Teaching Tales from the Sufi & Hasidic Traditions
by Michael Berman

Teaching Tales have a long and honoured history for being a way to entertain and, at the same time, educate people. The earliest examples were probably chants or songs of praise for the natural world in pagan times. And since stories first began being told, one of the methods of passing on a culture’s teaching has involved a student sitting at his teachers feet and listening to the tales that teacher had to tell of times and people gone by. The stories of early India, the Greek fables, Taoist, Zen, Sufi and Hasidic tales are all examples of trying to pass on not just a cultural tale but a valuable lesson as well.

The author and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello tells of a master who always gave his teachings in parables and stories, much to the frustration of his disciples who wanted straightforward answers to their questions.  To their objections the master would answer, “You have yet to understand my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”  

Wisdom tales can remind us of higher goals, and provide the inspiration to practise what we know on a daily basis.  Spiritual and cultural traditions the world round have provided tales of how others have danced and stumbled along life's path for this very purpose.  Stories offer us doorways into new ways of seeing and being in the world. The secret is that the story door opens inward.  When we draw the stories deeply into our imaginations, and make connections from them to our own lives, they become a part of us, like a wise advisor ready to remind us of another way of seeing and responding to life.  The shortest tales are especially good for this purpose as they are easily learned and shared spontaneously.  It is not always possible to take the time to spin out an elaborate yarn to make a point and we are often called to offer stories in non-performance settings - responding to an immediate issue - with friends, or family or colleagues. 

Author, and storyteller Clarrissa Pinkola Estes, described the phenomenon of story living in our psyches as “medicine” that serves us when we need it.  This can happen just by hearing a tale.  But for a story to be readily available to us, we often must help it to sink in, so that its imagery makes connections in our hearts, memories and imaginations, allowing new learning to arise.

Anthony de Mello (1986) suggests in the introduction to his collection One-Minute Wisdom, that we, “Take one story at a time.”  Perhaps it would be a good idea to take his advice one step further and to read not more than one story per week.  The hunger for the good story, and for spiritual inspiration, often drives us to plough through story collections like children in a sweetshop.  We read one after the other, tasting the unique flavour of each, enough to say, “Mmm, I like that one, or so-so,” often bypassing altogether those that have already been tried.  This way of tasting stories is like reading a description of the story on its door, rather than opening the door to be deeply touched by the tale.  This is the way of our consumerist culture, but stories call us to be with them in a more time-honoured way.

The tales presented here are examples from the Hasidic tradition and the first three all have something to do with water. Sometimes a stretch of water can act as a barrier or a source of division, especially when the people involved in the matter have tunnel vision and walk around wearing blinkers over their eyes! Khelm in Yiddish folklore is the equivalent of Gotham in British tales – the place where stupid people are supposed to live:

A Bridge In Khelm

A river flowed right through the middle of Khelm. It occurred to several merchants that a bridge over it would be good for business on both sides of the river. But some of the younger people objected. They said: “Of course it would be nice to build a bridge, but let’s not do it because it would be good for business; we should build it solely for aesthetic reasons. We’d be glad to contribute towards the cost for beauty’s sake, but we won’t give a penny for the sake of trade.” Still others, even younger people, said, “A bridge! That’s a good idea, but not for the sake of trade or beauty but to have some place to stroll back and forth. We’d be glad to contribute money to build a bridge for strolling, but not for any other reason.” And so the three groups began to quarrel, and they are quarreling still. And to the present day Khelm still does not have a bridge.

Water Would't Hurt 

An exhausted disciple came running to his Holy Man. “Teacher, help. Take pity. My house is burning.”

The Holy Man calmed his disciple. Then, fetching his staff from a corner of the room, he said, “Here, take my staff. Run back to your house. Draw circles around it with my staff, each circle some seven handbreadths from the other. At the seventh circle, step back seven handbreadths, then lay my staff down at the east end of the fire.”

The disciple hurriedly noted the instructions down, grabbed the staff and started off. “Listen,” the Holy Man called after him, “on second thoughts, it wouldn’t hurt also to pour on water. Yes, in God’s name, pour on water. As much water as you bloody well can!”

Blood and Water

Once upon a time there was a King who went to a river to bathe. When he came to its bank, he saw that half of the stream was water but the other half was blood. And there was a man in the middle trying to cross over from the blood to the water.

The King was puzzled by this so he called together all the priests, rabbis, and other holy folk to ask them what it meant. But none of them could see anything in the river but water and they could only come to the conclusion that the King was seeing things and that perhaps he was suffering from stress.

But the King was not convinced. So he sent for the greatest rabbi in the city, and this rabbi saw exactly what the King had seen. And this was his interpretation:

“Half of the river is the blood that has been spilled,” said the rabbi, “And the other half is the tears that Jews have wept.” The man in the middle is your father, who is trying to cross from hell into paradise. But to do this he must wade out of the Jewish blood he has shed, and the river will not let him.”

The next two tales feature elflike creatures from Yiddish folklore – the shretele and the kapelyushniklekh. For magic to work, faith in the process is required. This seems to be a quality we come into the world with but it somehow gets lost along the way. The great-grandfather of the narrator in the following tale had clearly lost his. But what about you?


The Passover Elf Helps Great-Grandmother

One Saturday evening in fall, after the holidays, my great-grandmother was standing beside the stove rendering down goose fat. She was all alone in the kitchen; the house was hushed and still. Suddenly in the chimney corner, she saw a tiny hand stretched out, palm up, as if it were asking for something. She felt terribly frightened but forced herself to remain calm while she put a piece of crackling into the little hand. The she started to pour the rendered fat from the frying pan into containers. But no matter how often she poured from the pan, it stayed full. She poured and poured until every vessel in the house was brimming with fat. Every pot, every pitcher, every tub. And the fat continued to flow as from a spring.

About midnight my great-grandfather woke up and saw that the kitchen was brightly lighted and his wife was still standing at the stove. He got out of bed and said irritably, “Why are you fussing with that fat at this hour? It’s almost dawn.”

“Well,” said my great-grandmother, “there went that. Too bad. Our household was being blessed: we had an elf, a shretele, in the house, and now you’ve chased it away.”

Instead of being victims, we can take responsibility for what happens to us. The question that forms the title of the next tale could be replaced by the following: “Who’s in control of your life?”

Who's Milking The Cows?

There was a dairyman who had several cows that gave a great deal of milk. When they suddenly went dry, he realized that someone must be milking them. He watched them carefully all day but saw no one, yet when he tried to milk them the next morning, he couldn’t get even a glassful from them. That night at nine o’ clock, the man went into the cow barn. He lighted a candle and set it under a great barrel, hid himself in a corner, and settled down for the night. At two in the morning he heard footsteps; then a tiny man and a tiny woman came into the barn. They both wore little caps, and the woman’s hair was braided and tied with pretty ribbons. He watched as they seated themselves on milking stools, set buckets under the cows, and started in to milk. At that the man upended the barrel, and when his candle lit up the barn the kapelyushniklekh, the little cap-wearers, started running. The male got away, but the dairyman was able to catch the female, and he beat her severely. She pleaded with him, saying, “If you spare my life we’ll never come back, and your cows will give you double the amount of milk they used to.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Now for some examples from the Sufi tradition. For many of us life is spent searching for something that we never seem able to find. The reason for this can perhaps be found in the following tale:

The Key

A drunk is searching the ground under a street lamp. A friend sees him there and asks him what he is doing. The drunk slurs, "I'm looking for my key." The friend helps him search everywhere. Half an hour later they still have not found the key. The friend asks, "Are you sure you lost it here?" "No," replies the drunk, "I lost it inside my house." "Then why are you looking here?" "Because the light is here."


Some of us develop the art of lying to such an extent that we eventually end up not only deceiving others but ourselves as well. That’s perhaps what the following tale is all about:

Free Bread

The Mullah's wife sent him to buy some bread. When the Mullah arrived at the bread shop he saw a long line waiting to buy bread. He thought he would do something to get in front of the line. He shouted, "People, don't you know the Sultan's daughter is getting married tonight and he is giving away free bread?" The multitude ran toward the palace as the Sultan was generous to a fault and loved his daughter more than anyone. The Mullah was now in front of the line and was about to buy his bread when he thought to himself, "Mullah, you are truly a fool. All the citizen's are getting free bread tonight and I am about to pay for it. So he ran to the palace and when he got there was thoroughly beaten by the disappointed people.  

They say that God works in mysterious ways and the following tale reinforces that message:

Who knows

Many years ago a wise peasant lived in China. He had a son who was the gleam in his eyes and a white stallion that was his favourite belonging. One day his horse escaped from his grounds and disappeared into the fields outside the village. The villagers came to him one by one and announced their condolences. They said, "You are such an unlucky man. It is so bad." The peasant answered, "Who knows. Maybe it's bad, maybe it's good." The populous left. The next day the stallion returned followed by twelve wild horses. The same people returned and told our wise man about how lucky he was. "It's so good." He replied once more, "Who knows. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad." As it happens, the next day his one and only son was attempting to break in one of the wild horses when the horse fell down and broke his leg. Once more everyone came to condole him. They said, "It's so bad." Again he replied, "Who knows. Maybe it's bad, maybe it's good." Three days passed and his poor son was limping around the village with his broken leg, when the emperor's army entered the village announcing that a war was starting and they conscripted all the young men of the village. However, they left the son since he had a broken leg. Once more, everyone was so jealous of our man. They surrounded him talking about his amazing luck. "It is so good for you," they said. He answered all thus, "Who knows. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad."

Nasrudin Hodja is perhaps Islam's best-known trickster. His legendary wit and trickery were possibly based on the exploits and words of a historical imam. Nasrudin was reputedly born in 1208 in the village of Horto near Sivrihisar. In 1237 he moved to Aksehir, where he died in the Islamic year 683 (1284 or 1285). As many as 350 anecdotes have been attributed to the Hodja, as he is called. Hodja is a title meaning teacher or scholar.

An element of truth can be found in every assertion ever made so nothing should ever be dismissed out of hand. The following Nasrudin tale can be used to illustrate this:

Everyone Is Right

Once when Nasrudin Hodja was serving as a magistrate, one of his neighbours came to him with a complaint against a fellow neighbour.

Nasrudin listened to the charges carefully, then concluded, "Yes, dear neighbour, you’re quite right." Then the other neighbour came to him. The magistrate listened to his defence carefully, then concluded, "Yes, dear neighbour, you’re quite right." Nasrudin's wife, having listened in on the entire proceedings, said to him, "Husband, both men cannot be right." The magistrate answered, "Yes, dear wife, you’re quite right."

One of my problems is that I can never remember the names of people I don’t like, which is probably why the next tale appeals to me:

The Wife's Name

Nasrudin Hodja and a friend were discussing their wives, when it occurred to the friend that Nasrudin had never mentioned his wife's name. "What is your wife's name?" he asked. "I do not know her name," admitted the Hodja. "What?" asked the friend in disbelief. "How long have you been married?" "Twenty years," answered the Hodja, then added, "At first I did not think that the marriage would last, so I did not take the effort to learn my bride's name."

Fine theories are all very well but they are not going to sustain you in the way that food and drink will. Our survival ultimately depends on more practical considerations as can be seen from the following tale that concludes this section:

The Recipe

The Hodja purchased a piece of meat at the market, and on his way home he met a friend. Seeing the Hodja's purchase, the friend told him an excellent recipe for stew. "I'll forget it for sure," said the Hodja. "Write it on a piece of paper for me." The friend obliged him, and the Hodja continued on his way, the piece of meat in one hand and the recipe in the other. He had not walked far when suddenly a large hawk swooped down from the sky, snatched the meat, and flew away with it. "It will do you no good!" shouted the Hodja after the disappearing hawk. "I still have the recipe!"


Michael Berman BA, MPhil, PhD (Alternative Medicines) works part-time as a teacher at Oxford House College in London. Publications include A MultipleIntelligences Road to an ELT Classroom and The Power of Metaphor for Crown House Publishing, and The Nature of Shamanism for Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Books due to be published in 2008 include Soul Loss and the Shamanic Story by Cambridge Scholars Publishing and a resource book on Storytelling by Kestrel. Michael has been involved in TESOL for thirty five years and has given presentations at Conferences in more than twenty countries. Contact: Michaelberman@blueyonder.co.uk Website:

To the original article

To the articles index

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us — Online Development Courses — Lesson Plan Index 
Phonology —  English-To-Go Lesson  Articles Books
 Links —  Contact — Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2014© Developing Teachers.com