The British Sailors and the Man Who Picked Figs

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26 Apr 2007

Holy and Secular – The British treasury officials were shocked. The mystery appeared to be unsolvable. The mail ships that sailed from England to America took two weeks longer than commercial ships plying the same route. “This is not reasonable,” the officials said to the Minister of Posts of the colonies, Benjamin Franklin. “Why should our sophisticated ships take two weeks longer than the commercial American ships?”

Franklin’s cousin was the captain of an American fishing ship. When Franklin asked him to explain the mystery, his uncle amazed him with the answer. “The difference is very simple. The American commercial ships are familiar with the Gulf Stream, and they are careful to avoid it. The English, on the other hand, are not familiar with it. This strong flow can cause them to lose as much as 70 miles a day. Sometimes, when the winds are weak, it can even push them backwards. And that is how Her Majesty’s splendid ships usually arrive about two weeks after the simple American ones.”

“Why don’t you tell them about the stream?” Franklin wanted to know. His cousin said with a smile, “We have often caught up with British mail ships that were sailing right in the Gulf Stream. When we told them that they are sailing against a very strong flow, they ignored us. They were too smart to accept the advice of simple American fishermen.”

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For a long time, the sages were not sure of the meaning of the word “seirugin.” One day, the students entered the home of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi in small groups. This upset the Gentile maidservant. She was not ashamed to scald the students, “Why are you coming in ‘seirugin’?” And they understood that the word means in sequence, one after another. “Now we can finally understand the word.” [Megillah 18a].

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Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chanania was one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation. He often had disputes with the wise men of Rome, and he always won the controversy. One time, Rabbi Yehoshua was walking in a field. “Rabbi,” a small girl asked him, “Why are you walking in a field that belongs to somebody else?” And Rabbi Yehoshua smiled and replied, “This is a beaten path, it is permitted to use it.” But the girl would not be silent. “Robbers like you are the ones who beat out the path,” she said to the great and wise man.

If a little girl would give us such criticism, we would undoubtedly consider her as being rash. But Rabbi Yehoshua was very happy to hear her words. All his life he would tell others about the little girl who won her argument with him. [Eiruvin 53b].

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For many years Rabbi Yochanan was upset by the verse, “He does not have faith in His holy people” [Iyov 15:15]. Could it be that G-d does not even depend on His own holiest people? One day, Rabbi Yochanan met a man who was picking figs in a strange way. He left the ripe figs on the tree and he picked those that were not quite ripe, putting them into a bag. Rabbi Yochanan turned to the man, “Excuse me, there are figs here that are already ripe. Why don’t you take them?” The man answered him, “Rabbi, I am about to leave for a long journey. The ripe figs will not last during the trip, I prefer to take along with me figs that are not so ripe.”

When Rabbi Yochanan heard the man’s answer, he was very happy. “Now I understand why G-d has no faith in His holy people. They are like ripe figs, they can spoil easily. He therefore does not have faith in them. It is better to have faith in those who are not yet fully ripe.” [Chagiga 5a].

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Our sages understood very well that the truth is dispersed throughout the world. They knew that a truly wise person is one who is willing to learn from anybody. As opposed to the proud British sailors, the sages did not hesitate to learn from others. Even a maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda and a simple man picking figs can teach us wisdom. As they said, “Accept the truth from whoever says it.” It is not degrading to learn something from a simple person, rather it is very honorable.

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.