It was the idle hour of the mart, and the venders of Hester Street were
busy brushing away the flies. Mother Politsky had arranged her
patriarchal-looking fish for at least the twentieth time, and was
wondering whether it might not be better to take them home than to wait
another hour in the hope of a chance customer being attracted to her
stand. Suddenly a shadow fell across the fish. She looked up and beheld
a figure that looked for all the world as if it had just stepped out of
the pages of the Pentateuch. The venerable grey beard, the strong
aquiline nose, the grave blue eyes, and, above all, the air of
unutterable wisdom, completed a picture of one of Israel’s prophets.
“God be with the Herr Rabbi!” greeted Mother Politsky.
The rabbi poked a patriarchal finger into the fish, and grunted in
approbation of their firmness.
“Are they fresh?” he asked, giving no heed to her salutation.
“They were swimming in the sea this very day, Herr Rabbi. They could not
be fresher if they were alive. And the price is—oh, you’ll laugh at me
when I tell you—only twelve cents a pound.”
The rabbi laughed, displaying fine, wide teeth.
“Come, come, my good mother. Tell me without joking what they cost. This
big one, and that little one over there.”
“But, Herr Rabbi, you surely cannot mean that that is too much! Well,
well—an old friend—eleven cents, we’ll say. Will you take the big one or
the little one?”
The rabbi was still smiling.
“My dear mother, you remind me of Sarai.”
“And who was she?” asked Mother Politsky with interest.
“Sarai was the beautiful daughter of the famous Rabbiner Emanuel ben
Achad, who lived many hundreds of years ago. She was famed for her
beauty, and likewise for her exceeding shrewdness. Yes, Sarai was very,
“And I remind you of her? Well, well. What a beautiful thing it is to be
a rabbi and know so much about the past! Come, now, I’ll say ten cents,
and you can have your choice. Shall I wrap up the big——”
“This Sarai,” the rabbi went on, “had many lovers, but of them all she
liked only two. One of these was the favourite of her father; the other
was a poor but handsome youth who was apprenticed to a scribe. For a
long time Sarai hesitated between the two. Each was handsome, each was a
devoted lover, each was gifted with no ordinary intelligence, and each
was brave. Yet she was undecided upon which to bestow her heart and her
The rabbi had picked up the big fish, and now paused to sniff at it.
“And what did she do?” asked Mother Politsky.
“Ten cents?” said the rabbi, and then, with a sigh, he laid down the
fish, as if it were hopelessly beyond his reach.
“Nine, then, and take it, but what did Sarai do?”
The rabbi looked long and intently at the fish, and then, shaking his
head sadly, resumed his narrative.
“Sarai pondered over the matter for many, many weeks, and finally
decided to put them to a test. Now the name of her father’s favourite
was Ezra, while the poor youth was called Joseph. ‘Father,’ she said one
day, ‘what is the most difficult task that a man can be put to?’ ‘The
most difficult thing that I know of,’ her father promptly replied, ‘is
to grasp the real meaning of the Talmud.’
“Thereupon Sarai called Ezra and Joseph before her, and said to them:
‘He that brings to me the real meaning of the Talmud shall have my
hand.’ Was that not clever of her?”
“Yes! Yes! But who brought the true answer?” asked Mother Politsky, with
breathless interest. The rabbi was looking longingly at the fish.
“How much did you say?”
“Eight cents, eight cents. I don’t want any profit, but who——”
“Neither of the young men,” the rabbi went on, with his eyes still upon
the fish, “knew anything about the Talmud, but Joseph, who was well
versed in Hebrew, began at once to study it, wherein he had the
advantage over Ezra, who knew not a word of Hebrew.”
“Poor Ezra!” murmured Mother Politsky.
“But Ezra was a shrewd young man, and, without wasting any time upon
studying, he went straight to Sarai’s father and said to him: ‘Rabbi,
you are the greatest scholar of the world to-day. Can you tell me the
real meaning of the Talmud?’”
“Poor Joseph!” murmured Mother Politsky.
“‘My son,’ said Rabbi ben Achad, ‘all the wisdom of the human race since
the days of Moses has not been able to answer that question!’”
The rabbi had taken up the big fish and the small one, and was carefully
“Eight, you say. I know a place where I can get them——”
“Seven, then. And Joseph?”
“Seven is the lowest. But Jo——”
The rabbi turned to move away.
“All right. Six cents. But finish the story. What did Joseph do?”
“Joseph studied many years and came to the same conclusion. I’ll take
the small one.”
“But which of them married Sarai?”
“The story does not say. You’re sure it is fresh?”