The Tale of Nathan Resista


The theme of the virtuous woman whose only apparent way of securing the release of a loved one (brother or husband) from prison is to offer up her chastity to a powerful and lustful man is best known to English readers from Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure. Shakespeare's motif probably comes ultimately from a story told by St. Augustine of Hippo in his homily De sermone domini in monte secundum Matthaeum. I have published a detailed study of this theme in the journal Folklore.

According to the story, which Augustine accepts as fact, the Governor of Antioch demanded money of an individual, who secured it by permitting his wife to sleep with a man who was infatuated with her. However, the man ungenerously substituted earth for gold at the last minute. The wife complained to the governor, who regretted that his extortion had caused the affair, and ensured that justice was done. Augustine tells the story in the context of a discussion whether under some conditions a man's carnal rights to his wife might be assigned to another without committing adultery. He is inclined to be lenient, but concludes that this story is not decisive, since it is not divinely inspired.

Augustine, who was writing at the end of the fourth century C.E., remarks that the incident took place some fifty years previously -- just at the time of the Exilarch Ukban ben Nehemiah, known as Nathan de-susitha, about whom the similar story given below is told. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath, 56b. The story in this form was incorporated in the ninth century Arabic collection Hibbur yafeh min hayeshuah by Nissim Gaon of Kairwan. There are various Muslim versions of this tale, especially the one recorded by the ninth century writer Al-Tanukhi, where it forms part of a group of stories told by three Jewish travelers trapped in a cave, who, by reciting their merits, caused a troublesome rock obligingly to roll aside.

The version presented here is that current among Arabic speaking Jews of the present time, and is taken from a printed book Qussat Nathan Resista which lacks date and place, but was probably printed in Baghdad. In earlier sources the individual is called Nathan de-susitha, supposedly on account of the halo (susitha) which he acquired after his repentance. This has been corrupted in the current editions to resista (r and d are graphically very close in Hebrew), presumably referring to his heart-broken stance after the incident -- the word resista implying "broken." The earlier Judeo-Arabic version can be found in the folktale collection Mimeqor Yisrael.

The Tale

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Thee we worship, and of Thee we seek help against those who would oppress us.

This story took place in ancient times. There was a certain man whose name was Nathan Resista, who fell in love with a married woman called Hannah. He fell passionately in love with her, and became sick from his passion. The physicians came to treat him, examined him, and declared that he would only recover if she would come to him. Said the sages: "Let him die rather than do such a transgression!" The physicians said: "Let her come and talk to him." Said the sages: "Let him die rather than that she should talk to him."

At that time Hannah's husband was in debt. A complaint was brought against him, and he was imprisoned, because he had nothing with which to pay off his debts. His wife worked night and day to support herself and her husband. He stayed many days in prison, and prayed for death on account of his depression.

One day, his wife came to visit him. He said to her: "One who rescues a single individual is as though he had rescued the whole world. I am sick of being in prison. Go to Nathan Resista, and ask him to lend us money and save us from death." She replied: "Do you not know, or have you not heard that he is at death's door on my account? Every single day his messengers come with great sums of money, but I do not accept it. I tell them that he will never see me. How then can I go and borrow money from him? If you were in your senses you would not speak thus. Perhaps you have lost your senses on account of your long imprisonment." She left him and went home very sorrowfully, and did not visit him for three days.

On the fourth day she felt anxious about him and said: "I shall go and see my husband before he dies, lest God should blame me." So she went to him. She saw that he had reached the point of death, and he said to her: "God will require my blood of you, and the sin and wickedness you have committed against me. You want me to die, so that you can marry Nathan Resista." She said to him: "Divorce me, and let me go to him in a permitted fashion, rather than going to him in a forbidden fashion." He replied: "Did I not tell you that such is your audacity. You want to marry him." She uttered a great cry and fell on her face and said to him: "Who ever heard that a husband should say to his wife: 'Go and fornicate, and depart from the way of chaste women' -- so as to rescue you from prison." He said to her: "Go and leave me alone." She went home and stayed thinking of her distress and her husband's troubles, and she pitied him in her heart. She said: "O Lord who created me, grant that I do nothing evil."

Thereupon she went to the house of Nathan Resista. When his servants saw her, they made haste and went to tell him that Hannah had come, and was standing at the door. He said to them: "If this is true, then you are freed from slavery." She entered the courtyard. The servant girl came and said: "Master, Hannah has entered the courtyard." He said to her: "Then you are freed from slavery."

He raised his eyes and said to Hannah: "My darling, what do you desire, and what do you seek of me?" She said to him: "I want you to lend my husband a sum of money, because he has been imprisoned for a long time, and God will account it a merit for you." He gave orders to his servants, and they brought out the money and gave her what she requested.

Then he said to her: "Look, I have satisfied your wish. You know that I am sick for love of you. You too, satisfy my wish, and give me life again." She said to him: "I am in your power, and under your shelter, and I cannot contradict you. But I notify you of the hour in which you will win the other world. Consider and do not destroy your reward and the wealth you will enjoy in the other world in return for such a little thing. Do not make me prohibited to my husband. Consider yourself as though you had already reached your reward, and do not exchange a great thing for a little thing, and do not do something that you will regret in the end. Consider those who walked in a way which they had no cause to regret. This world is but a little hour; you will enjoy eternity and a great reward there. Most men cannot achieve this save with great and enormous effort. You can achieve it in one instant. If you listen to your intelligence and understanding, and break the evil inclination, you will achieve great good in the other world."

When he heard what she said, his heart was broken. He arose from his couch, and fell upon his face on the floor. He wept and entreated before God (may he be exalted) to break his tempters and destroy his lust, to let him walk on the path of justice and uprightness, to guide him to penitence, and to pardon all his sins. And God looked upon his supplication, and looked upon his broken heart, and delivered him from the evil inclination.

Thereupon Nathan said to Hannah:"You are blessed of the Lord through your speech, for you took me away from the path of fornication. Get up, and go home in peace." Hannah left Nathan, and went to her husband and released him from imprisonment, and told her husband all that had happened to her, but he was not convinced of the truth of her account. He was suspicious that Nathan had done something to her, and she had deceived him.

Many days later, Rabbi Akiva was sitting at the window, when he saw a man riding on a horse, and round his head was the light of God, shining much more brightly than the sun. Rabbi Akiva called one of his pupils and said: "Who is that man riding on a horse?" His pupils answered that it was Nathan the fornicator. He said to his pupils: "Do you see something over his head?" They said: "We do not see anything." He said: "Hurry, call him to come to me." They took him and brought him to Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva enquired of him and said: "I saw a great fire over your head." (That is to say the light of the Shekinah.) "I see that you are one of those who will inherit the other world. Tell me what you did in this world to earn this light of the Shekinah over your head." Rabbi Akiva was surprised to hear that he was able to break his tempters, and keep far from the ways which are not pleasing to God, through repentance with all his heart. Rabbi Akiva said: "You did something remarkable, and God has made his light shine upon your face and upon your head. I see a great light in this world. What must be hidden away for you in the other world! Now, my son, listen to me. Sit next to me in the Academy, and I will teach you the Torah. Nathan agreed to what Rabbi Akiva said, and sat with him in the academy, and he taught him the Torah. The Holy One, blessed be he, opened his heart to the Torah, and he studied so well that no one could excel him in words of the Torah.

After very many days, he reached a high degree of knowledge, and sat with Rabbi Akiva in the first row of the academy. One day, Moses, the husband of Hannah, entered the academy of Rabbi Akiva, and he saw Nathan sitting studying next to Rabbi Akiva in the same row, and he asked one of the students how it came about that Nathan had reached this grade. The student told him all that had happened to him with regard to Hannah, and how he had overcome his evil inclination and broken it, and as a result of this affair, Nathan had reached this grade. At that time, Hannah's husband believed all that Hannah had told him at first, and the doubt which had entered his mind departed.

He went home to Hannah, and told her of what he had thought about her and Nathan. But now he had seen Nathan with Rabbi Akiva in the academy, and he had asked how he had reached that degree, and they had told him what had happened to him. "Now may God increase your reward many times for what you did for me, for my soul was in sore distress, but today I am set at ease."

We learn from this story that if one breaks the evil inclination it has great value in this world and in the other. So let us pray the Lord of the Worlds to direct us to penitence, and send us our righteous Messiah, and save us from every distress. Amen. May such be the divine will.


  1. John J. Jepson, St. Augustine: The Lord's Sermon on the Mount. (Westminster, 1948) pp. 59-61 «--
  2. "The Lecher, the Coward and the Virtuous Woman," Folklore, vol.92:i. (1981) pp. 25-29. On the motif in general, see Stith Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature (Bloomington, 1955) section T.455.2. On the motif in Shakespeare, see G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1958) p. 418. «--
  3. On the basis of the text "The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and in like manner the husband also hath not power of his own body, but the wife." I Corinthians,7.4.) «--
  4. Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim Ibn Shahnin, Hibbur Yafe min Ha-yeshua, ed. H.S. Hirschberg (Jerusalem, 1970) p. 63 (in Hebrew.) «--
  5. Micha Joseph bin Gorion, Mimkor Yisrael (Bloomington, 1976) vol. II, p. 570 «--
  6. In Jewish law, a woman who has committed adultery is permanently prohibited both to husband and to lover. She must be divorced from the first, and may not marry the second. «--
  7. "One person may acquire eternity in a single hour. Another may acquire it only after many years." Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah, 10b. «--
  8. Shekinah -- the manifestation of the divine presence in the world. Divine light is typically visible only to other saints. Thus, the divine light on Mt. Moriah was visible only to Abraham and Isaac. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, 1954) vol. 1, p. 278. «--
  9. "…neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him." Isaiah 64.4 «--

Alan D. Corré