Once in a city in Italy there lived two friends whose stores were side by side. They had known and trusted one another since becoming neighbors many years earlier. One of them dealt with precious oils and the other sold rare spices and perfumes. They lived in peace and friendship and did not begrudge each other if one had more customers than his neighbor. But for some, mighty is the power of gold.

One evening, the spice merchant had closed his shop at the usual time and stepped over to the oil dealer to bid him good night. Through the half-open door he saw his friend busying himself with the intake of the day’s sales. To the great astonishment of the spice merchant, the oil dealer counted no less than one hundred and fifty gold pieces into a large, dirty piece of red cloth. The glitter of the shiny gold by the light of the candle incited the spicer’s jealousy and greed. He forgot their friendship and began to plot how to get the gold without having to break in to steal it. After a few moments of hard thinking, while the oil dealer made several knots in the dirty rag that held his treasure, the spice merchant suddenly started to shout, “Help, help, woe is me, I’ve been robbed!”

Immediately, people came running from all sides, among them a policeman. As soon as the spice merchant saw him, he cried out bitterly that he had been robbed of his gold. The policeman inquired about the details of the way in which the merchant had kept his money, and about the people who had entered his place of business. “I had exactly one hundred and fifty gold pieces, the total of today’s sales, bound into my large red cloth, when my neighbor of next door visited me and we had a little chat. Otherwise no one was in my store after I finished counting my money.” Naturally the policeman went straight into the shop of the oil dealer and began a thorough search.

“What do you want, sir.” inquired the oil dealer, surprised at the sudden visit and search. “Don’t try to talk your way out of this, my friend. The spice dealer next door claims that you were the only one who visited him after he tied up his hundred and fifty gold pieces into a large red cloth.” And while the speechless oil dealer looked on, unable to grasp the meaning of the accusation, the policeman triumphantly pulled the heavy red bundle from beneath the counter. “Ah, here it is! That settles it.” He put iron shackles on the hands of the oil dealer and took him along to the city prison, despite his loud protests and claims of innocence.

The case came before the judge, and each merchant presented his case. The judge listened to the claim and counter-claim. There was nothing in the case that would prove one side right and the other wrong. He therefore kept the oil dealer in prison, but recommended that the case be taken before a higher court. The higher court, too, was unable to make a decision one way or another. There simply was no compelling evidence upon which the claim of either of the merchants could be proved. The unfortunate wife and children of the oil dealer went from one court to another, until the case of the gold pieces became the most talked-about affair in the city. Everyone thought up new ways of proving the guilt of the spice merchant or the oil dealer, but all the ideas and suggestions came to nothing.

The case had reached the highest court of the land. The Duke himself was to pass judgment upon the rightful ownership of the one hundred and fifty gold pieces. But being a duke of noble blood does not make one wiser than other mortal beings. The duke was just as bewildered as everyone else, by the equal claim of both parties and he knew of no way to make a just decision that would satisfy the excited people and his own conscience.

One evening he took a walk through the capital of his Duchy and passed by a public park. There he saw young boys who, like almost everyone in town, talked about the theft of the gold pieces. “Let us play court,” suggested one youngster. While the duke stood aside, hiding himself nearby, he listened eagerly to the proceedings of this mock-court.

“Present your claim,” said the junior judge to the boy who acted as the spice merchant. And with the greatest earnestness the boy told of the one hundred and fifty gold pieces he had wrapped up in the red cloth that had lain on the counter when the oil dealer visited him. Then his opponent stepped forward and said: “Your honor, by the life of my dear wife and children, the gold pieces and the red cloth are mine. I had counted my own cash intake of the day and was ready to leave when the policeman entered my store and searched every corner until he found the money.”

“Now let us see, “ said the wise boy judge. “Let me think for a moment. There must be some way which will identify the gold as belonging to the spice merchant or to the oil dealer.” After a moment of silence the boy’s face lit up and he smiled broadly. “I have it. Here is the solution to our puzzle. Quick, bring me a basin of water.” The duke, who had listened carefully to every word spoken in the mock trail, did not quite understand how the water could decide the case. But he was all ears to hear the “judge’s” solution.

“Bring me one piece of the gold,” said the boy. “Now dip it into the water. If you will see rings of oil swim on top of the water, the gold is the oil dealer’s, for he has always some residue of his merchandise on his hands. And if the gold smells of precious spices it belongs to the spice merchant.”

The duke was stunned by the simplicity of the boy’s advice. He stepped out of his hiding-place and asked for the name and address of the boy. He then returned to his palace in much better spirits than when he had left it.

Next day, heralds announced the public trial of the “Gold Pieces” case before the court of the duke. From all corners of the duchy came men and women to witness the duke’s judgment in the puzzling case. The courtroom was crowded to capacity. The duke sat on his high throne in richly ornamented brocade clothes. Upon his head he wore a crown with a diamond wreath. Before him stood the spice merchant and the oil dealer, one eager to get the gold, and the other even more so to prove his innocence. Again both parties presented their cases passionately, and again all those present were puzzled by the lack of evidence. All eyes were fixed upon the duke who sat on his throne, and his fiery eyes looked hard at the accuser and the accused.

A few minutes of silence passed during which the duke seemed to ponder the merits of the case. Suddenly, he gave a sign to the servant who stood behind him. The man opened the side door behind the duke’s and led in a young Jewish boy of about ten years. “Now, come here, Aryeh,” said the noble prince to the youngster as the huge crowd gaped open-mouthed. “I want you to proceed exactly as you did last evening when you gave your judgment in the mock trial of the oil dealer.”

Unperturbed by the hundreds of eyes that hung on his every move, the Jewish boy asked for the basin of water. As he had done before, he placed one of the gold pieces in question into the basin of water. Those nearby saw oily circles appear on the water, and everyone present knew that the hundred and fifty gold pieces belonged to the oil dealer.

The vindicated merchant was given his money as well as half of the possessions of the greedy spice merchant who had so faithlessly betrayed their long friendship. The culprit was sent to prison.

The duke royally rewarded the clever youngster who had passed such wise judgment. But G‑d had already given him a richer reward. This child prodigy, who in his early years proved the innocence of a man, became later known as Rabbi Aryehh of Mantua, one of the greatest Rabbis of his country.