[Avodah] Does "ben" mean "son" or "child"?

Akiva Miller akivagmiller at gmail.com
Tue Feb 12 18:24:34 PST 2019

Who asks Mah Nishtana at the Seder?

Braisa Pesachim 116a: If he is a chacham, then his "ben" asks him. If
he's not a chacham, then his wife asks him. If not, then he asks

Rambam Chometz UMatza 7:3: If he has no "ben", his wife asks him. If
he has no wife, they ask each other... If he is alone, he asks

Mechaber 473:7: If there's no chochma in the "ben", his father teaches
him. If he has no son, then his wife asks him. If not, then he asks

I would like to know the best way to translate "ben" in the above
halachos. Does it refer to a generic "child", or specifically to a
"son"? The word "ben" can go either way. Many are accustomed to
translating it as "son" in this context (and in other contexts, like
"arba banim", and "v'higadta l'vincha") but I don't know whether this
is out of habit, or whether the sources actually intend to imply "ben

I would like to suggest a test which might determine the answer to
this question. Suppose there are three people at the Seder: husband,
wife, and daughter. No sons. Who asks the Mah Nishtana? If "ben" means
"son", then there is no son present, and the wife should ask. But if
"ben" means "child", then the daughter *is* present, and it is her job
(if she has chochma).

Right now this is a merely hypothetical question, but in some homes it
will surely become practical two months from now: According to the
Braisa, and the Rambam, and the Mechaber, who should ask? Has anyone
heard this discussed or paskened? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Akiva Miller

Note: Aruch Hashulchan 473:21 says: If the "ben" does not have chochma
to ask, then his father teaches him to ask. If he doesn't have a
"ben", then the "bas" asks. If he doesn't have a "bas', then his wife
asks or someone else who is sitting at the table asks...

Undeniably, in this case, the contrast shows that "ben" and "bas" must
be translated as "son" and "daughter"; there is no generic "child" in
the Aruch Hashulchan. But this doesn't really answer my question of
according to the Braisa, Rambam, and Mechaber, because on the one
hand, the daughter gets priority over the mother, but on the other
hand, the daughter is unequal to the son. I suppose it is possible
that the Braisa Rambam and Mechaber would all agree with the Aruch
Hashulchan (that the daughter ranks midway between son and wife), but
I'd like to know if anyone has actually written on this subject.

I would also point out that none of these four authorities mention the
modern practice of giving the Mah Nishtana davka to the *youngest*. I
wonder who the Aruch Hashulchan would give this kavod to: an eight
year old son or a seven year old daughter.

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