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The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Four Sons

 

By Rav Amnon Bazak

Translated by David Silverberg

 

 

A.        Four questions posed by one son

 

In four places the Torah addresses the need to explain to one's children the importance of observing the mitzvot.  The Passover Haggada, as we know, expresses the notion that the four questions refer to four different sons – a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and a son that is as yet incapable of asking.  However, a careful study of the verses themselves reveals that on the level of peshat (the straightforward reading of the text), the Torah speaks not of different sons, but rather of a single son who asks the same question, only in different situations.  The question in all four instances is why one needs to fulfill the mitzvot.  On one occasion the child asks in reference to all the Torah's commands, and in the other instances, regarding specific mitzvot.  In all four cases, the Torah instructs the father to explain to the son why, in fact, we must observe the given mitzva or mitzvot.  In this essay we will first examine the verses and identify the various situations in which the son poses his question.  Afterwards, we will address the question of why the Haggada chose to deviate from the straightforward reading of the text, to explain that the Torah speaks of four different sons.

 

            Let us begin with the question which the Haggada attributes to the wise son.  In Sefer Devarim, Moshe recalls the event of Matan Torah and the declaration of the Ten Commandments, and then proceeds to present a discourse enumerating many of the Torah's mitzvot.  It is in the introduction to this discourse where the wise son's question appears: "When your son asks you tomorrow, saying: What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded you…" (Devarim 6:20).  The word "what" in this verse is not to be taken informatively, as though the son asks to learn which mitzvot God commanded, but rather in the sense of "why," meaning, the son questions why one must perform the mitzvot.  This is evident from the response the Torah gives to this question, which essentially lists three different reasons for observing God's commands:

 

1.         "You shall tell your son: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  The Lord made great, harsh miracles and wonders in Egypt, against Pharaoh and his entire household, in front of our eyes.  And He took us from there in order to bring us into [and] to give us the land that He had promised to our forefathers.  The Lord commanded us to perform all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God…" (6:21-24). In other words, since God released us from the Egyptian bondage, we are enjoined to fulfill the mitzvot He commanded.

2.         "…That it shall be good for us all the days, to sustain us as on this day" (6:24).  Mitzva observance is beneficial, in that it constitutes the proper way to live one's life.

3.         "And it shall be meritorious for us when we ensure to perform all these commands before the Lord our God, as He commanded us."  Not only are we obligated to fulfill the mitzvot and is mitzva fulfillment inherently beneficial, but we will also be rewarded for it.

 

The question the son poses here with regard to all the mitzvot is also asked more specifically with respect to the mitzvot pertaining to the Exodus.  Thus, for example, the question attributed in the Haggada to the wicked son inquires as to the reason underlying the paschal offering: "When your sons say to you, 'What is this service for you?' you shall say: It is a paschal offering to the Lord who passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt when He brought a plague upon Egypt, saving our homes" (Shemot 12:26-27).  The sons ask why one must observe the mitzva of the korban pesach (paschal offering), and the answer is simple and straightforward, explaining the concept underlying this sacrifice.

 

            This is true also of the question attributed in the Haggada to the simple son.  In the Torah this question appears in the context of the mitzva of pidyon bekhorot (the symbolic "redemption" of firstborn sons), and here, too, the answer explains the reason for this commandment, in a direct, straightforward manner:

 

When the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanites which He promised to you and to your forefathers, and He gives it to you, you shall transfer the first of every womb to the Lord, and every first issue of animals that you will have, among the males, is for the Lord.  You shall redeem every firstborn donkey through a sheep, and if you do not redeem it, you shall break its neck; and you shall redeem every human firstborn among your sons.  When your son tomorrow asks you, "What is this?" you shall say to him: The Lord took us from Egypt, from the house of bondage, with a mighty hand.  When Pharaoh persistently refused to release us, the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborns to animal firstborns.  Therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord the first of every womb among the males, and all the firstborns among my sons I shall redeem.  (Shemot 13:11-15)

 

Several verses earlier, we find the passage identified in the Haggada as the comments that parents should convey to the son that is incapable of asking.  Indeed, the Torah here makes no explicit mention of a son inquiring, but it emerges clearly from the response that these comments constitute a response to the question of why a certain mitzva must be performed.  In this instance, the question deals with the command to partake of matza on Pesach: "Matzot shall be eaten during the seven days [of Pesach], and neither leaven nor yeast shall be seen with you anywhere within your borders.  You shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt" (Shemot 13:7-8).  (We follow here Ramban's interpretation of this response, namely, that we must eat matza because of all that the Almighty did for us at the time of the Exodus.)

 

            Thus, according to the straightforward reading of the text, there is no difference between the sons posing these questions, nor is there any difference in the natures of these questions.  All questions signify an attempt to understand the reasons behind the mitzvot, and thus in all four instances, the response is a direct explanation of either all the Torah's commands (in the first case) or one specific mitzva (in the other three cases).

 

            Why, then, did the Haggada establish "Ke-neged arba banim dibera Torah," that the Torah refers to the questions of four different sons?

 

B.        The text of the Haggada

 

It would appear that the Haggada sought to convey an essential message relevant to the mitzva of sippur yetzi'at Mitzrayim (telling the story of the Exodus), instructing that the story must be presented to each child in a manner appropriate for him.  The seder will likely be attended by different sons with very different natures, and one must tell of the Exodus to each son in accordance with his level and nature: "The Torah provided an approach for responding to each and every [child] in the appropriate manner" (Midrash Lekach Tov, Shemot 13:8).  In order to illustrate this message, the Haggada depicted four different characters.  Of course, the Haggada would have been unable to do so had it left the questions and answers recorded in the Torah in their respective contexts.  The Haggada therefore changed the responses that appear in the Torah, thereby producing a novel interpretation to the questions that are asked.  Let us examine how the Haggada created these characters:

 

The wise son – what does he say?  "What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded you?"  You shall then tell him the laws of Pesach: "One does not partake of an afikoman dessert after [partaking of] the paschal offering."

 

The wicked son – what does he say?  "What is this service for you" – for you and not for him.  Since he excluded himself from the nation, he has spoken heresy.  You shall thus sharply condemn him and say to him, "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt" – "for me" and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

 

The simple son – what does he say?  "What is this?"  And you shall say to him, "The Lord took us from Egypt, from the house of bondage, with a mighty hand."

 

The son who does not know how to ask – you shall initiate on his behalf, as it says, "You shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt."

 

            Let us first examine the question posed by the wise son.  As we noted earlier, the question, "What are the testimonies…" actually means, "What is the reason for these testimonies…," meaning, why we must observe the mitzvot.  The answer mentioned in the Haggada, however, transforms this question from an inquiry regarding the reason, into a question concerning the content.  In the Haggada, the son asking this question wishes to learn the content of the laws that must be observed.  The Haggada instructs the father to respond to the wise son by in fact teaching him all the laws of Pesach, until the very end of Massekhet Pesachim.  (Indeed, in some editions of the Haggada the response to the wise son reads, "You shall tell him the laws of Pesach, until 'One does not partake of an afikoman dessert after [partaking of] the paschal offering.'")  Meaning, if a wise son participates in the seder, and out of his own initiative expresses interest to listen and learn, then one should teach him as much as possible to take full advantage of this special privilege.

 

            The wicked son's question is presented as expressing a desire to exclude himself from the nation, based on the use of the word lakhem ("for you," as opposed to "for us").  Many have wondered why his formulation suggests exclusion more so than the wise son's formulation of his question: "What are the testimonies…that the Lord our God commanded you?"  Of course, this question does not arise at all on the level of peshat, which does not recognize any difference between the sons posing these questions.  Nevertheless, it would seem that we may find basis for the distinction drawn by the homiletic reading in several points that are relevant as well to the peshat interpretation:

 

1.         Firstly, whereas regarding the wise son the Torah writes, "When your son asks you…," the verse presenting the wicked son's question reads, "When your sons say to you…"  Even if on the level of peshat the intent in both verses is the same, the homiletic reading could base itself on the distinction between a question posed out of a sincere desire to hear an answer, and "saying" something without necessarily anticipating a response.

2.         Moreover, we must recall that the wise son's question relates to a specific historical event, which only the parents – and not the children – witnessed.  The son is thus justified in formulating his question as, "What are the testimonies…that the Lord our God commanded you," as the command was indeed issued specifically to the parents.  The wicked son's question, by contrast, does not pertain to a historical event, but rather to the observance of mitzvot – "What is this service for you?"  Accordingly, we may indeed interpret this formulation as declaring the son's withdrawal from the rest of the Jewish people.

 

Once it has been established that the wicked son's question expresses his disinterest in participating in this mitzva, the fact that he makes this declaration specifically in the context of korban pesach renders it a particularly grave pronouncement.  On numerous occasions in Tanakh, the paschal offering is depicted as the sacrifice signifying the special covenant between the Almighty and Am Yisrael.  For this reason, it is the only affirmative command – other than circumcision – which carries the punishment of karet – eternal excision from the Jewish people.  The wicked son, who excludes himself from the observance of this mitzva, essentially excludes himself from Am Yisrael.

 

            Hence, the Haggada instructs the father to treat this son differently; if this son speaks cynically and out of a sense of alienation, then the father must respond in kind.  He should not be treated forgivingly and considerately, out of an appreciation for his motives and needs, but should rather be responded to harshly and cynically, in the same manner in which he had spoken: "You shall thus sharply condemn him and say to him, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt' – 'for me' and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed."  The Haggada "borrowed" for this purpose the response that is originally brought for the son that does not ask, and transferred it to the wicked son.  It could not use the original response given in the Torah for the wicked son's question ("It is a paschal offering to the Lord Who passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt when He brought a plague upon Egypt, saving our homes"), as it contains no personal pronoun that could be used as an appropriate reference to the wicked son.

 

            The treatment advocated towards the wicked son clearly differs from the accepted attitude in our times, and the approach taken in the Haggada is certainly not a politically correct one.  Later we will see what may have prompted such a harsh response.  In any event, it would appear that the Haggada seeks to prevent the wicked son's influence from impacting upon the other children, by advocating a firm stance of rejection, rather than a soft response which the other children could perceive as a sign of weakness.

 

            In concluding our analysis of the text of the Haggada, we should note that the response given to the simple son includes only the first sentence – "The Lord took us from Egypt, from the house of bondage, with a mighty hand" – and omits the remainder of the Torah's response – "When Pharaoh persistently refused to release us, the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt…" The reason for this omission is clear.  The Haggada's objective is to depict four sons who all ask about the mitzvot observed on the night of the seder.  It therefore omits from the original response the portion that relates specifically to the obligation of pidyon bekhorot, leaving only the first segment, which bears relevance to all the mitzvot pertaining to the Exodus.

 

C.        The text of the Mekhilta

 

The Haggada is a later adaptation of an earlier text that originated from the period of the Tanna'im.  In the Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, the ancient halakhic Midrash on Sefer Shemot (Massekhta De-pischa, 18), we find a slightly different text of the passage concerning the four sons (based on several manuscripts, including the Oxford edition, and on Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Bo 425):

 

It thus emerges that there are four sons: one is wise, one is ignorant, one is wicked, and one does not know how to ask.

 

The wise son – what does he say?  "What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded us?"  You shall thus begin speaking to him about the laws of Pesach – "One does not partake of an afikoman dessert after [partaking of] the paschal offering."

 

The ignorant son – what does he say?  "What is this?"  And you shall say to him: "The Lord took us from Egypt, from the house of bondage, with a mighty hand."

 

The wicked son – what does he say?  "What is this service for you" – for you and not for him.  Since he excluded himself from the nation and spoke heresy, you shall thus sharply condemn him and say to him, "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt – for me and not for you – had you been there, you would not have been redeemed."

 

The son who does not know how to ask – you shall initiate on his behalf, as it says, "You shall tell your son on that day…"

 

            Firstly, we should take note of the fact that in the Mekhilta, the wise son formulates his question with the word otanu, "us" ("What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded us?").  This deviation from the actual wording of the verse further underscores the fact that we deal here with a homiletic reading of the verse – rather than the straightforward reading – which is aimed at drawing a homiletic distinction between the sons.  From the perspective of the Midrash, it is legitimate to change the text of the verse in order to present the homiletic notion of the four sons.

 

            In any event, the two most obvious differences between the version of the Mekhilta and that which appears in the Haggada pertain to the Mekhilta's reference to the "simple" son as tipeish ("ignorant"), and to the sequence of presentation: the Mekhilta addresses the "ignorant" son's question before that of the wicked son, whereas the Haggada introduces the wicked son before the "simple" son.  As the Mekhilta is the older text, we might wonder why the Haggada chose to change the original wording and structure.  The answer is fairly simple: the Mekhilta speaks of the fundamental principle, whereas the Haggada is recited as the children sit around the table.  How would a son feel if at the seder he receives in response to his question an answer entitled "the answer to the ignorant son"?  The Haggada therefore changed the wording, and rather than using the derogatory term "ignorant," it enlisted the gentler term "tam" ("simple").

 

            This change in formulation resulted in yet another shift.  Originally, the counterpart of the wise son was the ignorant son, as "ignorant" is the direct contrast to "wise."  However, once the Haggada renamed the "ignorant" son the "simple" son, it could no longer juxtapose this son with the wise son.  It was therefore compelled to rearrange the sequence, such that the counterpart of the wise son would be the wicked son.  This rearrangement, in turn, brought with it a different perspective on the wise son, who now represents not only wisdom, but also religious piety.

 

            In light of this, we might also suggest that the Mekhilta presented two pairs – the wise and ignorant sons, and, correspondingly, the wicked son and the son who cannot ask.  It is possible that according to the Mekhilta, the she-eino yodei'a li-shol (son incapable of asking) is the pious son, who directly contrasts with the wicked son.  According to this approach, the two pairs of sons relate to two different perspectives: the wise son and ignorant son comprise a contrasting pair on the intellectual plane, while the wicked son and she-eino yodei'a li-shol are a pair on the ethical-religious plane.          Why would the she-eino yodei'a li-shol be a righteous son?  We might answer on two levels.  Firstly, the notion of "not knowing to ask" brings to mind Am Yisrael's famous declaration of na'aseh ve-nishma ("we will do and we will hear" – Shemot 24:7), their full acceptance of the Torah without any questions (see Shabbat 88a).  The willingness to accept the mitzva without any questions does not necessarily stem from intellectual limitations; it may also result from a refusal to raise questions about the divine command before proceeding to fulfill it.

 

            Secondly, it is noteworthy that the question attributed to the she-eino yodei'a li-shol, as recorded in the Torah, relates to the specific mitzva of eating matza.  The command to Am Yisrael to partake of matza at the moment of their release from Egyptian bondage entailed, to a large extent, the formal acceptance of divine kingship (kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim).  Am Yisrael lived as slaves in Egypt for many years, and now, as they finally emerge from bondage to freedom, they are commanded to eat lechem oni – "bread of poverty" (Devarim 16:3)!  The consumption of matza expresses the notion that Am Yisrael did not leave slavery to complete freedom, but rather left the service of a human king to the service of the King of kings, with the realization that "a servant of God – only he is free" (as formulated by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol in a famous poem).  The slogan "Let my people go" (shalach et ami), which has accompanied various struggles for freedom throughout the centuries, is but a partial citation of Moshe's demand – "Let my people go so that they shall serve Me" (shalach et ami ve-ya'avduni).  Partaking of matza without posing any questions serves as a meaningful expression of this concept.

 

D. The text of the Yerushalmi

 

            In conclusion, let us consider the text of the corresponding passage in the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:4):

 

Rabbi Chiya taught: The Torah spoke in reference to four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, an ignorant son, and a son who does not know how to ask.

 

The wise son – what does he say?  "What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded us?"  You should then say to him, "The Lord took us from Egypt, from the house of bondage, with a mighty hand."

 

The wicked son – what does he say?  "What is the service for you?  What is this trouble that you are forcing upon us each and every year?"  Since he excluded himself from the nation, you shall thus say to him, "It is because of what the Lord did for me – He did for me, and not for that person.  If that person had been in Egypt, he would have never been worthy to be redeemed from there."

 

The ignorant son – what does he say?  "What is this?"  You shall thus teach him the laws of Pesach, that one does not partake of an afikoman dessert after [partaking of] the paschal offering, so that he will not leave one group and join a different group.

 

The son who does not know how to ask – you shall first initiate on his behalf.

 

Here, too, it is interesting to examine the changes made from the earlier texts.  One obvious difference is that the answer provided in the earlier sources for the wise son is given here specifically for the ignorant son.  It would seem that the nature of the response depends on whether it is given to the wise son or to the ignorant son.  Where it serves as the answer to the wise son, then it refers to an explanation of the entire meaning underlying the laws of Pesach, from beginning to end.  If, however, we deal with the ignorant son, then it refers to an explanation of only the most basic information, in order not to ruin the entire seder by the ignorant son leaving to go to another group.  To the wise son, by contrast, the Yerushalmi instructs explaining not the content of the mitzvot – with which he is presumably already quite familiar – but rather the reason why we bear the obligation to observe the mitzvot.  According to the Yerushalmi, the wise son is special not by virtue of his knowledge, but rather because of his depth and insight, his desire to fulfill the mitzvot not by mindless rote, but with a keen understanding of their full meaning and significance.

 

            The Yerushalmi presents a lengthier question posed by the wicked son, adding to the earlier texts the clause, "What is this trouble that you are forcing upon each and every year?"  This question appears to address the exertion entailed in fulfilling the mitzvot each year, and likely reflects the Christian approach, which tended to undermine the importance of mitzva acts.  If so, then we could perhaps suggest a novel explanation for the response given to the wicked son: "He did for me, and not for that person [oto ha-ish].  If that person had been in Egypt, he would have never been worthy to be redeemed from there."  As we know, the term oto ha-ish often refers to the founder of Christianity.  If this is the intent in this context, then the response "If that person had been in Egypt, he would never have been redeemed" takes on special significance.  "That person" represents for his followers the redemption of the world, yet had he been in Egypt, he himself would never have earned redemption.

 

            Earlier we noted that the Haggada's response to the wicked son is surprisingly harsh and unsympathetic.  According to what we have seen, we might suggest an explanation.  The Haggada speaks not of a son who simply ridicules Torah observance, but rather of a son who has rejected the Torah and joined a different faith.  As such, the parent must avoid at all costs his negative influence upon the other family members, as part of the comprehensive struggle against the influence of Christianity upon Jews at that time.

 

E.        Summary

 

The common denominator between all the various texts is the notion discussed earlier of individualized responses, a concept which bears particular relevance at the seder.  The Midrash seeks to convey the message that each person is likely to have children with different natures and characters, and the story of the Exodus, the telling of which constitutes the central mitzva at the seder, should be told to each in accordance with his unique nature.  One who reads only the standardized text of the Haggada at the seder without adding another word has not fulfilled the mitzva of "Ve-higadeta le-vinkha" ("You shall tell your son").  Each child must be given the attention suitable for him.  This of course applies throughout the year, as well, to the entire educational approach one should take in teaching his children, but it bears particular significance on this night when one's attention is primarily focused upon his children and their education.

 
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