During the Middle Ages the pope decided the Jews should no longer live in Rome; they should all be banished. The Jews grew afraid, for outside of Rome lay the darkness of rural medieval Europe. They begged to be allowed to stay.
The pope listened to their pleas and agreed to give them just one chance. But he set forth a very strange condition. He would permit a debate- all in pantomime- pitting a priest against any Jew. If the Jew should win, his people could stay in Rome. Otherwise, out they would go.
But what kind of possibility was this? The pope himself was to be the judge of the debate and the losing debater would be executed. How could anyone win against such a set-up! No one in the Jewish community could possibly accept the role.
Finally Moishe, the slow-witted elderly man who swept up around the synagogue, volunteered. Being old and childless, he saw that he had the least to lose.
Now everyone knew Moishe was surely going to his death. But what could they do? There was no way to save him from death or the Jewish community from exile. There was not even a way for the Jewish scholars to prepare the old man for the debate.
When the day of the debate arrived everybody sat in the arena in complete silence.
The priest began by raising one finger and moving it across the sky. Moishe instantly gestured firmly at the ground. The pope looked uneasy.
Then the priest lifted one finger again, and this time pointed it squarely at his opponent's face. Moishe pointed three fingers back at the priest with complete assurance. Now the pope looked really uncomfortable.
The priest reached into his pocket and withdrew an apple, which he showed to the pope. At this, Moishe took a paper bag from his pocket and withdrew a piece of matzoh.
Suddenly the pope announced that the debate was over. The Jews could stay in Rome.
"Your holiness! cried the churchmen when the crowd had dispersed, "Why did you award the Jew the verdict?"
"That man," answered the pope, "was a master of debate. When my priest swept his hand across the heavens to indicate that God ruled over everything, the Jew gestured toward the ground, indicating that the Devil also held sway of a world all his own!
"When the priest lifted one finger to indicate that there is only one God, the Jew instantly lifted three fingers to indicate the three aspects of God, the Holy Trinity.
"When the priest took out an apple to indicate the error of science that teaches the earth is round as an apple, the Jew countered by producing a flat piece of matzoh, to show that the Bible teaches the earth is flat."
Meanwhile the Jews were overjoyed. After they had toasted and feasted Moishe, they begged him to explain how he had bested the priest.
"What's there to say?" he answered. "First the priest waved his hand like he's saying, the Jews must get out of Rome. So I pointed downward to say, Oh yeah? The Jews are going to stay right here!
"Next, he points a finger at me as if to say, Drop dead! The Jews are leaving. So I point three fingers at him to say, You drop dead three times. The Jews are staying!
"And then?" asked the amazed congregation.
"And then I saw he was taking out his lunch, so I took out mine!"
-from "Jewish Wit for all Occasions"