A Jungian Interpretation of the Jewish Tale Miriam’s Tambourine by Natasha Morton

Marie-Louise von Franz (1996) hypothesized that all fairy tales endeavor to express and to deliver into consciousness the same psychic fact; that fact which Jung called the Self, the psychic totality of an individual and also, paradoxically, the regulating center of the collective unconscious. Each individual and every nation has its own mode of experiencing this psychic reality (p.2). She also asserted through the interpretation of fairy tales we can move closer to experiencing this psychic totality. This paper will seek to interpret the 19th Century Eastern-European Jewish tale of “Miriam’s Tambourine,” and in doing so illuminate the uniqueness of Jewish fairy tales as they relate to Jewish spiritual life, as well as the similarities of Jewish and Jungian beliefs on about the psyche.

Before proceeding, it is critical to examine what sets Jewish myths and tales apart from other ethnic bodies of work. Howard Schwartz, considered by many to be the foremost expert on Jewish folktales, noted that “in general, folktales evolve until they are written down, and those written versions become the authentic text not subject to major changes” (1998, p.xxvi), whereas Jewish folktales originate from the written text of the Torah. In the forward to Schwartz’s book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004), Elliot Ginsburg identified five central concepts of the Jewish mythical imagination. The first is the grand myth, or meta-narrative, which “is to hold that this world is created as an act of divine will; that one is the heir of Abraham and Sarah; of those who endure(d) Egyptian slavery and the gifts of Redemption, who stand at the pivot of Sinaitic revelation and its Covenant, who know the joys of homecoming and the enduring dislocations of exile” (p.xxxvii). Second is that this grand myth is rooted in the Hebraic Bible. The third is the Jewish concept of interpretation, midrash, which allows for expounding of biblical narrative beyond written text and is regarded as the Oral Torah. The Jewish scholar, Gershom Scholem (1996) wrote that according to Jewish tradition,

Moses received both Torahs at once on Mount Sinai, and everything that any subsequent scholar finds in the Torah or legitimately derives from it, was already included in this oral tradition given to Moses. . . .The oral tradition and the written word complete one another, neither is conceivable without the other. (p.48)

The fourth concept is the role of mythic consciousness; and here Ginsburg looked to Rabbi Arthur Green to best articulate its role. Green related that:

Scripture should in the proper sense be seen as mythical . . . as paradigms that help us encounter, explain and enrich by archaic association the deepest experiences of which we humans are capable. . . . By retelling, grappling with, dramatizing, living in the light of these paradigms, devotees feel themselves touched by a transcendent presence that is made real in their lives through the retelling, the re-enactments. (as cited in Ginsburg, 2004, p.xxxvii)

The use of we in this paper reflects this notion; we read the myth as if we were living it. The last concept noted by Ginsburg is the expression of this mythic consciousness. As also noted by von Franz, “Myths are built into religious rituals” (1996, p.28).   We bring mythic consciousness to light by performing ritual acts, by leading spiritually rich lives.

It is with the above understanding that we delve into applying von Franz’s method of interpretation to “Miriam’s Tambourine,” and in doing so, also highlight the unique Jewishness of this tale. The first part of von Franz’s method of interpretation is to divide the story into four stages: the exposition, the dramatis personae, the naming of the problem, and the peripeteia.   Similarly, Schwartz (1998) also identifies four uniquely Jewish aspects of the Jewish folktale: the Jewish time, the Jewish place, the Jewish characters, and the Jewish message. This last aspect is most closely aligned with the third part of von Franz’s method, the interpretation of the tale; and as such, discussion of the Jewish message will be reserved for that time.  

In identifying the exposition, Von Franz noted that “in fairy tales time and place are always evident because they begin with ‘once upon a time’ or something similar, which means in timelessness and spacelessness- the realm of the collective unconscious” (1996, p. 39). Yet within the tale of “Miriam’s Tambourine,” we are placed in the land of Babylon. This is what Schwartz would define as a Jewish place and it also indicates the Jewish time. The land of Babylon lends historical value to this tale for it was the Babylonians who destroyed the first Temple, built by King Solomon, in 586 BCE and marks the period of the Jewish Babylonian exile taking place between the years of 597-538 BCE. The symbolic significance of this place will be discussed at a later point. At this juncture, it is important to understand that while the exposition is defined as a historical place with historical value, the conception of Babylon takes on a mythic dimension for both 19th Century readers (the time period in which this tale was written) and present-day readers because we are far removed from experiencing the reality of this period.   Babylon lives solely within our imagination.

Another noteworthy Jewish time-related element in this tale is the Sabbath.   While mentioned in passing, the preparation for the Sabbath holds significant value for us within this journey. The symbolic significance of the Sabbath gives us a reference point to our present-day lives. Sabbath’s symbolic significance will be discussed later on along with the other symbolic places mentioned within the tale, the Garden of Eden and the Red Sea.

The second stage is the identification of the dramatis personae, or people involved.   Schwartz (1988) would point out the people involved are Jewish characters. We are initially introduced to four characters: Daniel, the king, the rabbi, and the rabbi’s son. Unlike many other Jewish folktales, the biblical Daniel is not featured as a prominent character; in fact, his name is only employed as an inspirational figure. Likewise we do not meet the king at this juncture; but the mention of his presence at the beginning of this tale is critical to the story’s unfolding and ending. The tale focuses on journey taken by ordinary yet extraordinary characters: the rabbi and his son. The rabbi and his son are ordinary in that they are not given names. They are just a father and son living in small hut deep in the forest; who spend their days studying Torah. This existence is not uncommon for a rabbi and his son; yet we are told of their extraordinariness almost within the same breath. The rabbi and his son could read the stars as clearly as any book and “they were the purest souls to be found in that land” (p.1).

We encounter two female characters on the journey. We first meet an old woman described as having beautiful wise eyes. The rabbi and the son ask her name and she replies, Sarah.   They ask her husband’s name and she tells them that it was Abraham. Upon hearing this, “the rabbi wondered if she might not be the same Sarah and her husband Abraham who are the mother and father of every Jew. The woman just nodded that it was true” (Schwartz, 1998, pp.3-4). Interestingly, we do not meet Abraham. He is out in the Garden of Eden collecting leaves for Sarah. The second female character is again a biblical character.   Miriam the Prophetess is described as being beautiful and young; her tambourine playing induces animals and humans alike to dance with joy.

We now proceed to naming the problem the tale seeks to resolve. We find ourselves in a time and place where the Jews of Babylon existed in peace because in each generation the king had a Jewish advisor, who protected the interests of his people. Each king kept a golden chest and in that chest was a precious Book. This book could only be opened by one person in each generation and this person was destined to be king’s advisor. However, it was now time to find a new advisor and none who journeyed were able to open the book. The peaceful existence of the Jews of Babylon would be in jeopardy if the person who could open the Book was not found.

The last stage identified by von Franz is the peripeteia, the ups and downs of the story.   In this story, there are four peripeteiai and they occur at points where the rabbi and his son’s faith are tested.

The first peripeteia occurs when the rabbi and his son become lost after traveling for four days and nights. They had become so absorbed in their contemplation of what mysteries the Book might hold that they did not know if it was day or night. They had paid no attention to the path on which they were walking. Fortified by their faith that the Divine would not lead them astray, they continued on the path until they came to a beautiful palace protected by a high wall.

Here they encounter the second peripeteia of the story. The wall’s gate was locked and the gate opened only once every hundred years, and then only for the briefest instant. They are filled with wonder and yearning to enter the gate, and as fate would have it, the gate flies open at the exact time the rabbi and his son are present. Likewise upon reaching the locked door to the glorious Palace of Pearls, they find a golden key to unlock the door.

The third peritpeteia is when they venture into the palace and meet Sarah, who was in the act of creating a powder that she casts into the wind before the Sabbath so that those who suffer from one Sabbath to the next breathe in a taste of Paradise on the Holy Day. The rabbi tells Sarah of the reason for their journey, and she informs them that although they have very pure souls, the Book can only be opened by the purest soul. They inquire if there is any way to purify their souls enough to open the Book. She tells them they must descend into Miriam’s Well and immerse themselves in the waters. The well is located just outside the palace; however, going there will be futile because the well’s entrance is guarded by serpents. The rabbi and his son are deeply saddened that they had come so far and so close. When the son asks Sarah if there is any way to get past the serpents, Sarah smiles and tells them they must seek out Miriam and ask to borrow her tambourine.   To find Miriam, Sarah directs them to a hollow tree in the middle of the garden that is the entrance to a cave.

They descend through both the hollow tree and the cave until they reach the shore of the Red Sea; there they find Miriam playing her tambourine to the delight of the fish and dolphins, who dance to the music. Overcome by joy, the rabbi and his son begin to dance. They would have danced there forever if Miriam had not put down her tambourine. The rabbi and his son tell her of their quest and without hesitation, Miriam hands them her tambourine.

It is Miriam that notes the fourth peritetia of the tale. She cautions them that only mortals such as themselves, who have found their way here, hold the power to drive the serpents from the well. She warns them that they must hurry because if she goes as long as a day without hearing the music from her tambourine, her eternal life will come to an end.

The rabbi and his son ascend back through the cave and hollow tree into the garden, where they find the well surrounded by serpents. Approaching the well, “they had reached the most solemn moment of their lives” (Schwartz, 1998, p.6).   Von Franz would identify this part of the story as the lysis, the height of tension. The son begins to play the tambourine, but without the compulsion to dance as Miriam was not playing it. The serpents writhe in agony at the tambourine’s sound and slither out of the garden, never to return. The purity of the well and the garden are restored with this act of bravery in the face of evil. The rabbi and his son descend into the life-giving waters of the well and their souls are purified to their “very kernel” (p. 7).   Their eyes open and “all manner of angels and spirits that had flocked around that garden now became apparent to them” (p.7). The rabbi and his son return the tambourine and thank Miriam. They take leave of the garden through the gate which “could always be opened from the inside” (p.7), and following the path, find themselves at the palace of the king by morning. They are given audience as so many others before them who had attempted but failed to open the Book. As the rabbi lightly touches the cover of the Book, it opens to him. The rabbi becomes the king’s trusted advisor and serves him for many years, referring to the Book for every important decision. When the rabbi passes from this world, his son, who also purified himself in the well, has no difficulty opening the Book. And so the Jews of that land live in a time of peace and abundance for many years.

Having come to the tale’s lysis, before tackling a psychological and cultural interpretation of the tale’s themes, its symbols need to be understood through amplification. The drawing of parallels, constellations, and juxtapositions of symbols from other sources is the same process utilized by an author of midrash. While von Franz’s would have asserted that the symbols contained in “Miriam’s Tambourine” also show up in non-Jewish tales and are moreover expressions of the collective-unconscious, focusing on the Jewishness of these symbols illuminates their evolution in relation to the Jewish message underlying the tale.

Schwartz noted that “the biblical text packs a maximum amount of meaning into a minimum number of words” (2004, p. xxxiii). I would extend this to tales as well; the archetypal images contained within the story serve as markers denoting deeper meaning.   “Miriam’s Tambourine” contains a plethora of symbols to examine. Only a handful of symbols, and briefly at that, will be examined at this time due to the limitations imposed for this paper.

The Land of the Babylon was the place of Jewish exile after the destruction of the first Temple built by King Solomon. Babylon denotes the continued theme for the Hebrews’, one of exile and hope for return. Daniel, the protagonist of the biblical book of Daniel, was carried off as a child into exile and raised in the Babylonian court. He served as advisor to the king and his chief talent was oneiromancy, interpretation of dreams.

The golden chest denotes the Ark of the Covenant, a portable chest that served as the repository for the Ten Commandments and five Torah scrolls written by Moses. The chest was plated in gold inside and out. The Ark was carried by the Israelites through their forty years of exile in the Sinai desert and then came to rest when the first Temple was built. Some traditions claim that the Ark was taken into captivity by the Babylonians (Dennis, 2007, p.19).   Likewise, the Book kept in the golden chest represents the Torah. Schwartz pointed to the theme that the book could be opened by only one in each generation as “a variant of the legend of the Book of Raziel. . . . This book was passed down to the primary figure in each subsequent generation [starting from Adam] until it was destroyed along with the Temple (Sefer Noah 150)” (1988, p. 353). “Miriam’s Tambourine” alludes to the Book of Raziel as still extant, having been carried off to Babylon, where it continued to be passed down through each generation starting with Daniel.

The king remains as an ambiguous figure throughout the story. Such a figure typically represents God in Jewish tales. From a Kabbalahistic perspective, the term “king” relates to any of the upper three serifot (Keter, Chochmah, Binah) which represent the intellectual powers of the Divine through which Creation is directed (Kaplan, 2005, p. 2).

The advisor or viceroy to the king denotes the righteous man or tzaddik. The tzaddik is alternatively known as rebbe. In the Hasidic tradition, after a beloved rebbe dies, his son or an immediate relative assumes his role in the community (Dennis, p.216). From the Kabbalahistic perspective, the tzaddik is related to the serifah of Yesod, the sixth serifot. It represents the sixth day of Creation, when the human was created.   Hence, the advisor can represent humankind as a whole (Kaplan, p.6).

The walled garden with the gated entrance represents the Garden of Eden, the primordial place of Unity. The gate is emblematic of the entrance to celestial or underworld realms. The Palace of Pearls represents the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The pearl denotes wisdom and is related to dreams (Kaplan, p.18). Sarah is representative of the archetypal Mother. She is the first Mother to the Jews and also considered a Priestess. Sarah crushes leaves collected from the Garden into powder, which she blows to the wind (ruach) so it is carried to four corners of the earth, easing the suffering of her children on the Sabbath. Ruach also represents the heart aspect of soul.

The descent into the hollow tree and cave symbolize the womb. Dennis (2007) noted that the Cave of Machpelah is where Abraham’s family interred their dead. The Sages described Machpelah as the nexus of power and an entrance to Eden. The shore is usually representative of a spiritual realm (Kaplan, 2005). The Red Sea, where Moses performed the miracle of parting the waters, is symbolic of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. This is the place where Miriam, the sister of Moses, played her tambourine and the Israelite women danced with joy when they reached the opposite shore. Music holds a prominent place in Jewish spiritual life and ritual. The Hasidic tradition teaches that the nitzutzei kedusha (holy sparks), that every soul possesses are raised to holiness through music (p.41). Miriam is also known as Prophetess. Her well followed the Children of Israel during the forty years of desert wandering, supplying them with fresh water. According to the Talmudic tradition, the well was created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight during the days of Creation. There is also the association between Miriam’s well and the Torah; both serving as an inexhaustible resource to quench a person’s thirst (Schwartz, 1988). Purifying one’s self in the waters relates to the Jewish ritual of the mikvah, an immersion into living waters.

Serpents occur throughout Jewish tradition as possessing both positive and negative attributes. The serpents in this tale are most likely associated with the snake that tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. The Hebrew word for snake is nachash, which translates as to trick.

The number four, found throughout this tale, is a significant number in the Jewish tradition. It relates to the four cardinal directions and four elements. The sacred name of the Divine, YHVH, is comprised of four letters. The Passover Sedar, which commemorates the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, is structured around the number four. In Kabbalah, there are four realms: assiyah (body-sensation), atzilut (souls), beriah (thoughts), and yetizah (emotions).

“Psychological interpretation is our way of telling stories; we still have the same need and we still crave the renewal that comes from understanding archetypal images” (Franz, 1996, p.45). The same is true with the midrashic process. Rabbi Nathan of Bratslav, a Hassidic Master, reminded us of Proverbs 1:5: “The wise man will hear and expand the lesson” (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p.xv).

The underlying theme in the tale of Miriam’s Tambourine speaks of a psychological exile from ourselves and the Divine Self. As exiles in a psychological Babylon, we live in constant jeopardy of unrest. The symbol of Red Sea reminds us not only of our exile but moreover, the possibility of making it to the other side. This tale also speaks of a corrupted Eden with a well overrun by evil snakes. The snakes relate back to the Genesis story, where the Snake tricks Adam and Eve into ego-consciousness. While this ego-consciousness is necessary for our process, it is that which keeps us from experiencing the pure Unity. The rabbi and his son are metaphors of each of us; the potential of being a tzaddik exists within each of us.

As related above, the number four plays a critical role in this tale. We first encounter its use when the rabbi and his son travel for four days and nights, days and nights that blend into one another. This echoes the timelessness existing before the fourth day of Creation in Genesis, when the sun and moon were created. Here the story finds us, with in the rabbi and his son, traveling in a state of undifferentiated darkness. Their transformative passage from journeying in a state of unconsciousness through differentiation to consciousness of the divine proceeds through four peritetia: becoming lost, arriving at the locked gate to the unconscious just when it is opening, descending into the unconscious to borrow the holy instrument of the prophetess, and driving the serpents from the well in order to be purified by the inexhaustible well of the living waters. The four entrances passed in this process represent the psychological process of balancing of the four realms of the Kabbalah — notably similar to Jung’s four functions of thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation.

It is through the rabbi and his son’s descents into the unconscious that they encountered Sarah and Miriam, which provide them with the answers and methods required for the success of their journey. Jung would describe Sarah and Miriam as Anima figures, representative of the emotional and intuitive functions of the psyche. A Jewish take would be that these women are representative of the feminine aspect of the Divine, the Shekhinah; and are also linked to the realms of atzilut (souls) and yetizah (emotions).   Rabbi Levi Meir (1991) wrote that “the unconscious is God’s forgotten language or God’s way of guiding each individual. This process is an experience of Shekhinah, God’s Divine Presence” (p.35).   The Shekhinah is also known as the Sabbath Bride, as well as described as God’s Consort.   Thus the rabbi and his son reunify the king, the intellectual function of the Divine, with the feminine aspects of the Divine.

The allusion in the tale to the continued survival of the Book of Raziel reminds us of the powerful messages contained within the Torah, a code in which to decipher our own unconscious. The contemporary Jewish scholar, Avivah Zornberg, wrote that: “the aim of interpretation is . . . not merely to . . . familiarize an ancient book: . . . [but] more importantly, to make the reader aware, of the current that runs between his/her lived situation and the text, of the ways in which we are ‘at key instants, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche’” (1995, p.xv). This is perhaps, a deeper, and psychological, meaning of the Jewish story of exodus and the significance of its remembrance. We are reminded of Sarah’s smile when the son questions if perhaps there is another way. We each find ourselves on a path, seeking to reunite with the psychic totality of Self through interpreting and questioning. But like the rabbi and his son, with an unwavering faith through remembrance of the possibilities expressed by the Self, we must descend through the cave, bringing consciousness to the unconscious, where we can hear Miriam’s music playing at the edge of the Red Sea, borrow her music, and drive the serpents from her ever-present well. The tale of “Miriam’s Tambourine” reminds us that by drawing on ancient sources, we are able to restore and to renew.


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Natasha Kirin Morton  is currently completing her Masters in Counseling Psychology at Pacific Graduate Institute.  She holds a BA in Psychology and Buddhist Studies from Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and has been a long time student of Rabbi Gershon Winkler.  She hopes to expand the dialogue between Jungian psychology and Judaism.