Solomon Outwits The Queen Of Sheba

The following tale is related in a forgotten nineteenth-century volume on the literature of the ancient world.  Its ultimate source is the Talmud (literally, “learning”), that immense compendium of Judaic civil and religious law, garnished with the diligent commentaries of hundreds of learned men.  To the foreigner unfamiliar with its mysteries, it appears to be a vast encyclopedia on every conceivable subject, including the minutiae of social life, work, family, and leisure.  Included also are fables, stories, allegories, proverbs, even jokes; the overall impression given is that of a distillation of cultural traditions and thought that spans many centuries.  The Talmud itself contains two parts:  the Mishna (the older text), and the Gemara, which is a commentary on the Mishna.

The present writer, before proceeding further, must candidly confess his ignorance of the Hebrew language.  He has no knowledge of the liturgical subtleties of the Talmud, or of the nuances of its admonitions and religious legalisms; nor, indeed, does he pretend to possess such knowledge.  Yet he is armed with two formidable weapons, an insatiable curiosity and a love of wisdom.

He understands that the truly learned man, regardless of his religious affiliation or particular areas of specialty, will receive the inherited wisdom of the world’s literatures with an open-mindedness and innocence that transcend sectarian alignments; and he will, animated by an expansive spirit, be able to pierce through the deflecting barrier of parochialism to apprehend the wisdom contained in the literary monuments of every nation.  For nothing is so luminous, or so expansive, as the instinctive attraction felt by all learned souls–of whatever culture–to that which is wise and sublime.

The young Isaac D’Israeli

Let us, then, proceed to our tale.  The following anecdote about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is artfully translated by the scholar and man of letters Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848).

The power of Solomon had spread his wisdom to the remotest parts of the known world.  Queen Sheba, attracted by the splendor of his reputation, visited this poetical king at his own court.  There, one day, to exercise the sagacity of the monarch, Sheba presented herself at the foot of the throne.  In each hand she held a wreath.  The one was composed of natural, and the other of artificial flowers.  Art, in constructing the mimetic wreath, had exquisitely emulated the lively hues of nature; so that, at the distance it was held by the queen for the inspection of the king, it was deemed impossible for him to decide, as her question required, which wreath was the production of nature, and which the work of art.

The sagacious Solomon seemed perplexed; yet to be vanquished, though in a trifle, by a trifling woman, irritated his pride.  The son of David, he who had written treatises on the vegetable productions “from the cedar to the hyssop,” to acknowledge himself outwitted by a woman, with shreds of paper and glazed paintings!  The honor of the monarch’s reputation for divine sagacity seemed diminished, and the whole Jewish court looked solemn and melancholy.

At length an expedient presented itself to the king; and one, it must be confessed, worthy of the naturalist.  Observing a cluster of bees hovering about a window, he commanded that it should be opened.  It was opened; the bees rushed into the court, and alighted immediately on one of the wreaths, while not a single one fixed on the other.

The baffled Sheba had one more reason to be astonished at the wisdom of Solomon.

The resourceful mind must of necessity be a restless one.  Constantly probing man and nature for solutions to problems, it directs its energies here and there as circumstances compel.  To every problem there is a solution.  Along these lines I am also reminded of an aphorism by the great Leonardo Bruni from his History of the Florentine People (VI.83),

Sed ingenium multa reparat invictum.

And this means, yet the unconquered mind untangles many problems.


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