Ari Sacher

‘Depends on the Context’ Parashat Bo 5784

There is one section of the Passover Haggadah that I always found problematic. Perhaps a better word would be “unfair”. The section in question pertains to the Four Sons: “Corresponding to Four Sons does the Torah speak; one [who is] wise, one [who is] evil, one who is simple and one who does not know to ask.” Each of these sons is alluded to in the Torah, along with the question they ask and the response they are given. The Wise Son asks [Devarim 6:20]: “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that our God commanded you?” We answer him by teaching him every single law of the Passover Seder. The kid wants data? We have lots of data to give him. The Wicked Son asks[1] [Shemot 12:26]: “What is this labour to you?”. The Haggadah notes, “‘To you (lachem) and not ‘To him (lo). Since he excluded himself from the collective, he has denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. Accordingly, you should blunt his teeth and tell him [Shemot 13:8], ‘For the sake of this, did G-d do [this] for me (li) in my going out (b’tzeti) of Egypt’. ‘For me (li) and not ‘For him (lo)’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.” If you don’t want to be part of the club, kid, then, by all means, you’re out. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik[2], writing in “Beit HaLevi”, explains that had the Wicked Son been in Egypt, he would not have joined the rest of the Jewish People in offering the Paschal Lamb, which was a prerequisite for redemption, and, as such, he would have been well and truly left behind.

It just doesn’t seem fair. The Haggadah chastises the Wicked Son for excluding himself from the collective, but doesn’t the Wise Son do the exact same thing? Doesn’t he talk about the testimonies that G-d commanded “you (et’chem)” – you and not us? Is he not also excluding himself from the collective? Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran[3] suggests that the Wise Son is not chastised because he refers to G-d as “Our G-d (E-lokeinu)” and not “Your G-d (E-lokeichem)”. The reason the Wise Son uses the phrase “commanded you” and not “commanded us” is because he is speaking his parent, who was present at the exodus. His parent received the commandment directly from G-d whereas he did not.

For some reason, when I first heard this explanation, it rang somewhat hollow – it could be because I was only about ten years old at the time – and so I asked my father, of blessed memory, what he thought. He told me that the difference between the question of the Wise Son and that of the Wicked Son is in the way they ask the question. At the time, all I could think of was a song called “Four Sons Are We”, off a record[4] of children’s Passover songs called “Menorah’s Little Seder”. In the song, the Wise Son sounds, well, wise: “The wise son am I, who asks how and why, my goal is to learn and apply. The words of our sages live down through the ages, The source of our wisdom and pride.” His voice was strong, and he sounded like the kind of guy I’d like to get to know. The Wicked Son, on the other hand, spoke in a really snide voice: “I don’t like to study, who wants to be good, I don’t care if I’m call Wicked Son. Who needs all this learning, I’m sick of page turning, I’d rather be bad and have fun”. Of course, this person is going to be slapped in the face, and deservedly so.

Half a century has passed since my father gave me his answer and I believe that it deserves a more grownup explanation. I suggest that one such explanation lies in an example in the Torah of two people doing the exact same thing and only one of them being chastised for it. Abraham, who is nearly one hundred years old, and Sarah, who is ten years younger, crave a child they can call their own. When G-d tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, he bursts into laughter [Bereishit 17:17]: “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and he said to himself, ‘Will [a child] be born to one who is a hundred years old, and will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?’”. Rashi[5] points to the commentary of Onkelos[6], who translates the word “laughed” as “rejoiced”. When Sarah overhears three angels tell Abraham that she will bear him a child within a year, she reacts similarly [Bereishit 18:12]: “Sarah laughed within herself, saying, ‘After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.’” Here, Onkelos translates the word “laughed” as “scoffed”. Rashi explains that the reason Onkelos translates “laughed” differently with Sarah is because G-d reprimands her [Bereishit 18:13-14] “Why did Sarah laugh?… Is anything impossible for G-d to do?” It must mean that her laughter was derisive, whereas Abraham’s was benign. This begs the question: How did Onkelos know? Why does G-d react adversely to Sarah’s laughter and not to Abraham’s? To paraphrase several (mostly former) presidents of Ivy League universities, it all depends on the context. To paraphrase my father, the answer lies in the way in which they laughed: Abraham “fell on his face and laughed”. He could not contain his joy. Anyone who has recently seen a video clip of some Israeli mother reacting to seeing her son who has just returned from fighting in Gaza knows exactly what I am talking about. Sarah, on the other hand, “laughed within herself”. She stifled a chuckle. She knew it was out of place and she hoped that no-one noticed. G-d noticed, and He chastised her for it[7].

With this explanation in hand, let us return to the Wise Son and the Wicked Son and take a closer look, not at what they say, but, rather, the way in which they say it. The Torah phrases the question posed by the Wise Son as follows [Devarim 6:20]: “If your son asks (yish’alcha) you [one day in the future], saying, ‘What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that our God commanded you?’” The question posed by the Wicked Son appears as follows [Shemot 12:26]: “And it will come to pass if your children say (yom’ru) to you, ‘What is this service to you?’” The Wise Son “asks” while the Wicked Son “tells”. The Wise Son poses a question and awaits an answer. The Wicked Son is not asking a question and so he does not expect to hear an answer. He wants not to hear, but to be heard. He seeks not to learn, but to teach, and the sad truth is that he has nothing to teach us. This is why the Torah’s answer to the Wicked Son is qualitatively different than its answer to the other three sons. While the other three sons merit personal answers – “You shall say to him[8] v’amarta elav)”, the Wicked Son merits a generic [Shemot 12:27] “And you shall say (va’amertem)”. He has nothing to say to us and so we have nothing to say to him. And so only his teeth, and not the teeth of his wise brother, are blunted.

According to post-modern thought, there is no right and no wrong, no true and no false. Anything can be acceptable – it all depends on the context. This is how presidents of the most prestigious universities on the planet could assert that calling for the genocide of Jews is not necessarily considered harassment but, rather, depends upon the context. While my father was anything but post-modern, I believe that as far as the Four Sons are concerned, looking at the context would be the wise thing to do.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] Most of the Four Sons are alluded to in the Portion of Bo, our Portion of the Week.

[2] Rabbi Soloveichik lived in Brisk, Belarus, in the 19th century.

[3] Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, better known by his acronym “Tashbetz”, or “Rashbetz”, lived in Palma de Mallorca in the 15th century.

[4] With a little internet elbow grease, I was successfully found the name of the album, a recording of the album on the Florida Atlantic University Recorded Sound Archives ( and the words to the song on Rabbi Reuven Spolter’s blog (

[5] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the 11th century.

[6] Onkelos, sometimes identified as Aquila of Sinope, was a Roman who converted to Judaism. He lived in Israel in the latter half of the 1st century.

[7] I gave this shiur a few years ago one Friday night in Moreshet and this year, I decided to write it down. While reviewing source material on the Sefaria web site, I came across an explanation in “Kuntres Chiba Yeteira”, written by the late Rabbi Yehuda Hertzl Henkin, which was nearly identical to the one I gave. Baruch she’kivanti.

[8] See Shemot [13:8], Shemot [13:14] and Devarim [6:21].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.