Jewish Folktales
  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Analyze philanthropic traditions of diverse cultural groups and their contributions to civil society.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Define and give examples of motivations for giving and serving.

When times are hard, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the things that count are not material, and the people who make a difference in our lives are the ones we often take for granted. We read five Jewish folktales that reveal gifts of generosity in everyday events of life. Through reading and discussion, the learners discuss the folktale's message and connections to philanthropy. 

PrintTwo or three 45-Minute Sessions

The learner will:

  • identify the historical and geographic settings of folktales.
  • identify the message and connections to philanthropy.

Youth access to these folktales (Learning to Give has permission to make these folktales available online to readers)

Home Connection: 

Learners may discuss with their families their personal philosophy of generosity and giving. 

  • PBS. "A Life Apart: Hasidism in America." 
  • Asman, Rabbi. "Rabbi Levi Ytzhak," "The Berdichev Revival" 
  • "The Clotheslines." Buxbaum, Yitzhak. Jewish Tales of Holy Women. San Francisco: California: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Company, ©2002. pp. 780-81. Used with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • "Defending His Property." Lipman, Doug. ©2002. Used with the permission of Doug Lipman.
  • "Hasidism," Jewish Virtual Library
  • "Levels of Charitable Giving," Jewish Virtual Library
  • "Loosening the Stopper," 10 March 2003, The Hasidic Stories Home Page,
  • "Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi" 
  • "Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov," Jewish Virtual Library
  • "A Special Gift." Buxbaum, Yitzhak. Jewish Tales of Holy Women. San Francisco: California: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Company, ©2002. pp. 76-77. Used with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • "The Three Laughs," 10 March 2003, The Hasidic Stories Home Page,
  • "Tzedakah," Jewish Virtual Library
  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Define the term righteous as morally goood and give an example of when someone acted in a righteous manner.

  2. Notes about the people and places of the folktales:

    "The Three Laughs," "Loosening the Stopper" and "Defending His Property," are Hasidic folktales. One of the characters is the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer) who was from a small village in the Ukraine near the Polish border. Another character is Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who is also from the Ukraine. Rabbi Schneur Zalman is associated with Lithuania.

    On a map, locate the Ukraine and Lithuania and give their absolute locations (longitude and latitude). Give their relative locations (general descriptors of where the places are located). Further research may include physical characteristics and human characteristics.

  3. Read "The Three Laughs" together and discuss the message and connection to philanthropy.

    • Give this background: Baal Shem Tov used parables to teach his lessons. One of his teachings was that joy was important in having a good relationship with God.
    • Discuss the lesson for readers to take away from this folktale.
    • How does joy completely transform the lives of the old bookbinder, his wife, and Heaven as well?
    • In this tale the bookbinder acquired a newfound appreciation of his wife. How will their lives be different? The same?
    • Did the bookbinder’s wife fit the description of a righteous woman as mentioned in the Sabbath song? What was her motivation for "giving"?
    • Though nothing of a material nature was given in this folktale, it is a story of giving and generosity. Brainstorm a list of "gifts" that were given in this story.
  4. Read "Loosening the Stopper" together and discuss the message and connection to philanthropy.

    • What is the lesson of this folktale? Is the title a good one for the story?
    • What is the meaning of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s statement? "It is said that each step downward leads to another. ... It is also said that each step upward leads to another."
    • List the forms of generosity in this story.
    • In what ways are the intangible "gifts" in both Hasidic parables similar?
  5. Read "Defending His Property" together and discuss the message and connection to philanthropy.

    • What is the lesson of this folktale?
    • The innkeeper was ready to use violence "as a last resort," not realizing that there were other options still untried. What made the words, "You don’t have to hit me!"eye-opening?
    • Violence seems to be used more than is necessary and sooner than it should. Think of the news from the media in the last week. Was there an incident where violence was used and it only made the situation worse? What else can be used instead of violence?
    • Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev strongly believed in the inherent goodness of human beings. He believed in treating all Jews kindly and always found something nice to say, regardless of a fellow Jew’s actions. Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a lover of peace, urging others to keep from quarreling with others. In the last two stories, were they true to their historic characters?

    What is revealed about the Hasidic culture through the three folktales? Do these stories have common elements with other places and people or are they specific to this culture?

  6. Read the Jewish folktale, "The Clotheslines," together and discuss the message and connection to philanthropy.

    • This story took place in Jerusalem over a hundred years ago and addresses the common feeling of stress on days when nothing seems to go right.
    • What is the lesson of this folktale? 
    • The pious woman’s actions were surprising in two instances, (1) when she said, "I must deserve this. May it be an atonement for me!" and, (2) when she did not slander or gossip about her neighbor, even to her husband.
    • Would the woman be justified if she had done the opposite? Did the pious woman take the right course of action? 
    • What will you do differently in a stressful situation after reading this?
  7. Before reading the Jewish folktale "A Special Gift" together, define the following terms used in the folktale:

    • Hanukkah: means "dedication," also called "The Festival of Lights," commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic Syrians around 165 BCE
    • bris: a naming ceremony performed eight days after the birth of a baby that includes circumcision
    • sandak: the person who holds the baby during the actual circumcision. This is a high honor.
    • rebbe: title given to a rabbi, especially within Hasidic Judaism
    • tzaddik: a person who has achieved especially outstanding piety and holiness. The tzaddik’s prayers are considered especially potent. The Talmud states, "A tzadik decrees and the Holy One (blessed be He) fulfills."
    • Bobov: a Hasidic group within Judaism, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, but originally formed in the town of Bobov in Galicia.
  8. Discuss the message of "A Special Gift" and its connection to philanthropy.

    • What is the lesson of this folktale?
    • There are two generous persons in this story. Which of the following characteristics (caring, courage, civic virtue and citizenship, giving, honesty, justice and fairness, perseverance, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness), are revealed in the characters in this story?
    • What other title could have been given to the story?
  9. In reflection of the two Jewish folktales, talk or write about the acts of generosity revealed in the stories.

    • Look at the handout Tzedakah Ladder to place the acts of generosity on the hierarchy. How can thinking about these levels change the focus of the giving from charity to fairness or justice?
    • Tzedakah (sa-da-ka) is the Jewish tradition of giving at least ten percent of one’s income to charity, especially related to justice or fairness, or giving the poor their due. How could the practice of Tzedakah change a person’s perception of generosity?
    • According to tradition, the spiritual benefit of giving to the poor is so great that the one who receives the aid actually does the giver a favor.