Parashat Va-Ethanan--Shabbat Nahamu 5766/ August 5, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Three Sons, and Then a Fourth
Dr. Yehezkel (Hezi) Cohen
Center for Basic Studies in Judaism
Four passages in the Torah
future conversations that might take place between a father and son after the
Israelites enter the Promised Land. At the heart of each of them is the
performance of certain commandments related to the exodus from
Leaving this famous Midrash aside, I would like to examine the issue of the Four Sons according to a plain reading of the text, the Peshat. All four passages have similar features that form a literary genre, and this necessitates closely examining the components, paying special attention to the differences between them.  I would like to stress the similarity between the three sons in Exodus and the distinctiveness of the fourth son, mentioned in this week's reading – a distinctiveness which reflects an ideological development. Thus we obtain a graded structure of three plus a fourth,  whilch sets the fourth son apart as special.
The first son and the question concerning the Paschal sacrifice (Ex. -29)
This passage deals with the manner in which one is to make the Paschal sacrifice (-24). According to the plain sense of the text, the commandment to spread the blood on the doorposts applies for all time: “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants” (v. 24). Verse 25 asserts, as well, “And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite,” meaning also the description of how the blood is to be applied to the doorposts.  This is also understood from the question the son asks regarding the Paschal rite: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’” (v. 26).
Just as the question is well-focused, so too, the
answer: “You shall say, ‘It is the Passover
sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the
The second son and the question of eating unleavened bread (Ex. 13:5-10)
This passage refers to the proscription against eating leavened bread and the commandment to eat matzah: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Lord. Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory” (13:6-7). Here, too, it is clear what the subject is, and accordingly one should understand what the father is to tell his son: “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’”(v. 8).
In this passage, unlike the others, the son does not ask; rather, his father addresses him. Therefore the Sages characterized this son as the one who does not know to ask. According to the plain sense of the text, it must be said that eating matzah, as opposed to making the Passover sacrifice, was a common occurrence in Scripture (see Gen. 19:3, Judges 6:19). For this reason, the son does not inquire about the custom. It remains for the father to explain that on this festival one eats only matzah and no leavened bread, and to explain to him the significance of our having been thus commanded.
The structure of the verse is problematic. From the phrasing of the Hebrew clause (ba’avur zeh), rendered more literally, “For the sake of this, the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt,” it would seem that the exodus from Egypt took place for the purpose of fulfilling the commandment of eating matzah, which appears to be a nonsensical statement.
Rashi (on Exodus 13:8), following the Mekhilta, interpreted this as follows: “For the sake of this (Heb. ba’avur zeh) – for the sake of my performing His commandments, such as the Passover offering, eating matzah, and eating bitter herbs.” Thus the Sages retained the word order in the verse, but had to extend the expression “this” to include the commandments in general, thus deviating from the plain sense of the text, which deals solely with eating matzah. Further on we shall see that one of the characteristic features of the father-son passages in Exodus is actually that they each deal with only one commandment, and therefore deviating from the straightforward sense of the text also spoils the pattern when it comes to this feature.
Better is Sa’adiah Gaon’s suggestion, interpreting the
phrase by inverting it: “This is
for what the Lord did for me,” i.e., eating matzah is in commemoration of what
the Lord did in the exodus from
To sum up, it appears that the passage deals with the
prohibition against eating leavened bread and the commandment to eat only
unleavened bread. The father tells
his son about eating matzah and explains that this commandment is related to
the fact that the Lord took the Israelites out of
The third son and the question of redeeming the first-born (Ex. -16)
Here, too, the subject matter is clear – redeeming
first-born sons (11-13). Performing
this commandment might raise a question:
“And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does
this mean?’” (v. 14). The
answer focuses on a specific aspect – the Lord’s mighty hand, that finds
expression in the hard blow He dealt to all the first-borns in
The fourth son and the question of the obligation to perform the commandments (Deut. -25)
The fourth son (Deut. Ch. 6) asks a broad question
concerning the obligation to perform the commandments in general:
“When, in time to come, your children
ask you, ‘What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our G-d has
enjoined upon you?’” (Deut. 6:20).
The question pertains to all sorts of commandments that the Lord
enjoined upon the Children of Israel – decrees, laws, and rules.
Accordingly, the answer is broad as well
and describes the entire picture of the descent to
Between Three and Four
Now let us consider the differences between the fourth son
and the three who preceded him. The three sons in Exodus ask sharply focused
questions (concerning the Passover sacrifice, matzah, and redeeming first-born
sons), and answers are given them accordingly, mentioning the relevant event
taken from the overall story of the exodus from
Another difference concerns the relationship between
remembrance and the commandments.
In the three passages in Exodus the function of the commandments (making
the Passover sacrifice, eating matzah, and redeeming first-born sons) is to
preserve the memory of the exodus from
From a literary point of view, we suggest that the passages
on the sons in Exodus are an immediate response to the exodus from
According to a straightforward reading of Scripture, the Torah refers to three sons, and then a fourth. Thus we obtain a model of a natural and fitting way of viewing historical events. At first a person needs signs in order to preserve the memory itself. From a greater distance in time, one is able and even supposed to take in all aspects of the consequences of the event and draw the relevant conclusions.
 This model can also be found in Joshua 4, but further elaboration is not appropriate to the present context.
 In Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Horowitz-Rabin ed., Bo 18; Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 10.4.
 On biblical type-scenes, see
R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative,
 The model of three plus a
fourth is common in Scripture and has been extensively treated by Y. Zakovitch,
Al Shelosha … ve-al Arba’ah ba-Mikra,
 Thus also in R. D. Z.
Hoffman, Re’ayot Makhriyot neged Wellhausen,
 Perhaps the unusual use of the word ba’avur (“for the sake of” – a phrase that does not occur in the questions of the other sons) is aimed at deliberately creating ambiguity. Avur in Akkadian means “grain.” This meaning can be seen in Josh. 5:11-12, thus Scripture here may be hinting at the practice of eating matzah. A similar use of the word avur may be found in Jeremiah 14:4, in his prophecy about the drought, which instead of the New JPS rendition, might be rendered as follows: “The grain of the land diminished (instead of: Because of the ground there is dismay), for there has been no rain on the earth. The plowmen are shamed, they cover their heads.” See Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah I (Mikra le-Yisrael), Tel Aviv 1988, p. 348.
 This notion begins with the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2, Deut. 5:6), and recurs numerous times throughout the book of Deuteronomy (for example, , , 26:1-11).