Solomon was just a young lad when he assumed the throne. In fact, he was a mere twelve years of age.1 In those days, prior to the construction of the Temple, the altar that was built by Moses was situated in Gibeon. Soon after he became king, Solomon went to Gibeon to pray and give thanks.

While in Gibeon, G‑d appeared to Solomon in a dream. “What should I give you?” the Almighty asked. Solomon was acutely aware of his young age and lack of experience. He, therefore, asked G‑d for “an understanding heart to judge Your people.”

G‑d expresses His great satisfaction and happiness with this choice. Solomon could have opted to make any other attractive wish for himself: long life, wealth, victory over his enemies, etc. Because he had wished for what he did, G‑d told him that in addition to wisdom, he would also enjoy great wealth and honor. And the wisdom G‑d would grant him would be the likes of which no one before him or after him would possess.

This gift of wisdom was put to the test soon after the young king returned home. Two prostitutes came before the king with a quarrel. The first began to lay out her side of the story:

They had both been sharing a lodging space, and had both given birth—she first, her housemate three days later. Unfortunately, her housemate’s baby had died the night after it was born. Upon realizing this, her housemate had gone and secretly exchanged her dead child with her housemate’s live one. “I awoke in the morning to nurse my son, and behold, he was dead! But I looked closely at him in the morning, and behold, it was not my son whom I had borne.”

The second woman denied this entirely. “Not so! The living child is my son, and the dead one is your son.” And so the argument continued.

Solomon repeated the claims of each party, thus ensuring he understood them. (Our sages use this verse as the source for a judge’s obligation to repeat the claims of the litigants in front of them, to ensure he has understood them properly.2)

The case was obviously made more difficult by the fact that there were no witnesses for any of the events. Solomon had to think of some original method of how to detect who was speaking the truth.

  • The king said, “Fetch me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.”
  • The woman whose son was the live one said to the king—for her compassion was aroused for her son—and she said: “O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “Let it be neither mine nor yours; divide it.”
  • The king answered and said, “Give her the living child, and by no means kill him: she is his mother.”

Word of Solomon’s great display of wisdom spread throughout the entire kingdom. The people now revered the young king, for they saw that the wisdom of G‑d was with him.

Simply speaking, what impressed the people was that despite his young age, the king had managed to think of such a clever scheme to solve this difficulty.3

Now of course such a scheme would not always be effective. Any decent human being would at least be hesitant to agree to the proposition of “dividing” any child, even if it was not theirs; indeed, they would most probably express profound shock at the mere proposition. The wisdom of Solomon was the ability to discern the precise character of the litigants who stood in front of him. The accurate assessment that his charade would be effective was the product of his great wisdom and a clear display of it.

Another Solution?

From a halachic perspective, this case of the two mothers is actually a tough one. The usual approach to such cases follows the maxim hamotzi meichaveiro alav haraayah (the onus of proof is on the claimant).4 To illustrate, a somewhat similar case is brought in the Talmud concerning an animal:

A deposited a sheep with B for safekeeping. B also had a sheep of his own. At some point, one of the sheep died, and it cannot be determined whose sheep it was. The law, in this case, is that A cannot claim the living sheep from B unless he can prove his ownership of it.5

On the surface, then, this case could be viewed in the same way: two women appear, one of them holding a live child. The other woman claims that the child is hers and that the first one kidnapped it from her. Seemingly, the law should be that the onus of proof is on the woman who wants to take the baby away from the other woman.

A closer look, though, shows that this case is different. Note the carefully worded claim of the first woman: “On the third day after I had given birth, this woman gave birth also. We were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, just the two of us in the house. Then this woman’s son died at night, because she had lain on him.”

What she was saying was that from the time that the other woman gave birth until the time her child died, there was no one else in the house. The implication is that there were people in the house during the three-day period between the births. In other words, there was independent evidence available that the first woman (the claimant) had borne a live baby, but no such evidence that the second woman had even had a live birth, aside from the claimant’s statement to that effect.

Now, another halachic principle is that if a certain fact is known only from the testimony of one person, then that person must also be trusted as to the details of that fact.6 In this case, since we know of the second live birth only from the first woman’s statement, there is a strong argument to say that we must also accept her testimony as the death of that very child thereafter.

Thus, each claim had a legal principle to back it, of equal strength. It was indeed no easy case.7

Not My Son

Upon hearing the terrifying proposition to divide the child, “the woman whose son was the live one said to the king—for her compassion was aroused for her son—and she said: ‘O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.’”

The commentaries ask the obvious question: now that the real mother had willingly given up her child so as not to see him die, why did the other woman not seize the opportunity and take the baby?

Some straightforward answers may be offered. The women (or at least the one who spoke falsely) were convinced that the king meant his proposition seriously; given the prevalent despotism of kings at that time, this could not definitively be ruled out. So she did not accept the other woman’s offer, because she did not think the king would allow the baby to live anyway after ordering its execution.

Another approach is that in essence, the second woman did not really care for this child that much. Rather than having to raise the child, she would prefer to allow for its death, just to get even with her housemate. This episode thus highlights the extent of unrestrained human jealousy and its repercussions.8

When Is This Read?

The haftarah for the portion of Mikeitz is read somewhat rarely, since usually, the portion of Mikeitz comes out during the Chanukah holiday, and a special haftarah is read for this occasion. The story of this haftarah is nevertheless quite well known. It is that of the first judgment of King Solomon and the display of his wisdom: the story of the two mothers and their babies.

A major theme of the portion of Mikeitz is dreams. Pharaoh has two dreams whose meaning he cannot decipher. The butler remembers how Joseph correctly interpreted both his and the baker's dreams while in prison. Joseph is brought to the king and interprets his dream, this being the catalyst for all the events that followed.

In a similar way, the haftarah opens with “Solomon awoke, and behold, it was a dream.”