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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?


  1. Last time I agreed that the Rasha was evil and the Chochom good, but not on the basis of the use of the prepositional phrase "to you," but rather based on the psychology of a guy who asks about all the details versus a guy who says "What's it to you?" in a voice that seems to me to be sarcastic.

    Today, you have additional nuance based on the difference between LACHEM and ETCHEM. I don't have the Hebrew language skills to discern the difference. I "hear" it now that you've told me, but I'm not sure if I would have "heard" it before.

    The interesting thing about R. Mecklenburg's point is that he is using a method of analysis (a kind of statistical analysis) that is strikingly parallel to a story I recently heard on NPR called: Our Use Of Little Words Can, Uh, Reveal Hidden Interests. The story had to do with the statistical analysis of non-content little words like pronouns, prepositions, articles, and so forth and how differences in how they are used can reveal things about the speaker that may not be understood from the content words.

    The implication of the NPR story is that the "hidden" meaning of a statement could be at odds with the overt meaning. But I think that what you are saying here is that the "hidden" meanings of the Rasha and the Chochom statements are congruent with what I called the psychological meaning in response to your last post.

    Here is the link to the NPR article:

  2. Yes, I heard that interview! I think your observation is in relating to this topic is spot on. I hadn't considered that particular relationship before but it seems to fit in. Another point, which I believe I brought up in an earlier post and will bring up again, is that the Evil Son is literally making a statement וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־1יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם whereas the Wise and Tam Sons are asking a question.