15

There's a famous story in I Kings 3:16-28 about Shlomo Hamelech.
Two women who had just given birth around the same time appeared before him; one baby had died and one was alive and the women were arguing about who's baby was the live one.

Shlomo proposed to cut the baby in half and give half to each woman, to which they responded:
(I Kings 3:26)

Woman A:

וַתֹּ֣אמֶר ׀ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִ֗י תְּנוּ־לָהּ֙ אֶת־הַיָּל֣וּד הַחַ֔י וְהָמֵ֖ת אַל־תְּמִיתֻ֑הוּ
“Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child; only don’t kill it!”

Woman B:

וְזֹ֣את אֹמֶ֗רֶת גַּם־לִ֥י גַם־לָ֛ךְ לֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה גְּזֹֽרוּ
The other insisted, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!”

The story concludes with Shlomo revealing that Woman A was proven to be the mother since she'd rather have her child taken away and live than die.

Question

Was Woman B a dimwit? Did she not know that Shlomo's suggestion would result in a dead child?


related: cut baby in half in halacha

  • 3
    She probably did but didn’t care. I don’t think that’s such a hard pill to swallow given the historical-social context. – Oliver Jun 18 at 1:37
  • 2
    By the way -- the story starts with Woman 1 telling a long sob story about a baby switch, and Woman 2 with a short denial. Which of these is the true mother (i.e. Woman A)? Radak says "Woman 1, her story rings true [and occupies all this space]." Malbim the lie-spotter says no, Woman 2. She's the one who puts mine is alive before yours is dead. – Shalom Jun 18 at 8:21
  • 1
    There is an opinion that Solomon was not as wise as we’d like to imagine and that the episode where he threatened the cut the baby in half was a bad choice as many rabbis have noted that it was a wrong conclusion to conclude that the woman who did not cry was not the mother and vis-versa. These are not my thoughts but thought I’d mention it since no one brought it up. – Turk Hill Jun 27 at 3:57
  • 1
    @alicht Yes. Olam Hatanakh and Robinson to name a few. There are of course other commentaries to chapter 3, in which two prostitutes come up to Solomon’s throne. Each claims the right to the child. Ultimately, Solomon ruled that the second woman must be the true mother to the baby. Some point the fact that he gave no real reason why this was so. A few commentators point that this story is echoed in many cultures. Others say that the true mother could have been the first women, since a child would interfere in her business, given that she was a prostitute. – Turk Hill Jun 27 at 4:21
  • 1
    @alicht Another reason could be that the second woman might have felt guilty and begged for the child’s life to be saved, even if she stole it. Regardless, the Talmud says that Solomon learned of the true mother out of communication from HaShem. This would not add anything to his supposed wisdom. But the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 79b says that King Solomon’s reign saw a surge of converts, including Jethro, the queen of Sheba. Midrash Song Rabba 1:10 also attributed biblical books of Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes to Solomon. – Turk Hill Jun 27 at 4:22
32

I generally understood the story based on the Malbim: obviously, everyone involved (including "Woman B," as you call her) knew that King Solomon's suggestion would result in the death of the child. After all, the second woman says גם לי גם לך לא יהיה - neither of us would end up with a child.

Instead, the question was what do each of these woman really want out of this trial? Woman A (the child's mother) is obviously most interested in keeping her baby, but King Solomon recognized that the other woman was motivated by a desire to even the scales: she was upset by the fact that her child had died while her companion's child was alive. As they say in English, "misery loves company," or in Hebrew, צרת רבים חצי נחמה. The woman who was not the baby's mother wouldn't actually have said out loud that she wanted her friend's baby to die, and so Solomon had devised this "test" in order to get her to express what she was really after.

Here's the commentary of the Malbim to I Kings 3:22, who shows that the wording of each of the two women tipped off King Solomon to the solution:

ותאמר האשה האחרת לא כי בני החי ובנך המת וזאת אומרת לא כי בנך המת ובני החי, ספר הכתוב כי בדברם, אמרה הנתבעת בלשון בני החי ובנך המת והתובעת אמרה בהפך בנך המת ובני החי, וכלל בלשון שהאדם יקדים תמיד מה שהוא העקר ויאחר את הטפל ולפ''ז הסברא נותנת שהאשה שדקדקה להקדים בלשונה בני החי קודם עקר מגמתה שיהיה החי בנה, והמקדמת בלשונה בנך המת עקר מגמתה שיהיה המת בן חברתה, לא שיהיה החי בנה, ומזה כבר היה יכול להבין ולהכריע מי אמו

"The other woman said, 'no rather it is my son who is alive and your son who is dead,' and this one says 'no rather it is your son who is dead and my son who is alive."

Scripture tells how regarding their words, by one claimant using the language of "my son is alive and your son is dead," and the other claimant saying [in] the reverse [order], "your son is dead and my son is alive." There is a rule in man's language that he will always give precedent to what is primary and make later what is secondary, and therefore it is reasonable that the woman who was careful to give precedence in her words to my son is alive-her main objective is that her son be alive, and the [other woman] who gave precedence to your son is dead- her main objective was to say that the dead son was her companion's, but not that her son was the live one. And from this [Solomon] was already able to understand and discern who is his mother

Thus, once it was clear to Solomon that the second woman was more interested in making sure that her fellow was the one subject to having a dead child, he was able to exploit that fact by showing that she would be fine with such a verdict - even at the expense of a child's life.

  • 2
    +1 Made an account just to upvote this. Like many I've known about this story since I was a child, but I never knew why the "false mother" didn't care if the baby was cut in half. It's a really critical piece that is left out of most homages to it. Very insightful read. – Wipqozn Jun 18 at 14:31
  • @הנער הזה what Wipqozn said- shkoyach gadol! – alicht Jun 18 at 15:52
  • Mélanie Klein spoke about the concept of envy – kouty Jun 18 at 20:56
  • 3
    "There is a rule in man's language that he will always give precedent to what is primary and make later what is secondary" - This is not a serviceable rule, and I have heard others put great weight on putting the strongest or most important piece last. – Joshua Jun 19 at 1:10
  • I always imagined that the real mother showed genuine emotion, and would have rather give up her child and have it live than submit to Solomon's test. The other woman seems to be cold and calculating and uncaring about the fate of the baby. I don't see the need for syntactic analysis to determine who was the real mother, or for inspiration for the test in the first place. It changes Solomon's wisdom from emotional and intuitive to logical and analytical, which decreases him in my eyes. If he is just using words instead of motivations, he doesn't care about the women or the baby either! – CJ Dennis Jun 20 at 4:15
13

The Meiri asks and answers this question in Yevamos 17b:

והוא הענין שנאמר בהגדה על אותן שתים נשים זונות שבאו לדין לפני שלמה שהרי כשצוה שלמה לגזור את הילד החי והשיבה האחת תנו לה את הילוד החי והמת אל תמיתוהו היה ראוי לאחרת להשיב את שלי היא נותנת לי וכשאמרה גם לי גם לך גו' סכלות היה ופתיות שלה ומה היה מכיר שלמה בדבר זה ומה תועלת היה רואה לה בדבריה אלא ששתי נשים אלו כלה וחמותה היו ומתו בעליהן בלא בנים אחרים אלא אלו השנים ומת ילד זה של הכלה וכל שמת תוך שלשים נדון כנפל והרי היא זקוקה ליבום וכשמצאה עצמה צריכה להמתין לאותו ולד של חמותה ותתעגן י"ג שנים החליפה חי במת כדי לומר שבנה הוא ותפטר משני צדדין שהרי תאמר שיש לה בן ואין לה יבם וכשאמר שלמה גזרו את הילד החי שמחה מפני שנוח היה לה בכך כדי לינשא בהיתר והרגיש שלמה בענין זה והשאירו לחמותה

The two women were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and their husbands had died before having any other children other than these two. The daughter-in-law's son had died within 30 days of being born, which would be considered a Nefel and would not exempt her from Yibum. Therefore the daughter-in-law would have to wait until the mother-in-law's child (her husband's new barely contemporary brother) to reach 13 years old in order to do Yibum or Chalitza, and she would remain an Agunah until then, unable to get married. Instead, she switched her child with her mother-in-law's child, this way she could be exempt from Yibum by having a surviving child (and no Yavam). When Shlomo said to cut the baby in half, the daughter-in-law approved of this because it would still allow her to get remarried as there would be no Yavam.

Here is a diagram which may help clarify: Family Tree

6

She was calling the king's bluff.

My understanding of the story goes against the universal one, but fits with the text and answers your question and a lot of others --

Woman A (the one holding the live child) was trying to be demonstrative of how motherly she was, expecting to be allowed to keep the child, even though she was saying that she would let the other one take the baby.

Woman B (the real mother) felt trapped. She can't say "yes, I will take the baby", because then Woman A will be allowed to keep the baby for being more "motherly". Obviously she can't now say, "no, you keep the baby". So Woman A passes the play back to Shlomo. Shlomo never meant to kill the child, and neither did Woman A.

גם לי גם לך לא יהיה - I will not take the child, and neither will you - I will not play along with your fake offer for me to take the child, and I do not accept that you should be given the child for it.

Shlomo actually gave the baby to Woman B, and not to the one who was willing to let the other take the baby. Woman A was a show off, Woman B was authentic.

There is a vague pronoun reference when the king says, "Give her the child". Though it is always understood to be referring to the Woman A, grammatically it should refer to the last one who spoke, i.e. Woman B.

This obviously quite shocked all who were present, who "stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice."

  • How does this answer deal with verse 26? "But the woman whose son was the live one pleaded with the king, for she was overcome with compassion for her son." – Rusty Lemur Jun 18 at 18:26
  • @RustyLemur at that point in the story we still don't know who was telling the truth, so I think it should be read "the woman who was holding the live child." Another reason I like this reading is that we know at the end of the story that the baby was, in fact, switched, because the one holding the baby does not get to keep it in the end. In the classic reading of the story we never find out if this story was true or not. – simyou Jun 18 at 18:49
  • Does the original language allow for the interpretation to be "But the woman who was holding the live one"? Or is it coming from the vantage point that the author knows who the real mother was? – Rusty Lemur Jun 18 at 19:28
  • The literal translation of the Hebrew "הָאִשָּׁה֩ אֲשֶׁר־בְּנָ֨הּ הַחַ֜י" is "the woman, whose son was the live one". It is more natural to read it, as it is universally read, that it means the real mother of the live child, but I believe it can also be read as I suggested, "the woman, whose baby was the live one," I admit it is a slight stretch, but I believe it is valid. – simyou Jun 19 at 10:05
  • er, how does calling the kings bluff show she's the mother? Sorry, this doesn't seem to even start working. – user15253 Jun 19 at 11:40
2

The reason should be understood as the following:

Being creatures of dual, competing interests, there exists in some persons, such as myself, the ability for or a manifestation of a vindictive spirit, or attitude, under certain circumstances. It is related to envy/covetousness, and jealously (in the negative sense).

In the case of envy, when we observe something that is not ours that we want, we wish we could have it. If we can't, we may even wish the other did not have it, in order to relieve ourselves of having to even compare with the fact that they have something we don't have, but want. Under severe stain, it is the same spirit as "If I can't have it, nobody can!" It's just plain wrong, misinformed, and ought to be weeded out of us by either a) good parenting, or b) ourselves when recognized.

For jealously, we either a) have something that we hold dear, or b) we believe that someone has something that "should be ours" through a rationalization of having been wronged, and therefore "deserving" of the object that we believe ought to be ours. This is closely related to envy. However in this state of mind we cannot recognize it as envy, because we "believe" that the object "should" be ours.

The woman who agreed to cut the baby in half was in these states. She was the very unfortunate recipient of having lost a child, coupled with not having the self-awareness (which often comes through good parenting or divine gift, but which may also come secondary to these by individual recognition) to see or understand that her state was a terrible one, bitter and terrible enough to agree to the destruction of another life out of co-morbid envy and jealousy gone wild. Solomon had the wisdom to know that such an individual should not be either "the" parent, or a parent at all.

I have been fortunate enough to see the existence of these states in myself, only perhaps not as closely tied to the life and death of another individual, the honor for which ought to go to my parents.

1

The answer is that Shlomo Hamelech never intended to actually split (cut) the baby in half. He did however rule that the women should share custody of the child...

And that is how Shlomo Hamelech figured who the real mother is.

The woman who was not the true mother was overjoyed with this ruling. Not having been blessed with children herself, she now had the opportunity, at least for half of the time, to be a mother to a child. She was now able to fill her need, again, if only for just half of the time.

The true mother protested. As a true mother, putting her child's needs before hers, she protested because she understood that this "arrangement" would hurt her child. She understood how detrimental it would be for her child to be raised by "two separate mothers"; hearing two different sets of messages, seeing two different standards, values, etc. She understood the importance of a child hearing the same message, wherever he goes, and the detriment of having a conflicting and divergent education. I believe this is from a sicha of the Rebbe on Chanukah where the Rebbe explains that the Greeks were like the woman B, happy for jews (the baby) to share Greek and Jewish culture.

  • Welcome to MiYodeya and thanks for this first question. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Great to have you learn with us! – mbloch Jun 27 at 8:21
  • I like the interpretation of shared custody, but it does not fit with the literal text. Shlomo Hamelech calls for a sword to be brought (3:25) when he says to cut the child in two. – simyou Jun 27 at 10:59
  • It could be that cherev (sword) is used as a sort of stylus to sign the psak din, so on a stone tablet it would be chakikah - so you would use a metal tool to chisel, much like a sword, cherev. Also חרט is a type of stylus and similar to חרב. There might be more of a connection also in gematria but I have no patience to search for that. – Schneur Zalman Jun 30 at 7:55
0

There is an opinion that King Solomon was not as wise as most people think, regarding the episode with the two women where he threatened to cut the baby in half.

Olam Hatanakh and Robinson are of this opinion. There are other commentaries regarding chapter 3, in which two prostitutes came up to Solomon’s throne. Each claimed the right to the child. Ultimately, Solomon ruled that the second woman must be the true mother to the baby. Some point to the fact that he gave no real reason why this was so. Why did he make this decision? On what grounds were the specifics rendered a fact?

A few commentators point that this story is echoed in many cultures. Scholars have located at least 22 fables. If this is true, this does not belittle the validity of the Bible but demonstrates that the writer of Kings wanted to show that Solomon wasn’t wise by presenting a story which was affiliated with other popular Kings. Refer to Robinson, page 54.

Yet others say that the true mother could have been the first women, since a child would interfere with her trade, given that she was a prostitute. She might have felt pain when her roommate stole her baby and pleaded the child be sliced out of pure revenge.

Another reason could be that the second woman might have felt guilty that the child would be killed from the consequences of her actions and so begged for the child’s life to be saved, even if she stole it. Maybe the king saw some similar likeness or resemblance to the mother and child’s features as suggested by Radbaz. Yet others say that he knew because the second woman was calm. Therefore the King could deduce that she likely wasn’t the type to smother it in her sleep. Regardless, the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b says that Solomon learned of the true mother out of a communication from G-d. This would not add anything to his supposed wisdom. But the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 79b thinks that the revers is true and says that King Solomon’s new reign saw a surge of converts, including Jethro, the queen of Sheba. Midrash Song Rabba 1:10 also attributes the biblical books of Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes to Solomon.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .