Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Passover 5780
Are the Questions Different?
One of the highlights of the Passover Seder is the section in the Haggadah concerning the Four Sons. The liturgical recension is borrowed, with slight but important emendations, from similar texts in the Talmud (Yerushalmi Pesahim 37d) and Halakhic Midrash (Mekhilta Pis’cha 18). The Four Sons is an example of homiletic exegesis and is ascribed to the early third century CE sage Rabbi Hiyya. The preamble of the section “The Torah refers to four types of children” is premised on the fact that Scripture in four passages instructs a father concerning what he should say to his son about the meaning and religio-national significance of the Paschal service (Deuteronomy 6:21, Exodus 12:27, 13:8, 13:14). Three of the four passages are preceded by a son’s question. Thus, one of the four verses addresses the proverbial “child who does not know how to ask.” The other three verses are responses to different types of children. By examining the nuance, tone, and sophistication of the three questions, Rabbi Hiyya came to assert that they are the words, respectively, of a wise, wicked, and simple child.
What does the wise child say? “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” You tell him the laws of the Paschal, that “we do not have an Afikoman after the Paschal.”
What does the wicked child say? “What is this service to you?” ‘To you’ and not to him. And since he excludes himself from the community, he denies the main principles of faith. So tell him bluntly: “This is done on account of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” ‘For me’ and not for him. Had he been there he would not have been redeemed.
For a millennium, if not longer, Seder participants and rabbinic commentators have raised the following difficulty: Does not the wise son also exclude himself by saying “you” instead of “us”? How is the wise son’s use of the word אתכם any less objectionable than the wicked son’s use of the word לכם?
The earliest recorded answers to our question are found in the Machzor Vitry (early 12th century). It notes that the wise son cannot be accused of excluding himself from the religious community because he addresses the Author of the Paschal commandment as “Lord our God.” As for the wise son’s use of the seemingly problematic אתכם, Vitry suggests that that is merely reflective of the fact that Mosaic Law was given initially and directly to the people of his father’s generation who personally experienced the Exodus (Vitry Hilkhot Pesach 95). These answers are repeated in the Pentateuchal commentary of the Tosafists (Da’at Zekenim Deuteronomy 6:20). They note that the wise child was not yet born when the commandment first was promulgated; hence, it is appropriate for him to say “you” instead of “us.”
Another answer is recorded in the name of Rabbi Zedekiah ben Benjamin (13th century) in his uncle’s collection Shibbolei Ha-Leket (Seder Pesach 218). The wise son knows the rule prohibiting the slaughter of a Paschal Lamb for the sake of a minor. Accordingly, the boy, who has not yet attained the age of religious majority, rightly identifies the commandment as having been given to “you,” not “us.” In response to the wise son’s impressive display of halakhic knowledge, the father is bidden to offer his son a thorough education in the laws of Passover.
Rabbi Ephraim of Luntschitz (16th century), known as the Kli Yakar, noted that the verses recording the questions of the wise and the simple sons differ from the verse pertaining to the wicked son. Deuteronomy 6:20 and Exodus 13:14 address an intergenerational question and an answer that will happen מחר “in the time to come.” In contrast, Exodus 12:26 presents a question posed in the present. Kli Yakar suggested that the wise son purposely delays his question until after the ritual is concluded lest others think that he is mocking the observance or denying its importance. The wicked son asks his question while the others are performing the Paschal rite; his purpose is to attack their piety. In effect, he is asking “Why are you and the old codgers like you so busy with these meaningless matters?”
Rabbi Jacob Emden (18th century) suggested that the word אתכם need not necessarily mean “you, but not me.” It could, he said, alternatively mean “you and me” אותי ואתכם. If read that way, the phrasing of the wise son’s question does not involve his excluding himself. The Talmud notes the unusual construction of the word אותכם in Joshua’s valedictory speech (Joshua 23:15) and interprets it to mean אותי ואתכם, “you and I” (Sotah 34a).
Rabbi Ezekiel Panet (19th century) explained that the wise son wants to learn more about the historical underpinnings and inner meaning of the Paschal rite so that he might perform the commandment with even greater love and enthusiasm. But regardless of how his father answers the question and whether any new insight is to be gleaned, the lad is happy and content to perform the ceremony itself. In contrast, the wicked son has no interest in the intellectual component of the commandment. He desires to attack the observance itself (Mar’eh Yehezkel Mo’adim Haggadah).
I would like here to suggest an answer that draws a distinction between אתכם and לכם. The wise son’s choice of words is, at worst, only slightly problematic. The wise son undoubtedly accepts that he, too, has been commanded. The wicked son asks not about the nature of the commandment itself but instead about the subjective feelings of his father toward the commandment. The question is not necessarily an antagonistic one; that could be determined only by analyzing the youngster’s body language and tone of voice. Rabbi Hiyya, for the purposes of his homily, clearly did understand the question to be hostile. In his view, the wicked son is complaining about the pointless and onerous annual burden of the Paschal rite. Another point of difference between the sons’ questions is that the wise son “asks” ישאלך while the wicked son “says” יאמרו. The wise son earnestly seeks greater religious knowledge; the wicked son merely wants to be disruptive.
Still, none of the above explanations is entirely satisfactory. Many more answers have been offered by great (and not-so-great) scholars. The אתכם-לכם crux is the Passover version of the Bet Yosef’s kashya. Famously, Rabbi Joseph Karo asked: Why is Hanukah observed for eight days if the miracle of the oil lasted for only seven days? The hundreds of answers that have been suggested over the centuries are useful primarily for their entertainment value, not as serious solutions to an historical question. The real answer to the Hanukah question is that the original Hanukah was a makeup observance for the eight-day festival of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret. But unless one is willing to engage in arduous critical text study and examine non-canonical sources like the Book of Maccabees, only whimsical homiletic answers will be available. The basic question posed in this essay can be answered rather easily if one is willing to examine the broader rabbinic canon and carefully examine the Biblical text.
In both the Mekhilta and Yerushalmi the wise son’s question cites Deuteronomy 20:6 and concludes with the word אותנו, meaning “us,” not אתכם as appears in the Masoretic Text. Many early editions of the Haggadah, including Maimonides’ version of the text, also read אותנו. According to the alternative reading, the wise son definitely has not excluded himself, and the question posed in this essay becomes moot. Yet in that case a much greater and more unsettling question emerges: Did Rabbi Hiyya possess a version of the Biblical text that differs from ours?
Samson Bloch, in his embellished Hebrew translation of Leopold Zunz’s Toldot Rashi (page 42), theorized that the original text of the rabbinic Haggadah read אותנו and that all of Jewry had that recension. Over the generations, readers of the Haggadah became discomfited by the fact that their liturgy differed from the Masoretic Text. They regarded it as sinful to preserve the word אותנו, replacing it with אתכם and thereby easing their consciences. But this very minor, theologically conservative emendation of the text brought with it the question of why the wise son is not castigated like the wicked son for excluding himself from the community. Bloch noted that, in response to this conceptual difficulty, the commentators “struggled to find a difference where there is no difference.” In other words, the question cannot be answered adequately because the question should never have arisen.
Meir Ish-Shalom, in his Haggadah Meir Ayin (page 43), offered two possible explanations for the appearance of the word אותנו in the original rabbinic Haggadah: 1) Rabbi Hiyya’s Bible read אתכם. Nonetheless, he changed the wording in his Midrash to avoid having the wise son of his homiletic construct give an unfavorable impression. The wise son certainly understood himself to be as obligated as his forbears in the Paschal commandment, so the change is not substantive and is consistent with the son’s true intention. 2) Rabbi Hiyya’s copy of the Pentateuch read אותנו, not אתכם. Aware that doctrinally traditional readers would be alarmed by the suggestion that the Tannaim had a different text of the Torah, Ish-Shalom referenced the work of Eliezer Landshut, who showed multiple discrepancies between the Masoretic Text and the Bible as cited in rabbinic literature.
[Two other examples cited in Landshut’s Maggid M’Reishit will suffice to prove the point. 1) Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak quoted Scripture as saying, “Elkanah went after his wife (Berakhot 61a).” There is no such verse in Scripture. The nearest reading is “Then Elkanah went home to Ramah (I Samuel 2:11).” Tosafot recognized the discrepancy and regarded it as an Amoraic error. 2) The Talmud notes that there are contradictory verses concerning the length of Samson’s tenure as a judge. One verse states that he ruled for forty years while another has him ruling for twenty years. The Talmud reconciles the discrepancy by claiming that just as the Philistines feared Samson for twenty years during his lifetime, so did they fear his influence for another twenty years after his death (Yerushalmi Sotah 17b). However, according to the Masoretic Text, there is no verse stating that Samson ruled for forty years. Judges 15:20 and 16:31 both state that Samson ruled for twenty years. Further complicating matters, Rav claimed that Samson ruled for 22 years (Sotah 10a).]
Is there any evidence that a pre-Masoretic version of Deuteronomy 20:6 read אותנו instead of אתכם? Yes, there is. In the Septuagint, the verse concludes “which the Lord our God has commanded us.” The Vulgate similarly read “quae praecepit Dominus Deus noster nobis.” It is highly unlikely that the Greek and Latin translations would have been influenced by a late Tannaitic era homiletic emendation. So, presumably, there was an early recension of Deuteronomy 20:6 that read אותנו and that was available to the Hellenistic Jewish translators, the rabbis, and the Church Fathers.
The inordinate focus of readers and writers on the perceived similarity between the wise and wicked sons’ questions has distracted our collective attention from another problem with Rabbi Hiyya’s homily. If the question in Exodus 12:26 truly was intended to be understood as that of an oppositional son defying his father, one would expect the parental response as guided by Scripture to reflect that antagonism. It does not. The following verse reads: “And you shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses (Exodus 12:27).’” The Haggadah cites this verse in explaining the meaning of the Paschal Lamb, one of the three essential components of the spoken Seder as per Rabban Gamliel. The verse would not have been selected for this important liturgical and educational purpose were it a nasty retort to an impertinent son.
In Rabbi Hiyya’s homily and in our text of the Haggadah, the wicked son’s question (12:26) is not followed by a Biblically prescribed response (12:27), but rather by the line one is instructed to say to the son who does not know how to ask (13:8). Rabbi Hiyya intentionally manipulated the data to highlight the difference between לי and לכם, “for me” and “for you.” On the night of the Seder, the individual contemporary Jew is supposed to invest himself emotionally in the Exodus narrative to the point of feeling as though he was personally redeemed by God (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5). Not everyone is capable of doing that.  Some Seder participants are, indeed, dismissive of the entire psychological exercise. For those wicked sons of Israel, Rabbi Hiyya focused on לכם and chose to interpret it with a malevolent hermeneutic as לכם ולא לו “to you and not to him.” This exegetical point, and the punishing conclusion that the wicked child would have been left behind in Egypt, is made in the Mekhilta (Pis’cha 17) outside of the rubric of the Four Sons and arguably was the kernel around which the entire Four Sons passage was crafted.
The most important goal of the Seder is to instill in ourselves and in our children an awareness of the Jewish historical experience and the role of Divine Providence in our national fate. We should be happy when our children ask questions about ritual practices. Sometimes those questions are worded imprecisely or improperly. When it is clear that the child intended to mock the proceedings, then and only then is a stern reply warranted. Otherwise, the child’s curiosity should be cultivated, as is the case with the wise boy who innocently said אתכם.