The Four Sons

In the modern hagaddah, the famous story of the four sons records the wicked son and the wise son asking very similar questions. This has led to countless hours of arguing at sedarim around the world and an endless number of creative solutions to the problem.

However, the original authors of the baraita had something else in mind. The original baraita, as shown on both the Yerushalmi and the Mekhilta had the wise son using the first person plural, while the wicked son was using the second person. An examination of the sources shows the intent of the original authors, as well as the reasons for the change over time.

The first source for the original baraita of the four sons is the Mechilta - a collection of midrashim on the book of Shemot. The story is very similar to the modern version preserved in the haggadah, but it has some key differences. Pay special attention to the words of the wise son - he uses the first person plural ("us" and "our") when talking. The wicked son does not.

The Four Sons Baraita in the Mechilta

(יד) ...ארבעה בנים הם, אחד חכם ואחד רשע ואחד תם ואחד שאינו יודע לשאול. חכם מה הוא אומר, מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו, אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן. רשע מה הוא אומר, מה העבודה הזאת לכם, לכם ולא לו. ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל כפר בעיקר, אף אתה הקהה את שניו ואמור לו- בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יב). לי ולא לך אילו היית שם, לא היית נגאל....

(14) ...There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask. What does the wise son say? "What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the L-rd our G-d commanded us?" — you, likewise, "open" to him in the halachoth of Pesach — "ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman." What does the wicked son say? (Exodus 12:26) "What is this (Pesach) service to you?" "to you" and not to him. Because he disassociated himself from the congregation and denied the foundation (of the faith), you, likewise, blunt his teeth and tell him (Ibid. 13;8) "Because of this (the mitzvoth) the L-rd wrought for me when I went out of Egypt." For me and not for you. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed....

The second source for this Baraita is the Talmud Yerushalmi. Again, pay attention to the words used by the wise son. He uses inclusive words ("we" and "us") while the wicked son uses exclusive ones ("you"). The wicked son also has an extra line not present in the Mechilta or the haggadah.

The Four Sons Baraita in the Yerushalmi

בן חכם מהו אומר (דברים ו) מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו אף אתה אמור לו (שמות יג) בחזק יד הוציאנו ה' ממצרים מבית עבדים.

What does the wise son say? "'What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?' (Deuteronomy 20:6)" And accordingly you will say to him, "'With the strength of [His] hand did the Lord take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves.' (Exodus 13:14)"

בן רשע מהו אומר (שמות יב) מה העבודה הזאת לכם מה הטורח הזה שאתם מטריחין עלינו בכל שנה ושנה מכיון שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל אף אתה אמור לו (שם) בעבור זה עשה ה' לי לי עשה לאותו האיש לא עשה.
What does the evil son say? "'What is this worship to you?' (Exodus 12:26) What is this toil that you make us toil each and every year?" Since he excluded himself from the collective, accordingly you say to him, "'For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me.' (Exodus 13:8) 'For me' did He do and not for 'that man.'
אילו היה אותו האיש במצרים לא היה ראוי להגאל משם לעולם.
If 'that man' had been there, he would not have been worthy of ever being saved from there."

Finally there is the version of the story which is most familiar to modern readers - the version found in the haggadah. This version has the wise son using similar language to the wicked son ("you"), which is what causes so much confusion at so many sedarim.

The First Two Sons in the Haggadah

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן:

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם. לָכֶם - וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: "בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם". לִי וְלֹא-לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:

What does the wise [son] say? "What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?" And accordingly you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, "We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice. (Mishnah Pesachim 10:8)"

What does the evil [son] say? "What is this worship to you?" 'To you' and not 'to him.' And since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt his teeth and say to him, "'For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt' (Exodus 13:8)." 'For me' and not 'for him.' If he had been there, he would not have been saved.

The obvious question becomes why was the language of the wise son modified. To answer that we need to go back to the pesukim in the Torah from which the words of the four sons were drawn.

The wise son's source text

(כ) כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. (כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יהוה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה.

(20) When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: ‘What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD our God hath commanded you? (21) then thou shalt say unto thy son: ‘We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.

The Wicked son's source text

(כו) וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם. (כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהוה אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ.

(26) And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean ye by this service? (27) that ye shall say: It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.’ And the people bowed the head and worshipped.

In the text of the Torah, the pasuk in Devarim from which the wise son's question is drawn uses the word "you". As the haggadah was compiled, the baraita of the four sons was changed to match the text of the Torah, which created the confusion we have today.

There is a final mystery to be solved though - why did the original baraita not preserve the phrasing of the Torah? The presence of two sources, one Talmudic and one midrashic, that preserve the wise son asking his question in the plural seems to suggest that there was at least a tradition that the pasuk in Devarim 6:20 could or should be interpreted that way. A non-rabbinic source also stregnthens this argument. The Septaugint, a 2-3rd century Greek translation of the Tanach translates Devarim 6:20 with the word "us" instead of "you".

καὶ ἔσται ὅταν ἐρωτήσῃ σε ὁ υἱός σου αὔριον λέγων τί ἐστιν τὰ μαρτύρια καὶ τὰ δικαιώματα καὶ τὰ κρίματα ὅσα ἐνετείλατο κύριος ὁ θεὸςἡμῶν ἡμῖν

And it shall come to pass when thy son shall ask thee at a future time, saying, What are the testimonies, and the ordinances, and the judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us?

This sheet analyzes just the difference in wording between the wise and wicked sons. There is much more to discover though! You can click on any of the sources cited here to read them in their entirety. There are a number of differences between the original versions of the baraita found in the Mechilta and the Yerushalmi and the version in the haggadah, many of which will surely spark lively Pesach night conversation. Some differences include the answers given to the wise and simple son, and the name of the simple son himself.

חג כשר ושמח