Canes and Coins

The first part of this post is an elaboration of this אישים ושיטות post.

From Don Quixote:

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.1

The Talmudic version of the story:

משנה נדרי הבאי אמר קונם אם לא ראיתי בדרך הזה כעולי מצרים אם לא ראיתי נחש כקורת בית הבד:

גמרא … א”ל רבינא לרב אשי ודלמא האי גברא קינא דשומשמני חזא ואסיק להון שמא עולי מצרים ושפיר משתבע

א”ל כי משתבע אדעתא דידן משתבע ואנן לא מסקינן נפשין אשומשמני

ועל דעתא דנפשיה לא עביד איניש דמשתבע והתניא כשהן משביעין אותו אומרים לו הוי יודע שלא על תנאי שבלבך אנו משביעין אותך אלא על דעתינו ועל דעת בית דין

לאפוקי מאי לאו לאפוקי דאסיק להו לאיסקונדרי ואסיק להון שמא זוזי ומדקאמר על דעתינו מכלל דעביד אינש דמשתבע אדעתא דנפשיה

לא לאפוקי מקניא דרבא דההוא גברא דהוה מסיק בחבריה זוזי אתא לקמיה דרבא א”ל ללוה זיל פרע לי א”ל פרעתיך א”ל רבא א”כ זיל אישתבע ליה דפרעתיה אזל ואייתי קניא ויהיב זוזי בגויה והוה מסתמיך ואזיל ואתי עליה לבי דינא אמר ליה למלוה נקוט האי קניא בידך נסב ס”ת ואישתבע דפרעיה כל מה דהוה ליה בידיה ההוא מלוה רגז ותברה לההוא קניא ואישתפך הנהו זוזי לארעא ואישתכח דקושטא אישתבע2

Jacobus de Varagine’s version, from his Legenda Aurea:

There was a man that had borrowed of a Jew a sum of money, and sware upon the altar of St. Nicholas that he would render and pay it again as soon as he might, and gave none other pledge. And this man held this money so long, that the Jew demanded and asked his money, and he said that he had paid him.

Then the Jew made him to come tofore the law in judgment, and the oath was given to the debtor. And he brought with him an hollow staff, in which he had put the money in gold, and he leant upon the staff. And when he should make his oath and swear, he delivered his staff to the Jew to keep and hold whilst he should swear, and then sware that he had delivered to him more than he ought to him. And when he had made the oath, he demanded his staff again of the Jew, and he nothing knowing of his malice delivered it to him.

Then this deceiver went his way, and anon after, him list sore to sleep, and laid him in the way, and a cart with four wheels came with great force and slew him, and brake the staff with gold that it spread abroad. And when the Jew heard this, he came thither sore moved, and saw the fraud, and many said to him that he should take to him the gold; and he refused it, saying, But if he that was dead were not raised again to life by the merits of St. Nicholas, he would not receive it, and if he came again to life, he would receive baptism and become Christian. Then he that was dead arose, and the Jew was christened.3

The always interesting Haham José Faur, in an essay titled Don Quixote – Talmudist and Mucho Más:

The purpose of the present study is to examine a story in Don Quixote II, 45 together with a passage in the Talmud, B. Ned. 25a. It will be seen that both accounts are interrelated, shedding light on each other. In particular, that Cervantes, with virtuosi skill, has peppered the story with trivia and clues designed to simultaneously conceal his source and expand it.

Faur notes:

There are two different versions of the [Talmudic] story, the “standard” version found in all printed and manuscript editions and an “older” version known from citations. …

As Wolf2191 notes, Faur proceeds to argue that Cervantes’s understanding of the Gemara is actually superior to that of the Rishonim:

There are two serious difficulties with the Talmudic version. Both are resolved in Cervantes’ account.

According to the Talmud, the debtor seems to have said under oath that [i] he had paid the creditor, [ii] in full. Concerning the first point, many Talmudists, among them the celebrated R. Solomon ibn Adrete (ca. 1235-1310) raised a powerful objection. The most fundamental aspect of “payment” (par‛e) – the term used by the debtor in his oath – is delivery of money in fulfillment of an obligation. This presupposes notice of the fact to be communicated by the debtor to the creditor. Unable to meet this objection, he amended the text.

The objection is based on a misreading corrected by Cervantes. The commentators assumed that the term “in his hand” in the oath (“paid him [par‛e] all that he has in his hand”) refers to the hand of the debtor. In Hebrew, the manifest tenor of such an expression would be “that he (the debtor paid) whatever he (the debtor) owed the creditor.” This being an obvious lie. Such a reading is, in my view, mistaken. The correct reading of “in his hand” is, as proposed by Cervantes, in the hand of the creditor – not of the debtor! Thus the debtor was swearing that “he had returned (vuelto) them (the ten crowns) from his own hand to his” – to the creditor’s hand! (de su mano a la suya). A further note will confirm the wisdom of Cervantes’ reading. Primarily, the Hebrew root PR‘, from where the term de-par‘e stems, means “to leave,” “to abandon.” Accordingly, the idiomatic sense of “leaving” money in the hand of the creditor is “to requite,” “to replace,” Spanish “volver” – as proposed by Cervantes, rather than “to pay” as understood by the commentators.

Indeed, the commentators’ error best illustrates the uncanny ability of the debtor and the problem that the Talmudic sages tried to solve. The Talmud cites the story to explain the purpose of a Rabbinic statute, instituting a special formula before administering an oath. The purpose of the formula is to apprise the deponent that the terms of the oath are in accordance to the “mind of the court,” rather than the mind of the deponent. The formula reads: “You are forewarned that we are administering this oath not according to your mental reservations but according to our mind and the mind of the Court.” That means that the terms of the oath are to be understood according to the semantic field of the cleric administering the oath (“our mind”) and that of “the court.” Without this formula the deponent could argue that the terms of the oath were according to his own particular understanding, like the defendant of our story. The Talmudic commentators fell into the debtor’s trap! They: understood par‘e in the latter, Rabbinic sense of “paid,” precisely as the debtor wanted them to understand: that he had fully satisfied his obligation to the payee. In case he would be caught, then he would claim that he meant to say that he had left his own money in the hand of the payee: he thus would be a cheat, but not a per- jurer. Since the Spanish pagado cannot be subjected to the semantic manipulations of par‘e, Cervantes makes the debtor say that he “will also swear that I paid him (pagado) back, really and truly.” However, at the time of the oath, the master conniver skips the incriminating words, and says: “that he had returned them from his own hand to his” – but not that he had pagado the loan!

To charge someone with perjury, one would need to prove that the statement under oath was categorically false. The story of the Talmud unfolds without the statute instituting the reading of the special formula. (For the reason, see below, VII). It wants to show the need for such a statute to be able to charge the liar with perjury. Otherwise, although guilty of lying and deception, as the deponent in our story, he could not be charged with perjury. Remarkably, in neither the Talmud nor Cervantes, is the debtor charged with perjury – a most grievous offense in both Rabbinic and Christian law. (See below, VIII)


The second difficulty concerns the administration of the oath. In both the Talmud and Cervantes, handing over the reed is related to the administration of the oath. Generally, Rabbinic law requires the deponent to hold a Scroll of the Torah as he swears. That is why in our story the accused handed the reed to the plaintiff, to free his hands and be able to hold the Torah. There is an exception to this rule. In a case in which the plaintiff offers no evidence through the testimony of a witness, and the accused denies any pending obligation, the law requires the defendant to take an oath (she- bu‘at heset). This oath, however, does not require holding the Scroll of the Torah! Thus, an essential element of the story vanishes. Once there is no need to hand over the reed, the plot collapses.

In Cervantes’s account, instead of the Torah, the deponent touches the cross at the head of the Governor’s staff: Casually, Cervantes remarks that the accused handed over the reed “while he took the oath, as if he was embarrassed by it.” Why this should be embarrassing?

There is an older account of the Talmud, preserved in quotations from early sources. According to this account the oath was pronounced not while holding the Scroll of the Torah but while touching a

chain on which the Holy Name (i.e., the Tetragrammaton) was engraved. [It was believed that] whoever would swear falsely would not be able to stretch his hand and touch the head of the chain. “When that man (the debtor) was about to swear to the plaintiff he told him:

“Come! I will show you that I am swearing the truth.” Then he went and stretched his hand and touched the head of the chain. In anger, the other (the plaintiff) broke the reed, and the money fell down. . . .

It follows that the story was dealing with an extra judicial oath taken: in a judicial proceeding without requirement of the law. This is why the: above mentioned formula forewarning the deponent was not recited. This account coincides with Cervantes in an essential point: the accused volunteers to take the oath! In both accounts the defendant touches the head of a venerated object. Accordingly, the reason that the deponent handed over the reed to the plaintiff was not to hold the Scroll of the Torah as in the standard text of the Talmud but to show deference for the sacred object. In Rabbinic etiquette, holding a cane is regarded as mundane and implies lack of reverence. Exactly, as explained by Cervantes “as if he was embarrassed by it I (como si lo embarazara mucho),” in the sense of respect and humility. Naturally, Cervantes transformed a Jewish sacred object into a cross. The change may not have been totally arbitrary. In the Jewish text the chain is designated “shoshelita.” Jews holding Christological ideologies (and there were plenty of these among conversos) probably read it as “sheloshita,” as if referring to the Christian Trinity. Probably this was the reason for suppressing the early account and substituting it with a version that, although legally confusing, was theologically less problematic.4

We have recently discussed Ibn Ezra’s deviations from Talmudic Halachah and exegesis (I, II). A passage in Ibn Ezra’s commentary on last weeks Parshah may be another example of such a deviation, since it seems to contradict the above-mentioned Gemara and a cognate Sugya:

משנה איזו היא שבועת שוא נשבע לשנות את הידוע לאדם אמר על העמוד של אבן שהוא של זהב ועל האיש שהוא אשה ועל האשה שהיא איש נשבע על דבר שאי אפשר לו אם לא ראיתי גמל שפורח באויר ואם לא ראיתי נחש כקורת בית הבד …

גמרא … אמר ליה רבינא לרב אשי ודלמא האי גברא ציפורא רבא חזי ואסיק ליה שמא גמלא

וכי קא משתבע אדעתיה דידיה אישתבע וכי תימא בתר פומיה אזלינן ולא אזלינן בתר דעתיה והא תניא כשמשביעין אותו אומרים לו הוי יודע שלא על דעתך אנו משביעין אותך אלא על דעתנו ועל דעת ב”ד מאי טעמא לאו משום דאמרינן דלמא איסקונדרי יהיב ליה ואסיק להו זוזי דכי קא משתבע אדעתיה דידיה קא משתבע

לא התם משום קניא דרבא

ת”ש וכן מצינו כשהשביע משה את ישראל אמר להן דעו שלא על דעתכם אני משביע אתכם אלא על דעת המקום ועל דעתי ואמאי לימא להו קיימו מאי דאמר אלוק

לאו משום דמסקי אדעתייהו <עבודת כוכבים> {עבודה זרה} לא משום <דעבודת כוכבים> {דעבודה זרה} נמי איקרי אלוק דכתיב (שמות כ) אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב

ולימא להו קיימו תורה חדא תורה

ולימא קיימו שתי תורות תורת חטאת תורת אשם

קיימו כל התורה כולה <עבודת כוכבים> {עבודה זרה} דאמר מר חמורה <עבודת כוכבים> {עבודה זרה} שכל הכופר בה כמודה בכל התורה כולה

ולימא להו קיימו מצוה חדא מצוה

קיימו מצות תרתי

כל המצות כולן מצות ציצית דאמר מר שקולה מצות ציצית כנגד כל המצות כולן

ולימא להו קיימו שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות ולטעמיך לימא להו על דעתי על דעת המקום למה לי אלא כי היכי דלא תהוי הפרה לשבועתייהו:5

We see that the Gemara is unsure whether, in the absence of a stipulation that

הוי יודע שלא על דעתך אנו משביעין אותך אלא על דעתנו ועל דעת ב”ד

a person may use the term זוזי and (legitimately) mean אסקונדרי, but that a reference to עבודה זרה as אלוה is definitely possible, since the Scriptures itself use the word in that sense, and that an oath is certainly considered truthful in a situation of קניא דרבא.

Ibn Ezra, however, seems to disagree; the context is a lengthy analysis, considering various explanations of how Aharon Ha’Cohen could have possibly participated in the affair of the Golder Calf, and yet retained his favor with Moshe and God. One of the approaches (adopted by “many”) rejected by Ibn Ezra is to parse Aharon’s statements in such a way that he did not really mean what he seems to have meant:

גם אומרים רבים:

כי פירוש חג לה’ מחר שהעובדים העגל יהיו נהרגים על יד משה. כי אין משמע דברו רק אחר שבנה המזבח לפני העגל, ציווה להכריז במחנה שישחטו מחר במזבח שבנה. כמו: אסרו חג בעבותים. וכן עשו: וישכימו ממחרת ויעלו עולות.

ומחשבות הלב אינם מועילות, כי הנוקב את השם על פי דבורו יהרג. וככה האומר: נלכה ונעבדה אלוהים אחרים. והמפרש: אנכי עשו בכורך, אנכי מה שאנכי, אבל עשו הוא בכורך אינו פשט ולא יצא מחכמת הדבור.

ואם ישאל אדם בב”ד את חברו האתה הוא חבירי שהלויתי לך כך וכך?

ואמר: אני, לא יוכל לומר מחשבתי הייתה, שאני חברו לא יותר.

גם ככה דברי דניאל לנבוכדנאצר: מרי חלמא לשנאך דרך מוסר.6

Ibn Ezra asserts, apparently as self-evident, that a מגדף and a מסית cannot claim in their defense that they did not mean what they said – but if the Jews could have sworn that they would obey אלוק, and then claim that they had really meant עבודה זרה, why cannot the מסית and מגדף enter similar pleas? Similarly, if a man can claim that when he said זוזי, he really meant אסקונדרי, why can he not argue that when he said אני, he meant merely to concede the friendship, not the loan?

  1. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (trans. John Ormsby), II:XLV – link. []
  2. בבלי נדרים כד: – כה. – קשר []
  3. Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (trans. William Caxton), – link. []
  4. José Faur, Don Quixote – Talmudist and Mucho Máslink, pp. 6-12. []
  5. שבועות כט. – : – קשר []
  6. פירוש אבן עזרא, שמות לב:א – קשר []

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