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A Sense of Theft

Origins of this tale

Some folklore scholars attribute this story to tales about Ooka Tadasuke, a Japanese samurai of the 17th century, an incorruptible judge who became a legendary figure for his imaginative legal decisions. Others attribute the form of the tale to stories of renowned Turkish trickster hero, Nasreddin Hodja. And while this tale is set in an imaginary Jewish shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, it owes its sense of justice to many versions of the tale, embellished by story tellers everywhere, each one spinning on the notion of foolish lawsuits—a favorite especially among Americans.

Readers will find versions of the tale in many books as well, including Frank Henius’s “A Baker’s Neighbor” in Stories of the Americas, published in 1944 by Charles Scribner’s and sons; in Henius’s version, payment comes not in sound but in the touch of money. Roger D. Abrahams’ “Rich Man, Poor Man’ in African Folktales, Pantheon Books, 1983, offers the bleating of a goat in payment, while one of the earlier versions--perhaps the earliest--Ooka and the Stolen Smell from I.G. Edmonds Ooka the Wise: Tales of Old Japan (Bobbs-Merrill, 1961, reprinted in `94 by Linnet Books) may be the wisest of all; in this version a student flavors his rice with the scent of food. Sharon Creeden, in her wonderful collection Fair is Fair: World Folktales of Justice (August House Publishers, 1994) offers a brilliant spin on the notions spun within this tale and provides an example from the annals of legal lore, the scholarly writings of the renowned Justice Benjamin Cardozo writing in 1870 on frivolous lawsuits; read Creeden’s book to learn more.

Classroom exercises

Parents and teachers may want to ask listeners to consider their own frivolous desires. Can they list any?

What sort of payments have listeners required of others, and what sort of payments have they been asked to provide?

Invite listeners to create variations of this story. What might be fair repayment for unfair demands? Set the story anywhere, anytime—at home, in school, on holiday, at the beach, in a city, in the countryside, in the deep of winter, on a hot summer morning. Ask listeners to fashion themselves as teacher, demanding an unreasonable request. What would a judge decide if the student balked?

Set up the story so that the villain is a school bully, the listener the bullied, and vice versa. What does the bully demand, and how does his or her victim respond? Now, with the listener playing judge, what is the judgment?

How do others in the surrounding neighborhood, area, village, town, affect the judge's judgment in this tale and others?

What is fair? What is unfair? Does this change depending upon time and place?