King Solomon's Ring

Over at Biblicalia, Justin Anthony Knapp comments:

This reminds me of the old parable (told in countless variations) of Solomon searching his kingdom for an object which would make the happy sad and the sad happy. He found it with a ring that had inscribed on its band “This too shall pass.”

There certainly are many variations of this story, told by politicians, writers and Rabbis, from Pete Seeger to Farīd ud-Dīn (‘Attār) to the Ben Ish Hai. It is sometimes told about King Solomon, and sometimes about an anonymous, usually Middle Eastern, monarch. There is even a version by Anton Chekhov which (mis)identifies the monarch as King David1. The fable has been studied by folklorists, and Avi Solomon has published a fascinating compilation of more than a dozen versions.2

This is Abraham Lincoln’s version, and his response to it:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

And here’s Sir Walter Scott, in a letter to Lord Byron:

Your Lordship will probably recollect where the Oriental tale
occurs, of a Sultan who consulted Solomon on the proper inscription for a signet-ring, requiring that the maxim which it conveyed
should be at once proper for moderating the presumption of prosperity and tempering the pressure of adversity. The apophthegm
supplied by the Jewish sage was, I think, admirably adapted for
both purposes, being comprehended in the words, ‘ And this also
shall pass away.’3

Ironically, the most prominent Jewish source for the story cited by A. Solomon, Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, does not mention the names of the king or his “wise man” who brought him the ring, and indeed, gives no indication of their Jewishness:

ועל דרך הרמז יקח האדם מוסר משני טבולין אלו שאם הוא שרי בטובה אל יתגאה אלא יחשוב ההפך של הטובה שהם ימי הרעה וזה המוסר יקחהו מן הטבול הכרפס שהוא מתוק בחוץ הרומז ליום הרעה, ואם הוא שרוי ברעה וצרה על יתייאש מן הרחמים אלא יחשוב ויקוה ליום הטובה, וזה המוסר יקח מן המרור שהוא מר שמטבלו בחרוסת שהוא מתוק שנרמז בו ימי הטוב

והוא על דרך המעשה דמלך אחד אמר לחכם אחד שיביא לו דבר אחד אשר כשרואהו בעת צרה ישמח ויתנחם ואם יראהו בעת טובה יעצב, מה עשה החכם הביא לו טבעת אחת שכתוב עליה ג’ תיבות אלו “גם זה יעבור” ואז אם הוא בצרה יחשוב גם זה הרע יעבור שאינו מתמיד וישמח ויתנחם בזה, ואם הוא עומד בטובה כשיראה דברים אלו יצטער בהיותו יודע שאין הטובה ההיא מתמדת אצלו:4

Judging from A. Solomon’s collection of sources, it seems clear that our charming little fable is not an authentic Jewish tradition, but rather an Eastern one that somehow, relatively lately, acquired a Jewish face. I do not have access to the folklorists’ work on the subject, which might shed some light on exactly how and when this occurred.

I close this post with Robert Browning’s The Melon-Seller, from his Ferishtah’s Fancies. While its message is somewhat different (and to my mind, more authentically Jewish, and less Eastern) than that of the maxim we have been heretofore discussing, it is nevertheless an interesting, albeit little-known, poem, and Browning gets bonus points for incorporating a verse from Iyov, in the original Hebrew and in כתב אשורי to boot!

		Going his rounds one day in Ispahan,—
Half-way on Dervishhood, not wholly there,—
Ferishtah, as he crossed a certain bridge,
Came startled on a well-remembered face.
" Can it be ? What, turned melon-seller—thou ?
Clad in such sordid garb, thy seat yon step
Where dogs brush by thee and express contempt ?
Methinks, thy head-gear is some scooped-out gourd !
Nay, sunk to slicing up, for readier sale,
One fruit whereof the whole scarce feeds a swine ?
Wast thou the Shah's Prime Minister, men saw
Ride on his right-hand while a trumpet blew
And Persia hailed the Favorite ? Yea, twelve years
Are past, I judge, since that transcendency,
And thou didst peculate and art abased;
No less, twelve years since, thou didst hold in hand
Persia, couldst halve and quarter, mince its pulp
As pleased thee, and distribute—melon-like—
Portions to whoso played the parasite,
Or suck—thyself—each juicy morsel. How
Enormous thy abjection,—hell from heaven,
Made tenfold hell by contrast ! Whisper me !
Dost thou curse God for granting twelve years' bliss
Only to prove this day's the direr lot ? "
Whereon the beggar raised a brow, once more
Luminous and imperial, from the rags.
" Fool, does thy folly think my foolishness
Dwells rather on the fact that God appoints
A day of woe to the unworthy one,
Than that the unworthy one, by God's award,
Tasted joy twelve years long ? Or buy a slice,
Or go to school !"

                    To school Ferishtah went;
And, schooling ended, passed from Ispahan
To Nishapur, that Elburz looks above
—Where they dig turquoise : there kept school himself,
The melon-seller's speech, his stock in trade.
Some say a certain Jew adduced the word
Out of their book, it sounds so much the same,
את-הטוב נקבל מאת האלקים
ואת-הרע לא נקבל:  But great wits jump.

Wish no word unspoken, want no look away !
What if words were but mistake, and looks—too sudden,
say ! Be unjust for once, Love ! Bear it—well I may !
Do me justice always ? Bid my heart—their shrine—
Render back its store of gifts, old looks and words of thine
—Oh, so all unjust—the less deserved, the more divine ?

UPDATE: Andy reminds me of Professor Shnayer Z. Leiman’s reproduction of Judith Ish-Kishor’s version of the legend5, which Prof. Leiman characterizes as “a masterpiece of Jewish folklore”, which “remains unsurpassed as the consummate retelling of a Jewish legend that edifies even as it entertains.”

  1. My Life (The Story of A Provincial), Ch. XIX, available here. []
  2. I do not have access to the earlier work of Archer Taylor, Dov Noy and the other folklorists on the tale, so I do not know the extent of the originality of Solomon’s research. []
  3. Cited by J. G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., p. 90, available here. []
  4. עוד יוסף חי: הלכות, פרשת צו הלכה ט []
  5. Tradition 41:1 (2008) p. 71. []