Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Ethanan--Shabbat Nahamu 5766/ August 5, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Three Sons, and Then a Fourth


 Dr. Yehezkel (Hezi) Cohen


Center for Basic Studies in Judaism


Four passages in the Torah [1] describe 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 Egypt.   Three of the passages appear in Exodus, when the Israelites were leaving Egypt (Ex. 12:25-29, 13:5-10, 11-16), and the fourth appears in Deuteronomy, in this week's reading (Deut. 6:20-25).  The Sages [2]  gave each of the sons mentioned in these four passages a specific characterization (wise, wicked, simple, and one who does not know to ask), that has become eternalized in the Passover Haggadah.

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. [3]   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, [4] whilch sets the fourth son apart as special.

The first son and the question concerning the Paschal sacrifice (Ex. 12:25-29)

This passage deals with the manner in which one is to make the Paschal sacrifice (12:21-24).   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. [5]   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 Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’   Then people then bowed low in homage” (v. 27).  The answer refers solely to the scene of passing over, thus emphasizing a particular aspect of the general story.


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 Egypt.   The father explains to his son that he performs “this,” the commandment of eating matzah, because the Lord took us out of Egypt.   This interpretation has the shortcoming of necessitating a change in word order, but it has the advantage of being well-suited to the subject matter at hand, namely eating matzah, and it fits in with the literary genre of the other passages from Exodus. [6]

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 Egypt with “a mighty hand” (v. 9), that is to say, the Lord brought severe plagues on the Egyptians until finally Pharaoh expelled the Israelites from Egypt.   Due to the haste with which they had to leave, their dough did not have time to rise and they therefore had to eat unleavened bread (12:31-34).

The third son and the question of redeeming the first-born (Ex. 13:11-16)

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 Egypt:  “You shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, ...  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast.  Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my sons” (14-16).

The fourth son and the question of the obligation to perform the commandments (Deut. 6:20-25)

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 Egypt and the exodus.   It begins by describing the period of bondage:  “You shall say to your children, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” (v. 21), and continues with an account of the plagues that preceded the exodus from Egypt:   “The Lord wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household” (v. 22), and a description of the exodus itself:   “and us He freed from there” (v. 23).   The response does not end here, rather it continues and explains the object of the exodus from Egypt, which was entering the land:  “that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers” (v. 23), as well as upholding the commandments:   “Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our G-d” (v. 24).   The response concludes by describing all the good that awaits Israel in the wake of observing the commandments: “for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the Lord our G-d to observe faithfully this whole instruction, as He has commanded us” (v. 24-25).

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 Egypt.   In contrast, the fourth son, mentioned in this week’s reading, asks a broad question and is given a comprehensive answer, relating to all the components of the exodus from Egypt.

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 Egypt.   Perhaps in this respect the commandments of the Passover sacrifice and redeeming first-born sons have a certain advantage, since they are exceptional and evoke questioning, unlike the commandment to eat matzah, which was a rather common practice.   In contrast, in Deuteronomy the direction is reversed:  the exodus from Egypt becomes a founding event shaping the relationship between G-d and Israel, and therefore remembering the event creates an obligation to perform all the commandments as a whole. [7]   Hence the question is comprehensive, and so is the answer.

Different Perspectives

From a literary point of view, we suggest that the passages on the sons in Exodus are an immediate response to the exodus from Egypt, at the time it took place.  The fourth son, in contrast, expresses the view taken from the distance of a generation away, a vantage point that makes it possible to take a broader view of all that happened in the exodus from Egypt and to perceive its objective, namely establishing a covenant with the Lord and entering the promised land. Once in the land, the obligation to perform all the Lord’s commandments is understandable.  The vista of the sons’ questions is determined according to the world of their fathers.  In Exodus, the questions asked by the sons of those who were taken out of Egypt (when, in time, they come to the promised land) are focused, whereas in Deuteronomy, the questions asked by the sons of the generation that enters the land (when, in time, they do so), are comprehensive.

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.


[1] This model can also be found in Joshua 4, but further elaboration is not appropriate to the present context.

[2] In Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Horowitz-Rabin ed., Bo 18; Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 10.4.

[3] On biblical type-scenes, see R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York, 1981, pp. 47-62.

[4] 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, Jerusalem 1989.   Zakovitch (p. 492, especially note 66) did not relate to four sons in Scripture, only in the homilies of the Sages, since he viewed the biblical second son (Ex. 13:5-6; this is the son who, in the Sages’ homilies, does not know to ask) as an exception that breaks the structure.  In my opinion the structure of four sons stands, although there is still some explaining that needs to be done regarding the second one.

[5] Thus also in R. D. Z. Hoffman, Re’ayot Makhriyot neged Wellhausen, Jerusalem 1928, p. 6.   The Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 96a) made a distinction between the  Passover of the exodus from Egypt and observance of the Passover festival for all time, applying the notion of “an institution for all time” (hukkat olam) only to the Passover sacrifice and not to painting the blood on the doorposts.  They arrived at this interpretation because of the verses in Deuteronomy 16:1-8, which do not mention anointing the doorposts with blood.   On the tension between the plain sense of the text and the rabbinic interpretation, see Ibn Ezra’s short commentary on Exodus 12:24.

[6] 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.

[7] This notion begins with the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2, Deut. 5:6), and recurs numerous times throughout the book of Deuteronomy (for example, 5:15, 15:15, 26:1-11).