The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder. The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine. Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.
“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1
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
The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3 Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child. These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:
- The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
- The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
- The “simple child”: “What is this?”
- The “child who does not know how to ask”. (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival. Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8))
The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3 You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.
Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children. In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four Sons. In 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.
This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter. Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph. Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah? What about the fourth child, the silent one?
Reuben: Unwise Son
Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”. I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing. But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.
When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!” His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.
And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood! Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)
After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah. Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly. What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?
And they do. While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.
And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here! And I, where can I go?” (Genesis 37:30)
Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.
Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them. Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone. Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:
“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you! Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.” (Genesis 42:37)
He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice. But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons? Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.
Judah: Reformed Wicked Son
The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?” In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households. But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4
Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:
“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” (Genesis 37:26)
He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him. At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph. Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative. Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child. Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!” (Genesis 38:26)
After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?” I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.
When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.
Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him. Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him. If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.” (Genesis 43:8)
Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother. This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph. Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.
Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”? And who is the silent child? You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.
- 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. The four 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.
- Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
- This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”