us also put the case before a man. It is natural that animals should judge in thy favor, for they are thy kinsmen. Come before David, King of Israel. He is a good man and will speak as is right."

"Very good, I agree."

When they came before the King, he listened very attentively to both of them. Turning to the old man, David said: "Why hast thou not kept the Holy Law! It tells us that God has put hatred between thee and the serpent. Thou hast forgotten this and now I fear I cannot help thee."

"Ah!" cried the snake in a spiteful voice, "I am in the right."

The poor man left the King's presence with a very sad heart, for the snake was beginning to squeeze him more tightly than ever. He had now given up all hope. He feared that the snake would kill him before nightfall. On and on he wandered with a heavy step, leaning heavily on his stick. At last he felt so wretched that he sat down by the side of a well saying to himself, "I will die here and the snake may fall into the well and get drowned." He saw a handsome lad near by who came running up to him and said: "Peace be unto thee."

"Peace be also unto thee, my son."

"What aileth thee, for thy face is as white as a sheet?"

"I am nigh unto death."

"Can I fetch thee a little water?"

"Nay, dear son, many thanks. I have just left King David. Alas! he cannot save my life and I must die."

"Tell me thy trouble. Perhaps I can help thee."

The old man then told him all about the snake and showed him how it had entwined itself around his neck.

"Just wait here for a few minutes and then I will go with thee to King David. Thy case shall be retried and justice will be done. I must just stay a little while here by the well. My stick fell into it and I told my attendants to dig up the ground yonder where the source of the well lies. This will cause the water in the well to increase. My stick, of course, floats on the surface. As soon as the water rises near the top of the well I can reach it and as soon as I get it we will go to the King."

This action of the lad seemed very clever in the eyes of the old man. He therefore resolved to return with him to the King. At last they came before David. The lad, who was Solomon, the king's son, fell on his face to the ground. His father told him to rise up. He did so and kissed the king's hand.

"May I speak, dear father?"

"Speak, my son."

"Why didst thou not decide this man's case in his favor?"

"Because it serves him right to find himself in his present unfortunate state."

"How so, father dear?"

"Because he did not act according to the teaching of the Holy Law."

"O father, give me, I beseech thee, permission to sit in judgment in this case."

"Most gladly will I do so, if thou wilt be able to prove to me that I have not done justice to this unlucky man. Come, beloved son, and sit on my chair of state. I will listen to thy words of wisdom. May the God of my fathers be with thee in judgment!"

Solomon sat on his father's chair and began to say to the snake: "Tell me, why dost thou do evil to one who has dealt kindly with thee?"

"God has commanded me to do so."


"In his Law."

"Dost thou agree to abide by the teaching of the Law?"

"Of course I do."

"Now at once get off this man and stand on the ground even as he does."

"Why should I?"

"Because the Holy Law demands that those who have a quarrel shall stand before the judge."[1]

"I quite agree to do this. Now wilt thou judge between me and this man." The snake uncoiled its body and placed itself beside the old man. Solomon then turned to the old man and said: "The Holy Law has also a command for thee. It tells thee that thou shalt bruise the serpent's head. Do now according to the word of thy God." The old man no sooner heard Solomon's words than he raised his stick on which he was leaning and smote the snake a deadly blow on its head. The next second it was dead. King David and his courtiers were mightily astonished at the wonderful wisdom of Solomon, whose fame soon spread throughout the land. The old man thanked the prince and the King for saving his life and went his way in peace.

(ed. Rodelheim, f. 43b).
See also Tanchuma
(ed. Buber, Introduction, p. 78b).

  1. See Deut. xix. 17.