The wise rabbi

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This week’s Friday funny, brought to you by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, tells the story of a wise rabbi. The story is one that has been repeated in various forms throughout history, including a version that features Albert Einstein

The story

There was once a wise rabbi who was much in demand as a speaker. He travelled extensively around Eastern Europe and Russia preaching, and debating theological matters.

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One day, he was on his way to another speaking engagement when his driver pulled the car over and said, “Rabbi, do me a favour. For once I would like to be the one receiving all the honours and attention to see what it feels like. For this one engagement, exchange clothes with me. You be the driver, and let me be the rabbi.”

The preacher was a generous man, and was greatly amused by the idea, and he readily agreed. But he warned his chauffeur that he would have to be careful. If he was asked to explain some recondite aspect of the Law, he would have to be very careful not to be caught out.

They pair arrived at their engagement. The rabbi sat meekly at the back of the room, while the driver addressed the eager audience. He knew his master’s speech by heart after hearing it several times before, and it went down very well with the assembled elders and scholars. After he had finished speaking, however, the floor was open for questions, and sure enough, someone put a very difficult question to him.

Unfazed, the driver looked at his audience sternly. “A fine lot of scholars you are! Why, this is so simple that even my driver can explain it to you … Driver, come here for a moment and clarify the Law for these dull-witted fellows!”

The explanation

This story, presumably apocryphal, comes from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (1948), by the Jewish-American historian and folklorist Nathan Ausubel (1898-1986). The interesting thing about it, though, is that it’s an early version, possibly even the prototype, of a gag which has been told about sports stars, economists, engineers and even insurance salesmen.

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Most famously of all, the same yarn is told another very learned Jew, Albert Einstein. In this one, Einstein travels extensively to speak to physicists, he agrees to swap places with his driver, and when caught out on a complex question about physics, the bogus Einstein refers the audience to his chauffeur. This particular joke has taken on a life of its own, and you still sometimes hear it being told as a true story. Sadly, it’s not. (At least we’re pretty sure it’s not … )