Saturday, March 16, 2013

For Passover: Song of the Four Brothers by Naomi Shemer

I first heard this song many years ago and loved it. It’s a whimsical take by Naomi Shemer (1930–2004), one of Israel’s leading songwriters, on the famous parable of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah.

But first, a little background. The four sons are mentioned in the Haggadah – the book of study, prayer and praise that we recite every year at the Passover seder. Here’s the text, in my translation:

The Torah refers to four sons: One wise, one wicked, one mild and one who does not know how to ask a question. What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded you?” You should teach him about the laws of Passover, [everything including the rule] that one may eat nothing for the rest of the night after eating the afikoman [the Passover offering].

What does the wicked son say? “What does all this work mean to you?” To you, he says, and not to him. By excluding himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should give him a sharp retort: “It is because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.” For me, you should say, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

What does the mild son say? “What is this?” You should answer him: “With a strong hand God took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”

As for the one who does not know how to ask, you should begin the discussion [by telling him the story], as the Torah says: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.’”

An enormous amount of commentary has been written about these four sons. Some say they are types of people – for example, mature, cynical (or alienated), passive, and lacking in Jewish background. Others say they are aspects of our own selves. Still others say that the text is not about the sons themselves, but about how to teach: different students require different techniques. There are dozens of interpretations out there, and they’re still being written.

But that’s for another discussion. In the song by Naomi Shemer, the four sons are four brothers who go out of the Haggadah to seek their fortune – in this case, wives. Each one finds a wife who matches his own character, and at the end, there’s a sweet surprise.

Song of the Four Brothers
by Naomi Shemer

On a bright and lovely day,
Out of the Haggadah
Came the wise son, the mild son and the terribly wicked son,
And the one who knew not how to ask.

And when the four brothers
Set out on the road
Right away, from all directions
Came flowers and blessings.

The wise son met a wise woman.
The mild son loved a mild woman.
And the wicked son got, for a wife,
A woman who was horribly wicked.

And the one who knew not how to ask
Found the loveliest woman of all.
He put his hand in hers
And went back with her into the Haggadah.

Where did fate lead
Each of the four brothers?
In this song of ours, my friends,
One mustn’t ask too many questions!

The Hebrew lyrics can be found here.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Catch my guest post at A Mother in Israel

A while back, A Mother in Israel asked me to write a guest post for her blog about conditions for women at the Western Wall.

I did, and now the post is up. Thank you, Mom in Israel!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Herman Wouk and the locusts

A long time ago, I read Herman Wouk’s book This Is My God, an explanation of Jewish thought and practice written more than half a century ago, but still relevant today. When the locusts arrived recently in the south of Israel, the following paragraph from Wouk’s book, in the section containing notes at the back, surfaced in my memory:

On the eating of insects, the Bible law specifically permits grasshoppers of a certain variety. The grasshopper was widely eaten in the ancient Near East, and it still is. The locusts devour the crops; all the protein and carbohydrate are in them; the people recover their food supply by roasting or pickling the creatures and eating them. A brilliant short novel by David Garnett, The Grasshoppers Come, is built on the edibility of the locust. In Jewish common law the exact definition of the edible varieties of grasshopper became obscure, and so these insects passed under the general ban. But in some settlements of the Near East the knowledge of the distinguishing marks of the edible locust survives. I recently heard of a Yemenite medical student in a United States university, devoutly orthodox, who attended a laboratory class where locusts were being dissected. He told the instructor, a Jewish biologist, that the creatures were of an edible variety; and he pointed to a distinguishing mark, the Hebrew letter hes [het in modern Israeli pronunciation – RSJ] clearly marked on the insect’s abdomen. He proceeded to prove that they were edible and kosher (as least so far as he was concerned) by eating a few. I asked a rabbinic authority whether this conduct was acceptable. Perfectly, the answer was; based on the Talmud rule, “He has a continuous tradition from his fathers.” I gather that if I caught a grasshopper with a hes on its abdomen it would not be an available morsel for me, since I have no such tradition. I submit to this deprivation with fortitude.

Don’t you just love that last sentence? I do. For me, the above paragraph is a distillation of the clarity, depth and humor of Wouk’s book. I think I’ll read it again.