The Book of Delight and Other Papers
Israel Abrahams

Presented by

Public Domain Books

The Fox’s Heart

Pliny says that by eating the palpitating heart of a mole one acquires the faculty of divining future events. In “Westward Ho!” the Spanish prisoners beseech their English foe, Mr. Oxenham, not to leave them in the hands of the Cimaroons, for the latter invariably ate the hearts of all that fell into their hands, after roasting them alive. “Do you know,” asks Mr. Alston in the “Witch’s Head,” “what those Basutu devils would have done if they had caught us? They would have skinned us, and made our hearts into mouti [medicine] and eaten them, to give them the courage of the white man.” Ibn Verga, the author of a sixteenth century account of Jewish martyrs, records the following strange story: “I have heard that some people in Spain once brought the accusation that they had found, in the house of a Jew, a lad slain, and his breast rent near the heart. They asserted that the Jews had extracted his heart to employ it at their festival. Don Solomon, the Levite, who was a learned man and a Cabbalist, placed the Holy Name under the lad’s tongue. The lad then awoke and told who had slain him, and who had removed his heart, with the object of accusing the poor Jews. I have not,” adds the author of the Shebet Jehudah, “seen this story in writing, but I have heard it related.”

We have the authority of Dr. Ploss for the statement that among the Slavs witches produce considerable disquiet in families, into which, folk say, they penetrate in the disguise of hens or butterflies. They steal the hearts of children in order to eat them. They strike the child on the left side with a little rod; the breast opens, and the witches tear out the heart, and devour every atom of it. Thereupon the wound closes up of itself, without leaving a trace of what has been done. The child dies either immediately or soon afterwards, as the witch chooses. Many children’s illnesses are attributed to this cause. If one of these witches is caught asleep, the people seize her, and move her so as to place her head where her feet were before. On awaking, she has lost all her power for evil, and is transformed into a medicine-woman, who is acquainted with the healing effects of every herb, and aids in curing children of their diseases. In Heine’s poem, “The Pilgrimage to Kevlaar,” the love-lorn youth seeks the cure of his heart’s ill by placing a waxen heart on the shrine. This is unquestionably the most exquisite use in literature of the heart as a charm.

Two or three of the stories that I have noted down on the gruesome subject of heart-eating have been given above. Such ideas were abhorrent to the Jewish conscience, and the use of the heart torn from a living animal was regarded as characteristic of idolatry (Jerusalem Talmud, Aboda Zara, ii, 41b). In the Book of Tobit a fish’s heart plays a part, but it is detached from the dead animal, and is not eaten. It forms an ingredient of the smoke which exorcises the demon that is troubling the heroine Sarah.

I have not come across any passage in the Jewish Midrashim that ascribes to “heart-eating,” even in folk-lore, the virtue of bestowing wisdom. Aristotle seems to lend his authority to some such notion as that I have quoted from Pliny, when he says, “Man alone presents the phenomenon of heart-beating, because he alone is moved by hope and by expectation of what is coming.” As George H. Lewes remarked, it is quite evident that Aristotle could never have held a bird in his hand. The idea, however, that eating the heart of an animal has wisdom-conferring virtue seems to underlie a very interesting Hebrew fable published by Dr. Steinschneider, in his Alphabetum Siracidis. The Angel of Death had demanded of God the power to slay all living things.

“The Holy One replied, ’Cast a pair of each species into the sea, and then thou shalt have dominion over all that remain of the species.’ The Angel did so forthwith, and he cast a pair of each kind into the sea. When the fox saw what he was about, what did he do? At once he stood and wept. Then said the Angel of Death unto him, ’Why weepest thou?’ ’For my companions, whom thou hast cast into the sea,’ answered the fox. ’Where, then, are thy companions?’ said the Angel. The fox ran to the sea-shore [with his wife], and the Angel of Death beheld the reflection of the fox in the water, and he thought that he had already cast in a pair of foxes, so, addressing the fox by his side, he cried, ’Be off with you!’ The fox at once fled and escaped. The weasel met him, and the fox related what had happened, and what he had done; and so the weasel went and did likewise.

“At the end of the year, the leviathan assembled all the creatures in the sea, and lo! the fox and the weasel were missing, for they had not come into the sea. He sent to ask, and he was told how the fox and the weasel had escaped through their wisdom. They taunted the leviathan, saying, ’The fox is exceedingly cunning.’ The leviathan felt uneasy and envious, and he sent a deputation of great fishes, with the order that they were to deceive the fox, and bring him before him. They went, and found him by the sea-shore. When the fox saw the fishes disporting themselves near the bank, he was surprised, and he went among them. They beheld him, and asked, ’Who art thou?’ ’I am the fox,’ said he. ’Knowest thou not,’ continued the fishes, ’that a great honor is in store for thee, and that we have come here on thy behalf?’ ’What is it?’ asked the fox. ’The leviathan,’ they said, ’is sick, and like to die. He has appointed thee to reign in his stead, for he has heard that thou art wiser and more prudent than all other animals. Come with us, for we are his messengers, and are here to thy honor.’ ’But,’ objected the fox, ’how can I come into the sea without being drowned?’ ’Nay,’ said the fishes; ’ride upon one of us, and he will carry thee above the sea, so that not even a drop of water shall touch so much as the soles of thy feet, until thou reachest the kingdom. We will take thee down without thy knowing it. Come with us, and reign over us, and be king, and be joyful all thy days. No more wilt thou need to seek for food, nor will wild beasts, stronger than thou, meet thee and devour thee.’

“The fox heard and believed their words. He rode upon one of them, and they went with him into the sea. Soon, however, the waves dashed over him, and he began to perceive that he had been tricked. ’Woe is me!’ wailed the fox, ’what have I done? I have played many a trick on others, but these fishes have played one on me worth all mine put together. Now I have fallen into their hands, how shall I free myself? Indeed,’ he said, turning to the fishes, ’now that I am fully in your power, I shall speak the truth. What are you going to do with me?’ ’To tell thee the truth,’ replied the fishes, ’the leviathan has heard thy fame, that thou art very wise, and he said, I will rend the fox, and will eat his heart, and thus I shall become wise.’ ’Oh!’ said the fox, ’why did you not tell me the truth at first? I should then have brought my heart with me, and I should have given it to King Leviathan, and he would have honored me; but now ye are in an evil plight.’ ’What! thou hast not thy heart with thee?’ ’Certainly not. It is our custom to leave our heart at home while we go about from place to place. When we need our heart, we take it; otherwise it remains at home.’ ’What must we do?’ asked the bewildered fishes. ’My house and dwelling-place,’ replied the fox, ’are by the sea-shore. If you like, carry me back to the place whence you brought me, I will fetch my heart, and will come again with you. I will present my heart to Leviathan, and he will reward me and you with honors. But if you take me thus, without my heart, he will be wroth with you, and will devour you. I have no fear for myself, for I shall say unto him: My lord, they did not tell me at first, and when they did tell me, I begged them to return for my heart, but they refused.’ The fishes at once declared that he was speaking well. They conveyed him back to the spot on the sea-shore whence they had taken him. Off jumped the fox, and he danced with joy. He threw himself on the sand, and laughed. ’Be quick,’ cried the fishes, ’get thy heart, and come.’ But the fox answered, ’You fools! Begone! How could I have come with you without my heart? Have you any animals that go about without their hearts?’ ’Thou hast tricked us,’ they moaned. ’Fools! I tricked the Angel of Death, how much more easily a parcel of silly fishes.’

“They returned in shame, and related to their master what had happened. ’In truth,’ he said, ’he is cunning, and ye are simple. Concerning you was it said, The turning away of the simple shall slay them [Prov. i:32]. Then the leviathan ate the fishes.”

Metaphorically, the Bible characterizes the fool as a man “without a heart,” and it is probably in the same sense that modern Arabs describe the brute creation as devoid of hearts. The fox in the narrative just given knew better. Not so, however, the lady who brought a curious question for her Rabbi to solve. The case to which I refer may be found in the Responsa Zebi Hirsch. Hirsch’s credulous questioner asserted that she had purchased a live cock, but on killing and drawing it, she had found that it possessed no heart. The Rabbi refused very properly to believe her. On investigating the matter, he found that, while she was dressing the cock, two cats had been standing near the table. The Rabbi assured his questioner that there was no need to inquire further into the whereabouts of the cock’s heart.

Out of the crowd of parallels to the story of the fox’s heart supplied by the labors of Benfey, I select one given in the second volume of the learned investigator’s Pantschatantra. A crocodile had formed a close friendship with a monkey, who inhabited a tree close to the water side. The monkey gave the crocodile nuts, which the latter relished heartily. One day the crocodile took some of the nuts home to his wife. She found them excellent, and inquired who was the donor. “If,” she said, when her husband had told her, “he feeds on such ambrosial nuts, this monkey’s heart must be ambrosia itself. Bring me his heart, that I may eat it, and so be free from age and death.” Does not this version supply a more probable motive than that attributed in the Hebrew story to the leviathan? I strongly suspect that the Hebrew fable has been pieced together from various sources, and that the account given by the fishes, viz. that the leviathan was ill, was actually the truth in the original story. The leviathan would need the fox’s heart, not to become wise, but in order to save his life.

To return to the crocodile. He refuses to betray his friend, and his wife accuses him of infidelity. His friend, she maintains, is not a monkey at all, but a lady-love of her husband’s. Else why should he hesitate to obey her wishes? “If he is not your beloved, why will you not kill him? Unless you bring me his heart, I will not taste food, but will die.” Then the crocodile gives in, and in the most friendly manner invites the monkey to pay him and his wife a visit. The monkey consents unsuspectingly, but discovers the truth, and escapes by adopting the same ruse as that employed by the fox. He asserts that he has left his heart behind on his tree.

That eating the heart of animals was not thought a means of obtaining wisdom among the Jews, may be directly inferred from a passage in the Talmud (Horayoth, 13b). Among five things there enumerated as “causing a man to forget what he has learned,” the Talmud includes “eating the hearts of animals.” Besides, in certain well-known stories in the Midrash, where a fox eats some other animal’s heart, his object is merely to enjoy a titbit.

One such story in particular deserves attention. There are at least three versions of it. The one is contained in the Mishle Shualim, or “Fox-Stories,” by Berechiah ha-Nakdan (no. 106), the second in the Hadar Zekenim (fol. 27b), and the third in the Midrash Yalkut, on Exodus (ed. Venice, 56a). Let us take the three versions in the order named.

A wild boar roams in a lion’s garden. The lion orders him to quit the place and not defile his residence. The boar promises to obey, but next morning he is found near the forbidden precincts. The lion orders one of his ears to be cut off. He then summons the fox, and directs that if the boar still persists in his obnoxious visits, no mercy shall be shown to him. The boar remains obstinate, and loses his ears (one had already gone!) and eyes, and finally he is killed. The lion bids the fox prepare the carcass for His Majesty’s repast, but the fox himself devours the boar’s heart. When the lion discovers the loss, the fox quiets his master by asking, “If the boar had possessed a heart, would he have been so foolish as to disobey you so persistently?”

The king of the beasts, runs the story in the second of the three versions, appointed the ass as keeper of the tolls. One day King Lion, together with the wolf and the fox, approached the city. The ass came and demanded the toll of them. Said the fox, “You are the most audacious of animals. Don’t you see that the king is with us?” But the ass answered, “The king himself shall pay,” and he went and demanded the toll of the king. The lion rent him to pieces, and the fox ate the heart, and excused himself as in the former version.

The Yalkut, or third version, is clearly identical with the preceding, for, like it, the story is quoted to illustrate the Scriptural text referring to Pharaoh’s heart becoming hard. In this version, however, other animals accompany the lion and the fox, and the scene of the story is on board ship. The ass demands the fare, with the same dénouement as before.

What induced the fox to eat the victim’s heart? The ass is not remarkable for wisdom, nor is the boar. Hence the wily Reynard can scarcely have thought to add to his store of cunning by his surreptitious meal.

Hearts, in folk-lore, have been eaten for revenge, as in the grim story of the lover’s heart told by Boccaccio. The jealous husband forces his wife, whose fidelity he doubts, to make a meal of her supposed lover’s heart. In the story of the great bird’s egg, again, the brother who eats the heart becomes rich, but not wise. Various motives, no doubt, are assigned in other Märchen for choosing the heart; but in these particular Hebrew fables, it is merely regarded as a bonne bouche. Possibly the Talmudic caution, that eating the heart of a beast brings forgetfulness, may have a moral significance; it may mean that one who admits bestial passions into his soul will be destitute of a mind for nobler thoughts. This suggestion I have heard, and I give it for what it may be worth. As a rule, there is no morality in folk-lore; stories with morals belong to the later and more artificial stage of poet-lore. Homiletical folk-lore, of course, stands on a different basis.

Now, in the Yalkut version of the fox and the lion fable, all that we are told is, “The fox saw the ass’s heart; he took it, and ate it.” But Berechiah leaves us in no doubt as to the fox’s motive. “The fox saw that his heart was fat, and so he took it.” In the remaining version, “The fox saw that the heart was good, so he ate it.” This needs no further comment.

Of course, it has been far from my intention to dispute that the heart was regarded by Jews as the seat both of the intellect and the feelings, of all mental and spiritual functions, indeed. The heart was the best part of man, the fount of life; hence Jehudah Halevi’s well-known saying, “Israel is to the world as the heart to the body.” An intimate connection was also established, by Jews and Greeks alike, between the physical condition of the heart and man’s moral character. It was a not unnatural thought that former ages were more pious than later times. “The heart of Rabbi Akiba was like the door of the porch [which was twenty cubits high], the heart of Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua was like the door of the Temple [this was only ten cubits high], while our hearts are only as large as the eye of a needle.” But I am going beyond my subject. To collect all the things, pretty and the reverse, that have been said in Jewish literature about the heart, would need more leisure, and a great deal more learning, than I possess. So I will conclude with a story, pathetic as well as poetical, from a Jewish medieval chronicle.

A Mohammedan king once asked a learned Rabbi why the Jews, who had in times long past been so renowned for their bravery, had in later generations become subdued, and even timorous. The Rabbi, to prove that captivity and persecution were the cause of the change, proposed an experiment. He bade the king take two lion’s whelps, equally strong and big. One was tied up, the other was allowed to roam free in the palace grounds. They were fed alike, and after an interval both were killed. The king’s officers found that the heart of the captive lion was but one-tenth as large as that of his free companion, thus evidencing the degenerating influence of slavery. This is meant, no doubt, as a fable, but, at least, it is not without a moral. The days of captivity are gone, and it may be hoped that Jewish large-heartedness has come back with the breath of freedom.


Preface  •  “The Book of Delight”  •  A Visit to Hebron  •  The Solace of Books  •  Medieval Wayfaring  •  The Fox’s Heart  •  “Marriages Are Made in Heaven”  •  Hebrew Love Songs  •  A Handful of Curiosities  •  Notes