Simon ben Shetach and the Pearl on the Donkey

by Rabbi Fred Davidow

Simon was a rabbi but he did not work at a congregation. He worked on a farm. It was hard work. He had to get up very early in the morning and go out to the wheat fields and cut the stalks of grain. It was very hot and he sweated a lot and his back ached from bending over so much. After he had cut a lot of stalks, he had to tie them in a bundle. And he had to carry in his arms the heavy bundles of wheat all the way back from the field to the barn. And during the day Simon had to walk a number of times from the field to the barn and back to the field and so on. He had to work until the sun went down. Then he walked home, ate his supper and then his students came to see him so that he could teach them about the Torah. He was very smart and very wise but after a long day of work, he did not have a lot of time to stay up late at night teaching his students, because he had to get up early again the next morning.

His students would have liked to learn more from him, but Simon’s hard work kept Simon from teaching them more.
One day, his students said to Simon, “Master, if you had a donkey, you could ride the donkey to the wheat field. That would save some time and you wouldn’t have to walk. Then you could put the bundles of wheat on the donkey’s back and have the donkey carry all the bundles to the barn. You could finish all your work in the wheat field before the sun went down and you wouldn’t be so tired from carrying all those bundles of wheat. And you could ride the donkey back to your house. We could come earlier to have our class with you and we could learn more from you, because we would have more time and you wouldn’t be as tired.”

Simon was a wise man and he understood what his students were telling him. He didn’t have a lot of money but he had enough to buy a donkey with some money to spare. So he gave his students just enough money to go to the market and buy a donkey for him.

The students went to the market and looked for a donkey they could buy with the money Simon had given them. They found a donkey, paid the seller and donkey.

After a while the donkey started limping. At first the students thought that the man who had sold them the donkey had tricked them and sold them a crippled donkey. But they examined the donkey’s legs and felt his skin all over and under the saddle they found a ring with a pearl. When the students were sitting in the saddle, the saddle pressed the hard ring into the donkey’s shoulder and that was what had been making the donkey limp. The students were very glad to know that the donkey was not lame and crippled and with the ring removed from under the saddle, the donkey did not limp at all from then on. The students began talking about what great luck they had in finding a gold ring with a large pearl.

When they got to Simon’s house, they were so excited. “Master, Master, you will never have to go to work in the wheat fields again!”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” asked Simon.

“Look what we found under the donkey’s saddle! It’s a gold ring with a large pearl!” You can sell this ring and get a lot of money and you will never have to work in the wheat fields again. You can spend all the time you want just teaching us.”

“Did the man who sold you this donkey know that he was also selling you this ring?” asked Simon.

“Of course not,” said the students. “The money you gave us was only enough for the donkey. The ring is just a lucky part of the deal.”

“I am so sad to find out that you students of mine have forgotten the important lesson I taught you about the mitzvah in the Torah of returning lost property. You know very well that you have to return this ring to its rightful owner, because you yourselves know exactly who the owner is. Now go back at once to the market in the town and return this ring to the man who sold you the donkey.”

The students went back to town and to the market and found the donkey trader. They asked him if he had lost anything recently. The man said he had. They asked him what he had lost and what it looked like. The man described the ring with the pearl and then the students gave it back to him. The man was so happy. He said that he often hid valuable things and he had forgotten that he had hidden his most valuable ring under the saddle of the donkey he had sold to them. Later in the day he had begun looking for the ring and had become so upset not to find it. Now he was so happy that he had it back and thanked the students for their honesty.

The students told them about their master Simon and how it was Simon who was the one to be thanked, because Simon said to return the ring and wanted to teach them about honesty.

The donkey trader said, “Your master Simon is a wise and teacher. Tell your master Simon that I say, ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews.”

The students went back to Simon and told them what the donkey trader had said. And Simon smiled a big smile and was very happy. Simon said, ‘I am so happy to hear that the donkey trader said, ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews.’ I would rather hear that than to have all the money in the world.”

That is the story about how Simon taught his students the mitzvah of returning lost property.

(Source: Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Metzia 2:5, 8c.)

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