Our Four Children: Each Special in His/Her Way

Haggadah #9

The Four Sons (Children)

We recite our Magid section, telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, over the second cup of wine. We poured the second cup before the youngest child capable recites the four questions of the seder story. Magid opened with proclaiming the central symbol of the haggadah, the unleavened bread or matzah (Haggadah #5 above) to be the “bread of affliction or haste,” or alternatively, “the bread of answering questions.” Immediately we moved to involving the children by provoking questions about the reasons this night is different. We opened the story itself my proclaiming that we were once physical slaves and we owe our freedom to God. Immediately following we retold a story of famous Rabbis, who, despite their extraordinary knowledge sat up all night and retold the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Now, we discuss the types of listeners who are taking in this most important story of Jewish history.


The four sons are portrayed as four distinct people, but are they really? Various opinions have been offered about the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child and the one who does not even know how to ask. Perhaps each one of us contains all four types within us. Perhaps the haggadah here presents four ways of telling the story. Or, perhaps as in today’s pedagogy, we encounter different learning types, experiential backgrounds and levels of intelligence.


The four children may well correspond to the four times the Torah commands us to tell the story of the Exodus to our children, as we mentioned in Haggadah #6 above. The number 4 repeats often in our seder: 4 commandments to tell the story, 4 cups of wine, 4 questions and now 4 types of children whose questions required different pedagogical approaches.


The first, the Wise Child, inquires about every aspect of the holiday, and to that child we explain in considerable detail right down to the afikomen at the end of the meal.


The second child, also very intelligent, tradition characterizes as evil because s/he seemingly excludes him/herself from Jewish tradition. Such a person who denies the exodus we term a kofer ba’ikar, one who denies the essence, God’s existence. The traditional answer appears not only harsh but angry, blacken his teeth and inform him had he been there he would have been unsuitable and left behind. But in our day, perhaps another understanding might achieve a better result. Her question is essentially the same as the Wise child, “What is this to YOU?” but she does not acknowledge God’s existence in his/her question as the Wise Child does. Both questions appear to exclude the child him/herself. So the difference must be in tone and acknowledging God. Therefore, our obligation in our age where such self-exclusion runs rife among teens and even adults, is to answer by bringing that person back into the Jewish community, insisting that our history of slavery inserts meaning for us all no matter how we choose to live out our lives.


The simple child receives a simple answer. But again, an elementary question may conceal a complex idea. “What is this?” the Simple Child asks. The Hebrew word for simple, Tam, means not only simple but pure. Perhaps, this open question requires the purest of answers, something along the lines of, “God put us in slavery to teach us about freedom, and redeemed us from involuntary slavery to a man to become voluntary servants of the Most High.”


And finally, “The one who does not know how to ask,” a biographical description fit for the 21st century. We live in an era of the deepest siloed information. Experts in complex areas may be complete ignoramuses in other aspects of life, like Judaism. Their faith may be as shallow as their knowledge, which results in even greater frustration because they are so accustomed to deep and nuanced comprehension. Such Jews may not even know where to begin, what to ask. These are those who “Don’t know what to ask.” For them we must open a gate to enter the garden into greenery that’s more familiar to them, and only gradually introduce them to the complexity and nuance they enjoy and are accustomed to in other aspects of their lives.

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