World of the Sages: The wicked son

Maimonides points out that one who separates from the community effectively locks the door to repentance.

the four sons 88 (photo credit: )
the four sons 88
(photo credit: )
The Mishna discusses the exact wording of the zimun, the invitation to recite Grace after Meals as a group, and presents two issues regarding changes to the wording as a reflection of the number of participants in the zimun (M. Berachot 7:3). First, to what extent should the wording reflect an increase in the number of participants? The first opinion in the Mishna presents a two-tiered zimun system: For three to nine diners the opening line of the zimun formula is "Let us bless He whose food we have eaten." Once we have at least 10 diners - whether it be 10 or 10,000 - we add the Almighty's name: "Let us bless the Lord whose food we have eaten." We are familiar with this approach because it is the accepted halachic practice, and as Rabbi Akiva explains in the Mishna, it reflects all our prayer rites where once the threshold of 10 is reached the wording does not change for more participants. The alternative opinion suggests that for each significant increase in the number of people participating in the zimun, the language of the zimun is altered. As opposed to the first opinion where a difference is acknowledged only between three to nine participants and 10 or more, this view recognizes multiple tiers - three, 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000 - with each increase justifying its own unique zimun wording to reflect the greater number of participants. Thus for 100 diners the mezamen, the one who initiates the invitation to recite Grace, says: "Let us bless God our Lord." Once we have 1,000 diners, the wording changes again: "Let us bless God, our Lord and the Lord of Israel." Finally, if we have a myriad of people eating together, the zimun formula includes a further mention of the Almighty: "Let us bless God, our Lord and the Lord of Israel, Lord of hosts who dwells by the cherubim." A second aspect of the zimun formula is apparent in the Mishna: The mezamen must check to see if there is a quorum besides him. If there are three diners the formula, as we have seen, is "Let us bless"; yet if there are three besides the mezamen, he turns to them in second person and instructs: "You should bless" since there is a quorum besides the mezamen. The Talmud, however, rules that this second aspect - changing the wording if there is a quorum besides the leader - should not be implemented (B. Brachot 49b-50a; J. Brachot 54b). Despite the possibility of the mezamen turning to the quorum and instructing them to recite the Grace, the Talmud rejects this formula, declaring that a person should never exclude himself from the group. Thus when there are four diners the mezamen should use the inclusive language "Let us bless." The rule of the Mishna that appears to differentiate between three diners and four to nine diners is thus understood to be an option that is not recommended. The principle that one should not exclude oneself from the group appears elsewhere in the Talmud in other contexts (B. Ta'anit 11a). Our sages praise people who minimize their eating during years of famine. Similarly, those who already have children and choose to refrain from marital relations during years of famine are also lauded. The self-imposed abstinence reflects solidarity with the plight of the community and is therefore acclaimed. The Talmud goes further quoting a vivid depiction of those who choose to do the opposite: At a time when the people of Israel are steeped in distress and a person separates himself from the community and thus does not share their pain, the two ministering angels that accompany a person come and place their hands on his head and declare: "This person who has separated from the community shall not witness the consolation of the community when salvation shall come." The Talmud concludes with a more positive note on this point by stating the opposite: Whoever suffers together with the community will merit and witness the consolation of the community in the future. This adage is even codified as Jew law (Shulhan Aruch OH 574:5). In his code of law, Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) points out that one who separates from the community effectively locks the door to the path of repentance, for when the community repents, the loner is not with them and does not have a share in their merits. In this context it is worth mentioning the approach that is repeated in a number of places in the Zohar: If one separates from the community, then he is judged alone. Such an examination, alas, involves scrutinizing his every move and a positive outcome is unlikely. The severity of leaving the group is starkest in the Pessah Haggada in the passage that describes the four children - the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who knows not how to ask. The Haggada tells us that the wicked child asks: "What is this service to you?" What is so wicked about this question? How is this question substantially different from the question asked by the wise child: "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws that God our Lord has commanded you?" It would appear that both children are confounded by the Pessah rites they see before them and turn to their parents for an explanation. Why then is the second son considered wicked? Certainly the Haggada does not seem to detail any conduct of the second son that should justify calling him "wicked." The Haggada immediately explains, focusing on the attitude reflected in the language of the second son's question: "He says 'to you,' but not to him! Since he has excluded himself from the community, it is as if he has denied that which is fundamental." The sin of the wicked child is one thing: Excluding himself from the community. It is no wonder, then, that the zimun formula and our liturgy generally advocates inclusive language and our sages laud those who feel the pain of the community even in the most distressful times. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.