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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 believe, 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.

In addition, the punchline of this story is identical to that of a similar story in the ancient Greek story teller Aesop's Fables called "The Cat and Venus," which has been adapted in many forms in Western culture. It's plausible that this fable was adapted for Jewish audiences by replacing the Greek goddess in the title with a venerable Jewish figure and replacing the bedchamber in the fable, with the more modesty-friendly dining table.

  • 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
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    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
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    ... 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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    Fwiw, someone told me today that this story is told about the Rambam in ילקוט לקח טוב (on the beginning of Chaye Sara). – msh210 Nov 6 '15 at 14:36
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    Seconding @msh210's comment. (Specifically, the ילקוט לקח טוב says that the Alter of Kelm told this story about the Rambam, just as Rabbi Frand says according to OP.) – Rish Dec 31 '15 at 17:09
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This folktale is quite popular throughout European and Asian cultures, and predates Jewish oral accounts.

In Folktales of the Jews, Volume 1: Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion, folklorist Dov Noy links this Jewish folktale to its European precursors. In the 19th century, the French folklorist Emmanuel Georges Cosquin conducted a wide survey on the story's dissemination; in addition to classic Greek tales of animal transformation (i.e., Aesop's fables, Zeus tales), Cosquin traces the story of the cat's inherent nature to medieval accounts in Latin (Cat and the Candle), English (Salomon and Marcolf), and later French (Jean de la Fontaine's fables). The story became popular in Ottoman territories, leading to the Sephardic version with Maimonides as the hero.

Cosquin even points to versions of the story found in India, Sri-Lanka, Tibet, and Vietnam. In his commentary on the story, Dov Noy discusses the patterns of the Jewish renditions, which usually center on a young Jewish woman outwitting a Christian adversary. These Jewish folktales have spread from Poland to Morocco, and are recorded in the Israel Folktale Archives. Noy notes:

In Jewish traditions, particularly as represented by the tales in IFA [Israel Folktale Archives], the heroine acts as a helper to her troubled father, fulfilling not only the role of the clever girl but also that of the good father. In other versions, a rabbi is the leading Jew who outsmarts the Christian or Muslim opponent. In the IFA, the rabbis are Maimonides (1135-1204), Jonathan Eyebeshutz (1690/95-1764), and Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (the Besht) (1700-1760).

Like other folktales, the cat story went through many manifestations before its appropriation in Jewish communities.

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