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Thoughts on the Four Children in the Haggadah

On the Shabbat prior to Passover, Shabbat HaGadol, we read the concluding portion of the book of Malachi, the last of the prophets, as our haftarah. That section ends with the words: “Behold I send to you Eliyah (Elijah) the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will return the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children back to the parents lest I come and lay the earth waste.” Since we wish to conclude on a positive note, the custom is to repeat the second to the last verse, “Behold I send to you Eliyah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” The last we had seen of Elijah in the Bible, he was ascending to heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses, carried off by a whirlwind. (II Kings 2:11). The Bible never actually reports his death, hence the tradition that he lives on, first in this prophecy of Malachi, and after that in rabbinic tradition and Jewish folklore throughout the ages. We still set out a cup for him at the seder each year. (My mother used to set a place at the table, he shouldn’t get hungry on his travels.)


I mention this passage, because it seems to emphasize the primary goal of the seder, bringing parents and children together to retell and relive the story of the Exodus from Egypt year after year. The telling of the story is emphasized in the Torah in four separate verses. In Exodus 12:25, we’re told, “When your children say to you: ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ You shall say; ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, for He struck the Egyptians, but our homes He spared.’” In chapter 13, verse 8, we find: “On that day you must tell your child (v’higadta l'vincha) ‘This is because of the what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.’” In verse 14 of the same chapter, we read: “And in the future, when your children ask, ‘What is this?’ You shall answer, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, the house of slaves.’” In Deuteronomy 6:20, we find yet another reminder of this mitzvah: “And in the future when your child asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies, decrees, and laws that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ Tell him, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand…”


The rabbis took these four passages and out of them created the Midrash of the Four Sons or Four Children, each asking in their own way about the rituals of Pesach and providing opportunity for parents to respond by telling the story of the Exodus. In the Haggadah, the verses are shuffled around a bit. The answers do not always correspond to the biblical verses. In three places in the Torah, we find questions but, in one we are simply instructed to tell the child. Apparently that child should be designated as “not knowing how to ask.”


In the Schechter Haggadah, which I bought hot off the press in 2009, Rabbi Joshua Kulp discusses this passage and notes that it appears first in the early Midrash on Exodus, the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, and in a nearly identical version is found as well in the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud. The midrash, however, enters the Haggadah through the Babylonian tradition and does not appear in the early Haggadot of Eretz Yisrael.  Printing the three versions side by side in his essays at the end of the volume, Rabbi Kulp points out the differences among them. Most noticeable is that the Mekhilta places the Simple Son (in both the Mekhilta and the Yerushalmi, he is designated not as Tam, simple or innocent, but as Tipesh, stupid) right after the wise son, with the wicked son listed third. The Yerushalmi switches the answers to the wise and the stupid sons, giving the Tipesh a detailed rundown of the laws of Passover including the law of the afikomen and the wise son, a simple answer. Rabbi Kulp notes that this version in the Yerushalmi appears to be a mistake, perhaps a scribal error, he thinks, for various reasons. The answer provided in both the Mekhilta and in our Haggadah seems more appropriate for this simple son who barely is able to frame a question. Let the wise son review the halachot in detail.


Many scholars see this midrash as an expansion on the teaching in the Mishnah (Pesachm 10:4), which lays out the order of the Passover meal, “And here the son asks his father: And if the son lacks the intelligence to ask, his father instructs him… And according to the intelligence of the son the father instructs him.” As Kulp notes, “According to this theory, the midrash explains that there are four levels of intellect and that the Torah provides an answer appropriate to each level.” However, there is no clear proof that the Midrash of the four sons is attempting to fulfill this teaching of the Mishnah in this case. It seems that the rabbis’ intention was to emphasize the study of the laws of Passover, while the Torah is clearly focusing on something different, the telling of the story in every generation by way of explaining why we perform these rites and rituals. The purpose of the Haggadah is to help us see ourselves as if we personally came forth from Egypt, making the biblical story, our story.


While the Schechter Haggadah contains a beautiful text of the Haggadah as well as Rabbi Kulp’s detailed discussion of the origins and history of each of the elements that make up the text of this manual of the seder, I find most interesting the collection of Haggadah art included in the middle of this volume. Among the various pictures found here are many pages of illustrations of these four children, mainly four sons, but also, in some haggadot, four children, both male and female, or even just four daughters. These illustrations span several centuries and not only depict the children in clothing reflecting the historic era of the publication, but also representing different generations and ideologies. In one 19th century Haggadah, the wise son is dressed in a white kittel and kippah and appears engrossed in the study of the text, while the wicked son is shown bareheaded, smoking a cigarette and gesturing to the rest of the family. In one of the haggadot from the early 20th century, the wicked son is pictured as a boxer as his wise brother, in a fedora, studies a sacred text. In a Haggadah from the late ‘40s, the wicked son looks a lot like Leon Trotsky bearing a axe with which to strike down the tablets of the ten commandments. The wise son in this version looks a lot like a biblical figure of Moses. The simple son is smoking a cigar as he peruses the sports page and discusses it with the fourth son who cannot come up with a question.


A more recent Haggadah uses cartoon images of the four Marx brothers. Naturally Groucho is the wise son, Chico the wicked one, Harpo, the simple son, and Zeppo does not know how to ask. The sons in the Feast of Freedom Haggadah of the Conservative Movement, the Haggadah that we’ve used for years, are depicted in papercuts of various combinations of red and blue, indicating that each son contains a little bit of the qualities of the others. Another Haggadah represents the four children by four books, one open to the passage in the Haggadah on the four sons, the second open but with flames of fire coming out of it, the third is also open, but blank, and as for the fourth, it is not even opened. 


The collection is quite extensive and goes on for 25 pages. My favorite image is taken from a more recent Israeli Haggadah in which we find four generations of Israeli women, each with a book in hand. The great-grandmother, with head piously covered, is engaged in the study of Tehillim, Psalms. The grandmother, sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, has a volume by Israeli author Amos Oz. The young mother with a ponytail, stands behind her mother, peering through her stylish glasses at a newspaper with the headline in red, “Mah zot?” “What is this?” The line assigned to the simple son. Under the table, on which grandma is reading Amos Oz, is a young child, pacifier in her mouth, holding a picture book upside down of a children’s story.


As the sages teach, “Dor dor v’dorshav,” “Every generation has its interpreters.” The Haggadah has been published hundreds of times in so many editions, with endless commentaries, and illustrations. Each generation has its own way of telling the story and finding meaning in the narrative of the Exodus. The point of the Midrash of the four children, perhaps, is as I began, recognizing that the seder provides an opportunity to gather together all the sons and daughters, regardless of their lifestyle or ideology. As many rabbis have taught, it is wonderful to have these four children together even though they may be very different in outlook and observance, to discuss the Exodus. They may bitterly disagree and argue with one another, but they are still at the table, still considering the story. But, we may ask, where is that fifth child, who may know very well how to ask, but does not care to participate any more or to ask? Which Haggadah will grab his or her attention and connect them with our people once again?


In a volume on Passover by Devorah and Rabbi Menachem HaKohen, the question is asked, “Why are new Haggadot published every year?” They answer, “The world doesn’t stay in one place. Last year’s “Tam” (simple son) becomes this year’s “Rasha” (wicked son) and last year’s “Rasha” becomes this year’s Chacham (wise son).” Qualities change, four new sons come up with four new questions.”


 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Edward Friedman

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