Tuesday, April 25, 2023

From Three Answers to Four Sons

For as long a I can remember, Seder night has always includes at least a few minutes spent trying to puzzle out fresh meaning from the description of the Four Sons.  What makes the Wicked Son's question wicked? Why can the Wise Son say 'to you' but the Wicked Son gets scolded for this? Why is the answer to the Wicked Son given to the Son Who Can't Even Ask? Is calling the child the Simple Son a polite way of saying he's dumb? What does it mean to be Simple? And on, and on.

This year, I took a step back. How did we even get here?

Where It All Began

If you were casually reading through the Torah, you would notice three times when a parent is instructed to teach their child about the Exodus. Here are the sources:

First in Exodus, chapter 12 verses 26 and 27:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say,

‘It is the passover sacrifice to יהוה, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’

Second, a chapter later, in Exodus 13, verse 8:

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

And finally, in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verses 20-25. Note, the child in this case isn't asking about the Exodus or Passover. Instead, he's asking about the rules transmitted by Moses in general. The response notably includes the Exodus.

When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that our God יהוה has enjoined upon you?” you shall say to your children,

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and יהוה freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. יהוה wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us [God] freed from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised on oath to our fathers. Then יהוה commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere our God יהוה, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before our God יהוה to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as [God] has commanded us.”

From Three Answers to Four Sons

These verses are obviously significant and offer a number of surface insights. One that jumped out to me was the need for parents to not only teach their children, but to provide meaningful answers to them. Because I said so and tradition! aren't going to cut it. 

The Rabbis of the Talmudic era, including Rabbi Chiyya (c.200 - c.220 CE), captured two brilliant innovations involving the quotes above. First, they put these questions into the mouths of different types of children and second, they added a Fourth Child: One Who Can't Even Ask a Question. Rabbi Chiyya's version of the Four Sons is recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud, Peschaim 10:4:

HALAKHAH: Rebbi Ḥiyya stated “The Torah spoke about Four Children, a wise child, a wicked child, a stupid child, and a child who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? What are the testimonials, the ordinances, and the laws, that the Eternal, our God, commanded us? Also you shall tell him, with a strong hand did the Eternal lead us out of Egypt, the house of slaves. What does the wicked son say? What does this service mean to you? What is this exertion which you impose on us every (moment) [year]? Since he excluded himself from the community, also you shall tell him, because of this did the Eternal do for me when I left Egypt. For me, He did it, for that man He did not do it. If that man had been in Egypt, he would not have been worthy ever to be redeemed. What does the stupid child say? What is this? Tell him the rules of Passover, that one may not follow the Pesaḥἐπὶ κῶμον. What means ἐπὶ κῶμον? That one not leave one company and join another company. With the child who does not know how to ask, you have to begin and initiate with him.” Rebbi Yose said, that is what the Mishnah says, “if the son does not know how to ask, his father instructs him.”

While our modern Haggadah's version of the Four Sons differs from this text, the essence remains the same.

The Four Sons: Old School vs. Today

One difference that will jump out to those familiar with the modern text is the identification of a 'Stupid child.' This isn't merely a less politically correct translation of the Four Sons than we are used to; Rabbi Chiyya uses a different Hebrew word to describe the third child (טִיפֵּשׁ vs תָּם). There are other striking differences as well. The Wise Son is offered the answer that we now give the Simple Son. The Third Son now receives an obscure (to us) answer about the procedure of eating the Passover Sacrifice.

While these differences are interesting and worth probing (next year, people!), I'm more impressed by how similar the ancient text is to what we read yearly on Passover.

The Four Sons as an Innovation

For nearly 2000 years, if not longer, we've been putting these quotes into the mouths of different children. Inspecting the quotes reveal that they are relatively neutral. If anything, the answer given in the last question, posed in Deuteronomy, could easily come from a child lacking sophistication. The child seems to be confused by all the rules and regulations, and the response isn't to get into the weeds, which is what the modern Haggadah suggests. Instead, the Torah provides an elegant, big picture response. Rabbi Chiyya's text leans into this, and suggests that this is is exactly how the back and forth with the Wise Son should go. Our version of the Four Sons uses the same question as Rabbi Chiyya, but offers a different answer than what is provided in the Torah. Perhaps the authors of Haggadah were picking up on the same 'simple answer vibes' that I was when reading Deuteronomy's dialog?

It's also revealing that the answer given in the Haggadah to the Child Who Doesn't Yet Have the Ability to Ask, is given the same answer as the as the Wicked Child.  This choice to reuse an answer seems to further suggest that the fourth child was an important addition to the Rabbis. Even without a unique proof text in the Torah, they thought he was worth including.

So we've turned three general exchanges about learning into four different personalities asking questions; and I love it. I love it because it adds a dimension about teaching that goes unsaid in the Torah, but is powerful. I see the Four Sons as modeling the requirement that parents must meet their children where they are. By making the Four Sons such a central part of the Haggadah, the Rabbis have invented a sort of Talmudic no child left behind policy.  Well played Rabbi Chiyya and peers, well played.

No comments:

Post a Comment