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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Rosh Hashannah Wish

משנה מסכת עוקצין פרק ג משנה יב אמר רבי שמעון בן חלפתא לא מצא הקדוש ב"ה כלי מחזיק ברכה לישראל אלא השלום שנאמר (תהלים כ"ט) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ה' יברך את עמו בשלום:

Mishnah Tractate Uktzin Chapter 3, Mishnah 12 Rabbi Shimon ben Halifta said: The Holy One, Blessed Be He, did not find a vessel to hold blessing save peace. As it says (Psalms 29:12) The Lord will grant strength to his people, the Lord will bless his people with peace.

On this Rosh Hashannah eve, after our very hard summer here in Israel, we come to wish each other blessings for the New Year. The mishnah above, the last mishnah in the Talmud, comes to remind us that in order for our blessings to hold they must come in the vessel of peace.

The verse from Psalms is read thusly: The Lord will grant his people blessing with peace – peace will be the vessel to hold the blessings. And with the blessings held steadily by peace, the Lord will thereby grant strength to his people.

May we merit the peace that will hold and keep our blessings throughout the coming year and for always. 

Shana tova 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What's It To You? - Four Sons Walked Into Paradise part 8

For those of you who just can't get enough of the subtleties of biblical Hebrew, here is another stab at answering the question we raised earlier.
Here's the problem in brief:
  1. The M'chilta determines that the one who asks 'What is this service to you' is the Evil Son.
  2. They know he is evil because by saying 'to you' he excludes himself from obligation and the wider community.
  3. The M'chilta understands that the one who asks the question “What are these testimonies, etc., that the Lord our God commanded you” is the Wise Son.
  4. So, why is the Wise Son not also considered Evil? After all, he also seems to exclude himself by saying that 'you' are commanded, implying that he is not.
In contrast to the approach of Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann that I brought in the previous two posts, I bring you now the approach of Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, author of a commentary on the Torah called הכתב והקבלה (Hact'av v'Hakabbalah, literally 'the writing and the tradition'). Rabbi Mecklenburg along with certain rabbis of his time (mid 19th century), notably Rabbi MeïrLeibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser (known popularly by his acronym MaLBiM), sought to show the harmony between straightforward (p'shat) reading of Tanach and the midrashim of the Talmudic Sages.

In his commentary to Deuteronomy 6:20, the Wise Son's question, he raises our question. His answer is to point out the distinction between the use of the word לכם (to you), which the Evil Son uses, and the word אתכם (you) which the Wise Son uses.

A brief grammar lesson: In Hebrew, the word אל is the stand alone word meaning 'to.' However, the word used for 'to' is usually the prefix ל which can be put in front of a pronoun ending. An example is, of course, the word לכם which is effectively short for אל אתם (to you). 

The word את usually doesn't have meaning by itself; rather, it comes to indicate an object of a verb. It sometimes means 'with' and that meaning will come into play here. 

R. Mecklenburg notes that when the word לכם (to you), or any of its variants, is used with the verb צוה (command) it means 'to you alone to the exclusion of others.' The prime example he brings is:

במדבר פרק ט (ח) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֑ה עִמְד֣וּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָ֔ה מַה־יְצַוֶּ֥ה יְקֹוָ֖ק לָכֶֽם:

Numbers Chapter 9 (8) And Moses said to them, “Wait and I will hear that which the Lord will command to you.”

The context here is that some people had been ritually impure at the time of the celebration of the Passover. The law had already been given that one who is ritually impure cannot partake of the Passover offering. Likewise, one who doesn't eat of the Passover offering is liable for the supreme Divine punishment of car'et. It's not clear what exactly car'et is. It literally means 'cut off.' What we know is that it is really bad and you don't want to get this punishment in particular.

So these people who were impure were a little worried about what would happen to them for not having had the Passover meal. They asked Moses what to do. His initial reply was the verse quoted above. 

He was saying 'I will ask God what you are commanded to do – not me or anyone else, because the rest of us already had our Passover meal.'

In the Wise Son's question, he uses the word אתכם. Whereas לכם is exclusive, אתכם is not exclusive. In fact, despite the third person pronoun ending (you, plural), it could be understood to read 'with you.' 

Thus, the verse would be saying 'What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded (me) with you.'

Even without interpreting אתכם to mean 'with you,' it is still not exclusive in the same way as לכם.

This reading, to my mind, is very reasonable, fits in well with other verses in the Torah and would serve as a strong indication to Chazal that, indeed, there is a big difference in the way the Wise Son asks and the way the Evil Son asks.

Even though Rabbi Mecklenburg indicates that the word לכם is exclusive in conjunction with the word צוה (command), we find that the Sages generally interpret לכם and its variants (לי, לך וכדומה) as exclusive, not only in the context of commands.

Moreover, the form is understood to mean not just 'to you' but 'for you.' In our case, we could translate the Evil Son's question to read “What is this service for you?” meaning “What benefit do you derive from this service?” This sounds even more like a taunt as it implies that the Evil Son himself discerns no particular benefit.

An example of the ל form implying 'for your benefit' is God's first command to Abraham:

בראשית פרק יב (א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֪ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־ הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

Genesis Chapter 12(1) And the Lord said to Abram, “Go for you from your land and from your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.”

Rashi here, based on Chazal, explains: for you- for your benefit and for your good.

But back to the Evil Son.

Okay, so he excludes himself from the community. Why is that so bad that the M'chilta sees it at as 'denying the fundamental principle?'

What exactly is 'the fundamental principle' anyway?

Why is the Evil Son undeserving of the redemption?

If what the question implies is really so bad, why doesn't the Torah itself take this son to task?