Riddles have been described (by the American folklorist Roger Abrahams) as a traditional form of licensed aggression, since the aim of the riddler is to confuse the listener by giving hints that point to the right answer only in hindsight. The answer to a puzzling and seemingly unanswerable question is arbitrary, surprising, and traditional. That is, with all possible answers, the questioner, in keeping with tradition, has the power to insist which choice is the right answer. The puzzle arises from the skillful use of speech-play, metaphor, and other techniques of obfuscation and misdirection. Yet the riddle can serve various functions: as entertainment, as a means of teaching values, and as a way of socializing the child into the poetics of Yiddish speech, including speech-play, metaphor, puns, and proverbs.
A traditional Yiddish riddle (retenish) may consist solely of descriptive elements without an explicit question:
In vald vakst dos, in krom hengt dos, m’git a rir, veynt dos.
(It grows in the woods, it hangs in a shop, when you touch it, it cries.)
or it may take the form of a question:
Ver veyst, vos bay yenem felt?
(Who knows what other people are missing?)
An edifying riddle (muser-retenish) is designed to teach a moral lesson:
Vos iz di shverste zakh af der velt?
(What is the hardest thing in the world?)
derkenen di eygene khesroynes
(to recognize one’s own faults)
Vos iz di gringste zakh af der velt?
(What is the easiest thing in the world?)
gebn an eytse
(to give advice)
Schoolboys (in heder and yeshiva) had their own riddles, which helped to prepare them for the logic of Talmudic disputes:
Vifl beygl ken men oyfesn oyfn nikhtern hartsn?
(How many bagels can you eat on an empty stomach?)
Eyner, vayl nokhn ershtn iz men shoyn nisht nikhter.
(One, because after the first one, your stomach is no longer empty.)
Eyner hot zikh gekholemt, az er fort oyf a shif mit zayn foter un muter. Di shif trinkt zikh. Er ken rateven nor zikh aleyn mit nokh eynem. Er vil rateven dem foter mit der muter. Vos darf er ton?
(A person dreamed that he was sailing on a ship with his father and mother. The ship is sinking. He can only save himself and one other person. He wants to save his father and his mother. What should he do?)
Er darf zikh oyfkhapn fun shlof.
(He should wake up.)
In what seems to be a particularly Jewish kind of riddle, the solution is given, and the point of the riddle is to explain why the solution is wrong:
When the Jews were in the desert, Joshua saw a man working on the Sabbath. Joshua found out his name and wrote it down, so he could report it to Moses. Writing is also forbidden on the Sabbath, but Joshua forgot that it was Saturday.
If he forgot that it was Saturday, how did he notice that the man was violating the Sabbath by working?
There are also joking or parody riddles, which serve as entertainment:
Far vos farmakht a hon di oygn beshas er kreyt?
(Why does a rooster close its eyes when it crows?)
Vayl er ken oysveynik.
(Because he knows it by heart.)
Such riddles are often based on puns. The following example is based on the ambiguity of the phrase far vos, which usually means why, but can also mean for what:
Far vos koyft a galakh a shtekn mit a zilberne kop?
(Why does a priest buy a walking stick with a silver top?)
Another more serious example comes from the Vilna ghetto, where it presumably functioned to raise morale. It is based on the ambiguity of the verb fargeyn, which means set when referring to the sun, but can also mean pass or fade from the scene:
Voser untersheyd iz tsvishn di daytshn un der zun?
(What’s the difference between the Germans and the sun?)
Di zun geyt uf in mizrekh un fargeyt in mayrev; di daytshn zaynen ufgegangen in mayrev un fargeyen in mizrekh.
(The sun rises in the east and sets in the west; the Germans arose in the west and are fading in the east.)
Riddles also play a role in other folklore genres: folk songs (especially folk songs about courtship), anecdotes, and folktales. A famous folk song example is “Tum-balalayke,” in which the boy asks the girl what can grow without rain, what can burn without stopping, and what can cry without tears. She calls him foolish for asking such simple questions: A stone can grow without rain, love can burn without stopping, and a heart can cry without tears.
In an anecdote, one man poses a riddle to another: “How it is possible for me to have a house and yet have nowhere to lay my head?” The answer involves a series of puns based on the literal meanings of words used in idioms:
Di gesheftn mayne lign tif in der erd, hostu dir a fundament. Mayn shokhnte shtelt tsunoyf a vant mit a vant. Fun ale mayne khaloymes vegn parnose lozt zikh oys a boydem. Un eyner fun mayne bale-khoyves hot mir gegebn a tsuzog, az oyb ikh vel nit tsoln dos veksl, vet er mir dekn dem dakh. Nu, hob ikh shoyn a gantse gebayde ober vu leygt men avek dem kop?
(My business is in bad shape [lit., lies deep in the ground], so there’s a foundation. My neighbor accomplishes the impossible [lit., brings two walls together]. All my dreams about making a living are coming to naught [lit., are amounting to an attic]. And one of my creditors promised me that if I don’t pay up on my note, he’ll bury me [lit., will cover my roof]. So I already have a whole building, but where can I lay my head?
Among the types of Yiddish (and international) folktales are so-called riddle tales, in which the hero (or heroine) solves a riddle or riddles that others cannot solve. In a variant of an international folktale, “The Bishop and Moshke,” for example, the bishop wants the king to order Moshke the Jew to be given a good thrashing. The king first poses three riddles to the bishop, who is forced to enlist the help of Moshke in solving them. As a result, the bishop gets the thrashing and Moshke gains the king’s favor.
The largest collection of Yiddish riddles (223) was published by Shloyme Bastomski in Vilna in 1923, as the second edition of his Yidishe folksretenishn (Yiddish Folk Riddles). Bastomski’s riddles, which he collected from school children, include examples with no particular Jewish content (like the one cited above about the thief) as well as riddles referring to specific Jewish realia such as holidays or Bible stories. There are also internationally known riddles to which a Jewish element has been added, such as number 223, usually told about a prisoner who will be hanged if he tells a lie and shot if he tells the truth. Here it is told about a Jew who comes to the capital of an antisemitic emperor. The riddle is how the Jew can escape execution. He does so by saying “haynt vet ir mikh hengen” (today you are going to hang me), which creates a logical paradox. If they hang him, he will have told the truth and should therefore be shot; if they shoot him, he will have told a lie and should therefore be hanged. So they have to release him.
Walter Anderson, Kaiser und Abt: Die Geschichte eines Schwanks (Helsinki, 1923); Jennifer Dowling, “Riddles and Riddle Parodies: Shloyme Bastomski’s Yidishe folksretenishn,” in History of Yiddish Studies, ed. Dov-Ber Kerler, Winter Studies in Yiddish 3, pp. 81–92 (Chur, Switz., 1991); Rina Regina Lapidus, “A Vilna Folklorist’s Collection: Structural Analysis of Yiddish Riddles,” in Politics of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Literature, and Society, ed. Dov-Ber Kerler, Winter Studies in Yiddish 4, pp. 193–200 (Walnut Creek, Calif., 1998); Ruth Rubin, “Yiddish Riddles and Problems,” New York Folklore Quarterly 12 (1956): 257–260; Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, ed., Yiddish Folktales, trans. Leonard Wolf (New York, rpt., 1997).