I told a version of this story Friday night, and as usual, folks liked it. So here goes my nomination for “The Greatest Jewish Story Ever Told” I have been telling it in some form for 25 years. I first heard it from the incomparable Peretz Wolf-Prusan, whose storytelling abilities are legendary. I still cannot do justice to the story as told by Peretz, but here goes:
Once upon a time, there was a small Jewish community in a small North African Country. Like most Jewish communities of North Africa, the Jews lived in a small section of the city known as the “mellah”. (Ghettos in Europe, Mellahs in North Africa-get it?)
Well, it so happened that the King decided to rid himself of all the Jews in his kingdom. But how to do it? He came up with a plan. One day, the King announced that he was challenging the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities to a contest of arms. Each community would produce a champion who would face the King in single combat. If the champion lost, off with his head. However, there was a special condition for the Jews. If the Jewish champion lost, not only would he forfeit his life, but the entire mellah would be expelled from the country.
Each community picked a champion to face the King, who was known as a fierce warrior. In the mellah, there was an emergency meeting. No one wanted to face the King in combat. Finally, from the back of the room, diminutive Sellah raised his hand. “I’ll face the King”, he said. The people laughed. Sellah was not only small and weak, he was the local baker-in fact he produced the hallahs for their Shabbat tables. “What!” They cried, “How can you face the King? He is a mighty warrior!” Nonetheless, Sellah was undeterred. “God will be with me”, he said.
On the day of the contest, the three communities were forced to assemble in the courtyard of the Palace. The King, dressed in armor, stepped forward. Immediately, a strikingly handsome man named John, champion of the Christians, also stepped forward, wtih a long sword. The King, however, did not draw his own weapon. Instead, he produced a hot pepper, which he devoured in one gulp without blinking an eye. “I love these,”sneered the King. “You must eat one of these as well. If you can do it without shouting “AHHHH”-than you win. If not, off with your head!” The champion of the Christians threw down his sword in disgust. “This is ridiculous!” he snorted. He popped the pepper into his mouth. At once, his head bagan to sweat, his ears turned red and he screamed “AHHHHH”. “Off with his head!” shouted the King–and the unfortunate man was dragged off. Next was Jamil, the elegantly dressed champion of the Muslim community who carried a long curving sword. He too put the pepper into his mouth and he too could not help but shout “AHHHHH”-and he too was dragged off.
Finally, there was only Sellah. The King turned his wicked eyes on the frightened Jew-for this was the reason for the contest in the first place. “Don’t let me hear you say “AHHHHHH”-for if you say “AHHHH-you will lose your head and the entire community will be banished.”
Sellah nodded, and took the pepper. He placed it in his mouth. At first it was not so bad. But THEN-his head began to sweat and his ears began to burn and he started hopping about and finall-he had an idea.
“Oh King”, he said- “When we Jews eat peppers we like to sing-may I sing!?” The King was confused, but gave him permission to sing. So Sellah opened his mouth and sang:
My name is SellAAAAHHHHHH!
I live in the MellAAAAHHHHH!
I bake hallAAAHHHHH!
And that is how Sellah saved the Jews.