Original Jewish Version of Jack and the Beanstalk


Original Jewish Version of Jack and the Beanstalk


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Jack and the Beanstalk, Reviewed

(A new view based on recent findings in the Copenhagen Geniza)

By Yochanan Spielberg


The story of Jack and the Beanstalk, as most people know it, is first brought down in the prayer book of the Achim Grimm. However, recent studies done in the Copenhagen Geniza have found some partial manuscripts of the midrash, (the Jewish oral version of the Torah) dating its source to R. Haim Yehudi Bar-Anders (known by his 'goyish' name of Hans Christian Anderson). The version cited here is the Grimm version, except in the section about the cow, which is based on the most complete Bar-Anders manuscript.

Summary of the text:

(Please click on the hypertexted number to see the added commentary based on the recent findings in the Copenhagen Jewish geniza find!)

Jack lives alone with his mother [1] in an anonymous village [2]. The village had three treasures, some gold coins, a golden harp which sings and a goose which laid golden eggs. These treasures were stolen by an evil giant. Jack and his mother have only their old cow to support them [3]. When the cow stops giving milk, Jack's mother tells Jack that they must sell the cow. Jack goes off to sell the cow, and meets an unidentified farmer [4], who offers Jack some magic beans in exchange for the cow [5]. Jack makes the switch, takes the beans and goes home to his mother.

Jack's furious mother takes the beans and hurls them out the window to the ground [6]. She sends Jack to bed without any supper. The next morning, Jack arises, looks out the window, and sees a giant beanstalk where the beans had landed. Jack climbs up the beanstalk, and comes to a land where he is dwarfed by everything [7].

In the distance Jack spies a castle. He goes off in the direction of the castle, hoping to find breakfast. Arriving at the castle, Jack knocks on the door, and is greeted by the giant's wife [8], who tells him to hide since her husband eats little boys. Suddenly, we are treated to a chorus of "Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman [10]" as the giant [9] storms onto the scene. The giant's wife calms him, and tells him to go and play with his gold toys. The giant goes, counts his coins, commands the goose to lay a golden egg, and has the golden harp sing him to sleep [10].

Jack comes out of hiding, recognizes his village’s treasures, steals one of them [11], and returns, down the beanstalk to his village. He returns the treasures to the villagers.

This is repeated on each of the subsequent nights, until all of the treasures are restored to their rightful owners. The giant then pursues Jack down the beanstalk, but Jack pulls out a conveniently placed axe, and chops down the stalk, hurling the giant to his untimely end [12].


1. Jack and his mother live alone - note that there is no father. This is symbolic of the exile of the Jack, Jacob, Jewish people from their Father in Heaven, while the nurturing mother, the every present presence of God, follows the Jewish people in their wanderings.

2. The anonymous village which had lost its treasures is symbolic of the destroyed city of Jerusalem, which has lost the splendor and glory of ancient days, rendering it just another city. No more would the half shekel (the coins) be donated by the Jewish people to maintain the Temple.

No more would the Levites sing their psalms (the harp). No more would the Priests bring bird and other offerings (the goose). All these treasures were stolen by enemies of Israel, represented by the evil giant, the might of the nations against the diminutive Jewish People.

3. An old cow to support them which stops giving milk - the people, realizing the emptiness of their lives without the destroyed Jerusalem, realizing that their golden calves no longer sustain them, finally return to God, renouncing their ways. They attempt to rid themselves of their evil ways.

4. This is the most cryptic character in the entire story. Generally, one supposes that such a character is either an angel, or is Pinchas. In this case, there is no reason to suppose that.

5. Jack attempts to take the easy way out. His repentance is, as yet, only partial.

6. This is reminiscent of Moses’s hurling the tablets to the ground. There the people were as yet unrepentant. Jack's mother, the Divine presence, is indicating to Jack that partial repentance is not acceptable.

7. Jack goes off into exile, in search of the path of repentance. He is dwarfed by the nations.

8. One scholar identifies the giant's wife represents the righteous among the nations, who attempts to hide Jack from the evil giant. Another scholar, who had a variant manuscript (the Copenhagen geniza texts do not shed any light on this) points out that she still pushes Jack into the oven to hide, a clear indication of passive anti-Semitism. Perhaps due to her ambiguous nature, when the giant is ultimately killed, we do not hear of any reward or punishment for the giant's wife. Indeed, her entire identity is purely "the giant's wife"--by reference to the enemy of the Jews.

9. We find the giant living in a state of moral decrepitude. His marriage is a sham at best, as we see that he and his wife do not even share common purpose--one eats little boys, another shields them. He indicates to Jack, that no matter what nationality he is pretending to be, ("I smell the blood of an Englishman"), he is still a hated Jew (the giant's wife makes it clear that he eats boys, not Englishman). The giant's wife is only able to calm the giant from his fury by reminding him that the Temple is still in ruins, and its remains are merely toys to him.

10. The giant, not even realizing how precious these treasures are falls asleep on them.

11. Upon catching a glimpse of what he has lost, Jack is suddenly stirred to a higher level of repentance. Attaining that level, Jack brings back one of the missing treasures to Jerusalem. Nonetheless, Jack must continue this process over a series of nights, attaining higher and higher levels of repentance, and restoring the Jewish people and Jerusalem to higher and higher levels of their former glory.

12. Ultimately, the repentance of the Jewish people is perfected, and the Jews are able to defeat their enemies. The messianic age is then ushered in.

Yochanan Spielberg is the proprieter of Zion Book Store on the web, selling all kinds of Jewish books. Visit it at http://www.zionbooks.com

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