By: Joseph Jacobs
Among the ancients, as witness the story of Œdipus and the Sphinx, a riddle was a more serious matter than in modern times, more in the nature of a wager than of an amusement. Samson's riddle to the Philistines (Judges xiv. 14) was of this kind, though it has been suggested that his own name is a key to the thing which brings forth sweetness out of the lion. It would appear that some of the proverbs in which sets of three and of four objects are mentioned (e.g., xxx. 15 et seq.) were originally in the form of riddles. In Ezekiel (xvii. 1-10) there is actually a symbolic riddle, in which the King of Babylon is compared to an eagle.
Riddles appear to have been a favorite table amusement with the early Hebrew, Sirach referring to them as such. Many of them centered around the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, whose wisdom she tested chiefly by propounding riddles. Three of these are recorded in the second Targum to Esther (i. 2), and no less than nineteen are given in a Yemen manuscript published by S. Schechter in "Folklore" (i. 349-358). Most of these riddles are simply Bible questions, some not of a very edifying character. The two that are genuine riddles are: "Without movement while living, it moves when its head is cut off," and "Produced from the ground, man producesit, while its food is the fruit of the ground." The answer to the former is, "a tree, which, when its top is removed, can be made into a moving ship"; the answer to the latter is, "a wick."Talmudic Riddles.
In the Talmud itself riddles frequently occur; take as an instance the one from Ḳinnim (end): "What animal has one voice living and seven voices dead?" The answer is, "the ibis, from whose carcass seven different musical 'instruments are made." The Talmud contains even a poetical riddle, the answer to which has never been definitely, settled. It is as follows:
"High from heav'n her eye looks down, Constant strife excites her frown; Winged beings shun her sight, She puts the youth to instant flight. The aged, too, her looks do scout; Oh! oh ! the fugitive cries out. And by her snares whoe'er is lured Can never of his sin be cured"
One of the stories relating to the connection of Judah the Patriarch with Marcus Aurelius is an enacted riddle. The emperor sent a messenger to ask the sage how he should fill his empty treasury. Judah simply went into his garden, uprooted the old plants, and planted young ones in their stead. The emperor understood, and dismissed his old councilors and appointed more youthful ones, who, it is to be supposed, paid him for the appointments (Gen. R. lxvii.). "Two are better than three, for the one disappears never to return" (Shab. 152a). In other words, "Two legs are better than two with a staff, for youth never returns." This is another form of the celebrated riddle of the Sphinx. It is again utilized in an enigmatic excuse made by Simeon ben Ḥalafta for not calling upon Rabbi: "Rocks become high [he was becoming old]; the near are at a distance [his eyes had grown dim]; two are turned into three [he needed a staff to walk]" (Shab. 152b).
Similarly, a request for a couple of chickens for breakfast was put in the following form: "Give the coals an orange color, let the glimmer of gold appear like an expanse of heaven, and prepare me two heralds of the darkness" ('Er. 53b).The Medieval Poets.
In medieval times many of the poets, those of Spain in particular, wrote riddles in verse. Thus Moses ibn Ezra asked, "What is the sister of the sun, though made for the night? The fire causes her tears to fall, and when she is near dying they cut off her head." The answer is, "a taper." Abraham ibn Ezra wrote riddles on grammatical formulas, especially on the vocalic consonants, and one on the letters "mem" and "nun." Judah ha-Levi wrote several riddles, of which that of the needle may serve as an example:
"What is it that's blind with an eye in its head, But the race of mankind its use can not spare; Spends all its life in clothing the dead, But always itself is naked and bare?"
Al-Ḥarizi has a most elaborate riddle on the ant and the flea, while Emanuel of Rome gives in his poem a pedantic riddle, the answer to which is "matter." The curious riddle given at the end of the Haggadah is an additional instance of the popularity of this form of amusement among Jews. It has never been determined whether this riddle was originally Jewish or German.
- A. Wünsche, Die Räthselweishcit bei den Hebräern, Leipsic, 1883;
- Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 384-385;
- Löw, Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur, pp.346-349;
- several riddles collected in Galicia and given in Am Urquell, vol. vi.