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Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5776

Pninat Mishpat: Counting to Four Generations

(based on Shut Noda BYehuda I, Choshen Mishpat 38)

Case: My grandfather, R. Gershon, left a significant amount of money. The principal was to remain untouched and the profits were to be divided among his descendants who occupied themselves in Torah study “until the fourth generation.” At that time, the principal is to be divided among all his descendants, with half going to the descendants of his son and half to the descendants of his daughters. Presently, there are great-grandchildren of R. Gershon, which is the fourth generation if one counts R. Gershon as the first. The Torah-studiers claim that this only the third generation and that the original arrangement should continue. They bring a proof from King Zecharia, who was the fifth generation including Yehu, and Yehu was promised only “bnei ribei’im (sons of the fourth generation)” sitting on the throne (Melachim II, 10:30). The other descendants cite proof from the pasuk from Brit Bein Habetarim: “The fourth generation will return here” (Bereishit 15:16).


[The ruling is a fascinating interplay between halacha and Biblical analysis]

Ruling: It is not clear why the other inheritors think there is a proof from the fourth generation mentioned in Bereishit, as how do they know that this is not great-great grandchildren. They must understand the pasuk like the Ibn Ezra does – the fourth generation from the time they went down to Egypt (ibid. 13). According to him, Kehat (Moshe’s grandfather) was the first generation and Moshe and Aharon’s sons were the fourth, meaning that Kehat is included in the count of four. 

If that is what they mean, why should one prefer the Ibn Ezra’s commentary over Rashi and the Ramban. Rashi says that the count starts with Yaakov, who went down to Egypt, and continues with Yehuda, Peretz, Chetzron, and Kalev; thus, the first generation is not counted. The Ramban says that the four generations belong to the Amorites, who were to be removed from the land after their sin was ready for punishment. Ostensibly, then, one cannot prove anything regarding our question. If anything, from the Ramban it sounds like the progenitor is not counted, as Hashem is willing to wait four generations for repentance, after which time he punishes the fifth generation. This is in line with Hashem remembering the sin of the fathers for “son, and sons of sons, a third generation, and a fourth” (see Shemot 34:6).

How then can the other inheritors expect to go against Rashi and the Ramban, who exceeded the Ibn Ezra both as commentators and as halachists? Even according to the Ibn Ezra, Yaakov was one of the four generations, which is different from talking about four generations of descendants of Yehu or, in our case, of R. Gershon. I would anyway explain the pasuk differently, considering that the count should be from Yitzchak, who begins the period of being “foreigners in a land not their own,” and that it is going on Serach the daughter of Asher, son of Yaakov, son of Yitzchak.

There are different indications from the language of the will, but the most careful reading of both the will and the standard understanding of the p’sukim is that the fourth generation does not include the person who is talking or is being discussed. This should be the basis for determining when the will’s clause comes into play, although all sorts of questions about its implementation remain.

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