Follow by Email

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Switcheroo - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 4

This post is dedicated in honor of my third grandchild, a girl who just yesterday received her name, Oriah Lowinger, to my daughter Nitza and her husband Yishai. Her name means Divine Light and may she indeed bring more Divine Light into our world.

I also dedicate this post to the memory of Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. May their memory be a blessing to us all.

At this juncture of personal happiness, community mourning and general uncertainty, I do what Jews have always done: When the going gets tough, the Jews pray and learn. It is uncannily appropriate in nearly all situations. We also do other things to protect ourselves, but they are not immediately pertinent to this blog.

If you're joining me for the first time or just happened into the middle of this series, see the earlier posts here, here, here and even here. Reading my playful introduction to dealing with midrashic text may help you get into the swing of things.

The Old Switcheroo

So what happens to our Wise Son when we sit him down at the seder table? We change the answer from the answer given in the Torah!

But why? After all, we showed in the previous post that the answer from the Torah contains the very essence of the haggadah, of talking about the going out of Egypt, in perhaps its widest sense. Why not stick with the original even at the seder?

Let's look more closely at the exchange as given in the M'chilta and in the Haggadah:

חכם מה הוא אומר מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן.

The Wise, what does he say? ”What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?” So you should open to him with the laws of the Passover: We don't finish off after the Passover (sacrifice) with dessert.

In the previous post, we saw how Chazal sees the the answer to the Wise Son as the lead in to bring him to the seder table; that is, Chazal place him and all the sons at the scene of Passover night, regardless of how their questions show up in the Torah.

Once he is at the seder table, his question is transformed. It would seem he is no longer asking about the entire Torah but rather about what he sees in front of him at the table and what he observed in preparation for this grand meal.

He saw the house being cleaned of chametz (leavened products) and even searching the house with a candle the night before for any stray pieces of bread or cake that might have been missed. He saw the slaughtering of a lamb or a goat earlier in the day and then roasting it in addition to other sacrifices that are brought at holiday times at the Temple. Now he sees that the normal order of the holiday meal has been changed. Kiddush, the special blessing over the wine for the holiday, has been recited and the wine drunk, but they are still not eating the meal! He sees no bread at the table, only matzah, along with bitter herbs and roasted meat only. He sees everyone reclining at the meal like the elite do.

In short, he sees a lot of funny stuff. He's probably also hungry.

Now when he asks 'What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments, etc.' his question is appropriate to the strange rituals unfolding before him. He perceives that the various rituals being performed are actually different types of mitzvot. 
In other words, he is asking specifically to know what these mitzvot are. Whereas the Torah answer is a discussion of the nature of the mitzvot he inquires of, here the M'chilta seems to understand the question to be what precisely are the mitzvot being done right now on Passover. We answer him by listing all of the halachot (laws) about the holiday up to the last halacha of the night, namely that we don't eat anything else after we have finished partaking of the paschal sacrifice. 
I will write about the alternative explanations of this particular halacha in a different post so as not to digress right now.

So the M'chilta changed the answer to fit at the seder table. It would seem the question is substantially different than that of the Torah. Whereas the Torah had the Wise Son asking about the nature of all the mitzvot, the M'chilta has him asking for a list of specific halachot
But can the M'chilta get away with that--changing the original intent of the Torah itself? 

Maybe, just maybe, the M'chilta didn't really change the question in the way you thought. We'll pick up on that very soon!


  1. Mazel Tov, Shel! And I'm looking forward to the next post.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I've written the next two or three already. It took me a while to tease out what I wanted to say here. But I'll post them separately with breathers in between.

  2. mazal tov, wonderful voice, like hearing you speak! funny and worth listening to.

    1. Thanks, Joan. Hope to see you later this year.