The wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask.
These are the “Four Sons” in the haggadah (הַגָּדָה = The Telling), the guide to the Passover/Pesach seder. Even haggadot that leave out many traditional sections still include the Four Sons (or in modern versions, Four Children) and label them that way. If you go to a Pesach seder this Friday evening, you will encounter them.
Yet these four types of children have only a tenuous connection with the story of the exodus from Egypt in the Torah. And telling that story is what Pesach is all about.
pesach (פֶּסַח) = the animal sacrifice for Passover, the festival of Passover. Plural: pesachim (פְּסָחִים).
The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times. Three of these instructions are preceded by a hypothetical question from a child.
But the answers in the Haggadah are different from the answers in the Torah. By about 200 CE the Jewish community in Babylon had labeled the sons in the four passages and changed the answers to be given by their fathers.
“The Four Sons” Pesach tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael.1 Who knows, maybe even Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was the one who invented this section in the second century CE, and it became popular after his students recorded it. The passage begins:
There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask. (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2
A parental answer follows for each type of son.
Is it possible to combine the four explanations for children in the Torah with the Four Sons found in the Mekhilta and all traditional haggadot? Here is my attempt.
The “Wise” One
The question of the first child comes from the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim:
If your son asks you in the future, saying: “What are the terms and the decrees and the regulations that God, our God, has commanded you?” Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand … And then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, to keep us alive as on this day.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21, 6:24)
For about 1,800 years the haggadah has applied the child’s question to the rules of the Pesach seder:
What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that God, our God, commanded us?” You, likewise, open to him with the Pesach rule: “Nothing should be eaten after the Pesach afikoman.”2
Later haggadot say the parent should tell the child all the rules of Pesach, including the one that nothing must be eaten after the afikoman. Although in the Torah this child says “commanded you”, the Mekhilta rewrites his question as “commanded us” in order to make the boy look better.
Answering the child’s question in the context of Deuteronomy 6:20-25 would be a bootless enterprise. If you responded with every rule in the Torah and how it is applied, both you and the child would fall asleep long before you could finish the task. You could limit your list to the rules of the Pesach seder, including the afikoman; but why not bring up each rule when you actually apply it during the evening?
I recommend saying: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand. So if we are wise we obey God’s rules, in awe and gratitude, and for our own good. Because here we are, alive today!” (Deuteronomy 6:21-24)
The “Wicked” One
The question of the second child comes from the book of Exodus/Shemot:
Take for yourselves an animal from the flock for your families and slaughter the pasach. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and daub it on the lintel and the two doorposts … And God will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pasach over the entrance … And when your children say to you: “What is this service to you?” Then you shall say: “It is a pasach slaughter for God, who pasach the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our households.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:21-23, 12:26-27)
pasach (פָּסַח) = (verb) limped, skipped; (noun) an alternate spelling of pesach (פֶּסַח).
In context, the children are asking about the service of daubing blood on the outside frame of the front door, to commemorate the action in the book of Exodus. (Although pesach animals were slaughtered annually at the temple in Jerusalem until the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there is no evidence to date other than this passage in Exodus that the daubing of blood around doors was ever re-enacted.)
But the Mekhilta completely changes the meaning of the children’s question:
What does the wicked son say? “What is this service to you?”—to you, and not to him. Because he disassociated himself from the congregation and denied the foundation, you, likewise, blunt his teeth and tell him: “Because of this [that] God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” For me and not for you. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.
The father’s reply here sounds to me as if the questioner is not “the wicked son”, but “the son whose father hates him”.
The father makes the “wicked son” look bad by correctly quoting “What is this service to you?” and leaping to the conclusion that “to you” means the boy is disassociating himself from his parents and from other Jews.
This is a prejudiced assumption. Perhaps the child is merely expressing curiosity about a particular Pesach service and its meaning to an adult. The service in question is what the Israelites did in Egypt the night before they were freed: slaughtering a sheep or goat and daubing its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the front door.
I recommend answering: “Thanks to that service, God “skipped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our houses. (Exodus 12:27) And that is why we call this week Passover; the Hebrew name, Pesach, means skipped over.”
The “Simple” One
The third child’s question appears in Exodus after the instructions to sacrifice every firstborn male animal in the herd and flock to God, in commemoration of the tenth and final plague in Egypt. A firstborn donkey is redeemed with a sheep sacrificed in its place. The firstborn son of each human mother is also dedicated to God.
But every firstborn human among your sons you shall redeem. And when your son asks you in the future, saying: “What is this?” Then you shall say to him: “By strength of hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. And when Pharaoh hardened against sending us out, then God killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of humans to the firstborn of livestock. Therefore I am slaughtering for God every male womb-opener, but every firstborn of my sons I must redeem.” (Exodus 13:14-15)
The Mekhilta takes the question out of context and shortens the answer:
What does the simple son say? “What is this?” And you shall tell him: “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”
The best answer depends on what the simple child cannot find the words to describe. If “this” is the Pesach seder, it suffices to answer: “This is the way we tell the story of how God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.”
But what if the child has qualms about God’s tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn? I recommend reassuring your child (or your inner child) by explaining: “That was a miracle in the story. Moses told our ancestors to commemorate it by sacrificing the firstborn of each cow, sheep, or goat at the altar, but to redeem every firstborn son by giving something different to God instead. (Exodus 13:15) Today we give money in honor of the firstborn.”
The Speechless One
Exodus tells the father what to say to his son about the festival of matzah without including any prompting question.
Seven days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day will be a festival for God. Matzah shall be eaten for seven days, and nothing leavened shall be seen with you, and no sourdough shall be seen with you, throughout all your territory. And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:6-8)
Modern biblical scholars suspect that there was already a festival of matzah in the spring, before the first grain harvest, and the Torah absorbed the pre-existing festival into the Pesach observance.4
Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to explain the presence of matzah and the absence of leavened food during the week of Pesach in terms of the exodus. And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.” So does the Mekhilta:
And he who does not know how to ask, you open for him, as it is written: “And you shall tell your son on that day, etc.”
Like the answers for the “wicked” child and the “simple” child, the invented “son who does not know how to ask” gets an answer that ignores the point of the corresponding passage in the Torah—in this case instructions for the festival of matzah.
I recommend telling the speechless child: “For seven days we eat matzah, and avoid any baked goods with leavening. Why do we do this? For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:6-8) That’s what it says in the Torah, but what do you think it means?” In this way you may encourage your child to ask questions and generate possible answers.
Pesach is when we must tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in a way that engages our children and the “children” inside us. In order to do that, we can combine the traditions with our own creativity. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim gives examples of spur-of-the moment alternatives to traditional sections.5 But if you would like to plan some alternatives in advance, you are welcome to use this blog post as a starting point.
- The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators and redactors. The rules and customs of Passover in the Mekhilta were probably written in the early third century CE, about the same time as Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nasi collected the mishnah of the Talmud. The fours sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
- This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael. They are all from 13:14.
- The afikomen is the final course or dessert of the Passover meal, consisting of half a piece of matzah separated and hidden early in the ritual.
- The only reason given in Exodus for observing the festival of matzah during Pesach is the sentence: “And they baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, flat rounds of matzah, because it had not leavened, because they were driven out from Egypt and they could not delay. They did not even make provisions for themselves.” (Exodus 12:39) But the Israelites have two week’s notice, and their only leaven is sourdough starter, which never runs out as long as a little is saved from each batch of bread.
- For example, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115b: “Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table before him, and he said to those removing it: “We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us?” Rabba said to him: “You have exempted us from reciting the questions of ‘Why is this night different’, as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.” (Translation from www.sefaria.or/Pesachim 115b.)