Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parashat Bo

Daf Shvui No. 116

And You Shall Tell Your Son

Children are mentioned three times in connection with the Exodus from Egypt, mainly in the context of passing on the national heritage from generation to generation: 1) "And it will come to pass when your children say to you ... that you shall say it is a Passover sacrifice ... when he struck the Egyptians and saved our homes" (Ex. 12, 26-27);) 2) "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: this is for that which the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt" (ibid. 13,8); 3) "And it will be when your son asks you saying... and you shall say to him: by strength of hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt" (ibid. 13, 14). Our Sages add to these three expressions another verse, taken from Deuteronomy (6,21): "then you shall say to your son..."

This special emphasis on children in the Exodus story is not coincidental. Both Tannaitic and Amoraic literature emphasize the various things we do on the night of Passover in order to arouse the curiosity of the children and to find "excuses" to keep them interested; causing them to ask questions, in turn prompting us to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of Israel as a people. It often appears that the main purpose of the Seder is the education of the children which may be a higher purpose than the fact of remembering the Exodus from Egypt altogether. *

In this context, we need to pay attention to the language of the Torah. The questions asked by the children are portrayed as asked 'tomorrow', in the future ("and it will come to pass that your children say," "when your son asks you," etc.) even though the answers are formulated in the present tense ("and saved our homes," "took us out," "for me," etc.). This is somewhat puzzling: the proper form of answer to the questions of the children would have been: "and he saved the homes of our forefathers" or "for that which the Lord did for our fathers when they went out of Egypt", etc.

What is the reason for the over-emphasis of the children and the reason for the transition from future tense to present in the Exodus narrative ?

The answer may be found in a central theme which repeats itself many times in our sources. We will quote only a few of them. The key passage appears in the Song of Ha'azinu: "Remember the days of old, consider the years of all the generations, ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will speak to you" (Deut.32,7). The existence of the People of Israel, its continuity and unbroken history through the course of time, depend upon the passage of its heritage and national memory from generation to generation. However, we are not dealing here simply with memory. We do not want our children simply to "remember" the Exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, the entry into the Land of Israel and all of the spiritual, cultural and practical heritage of our People. The goal is to cause our children to feel their Jewishness on a daily basis. The Jewish heritage is a way of life, the way of the observance of the Torah and its commandments. It is the practice which we pass on to our children and not the memory. "For that which the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt". Even I, a child of the twentieth century, came out of Egypt. This is how our parents and forefathers felt for thousands of years and this is how we wish our children to feel.

The Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim tells us: "in each and every generation a man must see himself as if he came out of Egypt" (chap. 10, Mishnah 5). True education is practical, not theoretical. The author of the ýSefer Hachinuch explained this as follows: (commandment 20): "because the heart follows the deeds... because by the doing of good deeds we are taught to be good and become worthy of eternal life". The author of Sefer Hachinuch follows here the opinion of Maimonides in his introduction to Tractate Avot (Shmonah Perakim, chap. 8): "and it becomes him to make himself ý accustomed to doing good deeds until such time as he achieves those qualities". It is for this reason that when we recite the Exodus story on the Seder night, we also perform several specific rituals - drinking four cups of wine, eating matzah and bitter herbs, holding up the shank bone, eating the Afikoman, etc. The connecting idea here was explained beautifully by Prof. Yeshayahu Liebowitz, of blessed memory, in a story about a seminar for top-ranking Israel Defense Forces officers in which he participated: "One of the participants in the discussion, a senior officer in the I.D.F. pointed to Passover as a national treasure, dear to us all... we all observe the Passover Seder... because for all of us this is a reminder of the history of the Jewish people... and I was forced to point out his mistake ... I said to him: ... but for my wife and me Passover is not symbolic, it is really the present ... for us Passover is an existential issue - a matter of our existence in the present, on this day and at this hour" (Y. Liebowitz , He'arot Leparshiot Hashavua , p. 46; emphasis mine - Y.A.).

In this connection it is worthwhile to quote Rabbi Baruch Epstein, of blessed memory, in his book Tosefet Brachah on Exodus: "According to this principle we interpreted a well-known quote from our Sages, of blessed memory, which needs clarification, (Berachot 7b): The practice of Torah is greater than its study... and we explained that this practice ... means that learning which comes from serving a wise teacher, observing and inspecting the ways he studies and his teachings and all his affairs as 'halachah put into practice' - this kind of learning ... takes deeper root in the heart and mind than ordinary learning which one can obtain from a book, for it is the most valuable part of human nature and the strength of the soul" (p. 89; emphasis mine - Y.A)

In this connection we should note the differences between the four different expressions regarding the 'Four Sons' cited by the Haggadah. Here we find an expression of an important educational principle, based upon the Mishnah (Pesachim, chap. 10, mishnah 4): "According to the son's intelligence his father teaches him."

The Mekhilta (Horovitz- Rabin Edition) exemplifies this when it presents the verses in an order different from that in which they appear in the Torah, beginning with the verse in Deuteronomy ( 6,20) and then Exodus (12,26; 13,14; 13,8). Prof. Nechamah Liebowitz noted that the Mekhilta organized the verses "according to the intellectual capacities of the children" (Studies in Exodus, English version, p. 206). She differentiates between the question posed by the wise son ("when your son asks you..." ) and that of the wicked son ("Wýhen your children say ...") and explains, "So long as the son asks, however provocative his questions are, it is a sign that he expects an answer, a solution to his difficulties. He is far from being malicious but is merely a student thirsty for knowledge. The wicked son, on the other hand, does not ask and desires no reply. 'When your children say to you' - their attitude is already fixed and predetermined. They do not want to hear a reply. They are therefore called wicked" (ibid., pp.207-208).

It is every father's task to stimulate his childrens' questions, interest and desire to understand. Where questions are posed it is possible to educate - and to put theory into practice - because the heritage of Israel expresses itself in action, not memory . It is not something which happened some time long ago, it is not a "historical event" - today a headline, tomorrow forgotten. It is a day-to-day experiential feeling, an existential reality and a way of life.

Translated by: Phil Lerman, Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak