The Four Sons

Blessed is the Omnipresent One, blessed be He! Blessed is He who gave the Torah to His people Israel, blessed be He! The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.

The wise one, what does he say? "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the L-rd, our G-d, has commanded you?" You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Pesach, [up to] `one is not to eat any dessert after the Pesach-lamb.'

The wicked one, what does he say? "What is this service to you?!" He says `to you,' but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied the foundations of our faith. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: "It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt"; `for me' - but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"

The simple son, what does he say? "What is this?" Thus you shall say to him: "With a strong hand the L-rd took us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage."

As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, saying: `It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt.'"

The text of the Haggadah that deals with the four sons is taken directly from the Midrash Mechilta. The midrash is based on the following four verses in the Torah:

1) The Wicked Son - רשע

והיה כי יאמרו אליכם בניכם מה העבודה הזאת לכם, ואמרתם זבח פסח הוא לה'...

And it will come to pass when your children will say to you, “What is the meaning of this service to you ?” And you shall say, “It is a passover offering to G-d …” (Shemot 12:26-27)

2) The Son Who Does Not Know How To Ask - שאינו יודע לשאול

והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים..

And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of this, that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt.” (Shemot 13:8)

3) The Simple Son - תם

והיה כי ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה זאת ואמרת אליו בחזק יד הוציאנו ה' ממצרים ...

And it shall be when your son asks you on the morrow saying, “What is this ?” And you shall say to him, “With a strong hand, the L-rd took us out of Egypt …” (Shemot 13:14)

4) The Wise Son - חכם

כי ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צווה ה' א-לקינו אתכם ואמרת לבנך עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים ויוציאנו ה' ממצרים ביד חזקה…

When your son asks you on the morrow saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that the L-rd our G-d has commanded you ?” And you shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and G-d took us out of Egypt with an outstreched arm…” (Devarim 6:20-21)

1) Finding the Four Sons in the Biblical Text:

One feature of Rabbinic Biblical exegesis is a sensitivity to a lack of parallelism in similar verses. What distinctions in the above four verses enabled the Rabbis to identify each one with a particular son ?

Suggested Answer: In three cases, the child approaches the parent, but in Shemot 13:8, the child does not initiate the conversation. The midrash, therefore, deduces that this is a child that does not know how to ask the question.

In the three remaining verses, where the child initiates the conversation, two ask a question, but one (in Shemot 12:26) makes a statement (כי יאמרו אליכם בניכם). This son, the midrash concludes, is the wicked son who is not questioning, but challenging. This child’s question is detailed, as is the question of the child in Devarim 6:20. The fact, however, that he does not refer to G-d strengthens the midrashic identification. Furthermore, this son is the only one to use the term עבודה to describe the ritual of Pesach. In this way he tries to equate the עבודה inherent in the Pesach service with the עבודה, the oppressive enslavement perpetrated by the Egyptians.

Of the two remaining sons who both ask a question, one (Devarim 6:20) asks a detailed question, and the other (Shemot 13:14) asks a very simple question. On this basis, the midrash identifies the first as the wise son, and the later as the simple son.

2) How Do We Know That The Wicked Son Is Wicked ?

The answer given to the wicked son seems very harsh, emphasizing the use of the word “to you” (לכם) in his question as a negative expression. This response seems unjustified since the wise son also said “to you” (אתכם) in his question1. Many commentaries have tried to identify the critical distinction between the questions of the wise son and the wicked son. The following is the comment of Akeidat Yitzchak (R. Yitzchak Arama):

“In the Haggadah, it is conjecture as to why the Rabbis related the question ‘What is this service to you’ to the wicked son, and said that he excluded himself from the group ? Didn’t the wise son also say, ‘What are the testimonies ... that the L-rd our G-d commanded you ?’ And the use of the expression ‘our G-d’ is not a complete answer, for it is possible that he accepts the existence of G-d, but not the commandments.”

1) What does Arama mean when he refers to “the expression our G-d” ?
2) Can you explain his difficulty alternatively (not using the expression “our G-d”) ? (For help, use Yehoshua Chapter 22:24) Three) The answer given to the wicked son in the midrash is not the same as the answer given in the Torah. Rather it is the answer given to the son who does not know how to ask the question. Why so ?

Suggested Answers

1) Arama is referring to the fact that the wise son included the phrase “the L-rd our G-d” in his question, while the wicked son does not. According to Arama, this is not sufficient evidence to make the distinction between the two sons, particularly since both sons use the phrase “to you” (אתכם, לכם) in their respective questions. He claims that the son in Devarim 6:20 may believe in G-d but not in the mitzvot.

2) Thus, the critical distinction between the wise and wicked sons must be found elsewhere. Arama suggests that the use of the phrase “when your children will say to you” rather than “when your children will ask you” is the indication that this son is interested in undermining and challenging. This interpretation is supported by the verse in Yehoshua 22:24 which uses similar language and expresses a clearly challenging tone: “…in time to come your children will say to our children, saying: ‘What have you to do with the L-rd G-d of Israel ?’” ("מחר יאמרו בניכם לבנינו לאמר מה לכם ולה' א-לקי ישראל")

Three) Once the midrash identified the wicked son as one who is making a challenging declaration rather than an actual question, the serious response given in the Torah seemed inappropriate. The wicked son, in essence is not asking a real question and is thus equated in the answer with the son who does not know how to ask the question. In reality, the Torah itself does not suggest an answer to the wicked son. The response is introduced by the phrase “and you shall say” which indicates a simple declarative statement. In contrast, the response to the other three sons in the Torah is addressed directly to the son, such as “and you shall say to your son”, “and you shall say to him”, or “and you shall tell your son”.

3) The Order of the Sons:

Why does the Haggadah bring the sons in an order that is different from the order in which the corresponding verses appear in the Torah ?

1) Suggested Answer: The midrash seems to bring the sons in order of intellectual ability. The son with the most complex question, the wise son, is mentioned first. Second is his opposite, the wicked son who is also on a high intellectual level, but not truly interested in the answer. After them come the sons who are on lower intellectual levels, the simple son who asks an uncomplicated question followed by the one who cannot even ask.

Harav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik suggested that the criteria determining the order in which the sons are brought in the midrash include their moral level and their level of activism. The sons are actually grouped in two sets of pairs. The first son is a good person who is active in pursuit of knowledge and meaning. His counterpart is actively wicked, openly challenging his parents and the tradition. The third son is also a good person, but less active in pursuit of knowledge. His counterpart, the one who does not ask the question, is actually a wicked child who is passive, so uninterested and uninvolved that he does not even have the ability to ask the question. According to Rav Soloveitchik, this son is not necessarily the young child who is unable to ask questions because of his cognitive level, but rather one who is indifferent. This structure is supported by aspects of the texts of the Torah and the midrash: 1) The wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask the question are connected to each other in the midrash in that they are given the same answer. 2) The wise son and the simple son are connected in the Torah text in that they are the two that ask questions. Similarly, in the references to these two sons, the Torah uses the word מחר (tomorrow). They are the ones who are looking toward the future. This is in contrast to the verse that refers to the son who does not know how to ask the question which uses the term היום (today).

4) The Four Sons – The Pedagogical Principle

Midrash Tanchuma on Shemot 25:

“For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living G-d ...” (Devarim 5:22). You heard His voice and remained alive but the nations of the world hear and die. Come and see how the voice came to Israel, each according to his ability- the elderly heard the voice according to their ability and the young according to their ability, the lads according to their ability, the children according to their ability, the babes according to their ability, the women according to their ability and also Moshe according to his ability, as it is stated (Ex.19:19) “Moshe speaks and G-d answers him in a voice” – in a voice that Moshe could endure. So also, “The voice of the Lord is in strength (Ps.29:4) – it does not say in his strength, but in strength, which each one could endure!

Question: What specific idea do the Mekhilta cited above and this Midrash Tanhuma share?

Suggested Answer: For instruction to be effective it must be variated so that each person receives it on his own level. The Mechilta is based on the pedagogical principle expressed in the Tanchuma.

Nechama: “Students Are Also Considered Like Children”

With regard to the verse "והגדת לבנך" And you shall teach it to your child…”, Nechama recounted the following conversation that she had with a taxi driver:

Driver: You are a teacher (“morah”), aren’t you ? Once upon a time, a teacher was called a “melamed”.
Nechama: No, it is not the same thing.
Driver: What is the difference between a “moreh” and a “melamed” ?
Nechama: A “melamed” is in the category of “From all of my teachers have I learned…” ("מכל מלמדי השכלתי") (Tehillim 119:99). Even from an unruly drunk person one can learn not to drink. In other words, a “melamed” can be anyone. A “moreh”, however, is in the category of the prophetic statement (Yeshayahu 30:20): “But your eyes shall see your teacher, and your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, “This is the way, walk in it…” ("והיו עיניך ראות את מוריך").

1. Nechama noted that the original reading of the Mechilta actually used the term “to us” (אותנו) in the question of the wise son. This seems to be inconsistent with the reading in the Torah. R.David Tzvi Hoffman in וועד לחכמים בית explains that the Torah is written as a third party describing the statement of the son. The Mechilta is describing the actual statement of the son and is therefore accurate in using “to us” (אותנו). This reading would accentuate the difference between the wise son and the wicked son.



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06 Jul 2005 / 29 Sivan 5765 0