The King and the Merchant from Chelm: A story for the third night of Chanukah
There was once a merchant from the city of Chelm. Now, everyone knows that when the Angel of Wisdom and Foolishness was flying over the world, she caught her foot on a high mountain and stumbled. The jar of foolish souls tipped up, and most of the souls spilled out, landing in the city, and to this day it is known that our wisest fools come from Chelm.
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This merchant was walking home in the evening, and came across an old man wearing nothing but rags. He brought him home, and he and his wife fed and clothed the old man. That night, by the fire, the merchant entertained both his wife and the beggar with stories of the wisdom of his grandfathers – but, as we say, those are stories for other nights.
In the morning the beggar set on his way, thanking the merchant for his kindness, and for the fact that he had not laughed so hard for so long. He put his hand on the merchant’s arm, and said, “My friend, wherever you travel, you will be blessed with insight and wisdom far beyond that of your grandfathers. Trust your instinct, and one day it will save your life.”
With that he turned, and left the story.
Now it just so happened that the next day the merchant had to leave on a journey, and his route would take him into the territory of a wicked king. This king hated most travellers, but, most of all, he despised the people of Chelm, feeling them to be so foolish that he had made it his mission to sentence any traveller from Chelm to death. He had ordered is guards to ask each visitor where they were from, and said, “If any hail from Chelm, he must be halted by the guards. and asked to say something about himself. If he lies, he is to be shot. If he tells the truth, he is to be hanged.” He reckoned this course of action would mean that there would be no travellers left from Chelm by the end of his reign.
So, on the third day of his journey, our generous merchant from Chelm wandered through the gates of the city of this terrible king. The guards asked where he was from, and, smiling, the merchant said he was from the city of Chelm. They asked him to tell them something about himself, explaining with malicious grins that if he told a lie he would be shot, and if he told a truth he would be hanged. The poor man realized he was doomed, but he remembered the words of the beggar he had helped, opened his mouth and let the first thing on his tongue fall from his lips …
“Today I will be shot!” he said, and then clamped his hand over his mouth, hardly believing that he had said such a provocative thing. The guards – who (let’s be honest) were not chosen for their brains – escorted the merchant to the king, repeating what he had said.
The king was furious. The guards blinked beneath his anger, not really understanding why he, their beloved Majestyness, was so mad. So the king had to explain to them, very slowly and loudly:
“Don’t you see? This man has said that today he will be shot.”
Incomprehension from the guards.
“So if I shoot him he will have spoken the truth, not a lie; and if I hang him he will have spoken a lie. He’s got me either way.”
Understanding dawned on the guards’ faces, and, eager to help, they suggested that the prisoner, the little merchant, should be allowed to escape, while their worst marksman tried to shoot him. That way nobody would look foolish.
Well, the king agreed and the merchant ran as fast as he could. The guards fired wildly missing everything. Finally, the merchant found himself back on the road to Chelm, and who should he meet but the beggar that had given him such sound advice. He thanked him, and offered to give him a meal and a bed if ever he needed it, and the two men went their separate ways.
It was only afterwards that the generous little merchant from Chelm realized that his guest and benefactor was probably none other than Elijah himself.