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I've seen and heard a story about the Rambam told multiple times along the lines of this particularly concise retelling:

There is a beautiful story of a disagreement that Maimonides had with a philosopher. The philosopher claimed that he could change a cat and make him act like a person. Maimonides said this was impossible. They agreed to make a contest. When the day of the contest came, the philosopher brought a cat that he had trained to be a waiter. The cat served an entire meal, and the audience was amazed. Just as they stared and assumed that Maimonides had been proven wrong, Maimonides took out a container from his pocket. He opened it up and a mouse ran by. The cat saw the mouse, dropped the tray of dishes that he was holding, breaking them all, and ran after the mouse. Maimonides was proven right, and everyone agreed that no matter what, a cat is a cat. As much as he may be trained to act in a particular way, he is still inherently a cat and must be treated as such.

R' Yissocher Frand attributes the story here to R' Simcha Zissel.

I find this story difficult to beleive, given the claim of extremely high-level animal training that the Rambam's disputant was able to achieve. I find it hard to even picture a cat with the physical, much less mental, ability to serve a meal as a waiter would. It's particularly jarring to hear a story about the Rambam, in particular, that features apparently supernatural feats performed by random philosophers, given his own rationalist bent.

  • Is there any other documentation of the provenance and veracity of this story?

  • If the story is not literally true, can the core principle expressed therein be traced to a particular teaching of the Rambam, or is there any other aspect of the story that can be associated with a documented element of the Rambam's teachings or life?

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I have heard this story attributed to Rabbi Yonasan Eibshitz –  Gershon Gold Sep 30 '13 at 13:16
It may be worth pointing out that when Isaac Moses talked about the story being attributed to R' Simcha Zissel, he meant it was told by R' Simcha, and when @GershonGold talked about the story being attributed to R' Yonasan Eibshitz, he probably meant that it was told about R' Yonasan. –  Tamir Evan Oct 1 '13 at 5:49
@TamirEvan, have you heard this story told about RYE? If not, what is your understanding of Gershon's comment based on? –  Isaac Moses Oct 1 '13 at 5:56
like you I originally heard it told about the Rambam. Yesterday when trying to use Google to find an answer, I came across a site that told the same story about R' Yonasan. Googling "יהונתן אייבשיץ חתול מלצר" gave me more( like this and this, both in Hebrew)... –  Tamir Evan Oct 1 '13 at 8:44
... Also, see this site, which tells the story about the Rambam, but mentions that some tell it about the Maharal of Prague, and others about Yonason Eibshitz, and adds: "By the way, there’s good reason to believe that any story told about three different people never really happened." –  Tamir Evan Oct 1 '13 at 8:50

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