A friend recently told me the following story. He told me that he has known the story his whole life, he's read it or heard it in many places (including Olomeinu Magazine), and he feels sure that the story is true.

A man died and bequeathed his 17 cows to his 3 sons on the following plan: the oldest son was to get (1/2) of the cows, the second was to get (1/3) of the cows, and the youngest son was to get (1/9). The will did not allow the sons to sell or slaughter the cows or depart from the specified amounts. The sons wanted to comply with the will but could see no way to fulfill these terms. Although they were not Jewish they brought the problem to Reb Chaim Volozon for advice. Reb Chaim suggested that if there were 18 cows instead of 17, then the oldest son would take 9 cows, the second son 6 cows, and the third son 2 cows; this is a total of 17, the actual number of cows in the estate. So, he concluded, they should actually take these latter numbers, as if the total available were 18.

My friend had some questions about this story, and I have a few of my own.


Stated generally, problems in wills must be very common. For example some people must misstate their actual property even when writing a will, and then in their remaining years (after writing their last will) some people must acquire and part with property in ways that eventually make the descriptions found in their wills inaccurate. People must sometimes describe the allocation of their property in such a way that some property is assigned more than once and some is omitted.

The allocation in the story does not seem to fulfill the will. Each son is rounding up the allowance under the will (taking 9 instead of 8 1/2, 6 instead of 5 2/3, 2 instead of 1 8/9), therefore taking more property than the will authorizes, and in amounts that are simply chosen for administrative convenience. Is that allowable?

What is the proper way to deal with instructions in a will that don't make sense or cannot be executed?

  • This is not a Jewish story. You can see it all over the place. google.com/…. That said, the halachic part is still a good question.
    – Heshy
    Feb 9 '18 at 13:02
  • @Heshy Good find. Chaim, in case you're wondering, it's not uncommon for stories such as this one to find their way into Jewish settings. There's plenty from the Rambam for instance which are found in many other cultures.
    – ezra
    Feb 9 '18 at 14:34
  • @ezra and vice-versa. When I told a friend the lashon hara/teshuva story about the pillows in the town square, he told me he knew it from his Catholic upbringing. Feb 9 '18 at 16:16
  • @MonicaCellio Nice!
    – ezra
    Feb 9 '18 at 17:21
  • 1
    Simple problem with the story... There is no indication R' Chaim Volozhiner, who was busy running a yeshiva, ever held a court position. @monica: As for the lashon hara pillow metaphor, the CC wrote it. That's not to say he invented it, I don't know. But it appears in his book, and commonly known folktales don't generally get attributions. Feb 13 '18 at 19:57

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