Albert Einstein? Wernher von Braun? Max Planck? Charlie Munger? Ezekiel Landau? Jacob ben Wolf Kranz? Apocryphal?
The chauffeur delivers a flawless speech while the brilliant person sits near the front disguised as the chauffeur. A tense moment occurs when an audience member asks a difficult question. The quick-witted chauffeur replies:
Your question is interesting, but the answer is remarkably simple. Hence, I’m going to ask my chauffeur to respond.
The role of the brilliant person in this tale has been assigned to several different people including theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, quantum physicist Max Planck, and Rabbi Ezekiel Landau. Would you please explore the provenance of this story.
Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1926 within “Laughs from Jewish Lore” compiled by Jacob Richman. The brilliant person in this version of the story was a prominent rabbi. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1926 Copyright, Laughs from Jewish Lore by Jacob Richman, Chapter 1: Leaders in Israel, Story: Even His Driver Was a Scholar, Quote Page 30 and 31, Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (Full View in … Continue reading
It was the custom of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, of Prague, to make semi-annual trips to the communities suburban to his city, and render his services in settling their religious and economic problems.
His driver was a jolly man and he often took the liberty to jest with his famous master. “Rabbi,” he once facetiously remarked, “I tell you that my task requires more skill than yours. I could settle the petty squabbles of the tiny hamlets just as well as you, but you couldn’t do my work.”
The ecclesiastical passenger accepted the challenge, and the two exchanged their clothes and their positions on the wagon, continuing their journey incognito.
Arriving in the first village the “rabbi” was welcomed by a committee of prominent men, who escorted him to the house of one of their leading citizens. After having dined with the guest, the representative men of the community brought before the consideration of the visiting “rabbi” some difficult problem that had been baffling the best minds of the community for a long time.
The pseudo-rabbi heard the query with great solemnity, and shrugged his shoulders, evidently wondering at the ignorance of his interlocutors.
“You have asked me a very, very silly question,” he finally remarked. “Even my driver can answer that. Here he is, ask him.”
QI hypothesizes that this family of anecdotes was derived from Jewish folklore. The stories were meant to be humorous and not veridical. The creator of the original tale remains unknown.
Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.
Image Notes: Stylized time-lapse picture taken through the windshield of a moving car from Samuele Errico Piccarini at Unsplash.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the researchers at Snopes who explored this topic and suggested an origin within Jewish folklore. The Snopes article contained citations beginning in 1950. Special thanks to Allan Olley who told QI about the Snopes article and presented germane scans from a reprint of the 1948 book “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore”. Also, thanks to Kimpire who told QI about the 1948 book and provided helpful links.
Update History: On June 5, 2023 the citations in 1926, 1948, and 1950 were added to the article. The article was partially rewritten.