It happened once upon a time that three men presented themselves before the great King Solomon the Wise, and asked for his help.
“We three are merchants,” said one, “who are travelling together to seek our fortune. We left our home with a large sum of money.”
“When the sabbath came, we wanted to hide the money,” said a second, “for we must have nothing in our pockets on the holy day. So we went to a certain tree and buried the money beneath it.”
“And when the sabbath concluded and we returned, the money was gone,” said the third. “As only we knew it was there, the conclusion is obvious – one of us is a thief!”
“I see,” said Solomon. “And what do you propose I do for you?”
“Command each one of us to swear an oath,” said the first, “that we did not take the money. The one who cannot swear will be revealed was the thief.”
King Solomon thought for a moment. One who was capable of betraying the trust of his fellow travellers would also be capable of swearing a false oath to conceal his misdeed. Some other method must be found. “Return to me tomorrow,” he told the merchants.
The next day, the king said, “Before we consider your case, I wish to ask your help in another matter.”
The three merchants looked at each other in astonishment. King Solomon the Wise was asking for their help! They bowed seriously, and then straightened themselves, urging the king to continue.
“There was, a long time ago, a young girl and a young boy who grew up together and they were sweethearts,” said Solomon. “They vowed that when they were old enough they would marry, or they would at least ask the permission of the other before they married anyone else. But the river of life has many turns, and it came to pass that the girl forgot her vow and married another man. Nevertheless, after the marriage ceremony, the girl remembered her promise, and her heart was troubled.
“She confessed the situation to her new husband, and when he understood, he said it would not be honest to live together as man and wife until they found the young man to whom she had given her promise and asked his permission. Therefore, they gathered together all the money they could find, as a dowry offering to the young man, and began to search for him.
“When they found him, that young man generously refused the payment they offered, and kindly gave them his blessing to live together in happiness. Thankful and deeply relieved, the couple started homeward.
“On the way, however, a robber appeared, and threatening violence, took the purse of money they had. ‘Please, please,’ said the woman, ‘give us back the money – it is all we have!’ And she explained to the thief the whole story, about the promise, the wedding, the blessing, and the money. And when he heard all this, the thief was so moved by the honesty and generosity of the three that he gave the money back to them.”
The three merchants were now glancing at each other uneasily, wondering where all this was leading.
“What I wish you to tell me,” Solomon said to them, “is simply this: which one of the persons in this story is most praiseworthy?”