Behar-Four Sons

After “laying down the laws” of the seventh year (Shvi’i, or “Sabbatical year”) and of the Jubilee year (Yuval, or “fiftieth year”), the Torah proposes a question: “And if you should ask, what will we eat during the Sabbatical year, for we will not have sown nor harvested our grain?” (Lev 25:20).   The placement of the Torah’s question is strange, since it is discussing the Sabbatical year, the question should have been proposed immediately after the laws of the Sabbatical years.  Why does the Torah first go on to describe the Jubilee year as well and only then ask, so to speak, “How will we eat?”

Moreover, why does the Torah seem to assume that we will ask this question? Following the question, the Torah explains that God will put an extra blessing into the land during the six year and it will produce enough for three years, so certainly there will be enough for the two vacant years of concern during the Sabbatical period.  So, why does the Torah assume that we will have doubts and ask questions?

Our goal is to answer these questions in accordance with Rashi’s approach, which is to explain the Torah to a five year old who is learning Torah for the first time. In the eyes of a five year old, this will not be the first time that he has seen the Torah ask a question. That already occurred when the Torah asked, “And when your son will ask you tomorrow, ‘What is this?” (Ex 13:14).  This question was asked regarding the Pesach offering, and Rashi explains that it was asked by a simple son who is unable to ask in detail, and therefore asks simply, ‘What is this?’  Rashi continues, “Elsewhere the Torah asks, ‘what are these different categories of laws,’ and that question is attributed to the wise son. In general, the Torah speaks of four kinds of sons…”  Since the five year learning the Torah for the first time will already have seen this question, he will naturally wonder, which son is now asking the question that occurs in our Torah portion?

Usually, we associate all four sons and their questions with the Pesach story. However, upon closer examination, we see that only two of the four questions that are discussed in the Pesach hagada were asked regarding Pesach – those of the wicked son and of the son who does not know how to ask (they are found in Ex 13:5 and 13:8, respectively).  The other two sons appear to be asking their questions on subjects that are not related to Pesach at all.  The simple son seems to be asking regarding the first born (bechor) and the wise son seems to be asking a general question regarding nothing in particular.  Even though we answer him with the laws of the Pesach, his question does not seem directly related to Pesach, but only asked in a general manner.  That the hagada speaks of four sons, is a product of the second level of Torah study, which is drasha.  However, on the simple textual level on which Rashi concentrates in his commentary on the Torah, only two of the sons were asking about Pesach.

However, the clever five year old, having read the question that the Torah proposes regarding bechor, will conclude that the Torah speaks to more than the wicked son or the son who does not know how to ask.  The Torah also addresses itself to the simple son, who asks knows how to ask merely in a general, nebulous fashion.  And by extension, the clever five year old will also realize that the Torah speaks to a clever son as well, who knows how to ask detailed and specific questions.  And therefore, it becomes the task of the five year old to figure out which son is doing the asking, every time the Torah proposes a question. He knows that every question is proposed wither by a wicked son, or a wise son, or one who does not know how to ask or a simple son.

In our case, the stage is set for a wise son to ask a question.  The Torah tells not to sow or harvest during the Shabbatical or Jubilee years, so the general outlines of the mitzvah already exist.  It remains only to fill in the details – hence the Torah asks the question: “How will we eat,” and this is the question of a wise son who wants to know details. And the Torah answers: there will be enough food coming from the six year to cover all three following years.  That is, the Torah could have supplied our needs by super natural means, such as manna from Above, but instead we are told that God will meet our needs through natural means.  Albeit the results will be super natural (three times the normal harvest), but they will emerge through natural means (sowing and planting during the six year). And in this manner, we understand both the placement of the question (after a discussion of both Sabbatical and Jubilee laws, even though it applies only to Sabbatical laws) and the fact that the Torah asks a question.  The Torah does not want to imply that there will be doubters.  Rather, the Torah addresses the implied question of a wise son – and that is likely to come after the Torah has set the stage by issuing a general command.

For a more detailed and longer translation, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 27, pp 183

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