The Brilliant Wisdom of King Solomon
Law Office of
July 10, 1998
The Brilliant Wisdom of King Solomon
By: Baruch C. Cohen1
The Book of Kings [Melachim 1 3:12] states that Israel's great King Solomon was twelve years old when God promised him that he would be granted great wisdom. He turned out to be the wisest man ever to live. As an illustration of the fulfillment of this blessing of wisdom, the Book of Kings reports the following account of a case that was brought before King Solomon's court in Jerusalem.
It should be noted, that King Solomon's was the first major recorded and published decision in the history of legal jurisprudence, and I believe that with the help of the commentaries, one can begin to appreciate the magnificent depth of his wisdom.
Some say that King Solomon truly knew who was the real mother as soon as he saw the two women. This was the nature of the special divine wisdom that God gave him. As King Solomon was able to understand the speech of the animals and the birds, so he could see the truth in someone's face. His knowledge was of Divine origin. It was infallible.
According to the Abarbanel and Metzudas David, King Solomon studied the countenance of each woman as they presented their claims and counter-claims, and by means of his penetrating and heavenly wisdom, understood which of the two women was telling the truth.
Still, to prove this to the people, he had to demonstrate it in a way that everyone would acknowledge. Perhaps that is why he pretended not to know who said what, and repeated their arguments in reverse order, by repeating Woman #2's argument first, and Woman #1's argument second.
He even pretended to apply the well-known law of dividing disputed property. If two people come to court holding on to the ends of a piece of clothing, and each claims it to be his, the court divides it and gives each one half. King Solomon seemed to pretend to be ignorant of the many complicated details of this law, and to think that it applied to babies as well, which would have been ridiculously simpleminded. No judge would ever make such a foolish mistake. Yet, he succeeded in convincing the two women that he was serious.
Nonetheless, he was careful not to let the trick go too far. He specifically commanded his servants to bring the sword to him, not to give it to one of the guards. They too, were no doubt fooled and he did not want them to divide the baby before he had a chance to stop them. In fact, the King's ministers said "Woe to you Oh Land, whose king is but a boy!" They thought "what has God done to us to give us such a king? How long will we have to suffer with such foolish judgments?" But afterwards, when they saw the women's reactions they knew that he had recently received Divine inspiration and rejoiced saying "Happy are you, oh Land, whose king is a free man!" - i.e., one who studies Torah (Koheles - Ecclesiastes 10:16-17).
King Solomon's trick succeeded. The imposter revealed herself by her heartless cruelty. After all, no mother would have let her own child be killed just to spite another woman.
But how could King Solomon have been sure the other woman would not also have mercy on the child? Wouldn't most people break down in such a situation and relinquish their claims? What sort of person would want to be responsible for the death of an innocent child, even if it were not her own?
Perhaps this was an aspect of the depth of King Solomon's insight - he knew that no normal mother lies on her own child and crushes him in her sleep. Babies always sleep with their mothers and fathers, yet this never happens, for perhaps God implants within a human being an innate sensitivity that prevents her from doing such a thing. A woman who lies on her child must be lacking basic human feeling, and such a person would certainly have no mercy on the child of another. According to the Abarbanel, perhaps such a woman developed a blood lust and possessed a cruel desire to see another life snuffed out.
And what of the compassionate one? Was it not possible that she was acting cunningly to impress the King with a false sense of motherly commiseration?
WHO HAD THE BETTER ARGUMENT?
Notwithstanding the outcome, many believe that Woman #1 still made a convincing and persuasive argument. She made it clear that there were no witnesses because they lived alone. Perhaps she suspected that Solomon would be able to tell how old the baby was and identify the mother. According to the Radak and the Metsudas David, her argument was bolstered by the claim that no one else knew the identities of the babies, nor had one been sick, that the neighbors might remember whose baby it was. When she first got up, it was still dark. She could not recognize the baby, so she did not suspect that it was not hers. All she knew was that it was dead. But when it got light, she saw it and realized what had happened. She asserted that her baby boy was born three days earlier, and therefore there was some reliable distinction available.
Woman #2 had only a brief presentation and did not claim to have any proof. She simply said that the child was hers. All she did was state her case.
Based on the first round of oral arguments, it would appear that Woman #1 had the better claim, and that she was the real mother.
It is noteworthy, that the women did not bring the corpse of the dead child for further identification. Perhaps the child was buried already, or its features were already changed making recognition difficult.
SUBTLE TRUTHS BEGIN TO UNRAVEL
Yet, as the women's dispute continued, their respective positions seemed to change ever so slightly. There was something disturbing and disingenuous about the way in which Woman #1 continued arguing her case, in that she subsequently seemed less concerned with having a live child and focused more on the other having the dead one. The fact that she mentioned the dead child first, in itself, was an indication of this ("It is not so! Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!").
Woman #2, by contrast, always spoke of her own son first ("No. my son is the living one and your son is the dead one"). It seemed as if her heart was with her son. She spoke out of love and was apparently heartbroken at the thought of potentially losing her child.
According to the Devorim Rabah, King Solomon then repeated the arguments of both women, verbatim, without adding anything, making sure that he properly understood the arguments of both sides, listening carefully, and if there was anything that he misunderstood, the women had an opportunity to correct him.
ODD DEVELOPMENTS IN THE STORY
King Solomon's wisdom surely gave him the insight to foresee that the real mother (#2) would recoil in terror when she heard of his intention to kill the infant, nevertheless, could his wisdom have possibly predicted the liar (#1)'s response - to comply with this grotesque compromise?
Second, the woman who was lying (#1) was initially interested in taking the living child for herself, otherwise she never would have asserted such a bold and aggressive claim.
As soon as the real mother offered to let the liar keep the child in order to spare its life, the liar should have accepted the real mother offer's and kept the child. She could have played up her victory by saying: "Aha! She admits that the baby was truly mine all along! She is a kidnapper but not a murderer. The baby is mine." Instead, she did something totally unpredictable. She refused saying "Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut."
I have always wondered what made her suddenly lose interest in having the child for herself?
A brilliant and original answer to these questions is offered by Rabbi Mordechai Kornfeld of
Har Nof Jerusalem, of the Shmayisroel Torah Network (www.shemayisroel.co.il), who cited two 13th century commentators: Rav Yehoshua Ibn Shu'ib in his Drasha for Parshas Mishpatim, and Rav Menachem HaMeiri in his commentary to Yevamos 17a; and another 14th century commentator, the author of Shemen Rokeach and Sha'arHachazokas. They believe that in order to understand the real story behind King Solomon's decision, an understanding of the laws of Yibbum is necessary.
THE LAWS OF YIBBUM.
The Torah describes the practice of Yibbum in the Parsha of Ki Setzei (Devarim 25:5,7,9):
Yibbum is a Halachic rite which must be performed when a man who has a living brother dies childless. If this uncommon situation occurs, the widow must not remarry unless one of two actions are taken - either she must marry the brother of the deceased or she must be released from the obligation of marrying her brother-in-law by having him perform the Chalitzah ("removing" of the shoe) ceremony.
It is obviously uncomfortable for a woman to be trapped in this situation, wherein she would be subject to the will of another man. Her brother-in-law may not be locatable, compliant or appealing.
There are several fundamental laws concerning the childless nature of the deceased and the age of the bother that control whether Yibbum applies:
LAWS CONCERNING THE CHILDLESS NATURE OF THE DECEASED
APPLICATION & CONCLUSION
We now return to King Solomon's judgment.
The Midrash (Koheles Rabah 10:16) tells us that the reason both of these women were so desperate to have the living child declared theirs was that they were both potential Yevamos (widows subject to Yibbum). Neither of the two had any other offspring. Whoever would be judged to be the childless woman would not only lose the infant, but would also be trapped in the unpleasant status of Yevamah, being dependent upon her brother-in-law's good will.
The Midrash (Yalknt Shimoni 2:175) asserts that the husbands of the two women were father and son, making the two women, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to each other.
According to the Meiri in his commentary to Yevamos 17a, the two Midrashim may be complementing each other - thanks to our 5-rule Yibbum analysis.
The two women - mother-in-law and daughter-in-law - had just lost their husbands, and needed a live child to exempt them from the status of a Yevamah. Both women gave birth to babies. However, these two babies were still less than 30 days old at the time that one of them died. The mother of the dead child would therefore be subject to the laws of Yibbum (Rule #3). This was the lying mother's motivation for taking the other woman's child.
If it were the mother-in-law's child who had died, she would have no incentive to kidnap her daughter-in-law's child. Even though her son (the deceased husband of her daughter-in-law) had passed away before her own husband had, and therefore he would not exempt her from Yibbum (Rule #1), nevertheless, she would be exempt from Yibbum for another reason. The living child was her son's child, and a grandchild exempts one from Yibbum (Rule #2).
Only the daughter-in-law had the motive to lie and try to claim that the child was hers. If it was her baby who had died within 30 days of its birth, leaving her childless, she would have been bound to her husband's brother as a Yevamah (Rule #4) - and that brother would have been -none other than the living baby (who was in fact her mother-in-law's child - i.e., her deceased husband's bother)! Since her brother-in-law was a newborn, the daughter-in-law would have had to wait 13 years before this baby would be able to perform Chalitzah on her and free her to remarry (Rule #5).
King Solomon realized all of this and suspected that since the only one with a strong motive to lie was the daughter-in-law, the child must really belong to the mother-in-law.
Perhaps this also explains why King Solomon ordered that the child be cut in half.
If the remaining child were to be killed, this too would free the daughter-in-law from her Yevamah status - since the living baby was her only brother-in-law (Rule #3). From the daughter-in-law's perspective, in fact, killing the child would result in a better solution for her. By just kidnaping the child she might have convinced the earthly court that she was not a Yevamah. However, she herself would know that the child was not really hers and that she really was not permitted to remarry, until Chalitzah was performed. By having the baby killed, though, she would truthfully be released from the bonds of Yibbum.
This is the reason the daughter-in-law suddenly lost interest in keeping the child when she saw that King Solomon was ready to cut the child in half. This would serve her interests even more if she took the child for herself. Therefore she insisted: "Cut!"
Young King Solomon guessed that this would be the woman's reaction. By tricking her into making a seemingly ludicrous statement, he revealed her true motives and that she was lying.
This is why, "All of Israel heard the judgment that the King had judged. They had great awe for the King, for they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice."
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