Jewish Folktales

9, 10, 11, 12

When times are hard, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the things that count are not always material, and the people who make a difference in our lives are the ones we often take for granted. The parable of "The Three Laughs" exemplifies these ideas. We may never know the reasons behind the giving of others. Sometimes it may seem stingy and at other times generous. Perhaps all that may be needed to untie the purse strings may be "Loosening the Stopper." "The Clotheslines," "Defending His Property" and "A Special Gift" reveal gifts of generosity in everyday events of life.

PrintThree Fifty-Five Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • use the geographic themes of location, place and human-environment relations to describe settings and cultures represented in folktales.
  • research background information that enables folktales to be placed in a historical setting.
  • identify the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman and explain how they used parables to teach their people.
  • define/identify the terms righteous, Hasidism, Shabbat and explain their cultural relationship to the folktales.
  • describe the eight levels of Tzedakah and explain how they transform the idea of generosity.
  • explain how giving the gift of joy can transform people or their situations.
  • describe how tests of patience can strengthen one’s character.
  • interpret a person’s character in a role-play through non-verbal actions alone.
Home Connection 

At home ask the learners to discuss with their families the idea of having a personal philosophy that governs generosity and giving. If the families already have a giving philosophy, what is it? How was it formed?



  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Place the term righteous on the board. Elicit its definition and an example of when someone acted in a righteous manner.

  2. Explain that it is important to understand people and their environment when studying folktales. The first three stories, "The Three Laughs," "Loosening the Stopper" and "Defending His Property," are Hasidic folktales. One of the characters in the first story is the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer) who was from a small village in the Ukraine near the Polish border. In the second and third story, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev 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).

  3. In a brainstorming session, have the learners describe the Ukraine and Lithuania as places by listing recognizable physical characteristics (landforms, water bodies, climate, soil, natural vegetation, animal life) and human characteristics (inhabitants, settlement patterns, languages, religions, government, how inhabitants make a living).

  4. Before reading the stories, divide the learners into separate teams. Assign each team one of the following to research: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism, Shabbat, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, and the eight levels of Tzedakah. Have the teams report the information they found on the first three. (Option: If there are learners in the group with this background knowledge, let them share the information instead.)

  5. Read "The Three Laughs" together. Identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable).

  6. If it was not described already in the research information, point out that the 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. How does joy completely transform the lives of the old bookbinder, his wife and Heaven as well?

  7. What lesson is taught in this folktale?

  8. 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"?

  9. 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.

  10. Let the learners who researched the last two rabbis report on the information they found.

  11. Read "Loosening the Stopper" together. Identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). What is the lesson of this folktale? Is the name a good one for the story?

  12. Do the learners agree with 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"? Elicit examples of persons who have followed either path that seem to exemplify the truth of the rabbi’s statement. Are there examples of persons who have followed both paths?

  13. In "Loosening the Stopper" generosity is shown in several ways. List the ways and explain how "generosity" may take very different forms than being a material gift. In what ways are the intangible "gifts" in both Hasidic parables similar?

  14. Read "Defending His Property" together. Identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). What is the lesson of this folktale?

  15. The innkeeper was ready to use violence as a last resort, not realizing that there were other options still untried. His words, "You don’t have to hit me!" were eye-opening in as far as they stated what the rabbi was trying to get him to realize. 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?

  16. 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?

  17. Ask the learners to identify what is revealed about the Hasidic culture through the folktale. Do these stories have common elements with other places and people or are they specific to this culture?

  18. The last two stories for this lesson are Jewish folktales. The first story, "The Clotheslines," took place in Jerusalem over a hundred years ago and deals with a very common occurrence, dealing with stress on days when nothing seems to go right. Read the story together. As the story is being read, have two volunteers silently act out the sequence of the story. Identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). What is the lesson of this folktale? What did the body language of the two characters during the role-play say about the characters themselves?

  19. 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. Poll the learners to determine how many would have claimed the woman’s actions justified if she had done the opposite. Ask the learners if the pious woman’s forgiveness of the other woman was believable. Do they believe the pious woman took the right course of action? Will this folktale possibly alter their course of action in the future should something like this happen to them? Do they believe this folktale is meant as a teaching tool for better behavior?

  20. Before reading "A Special Gift," go over the definitions of the following terms which are used in the folktale:

    • Hanukkah: which means "dedication"; also called "The Festival of Lights"; commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic Syrians around 165 BCE
    • bris: a ceremony performed eight days after the birth of a baby. The ceremony includes a circumcision and the naming.
    • 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."
    • Bobover: Bobov is a Hasidic group within Judaism with its headquarters in the neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York. It was originally formed in the town of Bobov in Galicia.
  21. Read "A Special Gift" together. Identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). What is the lesson of this folktale?

  22. There are two generous persons in this story. Of the following characteristics (caring, courage, civic virtue and citizenship, giving, honesty, justice and fairness, perseverance, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness), which are revealed in the characters in this story? What other title could have been given to the story?

  23. Tzedakah (sa-da-ka) is the Jewish tradition of giving at least ten percent of one’s income to charity. Rather than referring to generosity, it is more related to justice or fairness, giving the poor their due. 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. Have the final researchers share with the group the "eight levels of Tzedakah" which describe levels of charity from the least meritorious to the most meritorious. Do the learners agree with the levels? Should a giver be concerned about his or her motivations for giving or is it enough to be generous? How can thinking about these levels change the focus of the giving from charity to fairness or justice? How could the practice of Tzedakah change a person’s perception of generosity?


In a short essay, have the learners define parable and explain how it was used to teach a lesson and represent the culture of the people in the folktales. Learners should describe the acts of generosity revealed in the stories. Split the learners into teams of two. Give each team one page of the stories and have the team illustrate, through the use of symbols, the essential information from their portion of the stories. When placed together on the wall or bulletin board, the pages should easily represent the lessons from the story. Distribute Tzedakah Ladder (Handout One). On the steps representing the eight levels of Tzedakah, have the learners place on each step an example of "giving" that matches that level.

Cross Curriculum 

Invite a representative of a Jewish nonprofit to speak to the group and explain their mission. Ask about their focus related to local, national and international giving. If the learners wish to support this group or another, a fund-raiser may be planned. Learners and their families may wish to develop their own personal philosophy of giving as a result of studying these folktales and their lessons. They may then carry out their plan of giving in accord with their own philosophy.

Philanthropy Framework

  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.