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PARASHAT MIKETZ - KING SOLOMON'S JUSTICE
In the beginning of the book of Melachim we read that Hashem promised Shlomo at the age of twelve that He would be granted great wisdom -- he was to be the wisest man ever to live (Melachim I 3:12). In order to illustrate that the blessing of immeasurable wisdom was indeed fulfilled, the Navi relates the following account of a case that was brought before Shlomo and his wise judgment of the case:
At that time two women came to the King and stood before him. One woman said, "My lord: I and this woman dwell in the same house, and I gave birth while with her in the house. On the third day after I gave birth, this woman gave birth as well. We live together; there is no outsider with us in the house; only the two of us were in the house. The son of this woman died that night, because she lay upon him. She arose during the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep, and laid him in her bosom, and her dead son she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, behold, he was dead! But when I observed him (later on) in the morning, I realized that he was not the son to whom I had given birth!"
The other woman replied, "It is not so! My son is the live one, and your son is the dead one." But this one said, "It is not so! Your son is the dead one, and my son is the live one!" And they went on speaking before the King.
The King said, "This one claims, `My son is the live one, and your son is the dead one,' and this one claims, `It is not so! Your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.' " So the King said, "Get me a sword!" and they brought a sword before the King. The King said, "Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other."
The woman whose son was the live one turned to the King, because
her compassion was aroused for her son, and she said, "Please, my
lord, give her the living baby, and do not kill it!" But the other
one said, "Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut!" The King
spoke up and said, "Give her [=the first one] the living baby and
do not kill it; she is his mother!"
(I Melachim 3:16-27)
A brilliant and original answer to these questions is offered by two commentators from the 13th century: Rav Yehoshua Ibn Shu'ib in his Drasha for Parashat Mishpatim, and Rav Menachem HaMe'iri in his commentary to Yevamot 17a. (Another Torah sage, the author of Shemen Roke'ach and Sha'ar Hachazakot, arrived at the same explanation independently several centuries later.)
In order to understand their answer, an introduction summarizing
several of the details of the laws of "Yibum" is called for.
(1) "Yibum," as mentioned above, is only applicable when a man dies
childless. "Dying childless" includes cases where a man once had children,
but those children were already dead at the time of his own death (Yevamot
There is another Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 2:175), that asserts that the husbands of the two women were father and son. That is, one woman was the mother-in-law of the other.
The above commentators suggest that these two Midrashim may be complementing each other. The two women -- the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law -- had just been bereaved of their husbands, and needed a live child to exempt them from the status of "Yevamah." Both gave birth to babies. However, these two babies were still less than thirty days old at the time that one of them died, as the verse indicates. The mother of the dead child would therefore be subject to the laws of "Yibum" (rule #4). This, then, was the motivation of the lying mother to try to kidnap the other woman's child.
Now, if it was the mother-in-law's child who had died, she would have no reason to try to seize her daughter-in-law's child. Even though her son (husband of the daughter-in-law) had passed away *before* her husband had, and therefore *he* would not exempt her from "Yibum" (rule #1), nevertheless, she would be exempt from "Yibum" for another reason. The living child, if he was not her own child, was at least her *son's* child, and a grandchild is enough to exempt one from "Yibum" (rule #2)!
Only the daughter-in-law would have a motive to lie and to try and claim (falsely) that the child was hers. If it was her baby who had died within 30 days of its birth, leaving her childless, she would indeed be bound to her husband's brother as a "Yevamah" (rule #4). And who would that brother be? None other than the living baby, who was in fact her mother-in-law's child -- i.e., her deceased husband's brother! Since her brother-in-law was a newborn infant, the daughter-in-law would have to wait thirteen years before this baby would be able to perform Chalitzah on her and free her to marry others (rule #5)! (This baby was the only living brother of her husband. There could not have been any other, older brothers, because, as the Midrash points out, the mother-in-law was herself a potential "Yevamah." This means that she had no living children except for the baby in question.)
The youthful King Shlomo, in his wisdom, realized all of this. He suspected that since the only one with a strong motive to lie was the daughter-in-law, the child must really belong to the mother-in-law. In order to confirm this conclusion he ordered that the child be cut in half. What would that accomplish?
If the remaining child were to be killed, this too would free the daughter-in-law from her "Yevamah" status -- since the living baby was her only brother-in-law (rule #3). In fact, killing the child would be an even *better* solution from the daughter-in-law's perspective. By just kidnapping the child she might convince the court that she was not a "Yevamah." However, she herself would know that the child was not really hers, and that she really was not permitted to remarry, halachically speaking, until Chalitzah was performed. By having the baby killed, though, she would truthfully be released from the bonds of "Yibum!" This is the reason the daughter-in-law suddenly lost interest in keeping the child when she saw that Shlomo was ready to cut the child in half. This would serve her interests even better than taking the child for herself. "Cut!" she insisted.
Shlomo had guessed that this would be the woman's reaction to his suggestion. By tricking her into making such a seemingly ludicrous statement, he revealed her true motives. In this manner, Shlomo demonstrated beyond doubt that the daughter-in-law was indeed lying!
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