Nestled between two major sections of the haggadah is a short and rather puzzling benediction:
The benediction is followed by one of the most commented-upon passages in the haggadah, the Four Children. But what is the significance of the brief benediction inserted at this point? I turn to the words of Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham of Seville; d. 1330):
Since the haggadah’s author needed to put into exegetical play (lidrosh) four Torah verses, each one having a different context, to be applied to the matter of four children, that is why the haggadist introduces this section by blessing God for having given us a complete Torah (torah shelemah).
Ritva’s brief comment displays a profound understanding of midrashic method and its underlying assumptions. The Four Children section of the haggadah goes well beyond the rather straightforward interpretive techniques of simple midrash. In this section, we find a complex four-part mini-drama constructed by assembling four verses that do not necessarily all relate to Passover. In the biblical context, the verses do not suggest an obvious typology of childhood personalities, nor do the parental responses match those responses found in the haggadah. Furthermore—as Ritva observes—the biblical settings differ from the expansive discussion in the Passover seder.
To be specific: The context of the verse assigned to the ḥakham—the learned child—is not the Passover ritual at all, but rather the entire set of commandments. The verse states: “When your child asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?’” (Deuteronomy 6:20). For the so-called wicked child, the question is indeed drawn from the Passover context, concerned with the nature of the paschal sacrifice: “And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’” (Exodus 12:26). But the parent’s response (verse 27) is to recount God’s salvific beneficence to the Israelites in sparing their firstborn. This is markedly different from the haggadah’s response of sharp rebuke (“set his teeth on edge”). The question of the tam, the so-called “simple child,” is drawn from this verse: “So it shall be, when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ that you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’” (Exodus 13:14). The context that triggers the question is not the Passover sacrifice but the commandment to redeem the firstborn. Finally, for the child “who does not know how to ask a question,” the answer is found in the context of the Passover—more precisely the Festival of Matzot: “And you shall tell your child in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt’” (Exodus 13:14). Here, however, the Torah gives no indication that the child being addressed is lacking in any way in intellectual capacity. The label “not knowing how to ask a question” is attributed to the child by the haggadah.
In short, the haggadist has taken four disparate verses and formed an innovative structure that differentiates voices, perspectives, queries, and responses, and then juxtaposes them in a highly creative manner. Such an erudite and deft midrashic construction displays creative confidence, a thorough familiarity with the texts of the Torah as well as the daring and dexterity to combine them in ways previously unseen. As Ritva says, this activity calls for a fresh blessing on the Torah—one that goes beyond mere study of received text and that reflects mastery, boldness, and utter assurance.
Ritva’s phrase “torah shelemah”—complete Torah—deserves further discussion. I believe that he is referring to the multi-vocal, multiperspectival character of the received Torah, the one we see in presentational moments such as hagbahat ha-torah, the lifting up of the Torah in synagogue (either before or after the public reading, depending on local custom). Hagbahah is not simply a functional act associated with unrolling or tying up the parchment of the scroll; it is a presentational act—a ritual moment of displaying the Torah whole, so that the community may gaze, absorb the sacred rays, and declare “Vezot hatorah”—This is the Torah, in Torah’s glorious entirety, shelemah. The declaration is meaningful precisely because the composite nature of the scroll is open for all to behold—in the individual parchment panels held together by stitching and by the open spaces (petuḥot u-setumot) that serve a function comparable to our paragraph markers. This display of the Torah scroll represents the “complete (shelemah) Torah”; it provides a visual for the pastiche work that midrash and aggadah do with the biblical verses and commentary
The haggadah’s Four Children exposition seizes happily—one is tempted to say almost gleefully—on the diversity of voices, so as to construct a pedagogy of diverse questions and responses, based on a classification scheme that categorizes children by disposition, ability, and attitude toward tradition. It should not escape notice that the haggadah provides an ethical frame for telling the Passover story, one that modulates the plain reading of the biblical verses in Exodus. The Four Children passage promotes pedagogy as central to Passover in general, and the seder night specifically. In all, the haggadah is a remarkable exemplar of rabbinic midrash in its most vivid and robust form. It demonstrates a model of polyphony, of the juxtaposition of interconnected yet unmerged voices, without attempting a harmonization or enforcing an erasure of diversity. Just as the blessing leading into this section acknowledges God, the “One Who Spoke.” four times as “blessed” (barukh), so too we are invited into the vitality and blessing of interpreting the “spoken word” of God in the Torah through midrashic play on the Four Children.