Brain Teasers

Most of us like testing our intelligence with brain teasers – riddles and questions designed to see if we’re smart enough to reach the correct answers. From the time we’re young children, the excitement of figuring out the solution to problems is ingrained in us, and that’s a great thing. That desire and drive to unravel the mysteries around us are quite useful in life. We develop problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities which will come in handy. Life is full of problems and situations which need us to figure out how to maneuver around them, so they start us young.

How Many Were Going?

Do you remember this one? “As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Every wife had seven sacks, and every sack had seven cats. Every cat had seven kits. – Kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to St. Ives?” (Kits, I guess, is a way of saying kittens.)

When hearing this, you immediately start to do math in your head. 1 man, plus seven wives. That’s 8. Each wife has seven sacks full of furry little animals. We start multiplying sevens, figuring out how many were going to St. Ives. Ooh! Don’t forget about myself. But don’t count sacks, as they’re not alive. Or maybe I do count them, because it’s included in the riddle. Well, that’s another forty-nine if I count sacks.

Typically, you would solve this one by saying, seven (wives) times seven (sacks) times seven (cats) times seven (kits). Let me help you: seven, forty-nine, three-hundred forty-three, two-thousand four-hundred and one equals 2,800. Then add in yourself and the husband, so you proudly come to the conclusion of 2802, and announce your answer. You are in for a surprise when the questioner tells you the “right” answer.

Just One!

The correct answer, at least according to the brain teaser, is one. That’s right, just one. If you go back and reread the question, it begins, “As I was going to St. Ives.” That means you know you were going there. Then, it says you met this man with his wives and animals. Does it say anywhere that they were going in the same direction as you? No, it doesn’t!

They could have been to St. Ives already and were coming back. They could have lived in the village you were passing along the road. Or maybe, they were just hanging around and walking in a circle. It doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that they weren’t going to the same destination as you were, but you got distracted by all the noise and got the riddle wrong.

Critical Listening

One of the skills this riddle helps you develop is critical listening. You have to be able to hear what is being said, and what is NOT being said. Based on those, you make the decisions about which direction your brain will go. Now you know, that unless you are specifically told they’re all going the same way, you have to assume there’s a good chance that they aren’t.

Well, guess what? This brain teaser isn’t just child’s play.  

Life is a Journey – Don’t be Deceived!

In life, we’re on a journey. We have a destination in mind and as we traverse the course, we will run into others. There could be lots and lots of them, with big networks of interrelated people and things, like our friend with all the cats. But if they aren’t going the same way, they are just misdirection on the part of the One posing the question who wants you to see past the deception.

Instead of the questioner trying to trip you up, and you having to use all the tools at your disposal to cut away the extraneous material in order to find the right answer, this time it’s Hashem (God) who wants to see you get safely where you’re headed, to an eternity spent basking in Hashem’s presence and enjoying the fruits of your labors in life. Just like when dealing with a brain teaser, you need to figure out what is pertinent to reaching your goal and what is going to confuse you and lead you astray.

Eyes on the Goal

All the people you thought were heading in the same direction may turn out not to be, and their presence can trick you. If you follow the crowd, you may not end up where you were trying to go, because they have different destinations and goals than you. You have to look at it like you’re on your own path and journey, and make sure you know where you want to end up. If you find others who clearly state and demonstrate that their intended destination is the one you are heading for, then you can team up with them and get some help along the way. But don’t just take it for granted. Otherwise, you could be left holding the proverbial bag.

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

Rabbi Gewirtz (Operation Inspiration) welcomes comments and feedback. Write to him at to share your thoughts. You never know when you may be the lamp that enlightens someone else.

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