The Four Children “on one foot”:
In the Maggid section of the Passover Seder, we read about four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask. Sometimes these are referred to as “The Four Sons”, but the Hebrew word banim could mean "sons" or "children" and there is no need to exclude half of the Jewish people.
Context: This is from the Passover Haggadah, in the Maggid section. It comes after “Ma Nishtana” (which is based on the Mishnah saying that if your child asks why this night is different then you should tell them, and if they don’t know how to ask then you should teach them to say the ‘Ma Nishtana’ - Mishnah Pesachim 10:4), and then after the Haggadah says that it is praiseworthy to talk about the Exodus from Egypt.
It should be noted that Pirkei Avot 3:14 refers to the Jews as “children of ‘the Place’ " (not that it says others aren’t also G-d’s children). The author of the Haggadah may have had that in mind when crafting this section.
Additionally, the Biblical Book of Proverbs says that one should teach a child according to their way (22:6), and this may have been consciously or sub-consciously on the mind of the author of the part of the Haggadah (or its source texts). Similarly, the Mishnah says that according to the abilities of the child do you teach them about the Exodus (Pesachim 10:4).
When the Haggadah says “One” before each of the children, some see this as an allusion to the Shema (Deut. 6:4) and the very end of Aleinu (Zachariah 14:9) where G-d is described as “One” / “Echad”. The idea would be that the spark of G-d is in each of these children.
Because there are 4 times that the Torah says that you should tell your child about Passover, the rabbis assumed that this must be 4 different types of children who were getting 4 different answers. Otherwise, the Torah could have said this once and been done with it.
We know that children are different. If you were to say “There are 4 types of children”, which 4 would you choose?
Context: This is the traditional tune for “Baruch HaMakom”. The tune was composed by Reuven Kenigsberg, for the “Awaken” album of the Neginah Orchestra in 1971. For more information about “Baruch HaMakom”, check out this video from Jewish Music Toronto: https://youtu.be/En9Ina7ZUSU
Step 1: The Biblical Source Texts
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right after the instructions are given for the first Passover (painting the doorposts with blood and such) and right before the Death of the Firstborn plague actually happens.
Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, after the Israelites were freed from slavery and Moses told them to keep the holiday of Passover every year.
Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?
Context: This comes a few verses later, right around the first time that the commandment of Tefillin is given.
According to the Torah (Ex. 13:2, 13:12, Num. 3:13, 18:15-16), the first-born of everything belongs to G-d, including first fruits. Since G-d has no body, the way this works is that G-d gets the pleasing smells (basically of holy barbecue) and the priests with their families get to eat the meat, grains, and “fruits” (includes vegetables) that the Israelites bring. This is because the priests don’t get their own portion of land (Num. 18:20), so they are dependent on the Israelites to bring them food. The donkey was the only non-kosher domesticated animal that the Israelites had, so it got redeemed with a sheep (as in, you gave the sheep to the priests and kept the donkey). Originally, the first borns were the ones who were supposed to serve G-d, but after they succumbed to the idolatry at the Golden Calf and the Levites didn’t, the Levites got the job and the first-born non-Levites had to be redeemed with “the money equivalent of 5 shekels” (Num. 18:15-16). This is why you don’t have a pidyon haben if you are a Kohen or Levite.
Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy, right after the Shema and V’Ahavta.
Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?
Step 2: The Mechilta
Context: The Mechilta (circa 200s CE in Israel ) is an early book of Midrash (Rabbinic interpretation), in this case focused on the Book of Exodus. Similar to how the Gemara takes apart the Mishnah and examines it phrase by phrase, Midrash does that to the Torah and the Megillot. In this case, the verse in question is Exodus 13:14, which starts “If your child asks you tomorrow…”. Since there were times where the Hebrew word for “tomorrow” (“Machar”) might have actually meant “today” (Exodus 17:9), this needed to be discussed. It seemed that a clear case of “Machar” actually meaning “in the future” was Deut. 6:20, another source verse for The Four Children, and this leads us into the first discussion of The Four Children.
Note that in the Mechilta, its version of The Wise Child’s verse uses an interpretation from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Torah by 70 scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 100s CE) which says “Commanded us”, unlike the traditional Masoritic text that says “commanded you”.
Here’s how the verses line up in the Mechilta:
Wise Child - Question = Deut. 6:20; Answer = Mishnah Pesachim 10:8
Wicked Child - Question = Ex. 12:26; Answer = Ex. 13:8
Simple Child - Question = Ex. 13:14; Answer = Ex. 13:14
Can’t Ask Child - Question = None; Answer = Ex. 13:8
For the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask (and also The Wise Child in this version), the Mechilta says that you are supposed to open for them. How would you go about doing that?
Step 3: The Jerusalem Talmud
Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, commenting on the Mishnah and finishing around the year 400 CE. It is after the Mechilta was written, so it seems to be in conversation with that text. In the Jerusalem Talmud, we get an attribution of this section to Rabbi Hiyya, a student of Rabbi Judah HaNasi. There were 3 Rabbi Hiyyas; this one was probably Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, not Rabbi Hiyya the Great, or Rabbi Hiyya bar Yoseph, since only Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was called "Rabbi Hiyya". This lines up with the timeline of the Mechilta.
Note that in the Jerusalem Talmud, The Wise Child’s verse (Deut. 6:20) is still using “commanded us”, not “commanded you”.
Here’s how the verses line up in the Jerusalem Talmud:
Wise Child - Question = Deut. 6:20; Answer = Ex. 13:14
Wicked Child - Question = Ex. 12:26; Answer = Ex. 13:8
Stupid Child - Question = Ex. 13:14; Answer = Mishnah Pesachim 10:8
Can’t Ask Child - Question = Ex. 13:8 (allusion, since the verse doesn’t say that your child will ask you); Answer = Not in the Torah
How do you feel about the change from “The Simple Child” to “The Stupid Child”? Adopt, Adapt, or Abolish that change?
“The Wicked Child” has an extra line only found in the Jerusalem Talmud - “What is the exertion which you impose on us every year?” When have you felt like The Wicked Child when it comes to preparing for Passover?
The Jerusalem Talmud and the Haggadah switch the answers for the Wise and Simple Children. Which do you prefer?
Step 4: The Modern Haggadah
Context: This is from the Haggadah in use today. The Haggadah used to be a supplement to the siddur (as in Saadia Gaon’s siddur of the 900s) before becoming a stand-alone text in the 1300s with the Birds’ Head Haggadah (1300ish, Ashkenazi), Golden Haggadah (1320, Sephardi), and Sarajevo Haggadah (1350, Sephardi). The text of the Haggadah evolved over time, starting with 40 CE when Rabban Gamliel said that one must mention Pesach, Matzah, and Maror, until the late 1400s when “Chad Gadya” and “Echad Mi Yodea” are added. For more about the fascinating evolution of the Haggadah, see here: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/pb-daily/a-brief-history-of-the-haggadah
Note that in the modern Haggadah, The Wise Child’s verse is now using the traditional Masoritic text (set in the 800s, after the Mechilta and Jerusalem Talmud), so the verse now reads “commanded you”.
Here’s how the verses line up in the Haggadah:
Wise Child - Question = Deut. 6:20; Answer = Mishnah Pesachim 10:8
Wicked Child - Question = Ex. 12:26; Answer = Ex. 13:8
Simple Child - Question = Ex. 13:14; Answer = Ex. 13:14
Can’t Ask Child - Question = None; Answer = Ex. 13:8
What do you take from the fact that “the Wicked Child” and “The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask” get the same answer?
What do you take from the fact that both “The Wise Child” and “The Wicked Child” ask about “you” getting commanded, but only “The Wicked Child” takes heat for it?
Other Ways of Getting at the Same Idea
The Ballad of the Four Sons
(to the tune of "Clementine")
written by Ben Aronin in 1948
Said the father to the children
"At the Seder you will dine,
You will eat your fill of matzoh,
You will drink four cups of wine."
Now this father had no daughters,
But his sons they numbered four,
One was wise, and one was wicked,
One was simple and a bore.
And the fourth was sweet and winsome,
He was young and he was small,
While his brothers asked the questions,
He could scarcely speak at all.
Said the wise one to his father
"Would you please explain the laws.
Of the customs of the Seder
Will you please explain the cause?"
And the father proudly answered
"As our fathers ate in speed,
Ate the Pascal lamb 'ere midnight,
And from slavery were freed"
"So we follow their example,
And 'ere midnight must complete,
All the Seder, and we should not
After twelve remain to eat."
Then did sneer the son so wicked,
"What does all this mean to you?"
And the father's voice was bitter
As his grief and anger grew.
"If yourself you don't consider,
As a son of Israel
Then for you this has no meaning,
You could be a slave as well!"
Then the simple son said softly,
"What is this?" and quietly
The good father told his offspring
"We were freed from slavery."
But the youngest son was silent,
For he could not speak at all,
His bright eyes were bright with wonder
As his father told him all.
Now, dear people, heed the lesson
And remember evermore,
What the father told his children
Told his sons who numbered four!
Context: Ben Aronin was the Educator of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He was known as “Uncle Ben” to everybody and also did the Bar and Bat-Mitzvah tutoring for everybody. Uncle Ben wrote many books, plays, songs (like “The Latke Ditty”, which is to the tune of “Oh Chanukah Oh Chanukah” and starts “Each Chanukah we glorify brave Judas Maccabeus” - https://youtu.be/v1A8v8Xz2sM), and even city-wide pageants. This song was written in 1948 and published in his Haggadah in 1954.
Which version works for you better, the traditional text or the song? Why?
Context: This video was produced by BimBam - the makers of “G-dcast” and “Shaboom!”
Do you get more out of the text in the Haggadah or this video? Why?
The “Which of the Four Children Are You” Quiz
Context: This was published by BuzzFeed in 2015.
Which child were you?
Appendix A: Artistic Renderings of The Four Children Throughout History
From the "A Different Night" Haggadah by Noam Zion
Kippah tip to Rabbi Marina Yergin, and to Loren Berman for the questions
Which one(s) speak to you, and why?
The Four Children in Art
- What do you notice?
- How do the artists understand the children?
- Who is who, and why?
- How do the different children relate to one another?
- What Jewish story is being told in this piece?
Prague Haggadah, 1526
The woodcut figures represent adult types. The wicked "child" is the soldier dressed in showy clothes with a feather in his ornate hat. His body language expresses arrogant self-assuredness and almost bursts the framework of the picture, while his black sword pierces the woodcut frame at a threatening diagonal. This figure has effectively read himself out of his people by assimilating to the military culture of Europe. By contrast, the wise "child" is represented by an elderly scholar whose body is smaller and weaker than that of the soldier. The simple child submissively points and gazes downward while the questionless child is wholy absorbed in the parent's story.
Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695
This is the first illustrated Haggadah to arrange pictures of the four children in one image. The artist is a convert from Christianity named Abraham ben Jacob. These copper-plate engravings are copied from various paintings of the Swiss Christian artist Matthaeus Merian. The wise child is a copy of Hannibal the general of Carthage as he swears to conquer Rome. The wicked child is simply a Roman soldier. The simple child is Merian's King Saul as a bashful young man about to be anointed by the prophet Samuel. The youngest child is another version of Hannibal. As in many medieval Haggadot the children are represented by adult types. The wicked stereotype is as usual the soldier who represents evil in two senses — the spilling of blood and the anti-type to the medieval Jewry with its scholarly and merchant traditions. The body position of the soldier reflects dynamism though a lack of stability, while the wise "Hannibal" stands confidently and commands attention. The simple "Saul" is closed within himself as he relies on the staff for support. The child who does not know how to ask is childlike only in the sense that he is the smallest of the four figures, although his hands open as if asking a question.
The Immigrant Family, Chicago Haggadah, 1879
Here the generation gap between Eastern European immigrants to the U.S.A. and their assimilated wicked son is foremost. Having adopted new-fangled American ways, the son smokes, dresses in black clothes with a modish cut and dances on his tilted chair. He takes the initiative in attacking his parents with an accusatory finger as if to say derisively, "what is this ritual for you?" The simple and the silent children, distinguished only by their hand motions, are mesmerized by the wicked son who sits at the head of the table holding forth. The other three figures — mother, bearded father and wise child with kippa — are dressed traditionally in pale white. Their body language bespeaks paralysis, passivity and lack of communication. The conversation is dominated by the three children in black, all with uncovered heads and backs turned. The family is divided culturally and generationally. Only the wise child identifies with the old ways.
The Boxer as Rasha, 1920, illustrated by Lola
The wicked child is a new kind of soldier. The culture of the naked physique, of sports, of the aggressive boxer is contrasted with a middle class seated scholar with a tie, glasses and a book. The passivity and introspection of the intellectual whose head is supported by his arm reflects the defensive status of traditional Jewish culture, when contrasted with the rise of American sports and perhaps contemporary Zionist youth movements that praised the values of the body. For example, two in a series of great Jewish boxers of this era were "Battling Levinsky" (nee Barney Lebrowitz, light heavy weight, 1916-1920) and Al McCoy (see Albert Rudolph, middle weight, 1914-1917) (E.J. 15:305).
German Expressionism: Jakob Steinhardt, 1923
The woodcut reflects post World War One "expressionism." Strong feelings are expressed in nonrealistic distorted facial expressions. Born in Poland and living through the horrors of war and the breakdown of traditional society, Steinhardt transforms the Prussian soldier with his pointed helmet and sword, the hero of his new land — into the wicked type whose face is graced with a bizarre smile. The wise type is smaller than the soldier, yet holding his book and pointing heavenward, he tries to reason with the soldier. The simple type wears a dunce hat and a ridiculous facial expression. The wise man points aloft to God, while the wicked soldier points at the simple one, reflecting a derisive attitude.
Istvan Zador, Four Children, Budapest, 1924
Abandoning the medieval types and their identifying props (sword and book), Zador shows faces differentiated only by their expressions and the position of their hands. His wise type may even be a woman — the only woman among the illustrations of the Four Children in any of the Haggadot before the rise of Jewish feminism. Her wisdom is reflected not in bookishness but in a pained expression of deep thought concentrated in the forehead. The wicked type raises a cynical eyebrow as he leans on his fist and half smiles self-contentedly. The third and fourth figures are more childlike in dress with wrinkleless foreheads. The open eyes, open mouth and raised eyebrows of the simple one express interest and astonishment.
Minimalism: Otto Geismar (Germany, 1927)
Geismar uses Jugendstil minimalism with its very simple strong lines to draw characters by means of their bodily contours. The wise type is classically engrossed in books as he leans his covered head on his arm; the wicked type is dynamic, interactive and unbalanced (as in the Amsterdam and Chicago Haggadot). The outstretched fingers before the face suggest that he is taunting the wise type. The third and fourth children are differentiated by their open or closed posture (hands and feet).
Arthur Szyk, Poland, 1939
The four figures epitomize the Jewish cultural and class struggles in interwar Poland. The wise figure is a delicate intelligent yeshiva "bochur" (unmarried student) dressed traditionally yet meticulously. His body language expresses the grace and modesty of the Torah student ideally understood as an intellectual and religious aristocrat. In contrast, the wicked figure is a middle-aged bourgeois Jew dressed to show off his aspirations to Western European modernity. While the wise student has no props, not even a book, the wicked figure sports a riding crop, a cigarette with cigarette holder, and a stylish monocle. He is dressed in a hunting outfit with a jaunty Tyrollian hat with a feather, an ascot around his neck, silk gloves and sharp spurs on his leather boots. His stance is self-confident, self-contained and arrogant in contrast to the simpleton who is fat and smiling, opening himself to the world trustingly with arms and legs spread out.
While the simpleton is still traditionally dressed with a small tallis, the one who does not even know how to ask is a worker dressed poorly, wearing proletarian boots, without any visible link to Jewish tradition. His contemplative expression suggests that his direction in life is not yet determined.
Nota Koslowsky, U.S.A., 1944
Koslowsky, like Freeman and Oren below, portray the Four Children as children in age and dress. Here the wise child (with a bourgeois tie) takes cover behind his desk and screens the world out with his hand. He is studious but cloistered. The wicked child dominates the field because he stands and gestures demonstratively. His riding crop, a bottle of liquor, cigarettes and an open shirt represent an angry bohemian revolt. His body language is dismissive and his neck is twisted uncomfortably. The other children are merely absorbed in eating.
Socialist Zionism — Tzvi Livni, Israel, 1955
This Haggadah expresses the newly triumphant Zionist socialist pioneering spirit of the early years of the State of Israel. Unlike medieval haggadot, the four children are actually children - young adolescents. Israeli Zionism placed an inordinate emphasis on the young who would sweep away the old ways. Therefore the hearts and minds of the adolescent generation must be won over to ideologically motivated pioneering. In each drawing the questioning child is juxtaposed to the parental answer portrayed by the objects displayed.
a. The wise child who still holds the traditional symbol — the book — is dressed as a pioneering member of the Kibbutz. His answer follows roughly the traditional answer — "Tell the wise son the laws of Pesach." Yet these Jewish symbols may also be understood in a nationalist spirit: The menorah is the symbol of the State of Israel, the ten commandments are the moral common denominator of Jews and the Pesach plate symbolizes national historical memory. Most anomalous is the lulav which belongs ritually to Sukkot, not Pesach. It may well symbolize the agricultural revival of the land of Israel so central to Zionist socialist ideology and so glaringly absent from the traditional seder. Generally the answer to the wise child represents not a rebellion against Jewish tradition, but its accommodation to the spirit of modern Jewish nationalism.
b. The wicked child is the city slicker "gussied up" with a fancy handkerchief and a tie. His cynical question — "What is all this 'avodah' to you?" is reinterpreted. While "avodah" in the traditional Haggadah refers to "services," the "cultic" rites of the seder, here it is translated as pioneering "agricultural" work, of making the desert bloom along with the military defense of the land represented by the towers. Towers and stockades were built overnight in the illegal settlements erected by the Zionists in the late 1930's in defiance of the British colonial government.
c. The simple child wonders about mass immigration to Israel typical of the 1950's when the population doubled. He is answered by the traditional and the modem Haggadah: "God brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Zionists felt they were reliving the original exodus.
d. The child who does not know how to ask is ironically and pointedly the anti-Zionist Orthodox child with peot (sidelocks). While in the medieval iconography he would have been the epitome of the wise and observant child, here he is demoted to "ignorant child," knowing nothing of the flora and fauna of Eretz Yisrael and of the "book of knowledge" of Jewish national history and general education. The artist regards it as a matter not of age or of personality but of indoctrination that the most traditional child is least able to ask questions about the changing world around him.
Clashing Cultures: Siegmund Forst, Europe & U.S.A., 1958-59
Siegmund Forst introduces his illustrated Haggadah in the following way: "This . . . old Jewish book . . . speaks of sorrow and hope . . . It appears in contemporary dress, illustrated by one who himself has suffered the flames and escaped them" (1941). The central Jewish cultural conflict in these drawings lies between the Jewish socialist revolutionary and his elderly ultra-orthodox Eastern European forebearers.
In the 1958 version, the wise old man lives by his faith in God and the Torah but his age and his defensive posture reflect his threatened status in a changing world. He looks worriedly to Heaven for salvation. The wicked bespectacled, self-hating intellectual tramples the Torah displaying an adolescent resentment against the old, dying order. The simpleton dressed in a business suit and the child without questions wearing his American baseball cap provide an attentive audience. For Forst, the Jewish revolutionary has displaced the soldier as the representative of the wicked child. Forst did not see the socialists as a legitimate continuation of the Jewish ideal of liberation from bondage that was born in the exodus from Egypt.
In the 1959 version the wicked revolutionary who raises his ax against the Ten commandments resembles Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronshtein), a Marxist leader of the Bolshevik revolution (1917). The simple child is a sports fan who loves gambling and smoking, while the fourth child is a passive worker.
Paul Freeman, Four Children with Animals, 1960
Freeman, like Koslowsky and Oren, portrays the Four Children as children in age and dress. Freeman creates an orientalist flavor. Identifying each child with an animal he distinguishes them by personality traits. The wise child is colorfully dressed, and open to the world. Located under a tree with an owl, he is not at all bookish or reclusive even though he holds a book and expounds. The wicked child is identified with the aggressive snake in the Garden of Eden. His body language is closed and defiant and his clothing dark and foreboding in color. The simple child is epitomized by the sheep that follows blindly, while the fourth child sleeps beside a mother goose.
Shraga Weil: Four Children, Four Musicians
(Israel, ©1963 Safrai Gallery)
The Four Children are portrayed as a quartet of musicians, each with his own instrument: the wise, with a shofar (for announcing the coming of the messiah as Elijah is depicted in medieval haggadot); the wicked, with a drum (typical of soldiers marching to war); the simple, with a horn; the one who does not know how to ask, with rattles (typical of a child). The quartet are formed from basic geometric shapes: wise and wicked — circles; simple — square; fourth child— triangle and circle. The wise character is portrayed as a bearded wise man wearing a striped tallit as well as the priestly breast plate. The wicked one is a metal military machine whose armor is his body (head as a helmet with eyes, legs as stove pipes). The simple one is identified with Noah who is called "simple" (tameem), meaning wholly righteous. Above his head is the dove with an olive branch. His striped cloak may recall Joseph's coat, the sign of being chosen. The fourth figure is the only child here (smaller in stature and dressed as a child without shoes).
Dan Reisinger: Four Aspects in Each of Us (Israel, © 1982 Rabbinical Assembly of America)
While the Middle Ages offered a world view with clear types — wise and wicked — the contemporary view is dubious about stereotypes and judgmental categories applied to human beings. Each person is a somewhat chaotic mixture of all the categories. The artist has used a collage of torn colored papers whose outlines are not sharp, which overlap haphazardly and whose colors and nongeometric shapes interact in complex ways. It is probably impossible to label these four collages according to the four categories of the Haggadah.
Perhaps Reisinger was thinking of the famous quote from Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (19th C, Lithuania and Germany): "Each of us contains all aspects of all four children" — each of us is a unique and changing collage.
These images are a featured part of the Rabbinical Assembly (U.S.A. Conservative movement) haggadah, "A Feast of Freedom."
The Four Children as Four Books:
The Haggadah in Memory of the Holocaust, ©1988
The four children in The Haggadah in Memory of the Holocaust reflect different attitudes towards Jewish tradition as symbolized by a book for we are "the people of the book," in the phrase coined by the Muslims. For the wise child, Judaism is an open book with letters to be read and studied. For the wicked child, the tradition burns up as it is destroyed. The association with Nazi book burning is chilling. For the simple child the book is open since he asks questions, but the child himself is still blank, still unlearned. Finally, for the fourth child, Judaism is a closed book. This child awaits someone to "open" the book and the pupil to one another as the Haggadah advises "You will open up" the Exodus story for the child who does not even know how to ask.
A Teen Looks at Israeli Society:
2 Views from Tanya Zion (1994 and 1996)
Tanya Zion, an Israeli teenager from a religious Zionist family (and daughter of Noam Zion, author of A Different Night) offers two portraits of Israeli society using Four Children. In 1994 she looked at both choices and no choices. Most provocative is her view of the Child Who Does Not Know How To Ask — ultra-orthodox youth, who are taught NOT to ask critical questions about his relation to Zionism, to Western culture or to Torah. In 1996 she looked at choices for girls as role models change.
The Blessing of Diversity:
David Moss, The Moss Haggadah, ©1996
The artist and calligrapher David Moss explains his depiction of the Four Children:
Every child is unique and the Torah embraces them all. The iconography that I've chosen here is based on playing cards. As in a game of chance, we have no control over the children dealt us. It is our task as parents, as educators, to play our hand based on the attributes of the children we are given. It is the child, not the parent, who must direct the process. This, I believe, is the intent of the midrash of the four children.
Each child's question appears on his card, and the Haggadah's answer appears below the card. The gold object in each picture denotes the suit of the card. The staves, swords, cups and coins used in Southern Europe developed parallel to the more familiar hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades of Northern Europe. The figures are likewise taken from archaic systems of playing cards which included king, knight, page, and joker or fool. The king image here represents the wise child wearing the crown of Torah. The knight represents the wicked child. In almost all old haggadot the wicked child is shown as a soldier, sometimes mounted, sometimes on foot. The page is the simple child, and the joker or fool is the child who is not even capable of asking.
I got the idea of representing the children as cards, by the way, from the tradition dating from the Middle Ages of depicting the simple child, or the child who doesn't know how to ask, as a jester or fool. I drew a book in each picture and positioned it to reflect each child's attitude to the tradition.
The text of the Haggadah introduces the four children with a short passage in which the word baruch (blessed) appears four times. I have designed these two pages to correlate each of these four "blessings" with one of the four children: every child is a blessing.
Diversity, how we deal with it, and how we can discover the blessing within it, is perhaps the theme of the midrash of the Four Children.
(David Moss, 20th C. artist, U.S.A. and Israel)
Appendix B: The Fifth Child
Kippah tips to Rabbi Marina Yergin and Loren Berman, plus Paul Wieder of the April 2022 "Jewish Chicago" magazine
Which of these resonate with you? Are there others you would add?
If we say "Let all who are hungry come and eat", what is the 5th child hungry for that would entice them to come?
The Assimilated Child
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested in 1957 that there is a fifth child on Pesach. The four children of the Haggadah are all present, sitting round the table. The fifth child is the one who is not there, the child lost through outmarriage and assimilation. Rabbinic tradition tells us that in Egypt, many Jews assimilated and did not want to leave. The Torah uses a phrase to describe the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, Vachamushim alu bnei Yisrael miMitzrayim (Exodus 13: 18). This is normally translated as ‘The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.’ However Rashi, citing earlier authorities, suggests that hamush may not mean ‘armed.’ Instead it may be related to the word hamesh, ‘five’. The sentence could therefore be translated as, ‘Only a fifth of the Israelites left Egypt.’
The rest, he explains, perished in the plague of darkness. The plague itself was less an affliction of the Egyptians than a way of covering the shame of the Israelites, that so many of their number did not want to leave. The loss of Jews through assimilation has been an ongoing tragedy of Jewish history. How do we allude to it on seder night? By silence: the fifth child – the one who is not there.
-- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z"l https://rabbisacks.org/the-missing-fifth-an-extract-from-rabbi-sacks-haggada/
Modern society has had an impact upon the Jewish people: today we have yet another son. The son who does not even attend a seder.
Yes, it is true. There are many Jews out there who are not going to attend a seder this Passover. They can be put into three basic categories: 1) They have no place to attend. 2) They do not care to attend. 3) They do not know of Passover or its seder.
Just as there are answers for the Four Sons, there must be answers for this fifth son as well.
For those who have nowhere to attend, we must aggressively advertise the invitation found within the Haggadah, "All those who are hungry, let them come and eat! Whoever is in need, let him come and partake of the Passover!"
Those who do not know that it is Passover or that there is such a thing as a seder are perhaps the most worrisome of the groups. Most likely, they do not have the fond memories of Passovers past. They are, in fact, in danger of losing their Jewish identity altogether, G‑d forbid. As Jews, we are all responsible for the welfare of one another. We must therefore endeavor to introduce these people to their great inheritance, the Torah, the grandeur of their Judaism. If we should happen to see a person drowning, we would dive in to save him/her without thinking twice. We must, without delay, "pull out all of the stops" to rescue those who need us most!
Let us aggressively seek out the Fifth Son, wherever or whoever she or he might be. Every lost Jew we bring back into the family may be compared to the discovery of a lost treasure of incalculable value.
It is not enough to just set an extra place at the seder table. Not any more. We must fill the extra place with a warm body. We can then fill that warm body with the warmth that is Judaism.
The Child of Potential
One of the most familiar parts of the Passover Seder is the four sons/children. These children represent the different places in which people come to the Seder: knowing and wise; selfish (or wicked); simple (or not knowing); and the fourth is silent as he or she doesn’t know what to ask and is just taking everything in. However, this breakdown doesn’t include a fifth child missing from the Seder, whether we give voice to him or her or not. The fifth child is the child of potential: the child that those struggling with infertility are working to create or the child that almost was, but the pregnancy ended before its completion.
The biggest difference in the Passover Seder from other Jewish observances is that it isn’t expected to occur in a synagogue within a large Jewish population. It occurs in homes across the world with families and friends gathering to retell the story. People come to this holiday in all different places and spaces in life: managing their own struggles whatever they might be. As 1 in 8 couples experience infertility and 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss, it would be foolish to assume that someone struggling with these issues isn’t attending a Seder with you. These struggles tend to be silent and invisible, especially within our holiday structure.
The idea of a fifth child is not a new one. In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe famously spoke about the fifth son of the Pesach Seder, but in doing so, was referring to Jews who had lost their faith and strayed from being Jewish. This idea has been one that my friend Rabbi Uri Topolosky has adopted and spoken about. He includes this fifth child at his Passover Seder, but not only as the child that has lost his or her Jewish way, but also as the child that is unformed and unable to physically be at the table.
Infertility and pregnancy loss are devastating experiences that are far too common and hidden. Giving them voice can be considered to be a great act of loving-kindness since many who struggle yearn to talk about it, but are unsure how others will respond. Many people attempt to say well-intentioned refrains such as, “Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant;” “G-d only gives you what you can handle;” “This is part of G-d’s plan for you” or “Why not adopt?” Hearing such advice often has the opposite effect. Rather than connecting, these comments make people who are on a fertility journey or grieving pregnancy loss want to retreat and isolate. It confirms that others aren’t able to put themselves in their shoes or understand their pain, and reinforces the need to stay quiet about these experiences.
Including the “fifth child” at Seder reaffirms that families experiencing infertility or pregnancy losses are seen, not only by family and friends, but also by their religion. Ways to include the “fifth child” at your Seder:
The story of Passover leads to the Jews wandering for 40 years in the desert, searching for the Land of Israel. This parallels the journey of a couple struggling to build their family: looking forward with hope, waiting for it to happen, potentially lots of false turns, wondering if or when their family will be complete, until (we pray) they reach their “promised land” of fulfilling the dream to parent. Whatever their promised land turns out to be, may they have a voice at the table. Let their hopes to tell the Passover story to their children be recognized.
In honor of this fifth child or for the many other reasons people may be missing from the Passover Table, considering asking a fifth question: who is missing from our Seder?
- Julie Bindeman https://hasidah.org/the-fifth-child-at-the-seder/
The Addicted Child
The Haggadah gives us clear instructions on how to talk to the four different sons at the seder table. But what about the fifth child, the addicted son or daughter who is just not able to get free? How can we feast on foods that symbolize the stages of liberation and the miracles when our own child acts on compulsions that are the opposite of freedom? How do we talk to this child?
Our addicted son or daughter, spouse or sibling, is the most enslaved of us all. Addiction is the antithesis of freedom (although for the addict it does seemingly present a “solution,” an escape from emotional, physical, and mental pain). For most of us, our experience of stress or emotional pain is uncomfortable but bearable. We have different resources to deal with the ups and downs of life. But for addicts, the only solution is to to numb themselves from inner and outer torment...
Let us also think about the sixth son or daughter who is not at our seder because he or she is in recovery. Next year this child will be at our seder, fully present and celebrating the freedom that comes after the struggle of a lifetime — a struggle that few people can understand. The sixth child is undergoing the miracle of healing and recovery, and next year will meet us again, whole, healthy, and free.
Shoshana Schwartz, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/which-child-is-missing-from-the-passover-seder/
The Estranged Child
One of the best-known elements of the Passover seder relates to four children – smart, rebellious, simple, and not sure how to ask questions. In today’s fractured society, another person is all too often missing from the seder table. That fifth child is actually an adult…a member of the family with whom we have little contact. This is the relative, who, for whatever reason, we don’t speak to.
Maybe there were disagreements over choices people made, or money, or who knows what. Over time, alas, positions hardened, and now relatives, or entire branches of families, no longer speak to one another. These family feuds can go on for years, decades, even lifetimes, if no one speaks up.
In today’s crazy world, the split might have been over politics. In the past, when it came to political differences, most people could “agree to disagree.” Today, unfortunately, a bitter divide exists along political lines in our society, and relationships, marriages, and even families have broken up over differing political views.
Or maybe it was a personal matter, in which one member of a family said or did something that at least one other person found unacceptable. Maybe A didn’t like B’s choice of mate, or career, or approach to raising his or her children. Maybe it was an offhand, hurtful comment that created deep emotional injury. Maybe the comment was offhand and was meant to hurt. But now, for whatever reason, the principals in this drama aren’t speaking and everyone else in the family has had to choose sides.
Perhaps the dispute had to do with religious beliefs—one member of the family married someone with a different religious, ethnic, or racial background, or perhaps there was an action like infidelity, bankruptcy, or who knows what that one member of the family, or the entire family could not stomach.
Sad to say, this scenario plays out all too often, and these disputes take on lives of their own. There are probably 10th generation Hatfields out there who still have it in for 10th generation McCoys. But while those sorts of family feuds are the stuff of history or fiction, there are plenty of real family battles that have gone on for years and appear to have no end in sight.
This Passover, it’s time to end those battles. Not to get depressing, but everybody dies. Everybody. This includes the relatives with whom you may be having a longstanding disagreement. There are few feelings worse than realizing that a parent or sibling with whom you had an ongoing, simmering dispute is now dead and gone and that problem can no longer be resolved.
Is any disagreement worth it?
One message of Passover is humility, that God runs the world, and that our own egos can keep us from connecting deeply with God and our fellow humans. The shift from bread to matzo symbolizes this point. Bread puffs itself up as if to say, look how great I am. Matzah, on the other hand, is referred to as lehem oni, poor man’s bread, lacking in the slightest shred of ego.
The problem is that everyone’s waiting for everyone else to take the all-important first step. This Passover, break the cycle.
Ego itself stands for “edging God out”, for believing that we, like Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle, are the rulers of all we see. Of course, we all know what happened to Yertle.
If Passover asks us to set aside our egos and recognize that Something greater than ourselves is in charge, why can’t we set aside our ego-based disputes with family members or friends and put those disputes where they belong—in the past?
The problem is that everyone’s waiting for everyone else to take the all-important first step.
Passover celebrates the Israelites’ miraculous escape from Egyptian bondage, the splitting and crossing of the Reed Sea, and the enjoyment of freedom for the first time in centuries. According to the Midrash, a Jew named Nachshon took the plunge into the waters of the Reed Sea, and his courageous action caused the water to split and dry land to appear beneath it.
In other words, somebody has to take the first step, even when the deep waters of disagreement are swirling.
In your family or friendship circle, is there someone with whom you have had a longstanding dispute? A parent, a child, an estranged relative of any stripe, a one-time best friend? With the wisdom that time and distance confer, does the fissure between you and your estranged relative or friend really make sense anymore? Isn’t it time to put it to rest, while you are both on this side of the grass?
This is the time to reach out to that person, let bygones be bygones, and move on. The biblical Nachshon didn’t wait for others to take the first step. He took it, and everyone benefitted. Isn’t it time for you to be Nachshon in your own family, and set aside your own ego for the greater good?
This year, make a place at your Seder table for your estranged family or friend. How can we expect outside forces, whether they are the government, the schools, or even God, to make the world better, if we aren’t willing to take a simple step ourselves?
This year, set a place for the “fifth child” at your Seder table, the one from whom you have been estranged.
If you do, this will be the most meaningful Seder of your life.
Other Possible Fifth Children
- The son who does not even turn up at the Seder. The rasha (wicked) son is rebellious, but at least he turns up and shows his commitment to the Jewish people, even though he mocks its traditions. The she’eino yode’ah lishol (who does not know how to ask) is ignorant of his tradition, but nevertheless is still committed to his people and comes to the Seder. However, this fifth son, is so cut off from his people (perhaps caused by the exile) that he is either unaware that it is Seder night or he has no interest in it. He is an assimilated Jew.
- The son who refuses to turn up to the Seder. He is the self-hating Jew who is embarrassed by his traditions and people. He does not hesitate to criticize his nation and to hold hands with our enemies. You may want to discuss a Rashi that is related to this theme. Shemot 13:18 states: “…the children of Israel left Egypt ‘khmushim’”. Rashi explains that ‘khmushim’ means “armed” with weapons of war. He also offers an additional interpretation: only one fifth of the children of Israel left Egypt. He derives this from the root of the word ‘khmushim’ which is khamesh, or five. At the time of the Exodus there were Jews who did not want to be part of the Jewish people. They stayed in Egypt and perished together with Israel’s enemies.
- The son who got tired of paying lip service to the term: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” He has actually packed up his bags and has gone to Jerusalem. He is not making an Seder in exile, but a truly free Seder in his homeland (Perhaps he will drink five cups!).
- The son who has returned to his tradition. His parents never made a Seder, but nevertheless he has come back and wants to be a part of his heritage. Use this question to initiate a discussion about Jewish identity.
Based on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in "Traditional Alternatives", https://www.lookstein.org/classroom-resources/haggadah-shel-pesach-fifth-son/
Other Fifth Children
Famously, in his 1957 pre-Passover letter, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, proposed that “The Fifth Son,” is any Jewish man or woman who “is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder service.” These individuals are “lost children” who are choosing to not participate in the Seder and the Rebbe is calling upon all those reading his letter to do the work of inviting them in.
Another example of the hidden fifth child, the child who isn’t there, is the child who perished in the Holocaust. In this scenario, we are called to remember those who are unable to be at our tables for the Passover Seder because they perished during the Shoah. Once again, this is a child who is unable to be present, but whose presence is very keenly felt.
This year, another “hidden child” has been brought to our attention. A child who has always been there, but whose presence we have, all too often, chosen to ignore. I’d like to call this fifth child, the “left-behind child.” These are the Jews who, due to mobility challenges, a general lack of access or resources, or some other reason felt unable to access much of Jewish life. This child is the new person in town who neither knows how to do the Seder nor knows where to go. This is the now widowed adult who no longer has someone with whom to share the Seder. The person who doesn’t want to impose upon others, but also cannot run a Seder by themselves so they then participate in no Seder at all.
One of the amazing blessings that has come out of the terrible pandemic in which we all live is the immense amount of virtual resources that are now available. No matter what day of the week, what time of day, or what time zone, there is a prayer service that we can join. Tremendous learning is occurring every day and talented artists are sharing their work over Facebook, Zoom, and other platforms. It appears that access to Jewish resources is now greater than it has ever been.
One manifestation of this new reality is that this Passover, there will be virtual Seders and pre-Seders going on all around the world. As we are now all, “left-behind children,” we are developing resources and opportunities for individuals and communities to come together in sharing the celebration of the Passover Seder. Both those we know and those we have not yet met are learning about these opportunities to share in the Seder together so that we can live the words of the Seder, in that “all who require can now celebrate Passover.”
My hope is that we never forget these fifth children, those who have all too often, been left behind. Next year, when we can (God-willing) once again celebrate the holiday with family and friends, when we are once again offering community Seders at our synagogues, I hope that we continue to remember those who were able to access Passover this year unlike any other. I hope that our virtual resources do not diminish as a result and I pray that all our Seders are enriched by this increased participation. Because a Seder isn’t complete unless all five children are represented.
Still More Fifth Children
As a teacher I meet Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Unsure children all the time, and to each I have an approach to help them learn as best they can. It is when I come across a child whose circumstances are totally intellectually debilitating that I am lost. The Fifth Child has autism or disabilities. The Fifth Child comes from a broken home, raised by cruel parents. The Fifth Child runs from law and immigration officers for a reason they are not old enough to understand. The Fifth Child is lost to gun violence. The Fifth Child is lost to drugs. The Fifth Child is lost to incessant bullying, parental and societal pressures. The Fifth Child is so busy trying to support their loved ones that they have no time to question why it is that a child is working an adult’s hours or needs to steal in order to eat.
The Fifth Child was a slave in Egypt and the Fifth Child is a slave today, be it to society, their home, or their very own bodies. We must ask questions on their behalf and work to free them, and allow them and their more fortunate peers’ minds to inquire and understand. They are the future. We must allow a free future or we will all remain slaves in one way or another.
Appendix C: Other Interpretations of The Four Children
Kippah tip to Rabbi Marina Yergin and Loren Berman
The Four Mourning Children
There they were at the Seder table, as they always are. Between the first cup and the second cup, right in the middle of the telling of the tale, they made their appearance, right on schedule. First was the wise child, the one who seems to have all the answers; sober, sensible and responsible in everything he does. “We knew the end was coming,” said the wise child. “Mom had a long life, a good life. Her time had come. We wouldn’t have wanted her to suffer. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
Next to the wise child sat the wicked child – the rasha, we call him, a word which could just as easily be translated “the angry one, the one who is rebellious, defiant, alienated.” The rasha was full of emotions that made everyone else at the table uncomfortable. “I’m furious,” he says. “I want to smash something or tear someone apart. How could my wife get cancer at her age? Young women aren’t supposed to die.” It’s no good putting your arm around the rasha. He takes offense if you try to console him. Rage and resentment radiate from him like an open flame – it is hard to be close to him.
A little ways away sits the simple child, overcome by grief. Her throat aches; tears spill from her eyes; she feels lost and alone. “I miss my daddy,” she says. “I loved him. I need him.”
And over in a corner is the one too devastated to say anything at all. The unthinkable has happened to her. She’s in shock. She walks around in a kind of daze. Half the time she doesn’t know where she is, or what she’s doing. She can barely force herself to get out of bed. Sometimes she stays there all day long.
Four children at the Passover table – four human responses to the death of someone we love. One has found some peace; one, like Amitai Etzioni, is angry; one simply grieves and yearns; one, suffering unbearable loss, has nothing to say. Each year, at Pesach, we revisit them in the Haggadah. Each year, all four are invited to our Seder. All of them are welcome. All of them are honored. We don’t try to change them. We don’t try to move them along or force them to progress. We don’t try to make the other three into the wise child. They all remain themselves.
If the Seder were a lecture hall it would deliver facts and answers, resolving all doubt and confusion. If the Seder were a hospital it would dispense bandages and medicine, promising to take away pain. The Seder is neither of these. It’s a conversation. It’s a place for questions and stories, for open doors and open-ended discussions. If you come to the Seder table angry or sad or quiet nobody will force you to be different. You’re welcomed into the circle as you are. There’s hot chicken soup with matzah balls; there is singing; there are rituals and traditions; you are with family.
Source: http://www.betham.org/sermon/mourners-seder-table-pesach-yizkor-5768 (unclear as to who wrote this)
4 Sons: A healing journey (Kippah Tip to Esther Azar)
The wise one- can integrate into the community and understands that boundaries keep them safe and allow for true freedom
The Rashah - Starts to allow their anger to surface and begins to recognize the impact of the trauma and his victimization
The tam- Is just begining to recognize that sometihng is wrong and can begin to ask questions
The one who doesnt know how to ask- is silenced by the trauma
Temple Emunah Women's Seder Haggadah Design Committee
The Wise daughter understands that not everything is as it appears.
She is the one who speaks up, confident that her opinion counts. She is the one who can take the tradition and ritual that is placed before her, turn it over and over, and find personal meaning in it. She is the one who can find the secrets in the empty spaces between the letters of the Torah.
She is the one who claims a place for herself even if the men do not make room for her.
Some call her wise and accepting. We call her creative and assertive. We welcome creativity and assertiveness to sit with us at our tables and inspire us to act.
The Wicked daughter is the one who dares to challenge the simplistic answers she has been given.
She is the one who asks too many questions. She is the one not content to remain in her prescribed place. She is the one who breaks the mold. She is the one who challenges the status quo.
Some call her wicked and rebellious. We call her daring and courageous. We welcome rebellion to sit with us at our tables and make us uneasy.
The Simple daughter is the one who accepts what she is given without asking for more.
She is the one who trusts easily and believes what she is told. She is the one who prefers waiting and watching over seeking and acting. She is the one who believes that the redemption from Egypt was the final act of freedom. She is the one who follows in the footsteps of others.
Some call her simple and naive. We call her the one whose eyes are yet to be opened. We welcome the contented one to sit with us at our tables and appreciate what will is still to come.
Daughter Who Does Not Know How to Ask
Last is the daughter who does not know how to ask.
She is one who obeys and does not question. She is the one who has accepted men's definitions of the world. She is the one who has not found her own voice. She is the one who is content to be invisible.
Some call her subservient and oppressed. We call her our sister. We welcome the silent one to sit with us at our tables and experience a community that welcomes the voices of women.
Passover Haggadah of the Reform Rabbinical Council and Dirshuni – Israeli Women Writing Midrash, edited by Nechama Weingarten-Mintz and Tamar Biala, Yediot Sefarim, 2009
The Torah spoke of four daughters:
One is wise, one is angry, one is simple, and one knows not how to ask.
The wise one, what says she?
“What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws that our fathers and mothers passed down to you?” (H3)
You then shall tell her: "Testimonies" – because our mothers also witnessed that same miracle. “Statutes” – because we were given commandments and statutes to reflect on, as it says: "and I will reflect on Your statutes" (Psalms 119:48). "Laws" – these stand for the words, poetry, interpretation, improvement, and Tikkun to which we are committed.
The angry one, what says she?
What is this service of yours?
You – reach out your arms to her and say: You too are a part of this night of Exodus from Egypt, as it says: "It was thanks to righteous women [...] that the Israelites were delivered from Egypt." (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b), and so your voice too deserves to rejoice in the song of freedom, like the prophetess Miriam: “And all the women went out after her with tambourines and dances” (Exodus 15: 20).
The simple one, what says she?
What is this?
And you say to her: “In every generation, every man must regard himself as if he came out of Egypt” (Mishna, Pesahim 10:9). ‘Man – every individual, as it says: “Male and female created He them … and called their name Man” (Genesis 5:2). “Himself” – what does this mean? His essence – because in each and every one of us there is an Egypt, which we are commanded to be aware of, which we are commanded to depart from, which we are commanded to drive out from within ourselves.
The one who knows not how to ask
You commence and tell her: “Lift up your voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid” (Isaiah 40:9) “For your voice is sweet, and your countenance is comely” (Song of Songs 2:14). Without your voice, our power is diminished, our conversation dwindles.
“We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds we will go; for we must hold a feast unto the Lord” (Exodus 10:9) because we are all part of the Exodus.
Appendix D: Labeling the Questions, Not the Children
"The Four Children: Our Annual Seder Guests"
By: Rabbi Robert Dobrusin
We welcome them to our seder table every year. Our holiday would not be complete without them. They are fascinating creations, with their roots in the Torah and their identities crafted by Talmudic rabbis who were perceptive about human nature. They run the gamut: one is wise, one is rebellious or perhaps wicked, one is simple, one doesn't even know how to ask. They have been portrayed in many different ways; you can see them wherever you look, across the history of Jewish art and interpretation.
They don't talk to each other, but they definitely talk to us.
They demand our attention and inspire us to talk back to them with our own commentary and our own conclusions. They appear at our table and demand that we recognize them and identify with them.
And we do identify with them. Each year we ask ourselves: Which one of these am I? As so many of our commentaries have suggested, each of us is really composed of all four, rolled into one complex person. We have our moments of wisdom. We can be rebellious. We have a need to confront the world with basic simplicity. We often don't even know where to begin to ask. Yes, that is what the commentaries say. But deep in our hearts, each year -- depending on what has happened in our own lives or in the world at large -- we identify more closely with one or the other.
These four children who are wise, rebellious, simple, and unable to ask represent us, and we know it.
But there is one thing about them that is not like us. Unlike us, they can never change. Each and every year, each asks or doesn't ask the same question; and the question each asks or doesn't ask is written in stone, taken directly from the Torah's verses describing a father teaching his child about the Exodus.
I grew up in a home where the four children were among the most important characters we met over the course of the year. My father, who led our seder, loved them and found them to be deeply meaningful and inspirational. Perhaps because of that, I took his fascination even further by teaching classes year after year about the intricacies of this section of the haggadah. I love to teach this text. And I always end it with the same lesson: Our kids, like us, are distinct people and go through different stages, and each must be answered differently, in a way appropriate for each.
I recently realized something troubling about the four children that I had never noticed before. It was so obvious but I had missed it all along.
I am troubled by the fact that we don't let them change. Throughout history, they will always be wise or rebellious or simple or unquestioning. They are never allowed to be any different. How can we do this? How can we set them in stone the way we do? There is one simple reason. They don't change because they each have been given a name: wise, rebellious, simple, unquestioning. And once someone has a name, that name becomes his or her identity.
The wise child will never rebel; she will always be wise. The rebellious child will never conform; he will always be the rasha. The simple child will never understand; he will never grow. The fourth will never speak; she will forever be silent.
The rabbis were usually so on target in their educational techniques, but here they have misled us. How much wiser would it have been if they had introduced these four children as one who asked a wise question, the one who asked a rebellious question, the one who asked a simple question, the one who did not ask at all?
It would have been a subtle difference, but it would have been instructive. For instead of labeling them, it would have been their question that would have been labeled, and there would have been the possibility of change. We would have freed them from their reputations and focused on action instead of personality. The high holy day machzor teaches us the same lesson. In the Yom Kippur Selichot prayers, we first say anu k'shay oref, we are obstinate. But a few paragraphs later, in the Ashamnu, we read kishinu oref, we have acted obstinately. This is the thought with which we are left, and it is a subtle reminder that it is our actions, not our labels, that truly count.
When we label ourselves or attach a label to someone else, it is nearly impossible to shake it. How many children have suffered because they have been labeled? How many adults have found the road to teshuvah, repentance, blocked because society has labeled them as a burden that cannot be shed? How many of us struggle to escape the labels we have internalized and allowed to dominate our lives?
In so many ways, our actions are an extension of our personalities. But how often do we use that as an excuse? We say, I'm just an obstinate person, I'll never change. How often does society expect nothing more from someone who has been labeled hopeless? How easy is it to miss the fact that a person we have classified has done something positive and praiseworthy? Instead, we treat people with suspicion and skepticism.
Of course, once we have acted in a certain way often enough, it does become difficult to break out of that pattern. Our rabbis taught, sichar mitzvah mitzvah, sichar aveyrah aveyrah, the result of doing a mitzvah is doing another mitzvah, the result of sinning is sinning again. Our actions do become ingrained. But that is what teshuvah is meant to correct, breaking away from patterns. As difficult as it is, it is infinitely more difficult when our actions become identified with our very being.
Think back to those four guests at the seder table, and how horrible their lives have become because we've never let them be any different than they were at the moment they opened their mouths or sat silently. What a terrible injustice we have done to them and to so many of God's children have came after them.
This Pesach, let us resolve to change.
Published in the Spring 2010 magazine edition of "CJ - Voices of Conservative / Masorti Judaism". Rabbi Robert Dobrusin was the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, MI then.
Appendix E: A Smattering of Other Texts and Thoughts That Shed Light on The Four Children
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?
Septuagint: (3rd-2nd century BCE Greek translation of bible) Devarim 6:20
hosa eneteilato Kyrios ho Theos henom hemin
- the question is in the first person plural (us), not the second (you).
Kos Eliyahu, Pesach Haggadah, Magid, The Four Sons 5:1
(1) Sh’ayno yodeah lishol - The one who doesn’t know to ask: ...
Why does the Haggadah say, aht p’tach lo, “You shall open for him”? The language here should have been the same as the Bible, hagayd lo… “you shall tell him” or it should have been the same language used to offer the answer to the wise son, emor lo, “You shall say to him.”
And yet another question: the verse goes on to say, “It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt.” The Torah should have specified what it is that God did for Israel when they left Egypt rather than just alluding to it.
Since each of the four children is supposed to ask and only the fourth child doesn’t do so, we provoke him by acting in a strange fashion. That is why the Haggadah says Aht p’tach lo, “You open it for him.” Since he does not ask questions by himself you must get him to open up and ask questions. Give him the space to ask questions. From the way you speak to him he will know about what to ask questions. When you say to him “Because of this,” he will respond, “Why did you say ‘This’ since there is both matzah and maror on the table? Which one are you talking about – the matzah or the maror?”And when you say to him, “Which the Lord did for me,” he will respond by saying, “what exactly did God do for you?” That is why the biblical verse is written in this fashion – to encourage the fourth child to ask questions! He must ask questions so that we can answer questions in telling the story of the Exodus to him.
The wicked child, what does he say? The wicked child is criticized for excluding himself from the community by saying “What does this service mean to YOU (not to me)?” Yet the wise child seems to do the same thing when he says, “Which the Lord our God commanded YOU.” Why do we criticize the wicked child for using exclusionary language but not the wise child? When the wise child asks, “What is the meaning of these laws…which the Lord commanded you,” he does not exclude himself from the community. Rather, as one who was born in after the events at Sinai, he did not experience the Revelation first hand. God did not directly command him to observe the commandments but he wants to know what God told his elders to do so that he can faithfully observe them. The Wicked child, on the other hand, witnesses the celebration of Passover (“What is this service to you?”) Rather than joining in, he says, “What does this mean to you,” excluding himself from the celebration. The wise child’s question is a response to hearing the commandment and wanting to understand it while the wicked child’s question is a response to witnessing the act and stepping away from participation. (Maase Nissim)
וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה ה' לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.’
Discuss: What is the value of seeing yourself individually as part of the Exodus as opposed to seeing yourself as part of a community that left Egypt together?
The Ba'al Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century rabbi and founder of the Hasidic movement, famously noted that the Jewish people are like a living Torah scroll, and every individual Jew is a letter within it. If a single letter is damaged or missing or incorrectly drawn, a Torah scroll is considered invalid. So too, in Judaism, each individual is considered a crucial part of the people, without whom the entire religion would suffer.
~ What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of those four children within you?
~ How can you harness those strengths for growth and spiritual progress?
The Yalkut Shimoni is almost identical to the Haggadah and the Mekhilta, except that it uses Tippesh for the simple son, like the Yerushalmi, instead of Tam like the Haggadah.
What interests me about this version of the four sons is how it is brought up in the discussion in the Yalkut Shimoni. (If you find the translation unreadable, don't worry I wrote it. The piece is not that complicated I am just a poor translator.)
The section of Exodus in which the main verses (13:1 - 16) used in the four sons narrative deals with seemingly distant topics. 1) The redemption of the firstborn 2) The festival of Passover and its laws. The verses themselves imply that all the commandments discussed in the section are derived from the Exodus. The sanctification of the firstborn that requires redemption comes from the plague of the death of the firstborn. The laws of Passover of course come from the Exodus.
The Yalkut Shimoni offers another perspective into how these commandments are related. The Yalkut Shimoni shows how both redemption of the first born and the education of children are related, and since Passover is all about educating children it is only natural that the redemption of the first born and Passover should be placed side by side.
From this point onward the sources brought will only have pieces of the lesson of the four sons. The earlier sources may have versions of four sons that predate the accepted format, while the later sources are quoting small pieces of the already established lesson. This can be seen from the use of the phrase "The Torah spoke about four sons etc." With this phrase begins the complete version of the four sons teaching, so when later sources quote parts of the teaching they use this phrase. The earlier sources do not always use this phrase possibly pointing to a non-standardized form of the text.
Midrash Sekhel Tov and Midrash Lekach Tov are both later Midrashic works during the early middle ages. Therefore they cannot be used as a primary source for the lesson of the four sons. We can still use these sources to see which tradition these late Midrashim are following.
It is pretty clear that these later Midrashim are following the more accepted version and not the Yerushalmi.
In the two sections of Midrash Sekhel Tov that are quoted above the wicked son and the son who does not know to ask are discussed.
The paragraph of "It could be from Rosh Chodesh" from the Haggadah is also related in Midrash Sekhel Tov after the paragraph on the son who does not know to ask. I have seen in a few versions of the Haggadah that "It could be from Rosh Chodesh" is actually part of the response to the son who does not now to ask. Midrash Sekhel Tov may be following that tradition of the four sons. This understanding is not completely solid because one could argue that since the section of "It could be from Rosh Chodesh" has its own heading in Midrash Sekhel Tov, it is not part of the response to the son who does know to ask.
Midrash Lekach Tov also adds an abbreviated version of the three statements of Rabban Gamliel.
Additionally the later Midrashim tend to explain earlier concepts with more words. Both the wicked son and simple son get more narration of their thoughts. The wicked son is outright called a heretic, and the simple son is not smart enough to know to be wise or wicked.
The teaching of the two types of 'tomorrow' that appears in the Mekhilta and the Yalkut Shimoni shows up again here in Midrash Lekach Tov.
Judging people favorably, or being dan le-chaf zechut, is a commandment from the Torah, according to the Sages of the Talmud - including and especially when the behavior is ambiguous. We have just seen an example where we ourselves, most likely, did not judge the daughter particularly favorably, or at least it took some critical thought to do so when our instincts tried to lead us astray. Despite judging others favorably being a commandment, we see an example in the Haggadah where the rabbis seem to see ambiguous behavior from children, and then judge them at least one of those children less than favorably. This is the case of the Four Children, which is based on four different verses in the Torah:
"The wicked child" What makes the wicked child wicked? The fact that he excludes himself from the community. lThere are three basic forms of Jewish identity, Mordecai Kaplan (US 1883-1986) claims: we can identify as a Jew either by believing, behaving, or belonging. For Kaplan himself, the primary form of identity was belonging. Judaism is the religon of the Jewish people; it emerged out of the life experience of a people,, and therefore it is the Jewish people who are responsible to shape Jewish religion in every generation. To exclude oneself from the community is to abandon the relationship that above all makes one a Jew and to forsake the responsibility for the fate of Jews. Note also our response to the contrary child: We do all of this because "this is what Adonai did for me when I left Egypt:" "For me' and not for him," the text comments. The Exodus was not history alone; it is a contemporary event. I too was taken out of Egypt––Neil Gillman
- The Haggadah advises the parent to answer the wise child with lots of details about Passover. What do you think should be included in the answer?
- How do you feel about the answer to the rebellious child given by the Haggadah?
- How would you respond to the child’s challenge?
- Try to explain Passover with only a few words. Who at your table can explain the most with the fewest words?
- Why do you think the rabbis provided an “answer” even though the child didn’t verbalize a question?
- What would you say to the quiet child?
- How would you portray each child? What would you include in each drawing to indicate which child it is?
- Look at the illustrations of the four children in the manuscript section of the Sefaria Haggadah or other Haggadot that you might have in your home. How is each child depicted? What do the artists’ depictions add to your understanding of the children?
The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn't know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, "Oh God, I don't know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words." The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy's words and stopped all the prayers. "Because of the simple words of this boy," he said, "all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven."
--Adapted by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer
With appreciation to: Ari Elias-Bachrach, Tamar Grimm, Rabbi Meir Goldstein, Demetrios Vital, Rabbi Ahuvah Loewenthal, Shaul Wertheimer, Jeremy Borovitz, Dr. Rachel Lerner, Yael Mashbaum, Nelly Altenburger, Yitzchak G, Loren Berman, Rabbi Marina Yergin, Josh Franklin, Sefaria Education, Esther Azar, Benjamin Adler, Leah Herzog, Marci Hopkins, Mark Gerson