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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Four Sons Walk into Paradise... an Introduction

This series is dedicated to my late father, Benjamin, and my late sister, Marsha, both of whom approached Pardes in their own, unique and loving ways.

And, יבל"ח, to my daughter Milcah who makes sure to stick up for the רשע at every seder.


The title of this series, Four Sons Walk into Paradise, is not really the beginning of a joke. Rather, it is a result of close examination of one of the most famous stories of the Talmud which begins 'Four entered the Pardes' and how it relates to one of the most well known midrashim which we repeat each year at the Passover seder, that of the Four Sons. But before I get into those details, a little background:

When I was about 12 years old and going to Hillel Academy in Dayton I became fascinated by the notion of Kabbalah. The draw was mainly to what I thought to be Jewish magic and thought that if I managed to learn the right stuff I could perform my own little miracles, like grant myself three wishes or get out of attending school altogether.

I requested from our principal that we devote some time to studying Kabbalah which he deflected by informing me that one should be forty years old before indulging. I wasn't quite interested enough to pursue the study on my own and certainly felt inadequate to the task. I also felt that this one more thing that grownups are keeping away from deserving kids.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem. Already taken with Talmudic study, I found that devoting myself practically around the clock to that was plenty for me.

But I still had the lingering feeling that I was missing something, kabbalah-wise.

One of the more fascinating realizations I had while studying Talmud, though, was that many aggadic passages had a mystical flavor or subtext.

Talmud can be roughly divided into two types of literature: halachic and aggadic. Halacha is, of course, discussion of Jewish law. It is legalistic by nature and fraught with logic and rational thinking. Aggadah, by contrast, is narrative, legend, recounting of dreams and the like. It feels much more free form and may or may not seem to abide by the logic of halachic passages.

Yeshivas traditionally skipped over aggadic passages when learning Talmud. Except in a few obvious cases when aggadah is brought to illustrate a halachic concept, it was considered to be somehow lesser than halachic discussion. Aggadah did not generally produce an immediate halachic result so it was not considered important. Generally aggadah was viewed as a side show, perhaps a study in mussar (ethics), a digression from the meatier discussions of halachic minutiae.

However, I came to understand that particular aggadot (the plural form of aggadah) were strategically placed in the text of the Talmud not just as a chance digression and not only to illustrate halachic concepts but as part of an integral understanding of Torah with a capital T.

Consider that the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is itself a combination of mitzvot (halacha) and narrative (aggadah). The first question which Rashi raises in his commentary on the Torah assumes that the main purpose of the Torah is simply to acquire practical knowledge of the mitzvot. He implies by the question that the narrative portions are secondary.

But the reality is that tradition views the Torah as a singular whole. One cannot truly fulfill or even comprehend the Torah without comprehending the narrative. A subtle interplay between narrative and law ensues throughout the entire Torah.

Some examples are obvious such as the narrative of God commanding Avraham to circumcise himself and his household (Genesis 17:9-14) serving as the basis for the mitzvah of circumcision as related later, after the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Leviticus 12:3).

More subtle is the declaration by God in Genesis 1:26 that he makes humans in His image. This fundamental concept serves in turn as a basis for perhaps all of the mitzvot bein adam l'chavero (laws between man and his fellow man, like caring for others, torts, etc.)

Creation of the universe by God serves a conceptual basis for mitzvot bein adam lamakom (laws between man and God including ritual mitzvot like keeping kosher, laying tefillin and laws regarding belief in God and Torah).

And so we come to understand that before we study mitzvot, we study narrative at least as a way of forming a basis to study mitzvot, but perhaps also to understand them in their own right. Even more, perhaps we study mitzvot in order to understand narrative.

In short, the two are inextricably linked.

And with that, we'll start off next time by looking at the midrash of the four sons.


  1. Interesting post. I'm excited to see where this goes!

    However, let's not give Rashi the short shrift just yet. He's on your side, after all! It's that darn R. Yitzchaq saying we should start with החדש הזה. Rashi, sensing this might also be a concern in his own day, takes the chance to respond to the idea that: We recall the acts of God to show how Israel comes into his inheritance (subtext: culminating in the inheritance of all creation?).

    For Rashi, halachah may be the concern that occupies most of his time; it deals with the mundane aspects of how we conduct life every minute of every day, but he also establishes the profound existential importance of aggadah to tell Israel where they come from and where they are going. His commentary is a prime example of how understanding the mitzvot as a part of a greater aggadah enrich both parts, and ultimately lead to the greater enrichment of the student.

    A mitzva by itself can tell you what to do, but it doesn't tell you why you do it. The halachah gives life, but the aggadah gives a reason for living. I think Rashi's response to R. Yitzchaq illustrates that pretty well.

    Obviously, this is not to detract from what you're saying. Just reinforcing it by showing that Rashi was right there with you!

  2. Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for your well phrased comment. Of course, I agree with you. I was not impugning Rashi with undue emphasis on halacha personally; I was merely pointing out that his question begins with an assumption that receiving the mitzvot, in particular for the children of Israel, is the main point of Torah. Clearly, his answer dispenses with that assumption, thus proving my point, as you indicate.

    I have seen it said that halacha is the body while aggadah is the soul of Torah (can't remember a citation for that). What is most interesting to me is when they show themselves to be so linked that you can't really tease them apart. Some of this will come up in later posts.

    And, btw, of course Rashi chooses to quote R. Yitzchak so it is fair enough to attribute the assumption (again, in his question) to Rashi himself.

    I look forward to more insights on your part!

  3. Tell me more about this R. Yitzchak thing. I know Rashi is R. Shlomo ben Yitzchak, but I didn't realize that quotes attributed to R. Yitzchak could have originated with Rashi himself. News to me.

    1. I think you misunderstood my last comment. Basically, I am saying that since Rashi chose to quote R. Yitzchak (from an earlier midrash), Rashi is saying that he agrees with the midrash and sees it as a valid comment on the verse. As such, Rashi understands the assumption of the question in the midrash (as I noted above). That is what I mean when I say it is fair to attribute the comment to Rashi; although he didn't entirely originate it (but see below), by choosing this comment from among many midrashic comments he makes it his own, as well.

      Further, the comment seems to be a mashup of two earlier midrashim. I'll paste them in below and you'll see what I mean. It would seem, then, that the total of Rashi's comment is more than what R. Yitzchak said which contributes further to the understanding that this notion can be attributed to Rashi.

      Here are the sources for the comment (based on Abraham Berliner's notes in his edition of Rashi)[apologies--I can't control styles for Hebrew in the comments section]:

      מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת בראשית סימן יא

      [יא] אמר ר' יצחק לא היה צריך לכתוב את התורה אלא מהחדש הזה לכם, ולמה כתב מבראשית, להודיע כח גבורתו, שנאמר כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים (תהלים קיא ו).

      בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת בראשית פרשה א

      ר' יהושע דסכנין בשם ר' לוי פתח כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת וגו' (תהלים קיא ו), מה טעם גילה הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל מה שנברא ביום ראשון וביום ב' וג', מפני אומות העולם שלא יהו מונים את ישראל ואומ' להם הלא אומה שלבזזות אתם אתמהא, וישראל משיבין להם ואתם הלא בזוזה היא בידכם הלא כפתרים היוצאים מכפתור השמידום וגו' (דברים ב כג), העולם ומלאו שלהקב"ה הוא, כשרצה נתנו לכם וכשרצה נטלו מכם ונתנו לנו הדא היא דכת' לתת להם נחלת גוים, כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו הגיד להם את הבראשית בראשית ברא אלהים וגו'.