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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Wise Guy - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 2

We are introduced to the Four Sons on the night of the seder while reading the Haggadah and partaking of the seder meal. This context implies that each child is asking about the seder itself and why the ceremony is different than what they are accustomed to. In the structure of the Haggadah, the Four Sons are parallel to the Four Questions which are asked earlier. Unlike the Four Questions which, in fact, are four distinct questions each pointing to something unique in the seder, the Four Sons are all asking essentially the same question. That question is: What's going on here tonight? 
Sitting at the seder the young participants notice a variety of distinct procedures and foods. A striking example is that even though kiddush was already said, the family has not yet begun to eat the main meal!

However, when we examine the sources in the Torah for each of these children, we find that each of them seems to be asking about different things. Only the Evil Son seems to be asking about the night of the seder. The One Who Doesn't Know to Ask is addressed in the context of eating matzah for the week of Pessach. The Tam is asking about the mitzvot in regards to the first born. 
The Wise Son is actually asking about the entire Torah. 
The Wise Son is not the first of these sons to appear in the Torah; in fact, he is the last. His question is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20. In the chapter prior to his question (Chapter 5), Moshe recounted how the children of Israel received the Decalogue. After the people requested that Moshe continue to receive the Torah directly from God and then transmit it to them, God agreed to their request and continued to give Moshe the rest of the Torah. 
Chapter 6 begins by speaking about the entirety of the Torah and various categories of mitzvot. This leads into the essential declaration of faith, the Shma, and then some other general concepts of how to relate to God and the Torah.

It is in this context we find the following verse:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

When we read this in context, we understand that this son is actually asking to find out what all the commandments of the Torah are. He already comprehends that there are various categories of commandments (testimonies, statutes, judgments). He is clearly a seeker of wisdom and thus Chazal see him as the Wise Son.

Further, by acknowledging that the commandments are God given, and he accepts that the Lord is his personal God, we understand that he sees himself as one of the tribe, not as an outsider asking as an observer.

Nonetheless, this Wise Son seems to exclude himself from being personally commanded to fulfill these mitzvot in that he says “that the Lord our God commanded you.” The M'chilta seemingly avoids this issue by changing the word to us. You might say that the M'chilta is eliding an essential issue here since it takes the Evil Son to task for saying “to you” and thereby excluding himself from the wider community (as we'll examine in a later post). By simply changing the original wording it all becomes so convenient!

However, it would seem that Chazal had a deeper grammatical understanding of the verse which justifies the change when rendering the verse in the M'chilta. It gets a bit technical and I will talk about it when we examine the Evil Son.

For the moment, though, let's get back to this Wise Son.

We now see that in his original context, the son asking this question indicates wisdom at least to the extent that he recognizes different sorts of commandments. But is that sufficient to give this inquirer the appellation of 'wise?' Just because he wants to know a lot of legal detail?

I believe that this desire for technical knowledge of the Torah is secondary to the acknowledgment of “the Lord our God.” It is the recognition by this child, first and foremost, that the Lord is his personal God that highlights his wisdom.

This is based on a couple of verses elsewhere in Tanach which the midrash took into account when determining that this question is indeed asked by a Wise Son.

The first one is from Psalms:

תהלים פרק קיא (י) רֵ֮אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה׀ יִרְאַ֬ת יְקֹוָ֗ק שֵׂ֣כֶל ט֖וֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ עֹמֶ֥דֶת לָעַֽד:

Psalms 111:10 The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Lord, a good success for all who do them, his praise stands forever.

That is, in order to acquire wisdom, one must have already inculcated an awe of the Lord. This awe, combined with the wisdom thereby acquired, will bring success to those who combine them and they will be praised for all time as a result. (Yes, as usual, one can interpret this verse from the Hebrew differently. This is my own translation based mainly on the RaDaK)

The main point for us, though, is that one becomes wise in a Torah world by first having awe for the Lord. This is demonstrated in the question, as we mentioned, by the declaration that the Lord is the asker's personal God.

Another significant verse is found in Proverbs:

משלי פרק ד (ז) רֵאשִׁ֣ית חָ֭כְמָה קְנֵ֣ה חָכְמָ֑ה וּבְכָל־קִ֝נְיָנְךָ֗ קְנֵ֣ה בִינָֽה:

Proverbs 4:7 (At) the beginning of wisdom, acquire wisdom! And with all your acquisitions acquire understanding.

Since this is a child, he is at the beginning of his career to acquire wisdom. He demonstrates the characteristic of a wise person simply by his attempt to get wisdom.

Furthermore, by seeing himself as part of the larger community, he shows a wise understanding of the nature of Torah, namely that this Divine Wisdom is meant for all of his tribe for all time. The best he can do is to try to grasp what he can.

But why does the M'chilta speak about the Wise Son first even though he comes last in the Torah?

Why is the answer to this son in the M'chilta not the answer given in the Torah itself?

Tune in next time for more thrilling insights!


  1. I'm waiting for the grammatical discussion that justifies ignoring the fact that the Chochom said "to you" just like the Roshoh. I think that he just had a better lawyer!
    --From Steve Froikin, commenting as EightOh9 (as Google wishes), which is my personal blog (sorry if I may have posted twice, I'm trying to work through this Google stuff)

    1. Thanks, Steve. I hope you won't be disappointed! I will actually bring two approaches so you will have more options to pick a bone with ;)