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In the Passover Hagada we're told about the four sons.

The second one is called wicked because he asks, "What is this service to you?!" ("מה העבודה הזאת לכם?") (emphasis mine), while the first one is wise because he asks, "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the L-rd, our G-d, has commanded you?" ("מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר ציווה ה' אלוקינו אתכם?").

Both of them ask about the second person (you), and not the first (us). Why is the second one considered wicked because of this, while the first one's distancing from everybody else is not even mentioned?

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HaSeder Ha'aruch (134:9-13) collects several answers to this question:

  1. The wise son says "אתכם" since he did not personally hear the command, and he is referring to the generation which left Egypt. Since he mentions Hashem -"Which the L-rd, our G-d has commanded" he is not excluding himself. However, the wicked son who does not mention Hashem in his words is considered to be excluding himself. (Machzor Vitri)

  2. Although "אתכם" is written without a vov, it should be read with a choylam, meaning "אותי ואתכם". (Machzor Vitri based on Sotah 34a)

  3. The reason why the Chocham says "אתכם" is because we do not slaughter the Korban Pesach for a minor, and therefore it is not considered as if he is excluding himself (Shibaley Haleket, Chukus Hapesach and more)

  4. The Chocham asks about a command that Hashem commanded and therefore says "אתכם" since he want to hear the command the way it was given. Whereas, the Rosha asks not about the command but about the actual practise and excludes himself by saying "לכם". (Ma'asey Nissim")

  • I find the "our God" in #1 particularly compelling, thanks. On that same explanation, since the father at the seder wasn't in that generation either, how does אתכם refer to that generation? – Monica Cellio Nov 18 '12 at 15:50
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    A joke that I heard in a lecture by Shnayer Leiman: The difference is that the chacham is a yeshiva bachur, so he doesn't know Hebrew grammar, doesn't know the difference between "אתכם" and "אותנו". So we can't blame him for using the wrong pronoun. The rasha, on the other hand, is an apikores, so of course he knows grammar! He knows exactly what he's saying when he uses "לכם". – jake Nov 18 '12 at 18:11
  • @jake I saw such a story brought in a Hagada, where one of the maskillim tried to start up with a certain rov and convince him that at they should at least learn dikduk, to which he replied... – Michoel Nov 18 '12 at 19:54
  • What you write in the name of Ma'asei Nisim is shared by the Maharal in Gvuros HaShem and Malbim in his hagadah commentary – b a Nov 18 '12 at 23:14
  • @jake - just noticed this now - see my answer below... – רבות מחשבות Apr 8 at 3:50
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Just to add to @Michoel's answers I have my own thought. Have a look at the Posuk by the Chacham, it says there, when your son will ask you. By the Rasha however, it says when when he will tell you.

There is a famous story of an Apikores who told a Gadol that he had many questions on Judaism. The Rov told him he can answer questions, but he cant answer answers. What he meant was what the Rasha called questions he called answers as to why he went off but not that the questions were the cause.

So too we see that the Chacham wants an answer because he asked, so it makes sense to judge him accordingly. The Rasha does not ask, so we do not judge him favorably.

  • +1 can you specify which pasuk (chapter and verse, please) belongs to which son? – Double AA Nov 18 '12 at 13:45
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    I've heard this before, but I don't remember in whose name. +1, anyway. – msh210 Nov 18 '12 at 15:35
  • Your story with the "gadol" is said in the name of Rabbi CHayim Volozhin: theshmuz.com/blog/… – b a Nov 18 '12 at 23:06
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In each case, far too much emphasis is placed on the words "to you", and not enough on the rest of the verse.

The wicked son says, "What is this service to you?" He just plainly lays out that he doesn't have any interest in it whatsoever.

The wise son, on the other hand, says, "What are the testimonies* and the statutes, which HaShem, our G-d, has commanded you?" He clearly includes himself in the community by recognizing his own relationship with HaShem, but he doesn't understand what the service is about or how it relates to him, but he wants to understand it, so the response given is about the laws as a means to engage him in further study.

*Basic translation

  • I placed the emphasis on "to you" in both cases, because the text places that emphasis only for the wicked son, when that same text exists for the wise one. – Nathan Fellman Nov 19 '12 at 17:14
  • @Nathan, I know, but the emphasis on "to you" stems from his removal of himself from the community (either by or including his failure to acknowledge HaShem), as the Haggadah states, "To you, but not to him. Since he has removed himself from the community, he has blasphemed." – Seth J Nov 19 '12 at 17:25
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    @Nathan, remember, although the Haggadah states "The Torah speaks of four sons..." this is not evident in the text. It is Midrash. The text merely speaks about how to address your son "when he asks..." or, in the case of the One Who Doesn't Know How To Ask, even without his asking. The Midrash observes that there are different responses to different situations, and frames them in the context of different types of children. – Seth J Nov 19 '12 at 17:27
  • that is an interesting point. He is not wicked because of what he asks, but rather he asks what he does because he is wicked. – Nathan Fellman Nov 19 '12 at 18:19
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While many answers have been suggested to this question over the years, a simple answer may be that the question is based on textual variants.

The Text of the Haggada

The question is premised on the fact that the text that we have for the wise son's question uses the word אתכם while the text that we have for the wicked son's question uses the word לכם. If both sons used the term "you" instead of "us", why do we only castigate the wicked son and not the wise son? Now while in most texts today this is indeed how the questions appear, this was not always the case. Many old editions of the Haggada (see one of many examples here) have the text of the wise son's question as:

מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו

That is to say that the word אתכם (you) is replaced with אותנו (us). With this text there is no question; the difference between the wise son and the wicked son is clear – the wicked son excluded himself with the word אתכם while the wise son included himself with the word אותנו.

Rambam

At the end of Hilchot Chametz U'matza, Rambam provides his version of the Haggada. While the standard text that we have now has the word אתכם in the wise son's question, the Frankel edition notes the existence of editions with the word אותנו:

אתכם. בעץ חיים ובכמה דפו"י אותנו

Other Sources in Rabbinic Literature

The discussion of the four sons appears in external sources (i.e. not the Haggada) as well. In the Mechilta D'Rabbi Yishmael (Parshah 18) the text of the wise son's question reads:

חכם מה הוא אומר מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו

According to this version, the wise son did not exclude himself, as he in fact asked about the laws that God commanded us.

The text of the wise son's question in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:4) reads similarly:

בן חכם מהו אומר מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו

Interestingly, in the version recorded in the Midrash Sechel Tov and Midrash Lekach Tov, only the wicked son's question is actually quoted. They don't quote the wise son's question at all. And they have an additional detail not found in the Haggada nor in the Yerushalmi or Mechilta, namely, that they spell out that the problem with the wicked son's question is precisely that he did not use the word לנו.

Midrash Sechel Tov Exodus 13:8

עשה ה' לי. למה נאמר לפי שהוא אומר בבן רשע מה העבודה הזאת לכם ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל שלא אמר לנו בידוע שכפר בעיקר אף אתה הוציאהו מן הכלל ואומר לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי ולא לך שאילו הייתה לשם לא הייתה נגאל פי' אלא כבר היית מת בשלשת ימי אפילה

Midrash Lekach Tov Exodus 13:8

רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם כלומר לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל שלא אמר לנו אלא לכם בידוע שכפר בעיקר לכך נאמר בעבור זה עשה ה' לי כלומר לי ולא לו שאלו היה שם לא היה נגאל אלא היה מת בשלשת ימי אפלה

According to this version, almost all the other suggested answers are eliminated, as they rely on using some other aspect of the wicked son's question to explain why it is problematic, yet here we are specifically told that the problematic aspect is his failure to include himself. Thus, virtually the only way to explain why we are okay with the wise son's question would be to say that he did not in fact say אתכם.

The Scriptural Source

While to resolve the discrepancy between the way we treat the wise and wicked sons we can suggest that the correct version of the wise son's question did not contain the word אתכם, (rather it has אותנו) it leaves us with a very basic problem. The questions of the four sons are derived from Scripture. The question of the wise son is taken from Deuteronomy 6:20 which reads as follows:

כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם

When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: 'What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD our God hath commanded you? (Mechon Mamre translation)

As we see clearly in the Scriptural verse, the question of the wise son does in fact contain the word אתכם. How does this square with all the sources that have the word אותנו?

The Penei Moshe

This problem is dealt with by R. Moshe Margoliot in his commentary (Penei Moshe) to the passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi. He suggests that although the text in the Torah has the word אתכם, the wise son deliberately changed it and used the word אותנו precisely to avoid excluding himself:

ובכתוב נאמר אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אתכם אלא שהחכם ניכר בשאלתו ואינו רוצה לומר אתכם ואומר אותנו שלא להוציא עצמו מן הכלל

According to this, the wise son is indeed distinguished from the wicked son, and we do not reject him precisely because he included himself by saying אותנו.

The Septuagint and Vulgate

We can actually go one step further than R. Margoliot's answer. If we look at the ancient Greek and Latin translations of the Torah, the Septuagint and the Vulgate, we find that they translate the last word of Deuteronomy 6:20 as "us" and not "you". This might indicate that there was even a version of the Torah that had the word as אותנו in the wise son's question.

Septuagint:

καὶ ἔσται ὅταν ἐρωτήσῃ σε ὁ υἱός σου αὔριον λέγων τί ἐστιν τὰ μαρτύρια καὶ τὰ δικαιώματα καὶ τὰ κρίματα ὅσα ἐνετείλατο κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν ἡμῖν

And it shall come to pass when thy son shall ask thee at a future time, saying, What are the testimonies, and the ordinances, and the judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us? (Brenton translation)

Vulgate:

cum interrogaverit te filius tuus cras dicens quid sibi volunt testimonia haec et caerimoniae atque iudicia quae praecepit Dominus Deus noster nobis

And when thy son shall ask thee to morrow, saying: What mean these testimonies, and ceremonies and judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded us? (Translation)

This is particularly noteworthy because (some versions of) the Mechilta cited above did not just have the word אותנו in the wise son's question; it also has the word אותנו in the quotation of the verse at the beginning of the exposition, perhaps again indicating the existence of a variant text in the Torah. If even the text of the Torah itself said אותנו by the wise son, the question would surely fall by the wayside.

Reverse Explanation

Interestingly, Rabbi Dr. Professor Allen Schwartz noted the fact that the other sources (Mechilta, Yerushalmi, and Septuagint) have the word as אותנו, but he explained it in reverse. He suggested that this is further evidence of the earliness of the Haggada, and that in fact the Mechilta, Yerushalmi, and Septuagint were all influenced by the Haggada. That is to say, that all three of these other sources deliberately changed the text from how it was in the Haggada (replacing אתכם with אותנו) precisely to avoid the question of how we differentiate the wise son from the wicked son. (This is in fact similar to the answer given by R. Margoliot mentioned above.) This suggestion, as well as his broader discussion of this question, can be found in this lecture.

  • The Vulgate was translated from Hebrew not from the Septuagint, so Hebrew versions of this variant must have still been around into the 5th century. That's quite late. It's almost surprising that it didn't survive partially into the period of the geonim or Masoretes – Double AA Jul 25 '18 at 15:48
  • @DoubleAA How do you know it didn't? – Alex Jul 25 '18 at 15:56
  • Just have never seen evidence that it did. Why would Jerome have "deliberately changed the text" because of the Haggada? – Double AA Jul 25 '18 at 16:09
  • @DoubleAA I don't necessarily agree with Professor Schwarts's theory (I quoted it to present an alternative) but it would explain why we have no record of such a Hebrew text. – Alex Jul 25 '18 at 16:12
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I believe I heard the following answer from my grandmother, but it is originally quoted here in the name of the Chacham Tzvi's grandson (h/t to Alex):

The Chacham has been learning in Yeshiva for many years, and in Yeshivos they don't learn proper Dikduk, so when he says "Eschem" it's no big deal, he means to say "Osanu".

However, the Maskilish Rasha went to university, and knows the ins and outs of Hebrew grammar very well, and therefore, when he says "Lachem" he is intending to exclude himself.

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