Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Parshat Yitro

“Answers and Questions”

The world has one persistent belief about Jewish behavior which may indeed be true. It is the belief that Jews always answer a question by asking another question.

This tendency is mocked good naturedly in the old joke about the non-Jew who approaches his Jewish friend and asks: "Why do you Jews always answer one question with another?" To which the Jew responds, "Why not?"

Truth to tell, this tendency, answering one question with another, goes back to long before the emergence of the Jewish people. In fact, it is one of the earliest events on record and is described in the Bible. It is part of the story of Cain and Abel.

As the reader of this column surely knows, Cain murdered his brother Abel, the first murder in human history. Soon afterwards, God appeared to Cain. "The Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' And he said, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?'"

So Cain was asked a question by the Lord, and responded with another question, one of the most famous rhetorical questions of all time, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Not to be outdone, the Lord responded to Cain's question with yet another question, a question of His own. "Then He said, 'What have you done?'" (Genesis 4:9)

What we have here is a biblical precedent not only for answering a question with a question, but for answering the second question with a third, setting in motion what could easily become an endless progression of unanswered questions.

Our sages do not take this matter trivially at all. Rather, they see in the question with which Cain responded to the Almighty's question nothing less than mankind's first challenge to the deity. By responding with a question, Cain brazenly faulted the Almighty Himself for Abel's murder. "Thus, said Cain: 'Am I my brother's keeper? You, Lord, are the keeper of all creatures. You, Lord, did not protect my brother Abel. Why do You hold me responsible?'" (Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 9)

This week's Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20-23), provides the opportunity to study a most fascinating Talmudic example of answering one question with another. The centerpiece of this week’s parsha is of course the Ten Commandments. We all should be familiar with the fourth commandment, which reads: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, you male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.” (Exodus 20:8-10)

One would think that this is a fairly straightforward and easily comprehended commandment. Yet it became the subject of a confrontation between two adversaries, one of whom had a question on the passage, which the other answered with another question.

This incident is described in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b). A lengthy dialogue is reported there between the great Sage Rabbi Akiva, who was eventually martyred, and the Roman consul, Turnus Rufus. Some commentaries conjecture that this debate took place during Rabbi Akiva’s final imprisonment, just before the Romans tortured him and took his life.

At one point in the debate, we have the following passage:

This question too was asked by Turnus Rufus of Rabbi Akiva:

Turnus Rufus: What makes this day different from other days? Why is this Sabbath day special?

Rabbi Akiva: What makes this man different from other men? Why are you special?

Turnus Rufus: Because my master willed it. Caesar chose me for this post.

Rabbi Akiva: So too with the Sabbath. My Master willed it. God designated the Sabbath as a special day.

The Midrash understands Cain’s question, “Am I brother’s keeper,” not as a merely rhetorical question, but as an audacious retort to the Almighty; so too are we to understand Rabbi Akiva’s question.

By his question, “What makes this man different from other men?”, Rabbi Akiva forced his adversary to admit that his authority was not attributable to his special qualifications, but rather was subject to the whim of another man, more powerful than he.

Rabbi Akiva then craftily made use of Turnus Rufus’ response to teach him a lesson about the Almighty, the ultimate authority.

Recently, I too found myself answering a question with a question. Don’t get me wrong. I am not comparing myself to Cain, and certainly not to Rabbi Akiva. But my use of a question to answer a question allowed me to make use of a “teachable moment.” What’s more, the subject of my little lesson was our very topic, the Sabbath.

One of the songs sung at the Sabbath table begins, “Blessed is the Lord, day by day.” I had a young guest who was chanting the melody along with the rest of us, while at the same time perusing an English translation of the text.

When we had concluded the singing, he turned to me and asked, “This song does not refer to the Sabbath in any way. Why do we sing it on the Sabbath?”

Since he held a siddur in his hand, with the excellent English translation of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, I asked him to turn the pages to three other prayer selections which are only recited on the Sabbath (and in the case of the first two, on the Festivals as well). The first was Psalm 92, which begins with the words “A song to the Sabbath,” but which then continues for more than a dozen verses without alluding to the Sabbath. The second was the prayer Nishmat (The Soul [of Every Living Thing]) which contains no reference whatsoever to the Sabbath. And finally, the hymn El Adon (God, the Master of All Things.) Here again, there is no hint of Sabbath.

Then I proceeded to answer his question with my question: “None of these prayers mentions the Sabbath. Why then are they designated for recitation on the Sabbath day?”

Unlike Cain, and unlike the saintly Rabbi Akiva, I went on to answer my own question. I explained to the young man that the Sabbath is not just about Sabbath. The Sabbath is the central core of Judaism. Therefore, all of these prayers, and our table song, are appropriate for Sabbath recitation.

I went on to summarize each of these prayers: Psalm 92 contains the theme of the ultimate triumph of good over evil; Nishmat is a prayer of thanksgiving to the Almighty; and the El Adon hymn sings of God’s mastery over the sun, moon, and stars. Finally, the table song, “Blessed is the Lord, day by day,” reassures an exiled people that the redemption is near.

The Sabbath is more than just a day of rest. It is a day for the Jew to ponder the grand themes of Judaism.

To conclude this essay with a question, I ask: What better way is there to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” than to reflect upon these themes in our minds, express them in our prayers, and sing of them in our songs?