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Folk-Lore/Volume 1/The Riddles of Solomon in Rabbinic Literature

THE RIDDLES OF SOLOMON IN RABBINIC LITERATURE.




THE place which the Solomon Riddles occupy in the literature of almost every nation suggested to me that the publication of a previously inedited Hebrew text on the subject, with an English translation and a few introductory and explanatory remarks, will not be without interest to the readers of Folk-lore.

As to the Hebrew text, it is edited for the first time from the Midrash Hachephez, existing only in Yemen MSS., of which the British Museum has four copies, bearing the press marks Oriental 2351 and Or. 2380-82. Our copy is prepared from Or. 2382. The MSS. vary very little, and the only essential variation we found we have inserted in its place. The Bodleian (see Dr. Neubauer’s Catalogue, No. 2492) and the Royal Library in Berlin also possess copies of this Midrash. In the catalogue of the latter, by Dr. Steinschneider, p. 71, a full description is given of this work, and we see there that its compiler, Yachya Ben Sulieman, wrote as late as 1430. The new version of the Riddles, which we give here, would accordingly have no claim to any great antiquity. But, on the other hand, it has been proved already, at least with regard to other Midrashic collections coming from Yemen, that the Jews in this country were, up to a comparatively late date, in possession of very ancient Rabbinic sources, which had long before disappeared among their coreligionists in Europe. Thus the late age of the compiler would not prove much against the antiquity of his version of the legend.

Now, it is true that that part of the Rabbinic literature in which the Solomon Riddles are mentioned at all, as the Midrash on Proverbs and the Second Targum to Esther, are, according to the best authorities, not older than the tenth century,[1] whilst neither the Talmud of Jerusalem nor that of Babylon, nor any of the other earlier Midrashim (homiletic comments on the Old Testament), ever allude to them. But the silence of these sources may be explained on other grounds. Indeed, it would seem that the earlier Rabbis purposely avoided touching on the whole subject. For we read in the name of R. Samuel bar Nachmani, a famous Aggadist of the third century: “He who translates the words Malkath Sheba as ‘the Queen of Sheba’ is mistaken, its real meaning being ‘the kingdom of Sheba.’ ” It is hardly necessary to say that this Rabbi Samuel’s explanation is against all grammar. But we know from other places that this Rabbi was rather fond of such forced interpretations of Scriptural stories, which in their simple meaning would rather be irreconcilable with the ideal which posterity has formed of their heroes.[2] We may therefore assume, I think, that also in the present case the passage quoted was also meant as a protest against some legends about Solomon, current at the time, which the Rabbis considered unworthy of the Solomon idealised by a later generation. The legend which scandalised the Rabbis was probably that which is to be found first in the Pseudo-Sirach,[3] according to which the relation between Solomon and the Queen ended in a love affair of which Nebuchadnezzar was the result. This legend, again, is based on the Scriptural words: “And the King Solomon gave unto the Queen (Malkath) of Sheba all her desire” (1 Kings, x, 13 ; 2 Chron. ix, 12; and Bertheau, ad loc.). The best way to make an end to all such stories was, therefore, to explain the word Malkath as if it were Meluchath, meaning “kingdom”. Thus the Queen goes altogether out of the story, and the Riddles with her, though they were circulating among the people, and it took centuries before the above objections were subdued—at least with regard to the Riddles. On the other hand, it is clear from the statement in the Bible, “The Queen of Sheba . . . came to prove Solomon with hard questions” (1 Kings, x, 1; 2 Chron. ix, 1), that even in Biblical times some such riddles or puzzles were current among the people. That those which we here rescue from oblivion cannot trace back to the riddles current in Biblical times is clear from the anachronisms contained in them. The student of folk-lore is familiar with the tenacity of popular memory, and there is therefore the remote chance that similar riddles to those given in our text are referred to in the Bible. The above considerations would then explain how they failed to make any appearance in the literary productions of the Rabbis.

This exclusion from what we may call the official literature for such a long time may perhaps also account for the corrupt and incomplete condition in which these Riddles are found. We possess nowadays three versions of them: the version of the Second Targum to Esther, i, 2, consisting of three riddles; the version of the Midrash on Proverbs, i, 1, consisting of four; and the version which we now publish for the first time, consisting of nineteen riddles. The first four riddles of this version, as well as the introduction, agree on the whole with the Midrash on Proverbs. There is only this difference: that the verse from Job which is here given by R. Ishmael is quoted in the Midrash from another Rabbi of a much later date. The quotation was probably shortened by the copyist; for there can hardly be any doubt that the Rabbi’s allusion aimed at the succeeding verses in Job, in which the treasures of Ethiopia (Cush) are spoken of, which country was, as it is well known, confused by the ancients with Sheba.

We may now proceed at once to give the text and translation of the Yemen Midrash.

מעשה אמר ר׳ ישמעאל זו חכמתו של שלמה שהיתה מסוף העולם ועד סופו דכתי ויחכם [וגו׳ ואומר] והחכמה מאין תמצא ואיזה מקום בינה· זו מלכת שבא ששמעה חכמתו של שלמה ואמרה אלך אראה חכמתו אם חכם הוא אם לאו· ר׳ ירמיה אומר אמרה לו שמעתי עליך ועל חכמתך אם אני שואלת אותך בדבר משיבני אמר לה כי ה׳ יתן חכמה מפיו דעת ותבונה· אמרה לו שבעה יוצאין ותשעה נכנסין· שנים מוזגין ואחד שותה· אמר לה שבעת ימי נדה יוצאין· ותשעה ירחי בטן נכנסין· שני דדי אשה מוזגין ואחד השותה זה הולד· אמרה לו חכם אתה׃ ועוד שאלה אותו ואמרה לו אשה שאמרה לבנה אביך אבי וזקיניך בעלי· אתה בני ואני אחותך· אמר לה בודאי זו בתו של לוט היא אמרה לבנה כך׃ ועוד הביאה לו זכרים ונקבות ואמרה לו הפרש לי בין אלו לאלו· מיד רמז לסריסים והביאו לו קליות ואגוזים· הזכרים שלא היו מתביישין לוקחין וידיהם גלויות· והנקבות היו לוקחות מתחת בגדיהן תחת בית יד שלהן· אמר לה אלו זכרים ואלו נקבות׃ הביאה מהולים וערלים אמרה הפרש לי בין אלו לאלו· מיד רמז לכהן גדול ופתח את ארון הברית מהולין שבהן כרעו בחצי קומתן· ולא עוד אלא שנתמלא פניהן מזיו השכינה· ערלים נפלו על פניהם· אמר לה אלו מהולים ואלו ערלים אמרה לו חכם אתה׃

ועוד שאלה אותו ואמרה מי הוא לא נולד ולא מת· אמר לה זה אדון העולמים ב״ה׃ ועוד שאלה אותו ואמרה לו איזה ארץ שלא ראת שמש אלא פעם אחת· אמר לה מי מקוה ויום שנקרע הים׃ ועוד שאלה אותו ואמרה לו מה חצר ועשרה דלתות פתוחות כשאחד נפתח תשעה נסגרים ותשעה פתוחים אחד נסגר· אמר לה חצר זו הרחם של אשה· ועשרה דלתות זה בן אדם שעשרה נקבים יש לו· עיניו· ואזניו· ונחיריו· ופיו· ומעיו· ומקום הטבעת· ושורה· כשהולד במעי אמו השורה פתוחה ונקבי הנער נסגרים וכשהנער יוצא השורה נסגרת והתשעה נפתחים׃

ועוד שאלה אותו ואמרה חי לא היה הולך וכשנקטע ראשו הולך· אמר לה זו ספינה שבמים· מהוא שלשה לא אכלו ולא שתו ולא נזרקה בהם נשמה והצילו שלש נפשות מן המיתה· אמר לה שלא אכלו הם חותמת ופתיל ומטה והנפשות שהצילו הם תמר ופרץ וזרח· מהוא שלשה נכנסו למערה ויצאו חמשה· אמר לה לוט ושתי בנותיו ושתי ילדיהן·

מה הוא המת חי והקבר מהלך והמת מתפלל· אמר לה המת זו יונה והקבר מהלך זה הדג והמתפלל זו יונה· מה הוא שלשה אכלו ושתו בארץ ולא נולדו מזכר ונקבה· אמר לה שלשה מלאכים שנגלו לאברהם אבינו ע״ה· מה הוא שלשה שנכנסו למקום מתים ויצאו חיים· אמר לה השלשה הם דניאל חנניה מישאל ועזריה· ושנים נכנסו למקום חיים ויצאו מתים אלו נדב ואביהוא· מה הוא דאתיליד ולא מית· אמר לה זה אליהו ומשיח· מה דלא אתיליד ואיתיהבית ביה רוח· אמר לה זה העגל· מה הוא מאדמה נוצר ואדם יצרו ומאכלו מפרי האדמה· אמר לה זו פתילה· מה הוא אתתא דאתבעילת לתרין וילידת תרין דאנון ארבעה ואבוהון חד· אמר לה זה מעשה תמר דאתבעילת לתרין ער ואונן וילידת תרין פרץ וזרח ואבוהון חד זה יהודה· מה הוא ביתא אתמלי מיתין מית לא על בניהון וחי לא נפק מנהון אמר לה זה שמשון ופלישתים· ועוד צותה ואמרה להביא עץ ארז מנוסר ואמרה לו הודיעני איזה שורש ואיזה הוא ענף· צוה לה להשליכו במים נשתקעה צד האחד וצף השני והיה צפוי על פני המים· אמר לה זה שנשתקע הוא השורש והצף הוא הענף· באותה שעה אמרה לו הוספת חכמה וטוב על השמועה ויהיה אלהיך ברוך לכך נאמר וה׳ נתן חכמה לשלמה׃ נשלם זה המדרש׳׃

R. Ishmael related the following: “This is the wisdom of Solomon, (the fame of) which extended from end to end of the world, as it is written, ‘and he was wiser than all men’ (1 Kings, v, 11); and it is said, ‘But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?’ (Job, xxviii, 12). This is the Queen of Sheba, who heard of the wisdom of Solomon and said, ‘I will go and see his wisdom, whether he be wise or not.’ ”

R. Jeremiah said:—“The Queen of Sheba,” addressing Solomon, said to him, ‘I have heard of thee and thy wisdom; if now I inquire of thee concerning any matter, wilt thou answer me?’ He replied, ‘The Lord giveth wisdom: out of His mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.’ She then said to him: (1) ‘Seven there are that issue and nine that enter: two yield the draught, and one drinks.’ Said he to her, ‘Seven are the days of a woman’s defilement, and nine the months of pregnancy; two are the breasts that yield the draught, and one the child that drinks it.’ Whereupon she said to him ‘Thou art wise.’ (2) Then she questioned him further: ‘A woman said to her son, thy father is my father, and thy grandfather my husband; thou art my son, and I am thy sister.’ ‘Assuredly,’ said he, ‘it was the daughter of Lot who spake thus to her son.’ (3) She placed before him a number of males and females, and said, ‘Distinguish now between them.’ Forthwith he made a sign to the eunuchs, who brought him a quantity of nuts and roasted ears of corn. The males, who were not troubled with bashfulness, seized them with bare hands, the females took them putting forth their gloved hands from beneath their garments. Whereupon he exclaimed, ‘Those are the males, these the females.’ (4) She brought to him a number of persons, some circumcised and others uncircumcised, and asked him to distinguish between them. He instantly made a sign to the high priest, who opened the ark of the covenant; whereupon those that were circumcised bowed their bodies to half their height, while their countenances were filled with the radiance of the Shechinah; the uncircumcised fell prone upon their faces. ‘Those,’ said he, ‘are circumcised, these uncircumcised.’ ‘Thou art indeed wise, she exclaimed. (5) She put other questions to him, to all of which he gave replies. ‘Who is he who neither was born nor has died?’ ‘It is the Lord of the Universe, blessed be He.’ (6) ‘What land is that that has but once seen the sun?‘ ‘The land upon which (after the creation) the waters were gathered, and (the bed of the sea on) the day when the sea was divided.’ (7) ‘There is an enclosure with ten doors, when one is open, nine are shut; when nine are open, one is shut.’ ‘That enclosure is the womb: the ten doors are the ten orifices of man—his eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, the apertures for the discharge of the excreta and the urine, and the navel; when the child is in the embryonic state, the navel is open and the other orifices are closed, but when it issues (from the womb) the navel is closed, and the others are opened.’ (8) ‘(There is something which when) living moves not, yet when its head is cut off it moves?’ ‘It is the ship in the sea’ (the living tree has no motion, the trunk from which the crowning branches have been severed supplies the material for the moving vessel). (9) ‘Which are the three that neither ate, nor drank, nor had breath put into them, yet saved three lives from death?’ ‘The seal, the thread and the staff (of Judah)] are those three, and the lives they saved were Tamar, Pharez, and Zarah.’ (10) ‘Three entered a cave, and five came forth therefrom?’ ‘Lot and his two daughters, and their two children.’ (11) ‘The dead lived, the grave moves, and the dead prays: what is that?’ ‘The dead one was Jonah; the moving grave, the fish; Jonah was also the one that prayed.’ (12) ‘Who were the three that ate and drank on the earth, yet were not born of male and female?’ ‘The three angels who revealed themselves to our father Abraham, peace be unto him.’ (13) ‘Four entered a place of death and came forth alive, and two entered a place of life and came forth dead?’ ‘The four were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; and the two who entered a place of life and came forth dead were Nadab and Abihu.’ (14) ‘Who was he who was born and died not?’ ‘Elijah and the Messiah.’ (15) ‘What was that which was not born, yet life was given to it?’ ‘The (golden) calf.’ (16) ‘What is that which is produced from the ground, yet man produces it, while its food is of the fruit of the ground?’ ‘A wick.’ (17) ‘A woman was wedded to two, and bare two sons, yet these four had one father?’ ‘Tamar was married by two, Er and Onan; she bore two (sons), Pharez and Tarah; and the father of (all) four was Judah.’ (18) ‘A house full of dead: no dead one came among them, nor did a living one come forth from them?’ ‘It is the story of Samson and the Philistines.’ (19) She next ordered the sawn (trunk of a) cedar tree to be brought, and asked him to point out which (end) the root had been and at which the branches. He bade her cast it into the water, when one end sank and the other floated upon the surface of the water. That part which sank was the root, and that which remained uppermost was the branch end. Then she said to him, ‘Thou exceedest in wisdom and goodness the fame which I heard, blessed be thy God.’ Therefore it is said, ‘And the Lord gave wisdom unto Solomon.’ ”

The chief critical problem of interest in connection with these Riddles is to trace how far they occur in other Jewish or Eastern sources. The following notes bearing on this side of the subject may perhaps be of service to students of folk-lore, who seem to an outsider to be more interested in parallels than in originals. Rabbinic literature, which is in a large measure one vast system of parallels, ought to offer them wide scope for their study.

With regard to the separate Riddles, there is in the Midrash on Lamentations, ch.i, a parallel to Riddle 1. In Perles’ work, Zur Rabbinischen Sprach- und Sagenkunde, p. 97, note 1, Persian parallels are also given. Riddle 2 is of a genealogical character, and so are Riddles 10 and 17. The study of the forbidden degrees in marriage may have encouraged the discussion of such questions. See, for instance, the Talmud of Babylon, Yebamoth, 9b. As to Riddle 3, on which there was a question in Folk-Lore Journal, vii, p. 316, besides this version four others are known, put together by the late Prof. Delitzsch in his work, Iris (Edinburgh, 1889), of which we give here a brief extract. Two are of Mahomedan origin. According to one: “The boys and girls he thus distinguished; when, according to the usual custom in the harems, water was brought to be poured on their hands, the girls received it in the palm, the boys on the backs of their hands.” According to the other: “The boys lifted the hand, on which the water was poured, immediately to their face, whereas the girls first filled the right hand with the water falling on the left, and then washed the face with both hands at once.” In the Byzantine version, as related by Georgius Cedrenus and Michael Glykas, the male children, when commanded to wash themselves, “rubbed their faces with right good will, the females gently and timidly.” In another version, again, Solomon distinguished between the boys and girls by the fact that “the former washed their faces like men without more ado, while the latter, with characteristic prudery, would scarcely touch the water with the tips of their fingers.”

As to the authorities for these different sources, they are fully discussed by Delitzsch (l. c., 154-165), where the reader will find also many interesting points about the migration of this legend in the Wisdom literature, and the use which artists and poets have made of it.[4] With regard to the solution of the 4th Riddle, it is based on the Jewish belief that those who were not brought into the covenant of Abraham are so overpowered by any strong manifestation of the divine presence that they lose the use of their limbs and fall down. This is supposed to be proved by Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet, of whom it is said in the Scripture: “Which saw the vision of the Almighty falling into a trance” (Numbers, xxiv). For Riddle 7 we have partial parallels in Nedarim 32b, Niddah 32b, and elsewhere. The completest parallel is to be found in the Appendix to Adra- Virafnamet, ed. E. W. West. (See Perles, lib. cit., pp. 98 and 99, and notes.) In Riddle 13 the MSS. vary, but the difference is not material, as may be seen by the translation which was made in this place after Or. 2351. The word Daniel, though it is to be found in all MSS., must be ascribed to a slip of the copyist, being accustomed, from his frequent reading of the Bible, to mention these four names together. With regard to Riddle 14, it is to be noticed that other Jewish sources speak of nine or thirteen persons who have not died. See Epstein’s Beiträge, p. 111, where all the parallels are put together. The solution of Riddle 15 is based on the legend according to which the magicians Yannes and Yambros (see 2 Tim. iii, 8, and commentaries, and Levy, Chald. Wörterb., 337), who belonged to the mixed multitude which went up with the Israelites from Egypt, managed by their charms to make the gold calf speak. According to other versions, it was Satan himself who went into the calf and spoke (see Tanchuma to Exod. xxxii, 1, and the Targum of Jerusalem to the same verse. Riddle 16 reminds us very much of the 2nd Riddle in the version of the Second Targum, which has been translated and fully treated by P. Cassel in his Commentary on Esther, pp. 283 and 284. This fact may, perhaps, suggest that our version once contained all the Riddles of the Second Targum, as it has all the Riddles of the Midrash, which will prove that none of all these versions is complete in its present form. The MSS. contain here an Arabic gloss, the translations of which I owe to the kindness of Dr. Neubauer. It runs thus: “Men plait the wick and then light it, for if it had not been plaited it would not burn evenly. Therefore it is considered as if men had created it, i.e., made it.” Riddle 19 was probably suggested by I Kings, v, 33. (See the excellent remarks of Dr. Jellinek on this point, in his introduction to the fifth volume of his Beth Hammidrash, p. lv.)

We think that the foregoing remarks, as well as the few words which we have interpolated in round brackets here and there in the translation, will suffice to make the text intelligible to the reader. The parallels from non-Jewish sources we leave to others, and we have no doubt that they also will furnish the folk-lorist with interesting matter. See, for instance, the Dialogue of Solomon and Saturnus, by Kemble, p. 199, Riddle 5 and Riddle 6, in our version. There are also many points in the introduction to Kemble’s book which will have to be corrected. after the researches of Steinschneider and others on the subject. The story of a Man from Jerusalem, which is attributed to R. Abraham Maimun, must also not be neglected by the student. We can only hope that Mr. Jacobs, who has equal mastery both of Jewish and non-Jewish sources, will soon find the leisure to favour us with a new edition of the Dialogue.



  1. See Zuns, Die gottesdienstliche Vorträge, p. 268, and Munk’s edition of the Second Targum, p. 10. Comp. also Rapoport, Erech Millim, p. 23.
  2. See Baba Bathra, 15a, and Sabbath, 56a and b.
  3. See Pseudo Ben Sira, ed. Steinschneider, p. 21b; Munk’s Second Targum, p. 23; and A. Epstein’s Beitraege, etc., p. 122.
  4. There is also much of interest and value in A. Wuensche, Die Räthselweisheit der alien Hebräer.