Jewish and Islamic Lateral Thinking

Yossi Ginsberg relates the following story:

Back in the days that travel was by caravan, people would gather near the city gates to form groups so as to travel together for safety and companionship. Once sufficient numbers required for the safe travel to a particular destination were reached, the group would depart.

One day, as a group leaving for Cairo was just about to depart, a Jewish man rode up to the only two Jews in the assembled group and said that he had just had word that he must get to Cairo immediately. He had no time to wait for the next caravan to form, but if he joined this one he would have nothing to eat for the several days the trip would take. He therefore told the two men that he was quite wealthy, and that if they would agree to share their provisions with him he would reward them handsomely.

They immediately agreed.

One of the two had brought along two loaves of bread, while the other had prepared three. For the duration of the trip, they all shared equally.

Upon arrival in Cairo, the wealthy man rushed off to take care of his critical matters, stopping before the two men only to thank them for their help and to deposit five golden coins in front of them both, a sum equal to a small fortune.

The two soon began to quarrel about the disposition of the five coins.

One claimed that since he had had three breads to the others’ two, he should receive three coins while the other would get two.

His coreligionist opined that since they had shared all the food equally, they should share the money equally, too, and that each should get two-and-one-half coins.

Unable to agree, and the difference being a significant sum, they went to the Rabbi of Cairo, Ibn Ezra. Famous as a wise scholar, they presented their pleas before him and asked for a ruling.

To their surprise as well as that of all present, he ruled that neither claim was correct, but that rather the man with three breads was to get four coins while the other got only one.

This of course caused an upset, being thoroughly counter-intuitive.

The uproar forced the Ibn Ezra to explain his ruling.

“Divide each bread into three”, he said, since there were three people sharing. This gave a total of 15 pieces from the 5 breads.

“Now divide the 15 pieces among the three people, and you will find that each got, and ate, five pieces”, he continued.

Now, remembering that each man ate 5 pieces, let us go back to examine what each contributed to the communal pot.

The man with two breads contributed the two, equaling six pieces, to the pot. Of the six he contributed, he himself ate five. This means that he gave to the rich man only a single piece.

The other man, with three breads, contributed 9 pieces to the communal pot, of which he ate only five. This means that he donated four pieces to the rich man.

“Does it not thus stand to reason that they should share as I directed, four gold pieces to one and a single one to the other?” asked Ibn Ezra.

Reason triumphs over emotion.

What is the source of this story?

This page attributes it to the Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez1:

על השאלה למה יש צדיק ורע לו רשע וטוב לו מספרים על האבן עזרא המעשה:

שני אנשים היו הולכים בדרך וישבו לאכול, והיה לאחד מהם שלש חלות לחם ולחבירו לא היו אלא ב’ חלות. בא אליהם עובר אורח ואמר להם, אחי, רעב אני ואין לי לחם לאכול, אולי תתנו לי לאכול מפתכם ואשלם לכם. נתרצו לו, ושיתפו אותו בסעודתם. ואכלו השלשה את חמשת החלות. והוא נתן להם חמשה זהובים. ונתעוררה השאלה כיצד יחלקו ביניהם את חמשת הזהובים. בעל ג’ החלות טען שיתנו לו ג’ זהובים, שהרי היו לו ג’ חלות, ובעל ב’ החלות טען שיחלקו הכסף לחצאים. שהרי האורח אכל משניהם בשוה, ולא הקפיד לאכול משלו יותר. ובהתעצמם החליטו להביא הדבר בפני רב העיר ופסק: בעל ג’ החלות יקח ד’ זהובים, ובעל הב’ יקח זהוב אחד.

כששמעו העומדים גזר הדין צחקו, אמרו, הנה הרב פסק לזה יותר ממה שתבע, שהרי בעל ג’ החלות ביקש רק ג’ זהובים והוא פסק לו ד’ זהובים, אין זאת כי משפט מסולף הוציא.

כששמע זאת הרב אבן עזרא אמר להם, אם אין אתם יכולים לרדת לסוף דעתו של שופט בשר ודם כיצד אתם רוצים להבין משפטי השי”ת. בואו ואסבירכם את גזר הדין. כי כל אחד מהשלשתם אכלו שליש הלחם, שהרי כולם אכלו בחבורה באופן שוה. וכאשר נחלק כל לחם לג’ שלישים, הרי ט”ו שלישים. וכל אחד אכל חמשה שלישים. נמצא שאותו שהיה לו ב’ חלות אכל ה’ שלישים, ולא נתן מלחמו אלא שליש אחד. ומגיע לו זהוב אחד, ואילו בעל ג’ החלות היה לחמו ט’ שלישים, הורידו מזה ה’ שלישים שאכל הוא, נמצא שאכל האורח מפתו ד’ שלישים, ומגיעים לו ד’ זהובים. וזהו שאומר דוד המלך ע”ה משפטי ד’ אמת צדקו יחדיו, הן מה שרואים צדיק ורע לו והן זה שרשע וטוב לו, צודקים הם.

[The source given for this anecdote is “זקן אהרן בבאור לתהלים”; I assume that this refers to the work “שמן הטוב / זקן אהרן” (Venice 1657), a combination of homiletical works by Rav Shlomo Ohev and his grandson Rav Aharon HaCohen, available from, but I have been unable to locate the anecdote within the sections on Tehillim.]

There are several significant differences between the two versions of the story quoted above, including the following:

  • Ginsberg has the initial episode occur on a Cairo bound caravan, and the resolution within Cairo, while Rav Ya’akov Culi provides no geographical information.
  • Ginsberg has the Ibn Ezra, whom he characterizes as the Rabbi of Cairo, both issuing the original ruling as well as providing the subsequent justification, while Rav Culi has an anonymous Rabbi issue the initial ruling, and the Ibn Ezra only the subsequent elaboration.

Many Islamic websites tell the story about Imam Ali (or Caliph Ali; the distinction is apparently at the root of the Shia Sunni split). I have been unable to determine how far back this tradition goes, but here is one of the Islamic versions of the incident:

Zarr Bin Hobeish relates this story: Two travelers sat together on the way to their destination to have a meal. One had five loaves of bread. The other had three. A third traveler was passing by and at the request of the two joined in the meal.

The travelers cut each of the loaf of bread in three equal parts. Each of the travelers ate eight broken pieces of the loaf.

At the time of leaving the third traveler took out eight dirhams and gave to the first two men who had offered him the meal, and went away. On receiving the money the two travelers started quarrelling as to who should have how much of the money.

The five-loaf-man demanded five dirhams. The three-loaf-man insisted on dividing the money in two equal parts.

The dispute was brought to Imam Ali (AS) (the Caliph of the time in Arabia) to be decided.

Imam Ali (AS) requested the three-loaf-man to accept three dirhams, because five-loaf-man has been more than fair to you. The three-loaf-man refused and said that he would take only four dirhams. At this Imam Ali (AS) replied, “You can have only one dirham.” You had eight loaves between yourselves. Each loaf was broken in three parts. Therefore, you had 24 equal parts. Your three loaves made nine parts out of which you have eaten eight portions, leaving just one to the third traveler. Your friend had five loaves which divided into three made fifteen pieces. He ate eight pieces and gave seven pieces to the guest. As such the guest shared one part from your loaves and seven from those of your friend. So you should get one dirham and your friend should receive seven dirhams.

Paul Sloane, in his Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, calls this “an ancient Arabic puzzle”, and he classifies it as “Difficult”.2

A charming, richly embellished version of the story appears in Malba Tahan’s The Man Who Counted3.

The story raises a very important Halachic point; we have seen that

כששמעו העומדים גזר הדין צחקו, אמרו, הנה הרב פסק לזה יותר ממה שתבע, שהרי בעל ג’ החלות ביקש רק ג’ זהובים והוא פסק לו ד’ זהובים, אין זאת כי משפט מסולף הוציא.

May a judge indeed award a litigant more than the amount of his claim? A full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this post, but we will give the basic background.

The literature on this question revolves around a ruling of the Rema4:

הגה בעל דין שתבע חבירו בעד דבר מועט והדיין רואה שיתחייב לו על פי הדין יותר ממה שתבע אין לו לדיין לפסוק יותר ממה שתבע ואם פסק לו יותר הוי טעות בדין וחוזר

The Sema5 and the Bah6 apparently understand this to be so even if the litigant was unaware of the Halachah and erroneously believed that he was not entitled to more than he claimed, but the Shach strongly disagrees7:

אם הדיין רואה שמגיע לו לתובע על פי הדין יותר ממה שתובע והתובע טועה בדין או אינו בקי למה לא יפסוק לו לשלם לו כל מה שמגיע לו על פי הדין דאטו משום שהתובע אינו יודע ששלו הוא אצל חברו לא יפסוק הדיין להחזיר לו ובאיזה צד יזכה הנתבע במה שבידו משל חבירו דאי משום מחילה ליכא דהא לא ידע דמחל

The Shach concludes that Rema is referring to a situation where the claimant’s intention and knowledge of the law is unclear:

לא הוזכר בדברי מור”ם שהדיין רואה שהתובע טועה בדין אלא סתמא קאמר בעל דין שתבע את חבירו בעד דבר מועט והדיין רואה שיתחייב לו יותר כו’ והיינו שהבעל דין תובע בסתם דבר מועט לא יפסוק לו הדיין יותר ולומר בודאי התובע טועה בדין אלא יכול להיות שמוותר כנגדו או מחל לו ולכך מספק לא יוציא ממון …

The interested reader is directed to the Tumim8, Sha’ar Mishpat9, Kezos10, Nesivos11, Pis’he Teshuvah12 and Kovetz Ha’Poskim13.

Update: It turns out that the attribution to Ibn Ezra dates back to at least the sixteenth century, when it was published by the Turkish rabbi and polymath Rav Moshe Almosnino, who claims that Ibn Ezra himself mentions the episode in his “letters”.

  1. D’varim 32:4, page 1284 []
  2. the puzzle is on p. 30, a clue is on p. 63, and the solution is on p. 86, all viewable from Google Books []
  3. p. 15 []
  4. שו”ע חו”מ סוף סימן י”ז []
  5. שם ס”ק י”ז []
  6. שם סוף הסימן []
  7. שם ס”ק ט”ו []
  8. שם ס”ק ח []
  9. שם ס”ק ו []
  10. שם ס”ק ג []
  11. שם ס”ק א []
  12. שם ס”ק י”ח []
  13. שם []

5 thoughts on “Jewish and Islamic Lateral Thinking”

  1. I am not sure that the Ibn Ezra must hold like the Shach. In this case it was not a claim against the other, but a question – “how do we split the money”. The money does not belong to either yet, so even the Rema can agree that the judge can give one side more than he thinks he deserves.

  2. Binyamin: I don’t really see why the fact that the money is not in the possession of the defendant but rather in the hands of a third party should make a difference. The reason that a judge does not award a plaintiff more than the amount of his suit is that we assume that the plaintiff, by only claiming a specific amount, is waiving his right to any additional amount, and the same argument seems to apply here

  3. Possibly the Rema’s ruling is partly based on Homtzi Mechaveiro Alav Haraya, because the other person already has possession. In this case this rule does not apply. Mechila is still a possibility, but we should not assume mechila when no one has possession.

  4. The excerpt of the Shach that I cited does indeed conclude with precisely your (Binyamin’s) point, that Rema’s ruling is based on the principle of not being ‘mozi mammon m’safek’, which I concede would not apply to our story where the money is in the hands of a third party. However, according to the Shach the Rema’s ruling is irrelevant to our situation to begin with, since the Shach maintains that Rema’s ruling only holds if there’s a realistic possibility that the claimant knows of his right to ask for a larger amount and chooses not to do so, which our claimant certainly did not. As we have seen, the Schach insists that in a case such as ours, where the judge realizes that the claimant is under a legal misapprehension, he should indeed award him the full amount to which he is entitled, consistent with the (apocryphal) ruling of Ibn Ezra.

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