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Sunday, August 24, 2014

It's Not You...It's Us! - Four Sons Walked into Paradise part 7

As promised, I will show you two approaches of how the M'chilta came to understand that the Evil Son's question is taken to exclude himself from the community while the Wise Son's does not. This gets a bit technical so if you're not into grammatical and syntactical issues in Tanach, you may want to just gloss this over.

If you are into this stuff, though, read it and tell me what you think.

Let's first understand exactly what the problem is. The Torah itself tells the Children of Israel in various places that at some point in the future their children will ask them questions: Questions about the Exodus, about the ritual of the Passover, about observing the Torah altogether.

The M'chilta understood that each of the questions is not only distinct, but that each child asking a question is distinct from the others.

The M'chilta interprets the question of “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26) as being asked by an Evil Son. How do they know he is evil? Precisely because he says 'to you' and not 'to us,' thereby excluding himself from the wider community.

However, we know that just prior in the midrash, the question of the Wise Son is “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20). So the Wise Son seems to exclude himself, as well. Why doesn't the M'chilta consider this son to be Evil and, in fact, considers him to be wise?

I am aware of the fact that the Septuagint, as we have it, has the verse of the Wise Son saying 'commanded us' at the end instead of 'commanded you.' This is interesting but of limited value. It is possible that the Septuagint was translating from an earlier version of the text which one may claim was the text in front of the M'chilta. It is also possible that the translator of the Septuagint changed the word in order to avoid the very problem we are dealing with or some other issue. Differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text (the text that Jews use for the Tanach) abound and are often not even as subtle as this.

Moreover, the Masoretic text was actively being redacted at the time of R. Yishmael and his school of learning (1st - 2nd century C.E.). The M'chilta we are studying is a product of the school of learning of R. Yishmael. While we don't know precisely the text they had in front of them, it is not unlikely that for Deuteronomy it is the same text we have now.

If it is true that the M'chilta had the text of Deuteronomy saying 'commanded you,' then our question is why did the M'chilta purposely change the text to read 'commanded us'? At first glance, it just feels like the midrash manipulates the text of the Torah to fit its scheme of distinguishing between the Wise and Evil sons.

However, it is possible that the M'chilta simply understood the implication of the verse saying 'commanded you' differently. As such, they changed it to read 'commanded us' in order to point to the proper intent of the text.

On what basis would the M'chilta change the reading in the Torah?

Here is the first of two possibilities, each based on careful readings of the verse. The verse in question is, again:

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?

The Haggadah Shleimah of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher brings an explanation from Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann from the latter's book Beit Vaad L'chachamim. Rabbi Hoffmann points out that the entire verse (like nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy) is being spoken by Moshe to the Children of Israel. He says that the word אתכם (you) is not to be read as part of the question of the son; rather, it is Moshe finishing the beginning of the verse which is addressed to the Children of Israel.

In other words, don't read the verse in the order it is translated above. Rather, read it as saying: “When your son asks you (אתכם) tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded?”

Moshe assumed that the question would not be posed to him. After all, he knew he would not live much longer and would not see a future Passover celebration. He was saying that the question will be posed to you (speaking to the Children of Israel), when your children start asking questions.

You might say that's a nifty trick but it breaks up the sentence in a frightfully awkward fashion. Consider, though, that other verses in the Torah have similar syntax. You don't have to go further than the previous chapter:

דברים פרק ה (ה) אָ֠נֹכִי עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין־יְקֹוָ֤ק וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא לְהַגִּ֥יד לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־דְּבַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֑ק כִּ֤י יְרֵאתֶם֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י הָאֵ֔שׁ וְלֹֽא־עֲלִיתֶ֥ם בָּהָ֖ר לֵאמֹֽר:

Deuteronomy Chapter 5 (5) I (was) standing between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord, for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount, saying:

Even though the word 'saying' is all the way at the end of sentence, it is really coming to finish the beginning part of the sentence. I added the comma between the word 'mount' and 'saying' in my translation in order to make sense of the syntax.

The verse effectively says “I (was) standing between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord saying:” The way the verse is written the part that says “for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount” interrupts these two parts of the beginning of the sentence. It is coming to explain why Moshe stood between the people and the Lord. But the end of the verse brings us back to his original statement and finishes it off.

In our case, according to this comment of Rabbi Hoffmann, the M'chilta understood the syntax of the verse in question to be similarly broken up. The word אתכם, even though it appears at the end of the sentence, is actually part of the beginning of the sentence.

According to this approach, the M'chilta understood that the son mentioned in the verse was not excluding himself. He includes himself by speaking of 'the Lord our God.' The word אתכם (you) is changed to אותנו (us) as if to say that when Moshe delivered this sentence he said the question that your children will ask will be to 'you,' meaning our forefathers. But we are reading it now and so the question is directed to us.

That's the first approach. I will bring the other approach in my next post.

Shavua tov


  1. I don’t buy it for two reasons (sorry for rendering the Hebrew in English characters, but I can’t get it to work as mixed Hebrew and English text).

    Basically you are saying that ETCHEM is the object of the verb YISHAL[CHA]. I put “CHA” in brackets to emphasize that YISHAL already has an object: CHA—“he will ask [you].” It would be very peculiar to have a second object, ETCHEM, that performs the same function. It is doubly peculiar to have that second object separated so far from the verb. And it is triply peculiar that the intervening text contains a verb, TZIVAH, that now lacks an object because you have attached it to the more distant YISHAL. ETCHEM makes total sense as the object of TZIVAH and is triply strained to read it as the object of YISHAL.

    Your comparison of the Deut. 6 text with the Deut. 5 text doesn’t seem valid to me. In the Deut. 5 text you have a wayward object (ETCHEM). In the Deut. 5 text you have a wayward verb (or gerund, or whatever you want to call it: LEIMOR). Unfortunately, you stopped quoting Deut. 5 at a critical point. What you omitted, was a kind of object to the verb LEIMOR (namely, quotation of the ten commandments). In other words, Deut. 5 inserted the parenthetical “for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount” prior to LEIMOR because to do otherwise would have separated LEIMOR from its object (the quote). I actually see Deut. 5 supporting the proposition that verbs and their objects need to be close together.

    By this reasoning, the wise son is still excluding himself from the community.

  2. You make some very strong points. The reply is long enough that I am making it the subject of the next post.