The Language of Signs

The Language of Signs

There are many versions of this well known story. This one can be found in Dov Noy’s (z”l) book Folktales of Israel, Pg 94-96. The story has a basis in history, although the historical event(s) upon which it is based – the disputation – were not laughing matters.
We are all indebted to Dov Noy for his work in preserving our rich oral heritage. He established the Israeli Folktale Archives to record oral tales from people who came to Israel from many countries.


Once there was a wicked priest who hated Jews. One day he summoned the chief rabbi and said to him, “I want to have a dispute with a Jew in the language of signs. I give you thirty days to prepare yourself, and if nobody appears to take part in the dispute, I shall order that all the Jews be killed.”

What was the rabbi to do? He brought the bad tidings to his people and ordered them to fast and to pray in the synagogue. A week went by, two weeks, three weeks passed, but there was no one with the courage to accept the priest’s challenge, and the great responsibility. It was already the fourth week, and still there was no one to represent the Jews in the dispute.

Then along came a poultry dealer who had been away, bringing chickens from the nearby villages into the town. He had not heard what was going on there, but he noticed on his arrival that the market was closed, and at home he found his wife and children fasting, praying, and weeping.

What is the matter?” asked the poultry dealer. His wife replied, “The wicked priest has ordered a Jew to hold a discussion with him in the language of signs. if there is no one who is able to do so, all of us will be killed.”

Is that all the matter?” wondered the poultry dealer in surprise. “We’ll go to the rabbi and tell him that I am ready to participate.”

What are you talking about? How can you understand the priest? Greater and wiser men than you have not been willing to take upon themselves this task!” cried his wife.

Why should you worry? In any case we shall all be killed.” And off they went together to the rabbi.

Rabbi,” said the man, “I am ready to meet the priest!

The rabbi blessed him. “May G!d help you and bring you success.”

So the priest was told that a Jew, sent by the rabbi, would hold a discussion with him in sign language.

You have to understand my signs and to answer them in the same way,” explained the priest to the Jew before a great assembly. Then he pointed a finger to him. In reply the Jew pointed two fingers. Then the priest took a piece of white cheese from his pocket. In reply, the Jew took out an egg. Then the priest took the seeds of some grain and scattered them on the floor. In reply, the Jew set a hen free from the coop and let it eat up the seeds.

Well done,” exclaimed the priest in amazement. “You answered my questions correctly.” And he gave the poultry dealer many gifts and ordered his servant to bathe him and to give him fine garments to wear.

Now I know that the Jews are wise men, if the most humble among them was able to understand me,” admitted the priest.

The town was in great excitement, and the people waited in suspense for the result of the dispute. When they saw the poultry dealer leaving the priest’s house in fine garments and with a happy expression on his face, they understood that everything was in order, blessed be the Almighty.

How did it go? What did the priest ask you?” all the people wanted to know. The rabbi called the poultry dealer to his home and asked him to relate what had happened.

And this is what the poultry dealer related: “The priest pointed with one finger to my eyes, meaning to take out my eye. I pointed with two fingers to imply, I would take out both his eyes. Then he took out a piece of cheese to show that I was hungry while he had cheese. So I took out an egg to show that i was not in need of his alms. Then he spilled some wheat grain on the floor. So I fed the hen, knowing it was hungry and thinking what a pity to waste the grain.”

At the same time, the priest’s family questioned him. “What did you ask the Jew? What did he reply?

The priest related: “At first I pointed one finger, meaning that there is only one king. he pointed with two fingers, meaning there are two kings, the king in heaven and the king on earth. Then I took out a piece of cheese, meaning, Is this the cheese from a white or a black goat? In answer he took out an egg, meaning, Is this egg from a white or a brown hen? Finally, I scattered some grain on the floor, meaning that the Jews are spread all over the world. Whereupon he freed his hen which ate up all the grain, meaning that the Messiah will come and gather all the Jews from the four corners of the world.”

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R’ Zalman tz’l teaches that a good maisa – a good story – is one where the heart surprises the mind.

Please feel free to use these stories in your teaching and in your holy conversations. ​​I welcome your gentle comments.