Hats, Monkeys… and the Jews

Everybody knows and loves that good old children’s classic, Caps for Sale. In this ironic tale, the protagonist, a cap salesman who has the peculiar habit of wearing his wares in a towering pile on his head, takes a nap beneath a tree. When he awakes, he finds his hats missing and discovers that a band of monkeys hanging about the tree above him have all adorned themselves with his caps. He coaxes them to return them to him with a wave of his finger, his fists, and with stamping feet, but his attempts are only met with the monkeys mirroring and mimicking his every move. Finally, he angrily throws his hat to the floor in disgusted defeat, and of course, the monkeys do the same, and the man has his hats back. Caps for Sale was published in 1940, yet, I discovered, its plot is based on a tale quite a bit older.

The Talmud (Megilah 3A) relates that at times, a person may feel frightened although one is not aware of the source of one’s fright. At these times, the Talmud says, “while he does not see, his mazal does see,” i.e. one’s spiritual senses detect the presence of a spiritual danger. The Talmud then presents three solutions to ward off this spiritual threat. The first is to recite the Shema. These verses have a protective quality. However, if one cannot recite the Shema, for instance, if one is in a filthy place where words of Torah may not be spoken, one should instead leap four cubits (about 7 feet) in order to relocate oneself to a place of lesser or no danger. If one cannot change one’s location, for instance, if one is constrained, one should say, “The goat at the slaughterhouse is fatter than me,” thereby directing one’s predators to a more tempting target.

The entire passage begs for a tremendous degree of explanation, however, my purpose is just to share a section of one commentary which brought me great excitement when I discovered it.

Rabbi Yoseph Chayim of Baghdad (a.k.a. Ben Ish Chay), in his classic commentary to the aggadic portions of the Talmud, Ben Yehoyada, explains how leaping four cubits effectively averts the spiritual threat. He identifies the attackers here as “demons.” What exactly demons are in rabbinic ideology is a subject for another article, but leaving that issue aside, Rabbi Yoseph Chayim explains, that it is one of the methods of the evil inclination to imitate holiness. Evil is always more tempting when it takes on the guise of that which is lofty and good. Therefore, the demons, the minians of the Evil Inclination, are ‘programmed’ to mimic the actions of man, just as monkeys do in the physical realm, explains Rabbi Yoseph Chayim. Just as monkeys attempt to behave as their physically superior counterparts, human beings, so too do demons mimic people, their spiritual superiors. So if a man were to merely “walk away” from the demons, they would follow, but if a man were to jump with all his might, which leaping four cubits would require, the demons dogging him would likewise leap with all their might, but commensurate with their ability, they will jump much farther than the man, leaving them a great distance away from him. Once they have become “detached” from him in this way, they will no longer follow him and the threat will be no more.

Now, if all that were not enough, Rabbi Yoseph Chayim proceeds to demonstrate this explanation by way of a folktale:

“I heard people telling that a certain seaman performed such a stratagem to monkeys that wore the hats that were spread out on the shore before the boat, and through such a stratagem he took all the hats that the monkeys had taken, since the nature of monkeys is to do that which the man before them does, for they desire to be similar to men.”

And while Caps for Sale was published in 1940, the earliest edition of Ben Yehoyada of which I am aware was printed in 1904. And while it is acknowledged that Caps for Sale is based on a folktale that the author, Esphyr Slobodkina, heard from her sister, she never knew the origin of this folktale, nor has any research since (to my knowledge) by the Esphyr Slobodkina Foundation, yielded any more knowledge to this end. As for as I know, this passage in the Ben Yehoyada is the earliest known reference to this story and has to date eluded discovery by the Esphyr Slobodkina Foundation.

Well, I just think that’s really cool. Torah’s got everything, even “Caps for Sale”!

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