The Tales They Tell: Sufi and Hasidic Teaching Tales

Sufi 2003
Sufi Magazine, London, England, Autumn 2003

The staccato sound in this particular story of Muslims and Jews is not, for once, that of gunfire. Here, the clickity-clack echoing off of stone walls and down narrow alleyways in Middle Eastern medinas, or market areas, is the sound of footfalls - Jewish footfalls - making their way steadfastly to take tea with a Muslim neighbor.

Although the quiet sound of friendly footsteps has not been heard between these two Biblical cousins for many, many generations, there was a time when Jewish and Muslim mystics passed easily back and forth amongst themselves, reading each others' texts, sharing spiritual teachers and even studying Arabic grammar together.

While today one would hardly suspect that Jews and Muslims could sit across from each other for anything more than another round of tense negotiations, there was a time when yarmulkes were sprinkled in>Isra'li'yut, or Jewish teaching stories from the Talmud and earlier. It was during this period, from about 1100-1600 C.E. in cities like Damascus, Jerusalem and Baghdad that Sufi mystical tales were woven into the Jewish mystical quilt - and became important resources for generations of Jews spreading the word of a pious Jewish life!

One of the most important manners in which Sufi masters taught their students, including Jews, the spiritual pathway to God was through teaching tales. Aphorisms, vignettes and longer stories expressed the wordless underpinnings of the Sufi mystical system in a style that resembled the Zen koan. These teaching tales served as an important mechanism for the sheikh to illustrate his wisdom in a manner that was both provocative and approachable.

Early medieval Jewish mystics, struggling with the complacent, spiritually calcified Judaism of their day, turned to the Sufis for inspiration. At the turn of the first millennium, nearly 90% of the world's Jewry lived under Muslim rule, and Jews read and wrote in Arabic, worked hand in hand with Muslims and even studied the Koran in the madrassas, or schools of the day. Once they became introduced to the great Sufi thinkers, many mystically inclined Jewish thinkers appreciated the deep piety of their spiritual cousins and voraciously ingested their ideas.

Hearing and reading the stories from Sufi masters, the medieval Jewish mystics were impressed with the messages and the clear manner of telling them. Ultimately, these Jewish spiritualists, agreeing with so much of what their spiritual cousins were teaching, "borrowed" many of the teaching tales, wrapping them into their own interpretations of Jewish mysticism and passing them along to their Jewish followers under the guise of having been told originally about Jews!

There are many, many incidents of influence and, indeed, outright copying, but I will outline just a few to give some idea of the breadth of the Sufic digestion by Jewish mystics. For instance, in a particularly striking case of plagiarism from Sufi sources, the 16th century Jewish Kabbalist Hayyim Vital relates a story concerning humility that was copied almost verbatim from a tale told by the 11th century Sufi al-Ghazali. In fact, Vital thought so highly of the Sufis that he studied Arabic just so he would be able to converse with them in their own language! [1] The teaching tale as told by Vital goes like this:

The story is told of a man who fasted most of his days, and who did many righteous deeds and married off several orphans, but who pursued honor. And he came to those who practice prayer meditation [i.e., the Sufis], who had reached the level of prophecy, and said to the greatest among them: 'Sir, in your kindness let me know the reason why it is that, after I have performed all these good deeds, that I have not yet merited the level of prophecy, to tell the future as you do?'

He answered him: 'Take a purse full of figs and nuts and hang it around your neck, and go to the main street of the city before the great and honorable people, and gather together some youths and say: 'Do you wish that I should give you figs and nuts? Then hit me with your hand on my neck and on my cheek.' And after you have done this many times return to me, and I will guide you in the way of prophecy.'

He replied: 'Sir, how can an honorable man such as myself do such a thing?'

He answered: 'Is this a great thing in your eyes? This is naught but the lightest task that you must perform if you wish that your soul see the light of truth.'

Then he stood up and left with downcast soul. [2]

The Sufi tale told by al-Ghazali (living a good 400 years before Hayyim Vital) goes like this:

One day a man came to the teacher Bayazid and said, 'I have fasted and prayed for thirty years and have found none of the spiritual joy of which you speak.'

'If you fasted and prayed for three hundred years, you would never find it,' answered the sage.

'How is that?' asked the man.

'Your selfishness is acting as a veil between you and God.'

'Tell me the cure.'

'It is a cure you cannot carry out,' said Bayazid.

Those around him pressed him pressed him to reveal it. After a time he spoke: 'Go to the nearest barbershop and have your head shaved; strip yourself of your clothes except for a loincloth. Take a nosebag full of walnuts, hang it around your neck. Go into the market and cry out - 'Anybody who gives me a slap on the neck shall have a walnut.' Then proceed to the law courts and do the same thing.'

'I can't do that,' said the man. 'Suggest some other remedy.'

'This is the indispensable preliminary to the cure,' answered Bayazid. 'But as I told you, you are incurable.' [3]

It is important to note that the ideas contained in al Ghazali's tale, those of complete humility and, more importantly, equanimity, were age-old for Sufis, but new to the Jewish mystical realm. This story is advocating the Sufi ideal of hishtawwut (equanimity), or complete indifference to the perceptions of others. For Sufis, the attainment of disinterest in what other people thought of oneself became an important rung on the ladder of spiritual attainment. After Kabbalists like Vital wrapped the teaching into Jewish mysticism, this idea began to show up regularly in Jewish mystical teachings - becoming central to the 18th century Jewish mystic and founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov.

Other Sufi tales became so identified with Jewish mysticism that they ended by being attributed to Hasidic mentors, hundreds of years after they were originally swept up into the Jewish mystical stream by medieval rabbis. A tale is told about the 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Elimelech ("melech" means "king" in Hebrew) that clearly originated with an earlier Sufi source. The Hasidic version goes like this:

Rabbi Gabriel, a disciple of Rabbi Elimelech's, once went to visit his master in a carriage he had rented from a man of uncouth bearing who - to his annoyance - insisted on telling him course and improper jokes during the entire drive. When they came to the Rabbi's house, Elimelech ran towards the coachman, greeted him with great happiness, and scarcely noticed Rabbi Gabriel. On the way back, Gabriel wanted to perform services for the man who had been treated with such respect, but was rejected with a curt phrase.

A few months later, Rabbi Gabriel went to the city and there saw the coachman talking to a mason. He followed the two men to their inn, unobserved, and heard one say to the other: "At Melech's you hear a bit of truth, but nowhere else." And the other repeated: "At Melech's you hear a bit of truth!" Then they happened to see the Rabbi in the corner and shouted at him, "Get out! What are you doing among common folks?!" And there was nothing for it; the Rabbi had to go. [4]

The Sufi version, which was told some 700 hundred years prior about Abdul Qadir, a Sufi sheikh who was also known as the "king:"

Such was the repute of Abdul Qadir that mystics of all persuasions used to throng to his reception hall, and the utmost decorum and consideration for traditional manners uniformly prevailed. These pious men arranged themselves in order of precedence -- yet they vied with one another for the attention of the Sultan of the Teachers, Abdul Qadir.

His manners were impeccable, and nobody of low intelligence or lack of training was seen at these assemblies.

One day, however, the three sheiks of Khorasan, Iraq and Egypt came to the Dargah, guided by three illiterate muleteers. Their journey from Mecca, where they had been on a pilgrimage, had been plagued by the inelegance and caperings of these men. When they saw the assembly of the Sheikh, they were made as happy to think of their release from their companions as they were by the desire to glimpse the Great Sheikh.

Contrary to the usual practice, the Sheikh came out to meet them. No sign passed between him and the muleteers. Later that night, however, finding their way to their quarters, the three sheikhs glimpsed by accident Qadir saying goodnight to the muleteers. As they respectfully left his room, he kissed their hands. The sheikhs were astonished and realized that these three, not they, were the hidden sheikhs of the dervishes. They followed the muleteers and tried to start a conversation. But the chief muleteer only said: "get back to your prayers and mumblings, sheikhs, with your Sufism and your search for truth which has plagued us during 36 days' travel. We are simple muleteers and want nothing of that." [5]

This tale presents another Sufi idea that was unknown in earlier Jewish mysticism, but became central to Hasidism. The belief in hidden saints is of primary importance to the Sufis - indeed, many Sufis believe that the spiritual health of the world is dependent on these veiled adepts. For Jews, though, the concept was new - though it later took on an important role for Hasidism.

Obviously, the exact topology of this tale of hidden saints changed from the earlier Sufi version to the Jewish version many hundreds of years later, but the meaning and even the symbols therein remained remarkably similar, considering the lag of 700 years between the telling about one "king" and the other. In both Sufism and Hasidism, the idea of a pure and hidden soul, unadulterated by the "mumblings and prayers" of the "righteous," is held in even higher esteem than the recognized adept. Obviously heretical to the established religious order, this tale helps explain why both Sufis and Hasids had trouble with the more traditional practitioners of their respective religions.

Another Hasidic teaching tale, told about the 19th century Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, shows clear signs of having been borrowed from the Sufis:

A fellow disciple, returning from Mezritch, came about midnight to Karlin, desiring to greet his friend Aaron. He at once went to Aaron's house and knocked on the lighted window.

"Who are you?" asked a voice from within and, certain that Rabbi Aaron would recognize his voice, the friend answered, "I."

No reply came, and the door was not opened, although he knocked again and again. At last he cried, "Aaron, why do you not open to me?" Then he heard from within, "Who is it that is so bold as to say, 'I,' as God alone may do?"

Then Aaron's friend said in his heart, "I have not yet learned my lesson," and returned immediately to his teacher. [6]

The same story, as told by the great 13th century Sufi saint Jalaluddin Rumi, which includes a little more explanation of the meaning, goes like this:

A man knocks at his friend's door. The friend asks, "Who is there?" He answers, "I." The friend sends him away. For a full year, the grief of separation burns within him, and then he comes and knocks again. To his friend's question, "Who is it?" he replies, "Thou." And at once the room is opened to him, wherein there is no space for two "I's," that of God (of the "friend") and that of the man. [7]

This story most probably did not originate with Rumi, but even earlier with the ecstatic Sufi al-Hallaj (d. 922 C.E.).

This tale introduces yet another new, more passionate idea into the Jewish mystical stream. The concept of a complete union with God, whereby the mystic's ego disappears entirely into the God consciousness, is unheard of in earlier Judaism and was even looked upon as potentially heretical, as it implies that man and God can become one. For the yearning Jewish mystic, however, this Sufi ideal offered a profound tonic - and the ideal of devequt (as it became known in Hebrew), or divine union with God through prayer, became central to the Kabbalah and Hasidism, via early Sufi practitioners.

These are just a very few examples of the streams of thought that flowed directly from the Sufis into Jewish mysticism over hundreds of years. There are dozens more of examples that show the clear influence of Sufi teachings, though the exact Sufic provenance has yet to be found. Often, the message in Sufi-influenced Jewish tales is clearly at odds with traditional Jewish religious law, though right in line with Sufi ideas.

The kind of cooperation and respect represented by these shared teaching tales and mystical ideas is virtually impossible to imagine these days, with relations between Muslims and Jews currently scarred and fractured. But in early medieval times, Jewish mystics studied with their Islamic compatriots and wrapped their stories into their own brand of spiritual practice. In this way, later Jews learned the teachings of Sufi masters. Ultimately, this mystical entanglement injected some of the more beautiful aspects of Islam into the core of Jewish mystical practice.



1. Treatise of the Pool (notes), Fenton, pg. 64

2. Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, Idel, pg. 147

3. Essential Sufism, Fadiman & Frager, pg. 175

4. Tales of the Hasidim, Buber, pg. 263

5. Tales of the Dervishes, Shah, pg. 178

6. Tales of the Hasidim, Buber, pg. 199

7. Hasidism, Buber, pg. 186



Buber, Martin
1948. Hasidism, Philosophical Library, New York, NY
1991. Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken Books, New York, NY

Fadiman, James & Frager, Robert
1997. Essential Sufism, HarperCollins, New York, NY

Idel, Moshe
1988. Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, SUNY New York Press, Albany, NY

Maimonides, Obadyah
1981 (with translation and introduction by Paul Fenton). Treatise of the Pool, Octagon Press, London

Shah, Idries
1993. Tales of the Dervishes, Arkana (Penguin Press), New York, NY