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‘Blunting the Teeth’ of the Wicked Son

Regarding the wicked son, the Haggadah tells us: “hakheh (הקהה) et shinav.” What does that expression mean? There are two issues: What is its literal meaning and what does it mean as an idiom?

The literal meaning is an easy one. The root קהה appears four times in Tanach, always with a meaning of: “not sharp, blunt.” At Kohelet 10:10, we have: “im קהה habarzel … —if the iron is blunt (not sharp).” At Jeremiah 31:28-29: “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten unripe grapes (בסר), and the children’s teeth תקהינה (become not sharp). Rather, everyone will die for his own sin. Whoever eats unripe grapes, תקהינה his own teeth.’” The verse at Ezekiel 18:2 is almost identical to Jeremiah 31:28.

The background here is that unripe grapes are hard. They are also sour (acidic). There can be no dispute about the literal meaning of the phrase in the Haggadah. It means: “ … make his teeth not sharp.”

Here is a standard Haggadah text: “The wicked child, what does he say: ‘What is this service to you?’ ‘To you’ (he says), but not to him! Because he has excluded himself from the community, he has denied the foundation of our faith. Consequently, you must “hakheh et shinav” and say to him (citing Exodus 13:8): ‘It is because of this that God did for me, when I went out from Egypt,’—‘for me’ (you say), not for him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

Our passage in the Haggadah is taken from the Mechilta, a Tannaitic work. Since the biblical קהה means “not sharp,” a simple understanding of our idiom here is the following: He made a sharp remark to you. You respond in kind, silencing him and refuting his sharp remark. Something like this is found in Jastrow, page 1321: “ … refute his arguments.” Similar is found in ArtScroll’s, “The Haggadah,” (1977) by Rabbi Joseph Elias, page 86: “silence him.”

But in order to really understand the meaning of an idiom, we must look at its other occurrences as well. My fellow Jewish Link columnist, Rabbi Josh Waxman, did this in five columns on his blog in 2009. He found other occurrences of our idiom in rabbinic literature and in none, did it mean what I just said it meant.

Our idiom appears not just in early rabbinic literature but also in Geonic literature and Rishonim and Acharonim. Let us limit ourselves to early rabbinic literature. I am not including all occurrences, as some are not helpful (e.g., a different passage at Sotah 49a from the one I cited below).

At Sanhedrin 109b, we have a drasha by an Amora on the genealogy of Korach. Korach is described as “the son of קהת.” The drasha is: “a son, שהקהה the teeth of his progenitors,” i.e., his rebellious actions caused pain to his ancestors. Nothing here about refutation or silencing someone else.

At Sotah 49a, we have a story about Rabbi Huna who once found a fragrant date and gave it to his son, Rabbah. When Rabbah’s son arrived, Rabbah gave it to his own son. Rabbi Huna remarked: “my son, you have gladdened my heart, but הקהיתה my teeth.” Again, the meaning is “caused me pain, and nothing at all about refutation or silencing.”

Now, let us look at Genesis Rabbah: Section 98 first cites Genesis 49:10. The verse reads: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, as long as men come to Shiloh, and to him shall be the obedience of the people.” The derasha here refers the verse to melech haMashiach. It continues: “velo יקהת haamim,” and it explains: “He will come and מקהה the teeth of ovdei kochavim.” Here, it seems the implication is physical damage.

We have something similar at section 99, Genesis 49:10 is interpreted as “the one who is מקהה the teeth of all the nations.” Rabbi Waxman has put together a Haggadah based on all his posts (“The Haggadah of the RiMiJosh.”) At page 20, he concludes that our idiom in the Haggadah means a “forceful answer.” This is a reasonable approach based on all those passages I quoted from outside the Haggadah. (Even if the expression means “physical damage,” no one claims that it should be taken literally at the seder!) Many Rishonim say something similar to Rabbi Waxman: “make him angry.” See Torat Chaim Haggadah, page 61.

Nevertheless, I think that the Jastrow and ArtScroll-Elias approach is the correct one for our passage in the Haggadah. What happened here is that at least two different idioms developed for the הקהה and שן expression. I can explain how that happened.

Based on Kohelet 10:10, we see that קהה originally meant “blunt.” But when one eats unripe fruit, one’s teeth can become loose as well. Eventually the biblical expression came to be understood as “to make blunt and loose.” See Jastrow, page 1321. From the “blunt” meaning, we can understand how the refutation and silencing idiom arose. From the “make loose” meaning, we can understand how the “cause pain and/or physical damage” idiom arose.

Jastrow himself gives three different meanings for the idiom: “to refute; to break the power of and to grieve.” (By the last, he means: “cause pain to.”)

(If anyone knows of any other instance in early rabbinic literature which uses the “refute/silence” idiom, please share it with me.)

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Although none of the following interpretations are correct (in my humble opinion), here are some other noteworthy ones:

Because he excluded himself from the community, we treat him as a “ben neichar” and treat him as prohibited from eating. The rule is that a “ben neichar” was not to eat from the sacrifice (Exodus 12:43).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Chazal chose this unique expression for rebuke to remind us of those Jeremiah and Ezekiel verses where the same expression is used. Their point is that the wickedness of the son may have been the fault of the parents! ‘The parent of a rebellious child should ask himself or herself: “Did I do something to cause it?”’ He suggests that, perhaps, the parents told their child that Judaism mattered, but what they did seemed to show that it did not matter very much.” See Rabbi Sacks’ profound essay: “What Does the Wicked Son Say?” in the various editions of his Haggadah. See also Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky’s essay on our topic at www.etzion.org.il.

Here is a homiletical interpretation from ArtScroll’s “The Haggadah Treasury,”attributed to the Maggid of Kozhnitz: “Wicked people think that God can be served only through wailing, fasting and praying. They refuse to recognize that even eating and drinking should be a divine service, for it is done in order that a person may have the health to serve God and as a vehicle to bless Him. We tell such a person that his teeth should be blunted, for he uses them only to satisfy his lust for food, but not to serve God.”

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I would like to acknowledge the help of Rabbi Josh Waxman, Myron Chaitovsky and my wife, Sharon, in preparing this essay.

P.S. יקהת at Genesis 49:10 has nothing to do with our root. Its root is the rare root יקה which probably means “obedience.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. A well-known gematria: If you take away שניו from רשע, you are left with צדיק!

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