An Old Story Re-newed/Re-Jewed for Halloween: The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf

(This story has been adapted, shortened, and changed for re-telling. The original is from the Mayse-Bukh a collection of Yiddish folk tales published in 1602. A translation of the original story can be found in Joachim Neugroschel’s “Great Tales of Jewish Occult and Fantasy: The Dybbuk and 30 Other Classic Stories”.)

A true story:

Once a rabbi, as wise as he was rich, ran a Yeshiva attended by a hundred students. The rabbi performed many mitzvehs –  not only keeping Shabbes, holy days and kashrus. He paid for his Yeshiva student’s education and he gave tzedakah often to the poor. He was a righteous man.

His wife on the other hand, was not so good. She did not like all the poor students eating their food or giving money to those in need.

Oy! The day came when this rabbi lost all his wealth.

Unable to help his students or give tzedakah he became depressed. Perhaps he had committed some sin for God to deal with him this way?

Unable to help his students or give tzedakah he became embarrassed. So the rabbi came up with a plan to leave town, so no one would know of his shame.

Gathering his students together, the rabbi decided to tell them of his secret, that he was now poor and he felt the need to run away. “Who knows,” he told them, perhaps one day God will make me rich again and I can keep you all in a fine manner?”

The students listened to the rabbi but did not want to leave him. “Rabbi, wherever you go we will go,” they said. “And wherever you lodge we will lodge, what is ours is yours. We will get by.”

So the rabbi left town with his Yeshivah students. Now when the poor people of the town realized that the rabbi and his students had gone, they wondered: where would their next meal come from? But because he was a famous man of learning and great piety, no one was surprised that the rabbi had left home. They assumed he was travelling to some other Yeshiva to teach and study for a while.

The rabbi and his students roamed for years, and over time their clothes became tattered and their money ran out. They became beggars, people closed doors in their faces when they asked for help. Folk refused  to give vagabonds food and shelter.

The students, as much as they loved their rabbi and did not want to leave him, finally came to him and said: “Perhaps it is time for us to go home to our parents. Being this poor is really hard.”

The rabbi listened to them and suggested that they remain with him at least till Shabbes… for who knows, maybe God would create some miracle that would keep them together?

The students agreed.

That night as they camped in the forest, the rabbi went to a spring to wash his hands. He sighted a weasel dashing past with a golden ring in its mouth which it dropped into the spring when it drank. The rabbi bent down and picked up the golden ring, looked at it closely, and being wise and learned realized that it was engraved with a magic spell. He wondered about its magic and decided to make a wish. He wished for a purse filled with money… and avarah k’davar, it appeared before him!

The rabbi returned to his students with a smile and a cheer. “My friends, it occurs to me that a wealthy friend of mine lives not so far away from here. Let us visit him in the next town and perhaps he will loan us money.” The rabbi did not say a word to his students of the ring or his new fortune because he feared that one of them might take it.

At the next town, the rabbi bought all his students new clothes and fed them a fine meal. They thought nothing of their change in luck, thinking that the rabbi’s friend had loaned him some money. As they travelled through the countryside their comforts only increased, including a coach fit for a prince on which to ride. The rabbi announced he would pay each student back for all their loyalty and support as now it was time to go home.

The students, offered thanks for the loan from the rabbi’s friend and returned home to their Yeshiva with the rabbi.

They came back to find the townsfolk miserable and poor. But when the town saw the rabbi and the students had returned, shouts of joy filled the air. Such a warm welcome! And the rabbi began to act as he always had with generosity to all, tzedakah, mitzvehs and supporting students and much learning.

The rabbi’s wife however soon became suspicious. Where had all their fortune come from? The rabbi had left the town poor and come back wealthier than before. The rabbi spoke to her of God’s blessings, but she refused to believe that such fortune could “just happen”.

Eventually with much pushing, nagging, and cajoling, her husband told her the secret of the magic ring. But as soon as she knew the real source of their wealth, the rabbi’s wife began to plot…

She asked to see the ring, and when the rabbi refused, she cried out that he did not love her anymore.  When he still did not relent, so she put a flea in his ear till he gave her the ring to look at.

As soon as the ring was in her hand the rabbi’s wife made a wish: “I wish that God would turn my husband into a werewolf and let him run around in the forest with the wild beasts.”

That is how the rabbi became a werewolf running around deep in the woods.

He began to eat people in the forest. He attacked intruders. Everybody throughout the land was terrified to go there.

The townsfolk wondered where there rabbi had gone but thought as before, that perhaps he had gone traveling to study and teach insome far off Yeshiva. The town became miserable once more in the rabbi’s absence. The poor became poorer, and there was no-one to feed and house the students of Torah. But the rabbi’s wife, she seemed to get richer and richer, as she got herself everything she wanted.

The rabbi in the shape of a werewolf continued to invoke terror in everyone’s hearts, for there is no animal stronger than a werewolf. No one was willing to kill the werewolf who was stronger than iron and as smart as a human being.

Hearing this, the king of the land decided that the fear of the werewolf must end. He offered a reward of his daughter’s hand in marriage for one that could catch this terrifying creature. But no-one could catch the werewolf, despite the traps and plots and plans they had.

It just so happened, that a young man lived in the woods. He lived so isolated that he had not heard of the panic of the werewolf or the reward for the king’s daughter’s hand. In fact, he had made friends with the werewolf, tamed him and made him his companion. He fed the werewolf food. He talked to him like a pet. He loved to watch the werewolf’s tail wag with joy.

When the news finally reached the young man about the werewolf threat and the King’s daughter’s hand, he placed a rope around the werewolf’s neck and brought him to the palace.

As you can imagine, the king was terrified when the young man and the werewolf entered the palace because he had heard how the werewolf would rip people to shreds. But the young man assured him that the werewolf would harm nobody unless they tried to harm the creature.The young man was given the king’s daughter in marriage and he continued to look after the werewolf who was loyal to his master. When the king died, the young man and the king’s daughter ruled the land.

On a snowy winter’s day the new king, his companions, and the werewolf went out hunting. The werewolf seemed happy to be back in the woods, tail wagging he ran ahead, and in a clearing made some marks in the snow, marks that clearly were writing. The new king thought a miracle had been wrought, that his werewolf could write so clearly in the snow. It then occurred to him that perhaps his werewolf companion might be a bewitched human as such a thing had been known to have happened in the past.

One of the new king’s companions recognized the script as Hebrew and read the letter the werewolf wrote in the snow:

“Sire, remember our friendship. I could have overpowered you many times but I did not. I am, in fact, a human and my wife put a spell on me with a wishing ring. If I do not get the ring back very soon I will be a werewolf till the end of my days. I beg of you, please remember how loyal I have been and go to my wife and get this ring.”

The werewolf concluded his letter with a picture of the wishing ring he sought.

The new king immediately wanted to help his werewolf friend. He and his servants dressed as merchants and rode to the town the werewolf had directed them too. They pretended as merchants that they loved to buy old rings and jewelry. That nothing would be too expensive. The townsfolk told him they were poor, and the only person with such merchandise to sell was the rabbi’s wife who had many jewels and rings.

The townsfolk bought the disguised new king to the rabbi’s wife, who took out her many ribbons of rings and jewels tied together for the merchant to inspect, greedy at the prospect of even more money. There, amidst many rings, just as the werewolf had drawn, was the wishing ring.

The new king disguised as a merchant, looked at all the rings carefully, and thought a wish – that the wishing-ring be returned to his palace, and thus he stole the ring from under the rabbi’s wife’s very eyes without her knowing. It took her a while before she realized what had happened. Of course, she became miserable and grief stricken.

When the new king returned home he threw a banquet and called for his werewolf friend. The werewolf came in overjoyed to see his master, hopeful to receive his ring, his tail wagging and wagging. The new king took the ring from his bag and placed it by the werewolf’s paw. Had the new king known the true power of the ring he may not have given it up so readily.

Avarah K’Davar. The werewolf disappeared. And a naked man stood before them.

The new king called for clothes and then the naked man, the rabbi,  asked permission to return to his home for he had been gone for three to four years. The new king knowing how loyal the werewolf had been gave consent. The new king wanted to bestow gifts upon his werewolf rabbi friend, but the rabbi replied he had much wealth, which the new king had already witnessed at his home. All he needed was his ring. Of course if the new king had known the true secret of the ring, he might not have let the rabbi return home with it so easily.

The rabbi began his journey home, and on the way made a wish on his ring: “I wish that my wife, damn her soul, would turn into a donkey in my stable.”

When the rabbi returned home he received a hearty welcome from his students and the poor town folks, but alas, his wife was nowhere to be found. The rabbi looked confused about this fact but said, “Maybe she will return in the end.” All the while knowing his wife was now a donkey in his stable.

The rabbi returned to his life of deeds of tzedakah, supporting his students, helping the poor and doing many kind acts and mitzvehs. One Shabbes he announced that he would like to share his wealth even more with the community, and that he would build a beautiful shul. He gave a donkey from his own stable to the builders to haul the bricks. Of course that donkey was his wife!

The workmen worked the donkey hard. And the townsfolk always wondered where the rabbi’s wife had disappeared too?

When the shul was finally built, the rabbi provided a huge banquet, inviting the towns folk, his students and his wife’s relatives and telling them this improbable story of his life. Of course, they thought it was just a story.

Not long after that the rabbi passed away leaving his wealth to his children. The wishing-ring had vanished. And his wife remained a donkey as long as she lived.

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