Years ago there lived a wonderful rabbi in the German town that is still known today as Worms.[1] It has an old Jewish community that goes back to the generations of Jesse. The rabbi, whose name was Zalmen, was a very rich man, and he headed a large yeshiva attended by a hundred distinguished students, who pored over the holy books day and night. Rabbi Zalmen had an only son, likewise distinguished, who also studied at the yeshiva. His father and his mother loved him very much for his good deeds.

Now when the holiday of Lag ba-Omer[2] rolls around, the students like to have a good time. The town of Worms has a public park called Jubilee Gardens, and people who have been here must know where it is. On that holiday the yeshiva students, taking along the rabbi's son, went to the park, where they played a game called hide-and-seek in our language. One boy has to lean over [and cover his eyes] while the rest conceal themselves, and he then has to look for the others until he finds them all. Finally, the rabbi's son was "it," and he had to lean over. The boys all hid, and then the rabbi's son began his search. Eventually he found everybody except for a boy named Anshel, though he kept looking and looking.

Now the park was densely wooded, and the rabbi's son hunted for Anshel beyond the trees. Soon he came to a hollow tree, and when he saw an arm sticking out, he figured it must belong to Anshel, who was evidently hidden inside the tree. The rabbi's son shouted: "Anshel, c'mon out, I've found you." But he saw that the hand did not retreat. So the rabbi's son removed a gold ring from his finger, slipped it over a finger on the hand looming from the tree, and said: "Since you won't come out of the tree, I hereby wed thee." He played his prank because he thought that the hand belonged to his friend Anshel.

As soon as the rabbi's son married the hand, it vanished with the ring. Upon seeing this, he was alarmed, for the ring was very valuable, and he was afraid of going home to his father and mother without it. When he rejoined his fellow students, he found his friend among them and he said: "Dear Anshel, please give me my ring."

Anshel replied: "I haven't seen your ring, I don't know anything about it."The rabbi's son retorted: "I slipped it over your finger when you were hiding in that tree."

"All of our fellow students can testify that I wasn't in that tree. I hid somewhere else."

And so the ring was lost.

The boys all went back and told the rabbi the whole story, and upon hearing it, he said: "Go and bring my son home and tell him not to worry. I'm going to give him a lovelier ring." So they went to get him and brought him home. And the ring was forgotten.

A long time later, when the rabbi's son became an adult, a wonderful person, his learning was renowned far and wide. Now a leader of the Jewish community in the town of Speier[3] sent Rabbi Zalmen an inquiry: Would the rabbi let his son marry the leader's daughter? He had heard about how good a student the boy was, and that was why he desired him for a son-in-law. The man was willing to provide a large dowry. And so the wedding took place, a joyous celebration. There were many guests at the ceremony as is customary among wealthy people, and they had a marvelous time. After the nuptials and the banquet, the groom and bride were led very festively to the bedchamber, and the door was then shut according to tradition.

No sooner did the groom lie down than he fell asleep. The bride, however, lay awake. And as she lay there, she saw someone coming to the bed: a beautiful woman dressed in gold and silk. The woman said to the bride: "You brazen hussy, why have you lain down with my husband, who married me in a tree?"

The bride retorted: "That's not true! He's my husband! I married him today, so get away from here!"

Upon hearing this, the woman strangled the bride and left her corpse next to the groom.

Past midnight, the groom awakened and he wanted to talk to his bride as is the custom. But then he saw her lying next to him dead. Terrified, he got to his feet and woke the people up. .They hurried into the chamber, where they found the bride dead, and they asked him how it happened. He answered: "Unfortunately I was asleep, I don't know."

The bride was buried, and their joy turned into grief. And before everyone went home, there were many people who said that the groom had killed the bride.

So for a good three years the rabbi's son was unable to find a bride despite his great wealth and vast learning, for no father wanted to risk his daughter's life.

Eventually, however, a rich community leader, who was related to the boy, told the Rabbi of Worms: "I'll risk my daughter's life since you're my own flesh and blood. And if a terrible surprise occurred once, I hope it won't happen again."

The marriage took place, and they became man and wife. After taking them to bed, the people left, shutting the door behind them.

Once again, the groom fell asleep, while the frightened bride lay awake. And as she lay there, the beautiful woman dressed in gold came again and said to the bride: "You brazen hussy, I've already killed one girl who lay with my husband, but you weren't warned!" And she killed this bride too.

When the groom awoke, he again found his bride dead. He screamed so loudly that all the people came running. He told them: "My poor bride is dead!"

The bride was buried, and the wedding guests all left in profound grief.

For some ten years the groom stayed put, unable to find another bride. And then he reached thirty.

Now once, on the Sabbath of Repentance [between the start of the new year and the Day of Atonement], the rabbi was sitting with his wife, the rebbetsin, and the rabbi said: "Dear wife, what should we do? We have an only son and great wealth, and if he stays unmarried, all memory of us will be wiped from the face of the earth and our wealth will be divided among strangers. But what father will allow his daughter to marry our son?" And they shared their anguish and misery with each other.

The rebbetsin then said: "Dear husband, I don't think I'm mistaken: No community leader will ever allow his daughter to marry our son.

However, I know of a poor widow from an excellent family her husband was a rabbi. She has an only child, a beautiful daughter, and they live in a poorhouse. Who knows, my dear husband? What if I go to her and offer to have our son marry the girl? Perhaps she'll be rewarded for her piety: God will see her poverty and allow her to live."

The rabbi then said to his wife: "You're right! Go and talk to the poor widow now and ask her if she'd like to have her daughter marry our son."

The boy's mother, the wealthy rebbetsin, then promptly went and knocked on the door of the poorhouse. The poor rebbetsin, upon seeing the rich one knocking, hurried over to her daughter and said: "Dear daughter, why is the wealthy rebbetsin knocking on our door?"

The daughter replied: "Dear mother, perhaps she's bringing us some food."

So they opened the door and welcomed her very courteously. They invited her to sit and they said: "Dear rebbetsin, why are you honoring us with your visit?"

The wealthy rebbetsin answered: "Let me explain why I've come here. You've probably heard what's happened to our son twice God help us! So if it's at all possible, I'd like your daughter to marry our son. Who knows? Perhaps she'll be rewarded for her piety and will survive. It will make up for your and your daughter's poverty."

The poor rebbetsin then spoke to her daughter: "Dear daughter, you've heard what the wealthy rebbetsin has said. It's up to you, I won't force you. But I can't supply a dowry. So if you don't accept this offer, you'll remain an old maid."

Her daughter replied: "Dear mother, we're poor, that's true, and a poor person is like a dead man. I'll do it so long as the marriage contract stipulates that if I die, the rabbi will provide for you in his home for the rest of your days. If he agrees, then I'll risk my life and marry his son."

And so another wedding was set to take place.

The wealthy rebbetsin ordered lovely clothes for the poor girl. And when she put them on, she looked so beautiful that no one recognized her when she went about, and she no longer had to go begging. Now that she was a bit adorned and was lovely anyway, everyone talked about her beauty.

Few guests were invited to the wedding, which was not especially joyous, because people said: "If she stays alive, then we'll really celebrate!" They carried out the ceremony and, after the banquet, they took the groom and bride to their bed, as is the custom. The people then left and shut the door behind them. The groom fell asleep while the frightened bride lay awake.

At last, when midnight came, the bride saw a beautiful woman in splendid clothes and with golden hair approaching the bed. The woman said to the bride: "You brazen hussy, I've already killed two girls who lay with my husband! You've heard about that and yet you're risking your own life! So I'm going to kill you too!"

Upon hearing that, the bride was terrified and she said: "Dear mother, I've lived in the poorhouse all my life and I've never heard that he lost two wives. So, dear mother, he's your bridegroom. I'll get up and I'll let you lie with him."

When the beautiful she-demon heard that, she said: "Dear child, you must be rewarded for your piety, for speaking to me so piously. This is what you must do to make him your husband: He will vanish from your sight for one hour every day and come to me. So don't say a word to anyone if you value your life and if God is dear to you!"

The bride answered that no one would know but the Good Lord. And the she-demon vanished from her sight.

Less than half an hour later, the husband awoke, terrified, and quickly reached for his bride. He was overjoyed to see that she was still alive. Since it was almost dawn, the people came into the chamber and found the groom and bride still lying together. The groom's parents and the bride's mother were ecstatic, and they all had a wonderful time at the celebration. The poor girl was wealthy now, everything belonged to her. She loved her husband, and he loved her, for she was very modest.

Eventually the couple had three sons.

Now women always want to know a lot more than is useful for them. The wife lost her husband for an hour each day and she didn't know what became of him. She saw him go into the bedchamber, where he would disappear. The good woman saw her husband vanish and she thought to herself. "I'm willing to risk my neck to find out where he goes. I'm going to follow him, even if I have to risk my neck."

Noting where he had left his keys, she took them and unlocked the door. But her husband wasn't in the chamber. She searched every nook and cranny. At last, underneath the bed she found a large rock. As she spotted it, the rock moved from its place. She now saw a large hole with a ladder descending inside it. The wife thought to herself. "Dear God, should I go down? I'm sure my husband is down there."

After pondering for a long time, she finally climbed down the ladder and found herself in a large field. And in the large field she saw an elegant mansion. She entered the mansion and found an open door. She entered the room and found a table set with fine dishes and cutlery. The room had a second open door leading to another room, which she entered. And there she found her husband lying in a silken bed with the beautiful demon, their bodies enlaced. The demon lay in front, with her golden hair hanging down to the floor. Upon seeing this, the wife felt it was a shame for the golden hair to be hanging down to the floor like that. So she took a chair, put it next to the bed, and placed the hair upon it.

Then she went back the way she had come. She rolled the rock on top of the hole, locked the door, and left the keys where she had found them. And she didn't breathe a single word to anyone in the entire house.

When the demon woke up, she began screaming, loudly and bitterly, and she said: "Dear husband, I'm here and I have to die. When your dear wife was here, she touched my feet. If someone touches me, I have to die. Therefore, dear husband, since she did it out of piety, it was good for her that my beautiful hair was hanging down to the floor. You have to be rewarded. Well, dear husband, I've got the gold ring that you gave me when you married me. Take it back and go home through the hole. The hole is going to disappear, and we will be divorced forever."

He did what she told him to do and he returned home. And the hole disappeared. He also remained at home, and he said nothing to his wife, nor did his wife say anything to him.

After staying at home for three days, he gave a large banquet for the entire Jewish community. Neither his wife nor his parents knew why. The whole community ate and drank and were going to say their blessings. Thereupon the rabbi's son began: "Dear guests, before saying the blessing, let me explain why I'm giving this banquet. Dear father, here is the ring that I lost in a tree. At that time I married a demon because I thought it was the boy I was looking for. The she-demon murdered my first two brides, but now my dear wife has released me from her." And he told the entire story. And then his wife told her story and described what had happened to her, from the wedding night until his release.

And that was how the poor girl became rich and respected through her great piety and modesty.

That is why everyone should follow her example.

And that is the end of the tale of Worms.


[1] City in Germany. Documentary evidence points to the settlement of Jews in Worms at the end of the tenth century; the community grew during the 11th century, and a synagogue was inaugurated in 1034. [back]

[2] The 33rd (Heb. lamed-gimmel) day of the counting of the Omer, which is reckoned from the second day of Passover until Shavuot. It occurs on the 18th day of Iyyar and has been celebrated as a semi-holiday since the early Middle Ages. [back]

[3] Speyer (Fr. Spire; Eng. sometimes Spires) is a city in Rhenish Palatinate, Germany. Although local traditions, largely legendary, speak of Jewish settlement in Speyer in Roman times, Jews probably first came to the city in the early 11th century. [back]


From: The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination A Haunted Reader. Edited and translated from the Yiddish by Joachim Neugroschel (Syracuse University Press).

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