Tale of the Jerusalemite's lure of the sea in historical context

eternal lure of the sea

The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor features Sindbad repeatedly leaving his comfortable life in Baghdad to head out on toilsome seafaring adventures.[1]  The lure of the sea also initiates the Tale of the Jerusalemite.  That’s a Hebrew work probably written in ninth or tenth century Babylonia.[2]  Like the Tale of Sindbad the Sailor, the Tale of the Jerusalemite presents the attraction of seafaring as irrational and ineluctable.

In the Tale of the Jerusalemite, a Jewish merchant with a single son sought to save his son from the risks of seafaring.  Jews participated in trans-Eurasian travel and trade in the ancient world.  This merchant personally experienced hardships of such trade.  Preparing to die, he declared to his son:

You know how much property I own — silver, gold, precious stones, and pearls.  I earned them toiling on journeys over land and sea.  How many tribulations I endured on the oceans!  Swear to me by the strictest oaths that you will not endanger yourself on the sea.  For I am about to leave you sufficient wealth — for you, for your children, for your children’s children. [3]

The son swore to his father before witnesses that he would never go to sea.  The son had no material need for sea travel.  Moreover, the son was learned in Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud.  He understood that breaking a properly constituted oath is a serious offense against God.

Nonetheless, about two years after the father’s death, sailors convinced the son to set out on a long sea voyage.  The sailors told the son that his father had great wealth across the sea.  The sailors told the son:

If it’s true that he {your father} did not leave instructions about his deposits or property abroad, then he must have been feeble when he died.  …  Your father was known to be a wise and clever man.  When, at the time of his dying, he made you swear never to go to the sea, he could not have been in his right mind.  In truth, the oath he made you swear has no substance … He must have been demented.

The son at first rationally resisted these arguments about his father’s purported lack of right mind:

I will not violate this oath.  As for his not giving me instructions about the money abroad, he must have had my own welfare in mind, not wanting me to wish to go to sea to bring the money home.  You see, I cannot break the oath.

The sailors, however, eventually got the son to break his oath.  The tale explains: “the sailors so pressed the son and distracted him from his right mind that he gave in.”  The sailors’ legal argument was that the son’s oath wasn’t valid because the father was not in his right mind when it was made.  The son’s loss of right mind, not the sailor’s legal argument, was ultimately the reason that the son went to sea.[4]

Archeological evidence indicates that prehistoric peoples repeatedly engaged in long-distance seafaring for over 100,000 years.  Why?  Men by nature seem to be irrationally attracted to risky adventures.

Worcester graduate eight at Oxford torpids 1987

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[1] Early nineteenth-century Arabic versions of The Thousand and One Nights include the Tale of Sindbad the Sailor.  The setting for that tale is the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (786-809 GC).  The earliest surviving manuscript of Sindbad’s voyages is a Turkish manuscript from the seventeenth century. However, echoes of Sindbad’s ineluctable attraction to the sea appears in Matthew of Edessa’s twelfth-century chronicle.

[2] That’s the dating judgment of Jehuda Zlotnik, who edited a critical edition of the Tale of the Jerusalemite.  Other scholars have located the Tale of the Jerusalemite in twelfth or thirteenth-century Germany or thirteenth-century Egypt.  Stern & Weinstein (1990) p. 121.

[3] Id. pp. 123, 124 (all three quotes above).

[4] The sea voyage led to shipwreck, demons, and death.  In the Tale of Sindbad the Sailor, Sindbad on his second voyage was stranded on an island.  He tied himself to a huge bird called a Rukh and was carried aloft for a long distance.  In the Tale of the Jerusalemite, the son after being shipwrecked was cast ashore on a distant land.  He was then carried aloft for a long distance mounted on a huge bird called a Kifufa.  The Tale of the Jerusalemite ends with the moral message: “a son should always obey his father’s commands and must never break an oath.”  Id. p. 141. But the heart of the story is the humanization of the son’s demon-person second wife.  This daring enlarging of sympathy is similar to the treatment of man in Marie de France’s Bisclavret.


Stern, David and Avi Weinstein.  1990.  Tale of the Jerusalemite.  Pp. 121-42 in Stern, David and Mark Mirsky, eds. 1990. Rabbinic fantasies: imaginative narratives from classical Hebrew literature. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

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