Death and the Gardener
The one thing in life which can never be escaped – a tale first noted in the third century
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A tale told in several cultures, including the Jewish.
Robert Irwin in Arabian Nights: A Companion states that this tale appeared in written form in another collection of folk tales written in the Middle East in the 11th century.
Heather Forest has a shorter version of this as a Jewish folk tale on her invaluable page of Stories in a Nutshell.
Somerset Maugham wrote a literary version, “An Appointment in Samara”. This blog post gives the Somerset Maugham version as well as background on the original folktale.
My thanks to folklorist Yoel Perez, who has provided further information about this tale:
The story appears first time in the third century Babylonian Talmud.
Here I bring the English translatuon of the Arameic source.
R. Johanan stated, A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted. [By Death]
There were once two Cushites [‘Ethiopians’ or (with Rashi) ‘handsome men’, as the Rabbis render the noun in Num. XII, 1.] who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, [I Kings IV, 3] of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad? – ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [In heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here’. [Sc. death has been decreed against them] [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits [Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23)] and sent them to the district of Luz. [To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b)] When, however, they reached the district of Luz [And were still at the gate] they died.
On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ – ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them!’ [It was decreed that they should die at the gate of Luz].
Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted’. [Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sukkah. 53a]
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For those who are teachers: Telling stories in the classroom: basing language teaching on storytelling