As Pesach approaches, Jews around the world are preparing for nights when they will share a feast of food and of thought with family and friends. In almost as many ways as can be imagined, the Pesach Hagaddah, a book specifically designed to teach the story of the Exodus from Egypt, will be read, recited and explored. Seder nights are for all Jews – young and old, strong and weak, religious and secular. And at the Seder table we discover an important truth about teaching and learning.
Rather than beginning with the story of the Exodus, itself, or the history of the Jewish people, the Haggadah tells a story about the Four Sons who are among those who must be taught our story. They are described as the child who is wise, the child who is wicked, the child who is simple and the child who does not know how to ask. However, the text of the Hagaddah has been translated in a wide variety of ways and there have been a wide variety of explanations for the inclusion of this midrash.
It is generally considered that the Four Sons (who could also be daughters) are types of Jews or types of learners. Understanding the fourth son has posed a particular challenge. In different Haggadot he has been described as: ‘not in capacity of asking’; ‘one who wits not to ask’; ‘the son who is unable to ask’; ‘the son who has not been endowed with an enquiring mind’; ‘the son too young to enquire’; and ‘the son who does not yet even understand enough to ask questions’. While the latter two focus on the age of the son, the former four emphasize his mental competence unrelated to his age. In no case, however, is there the assumption that this child is uneducable. Instead, this poses a challenge to educators.
The Four Sons could also be understood as representing a two-dimensional learning model using the dimensions of respect [respect vs. disrespect] and knowledge [knowledgeable vs. simple]. Pairing extremes of these two dimensions gives rise to four types of learners: Wise (knowledgeable-respectful), Simple (simple-respectful), Cynical (knowledgeable-disrespectful), and Apathetic (simple-disrespectful). This is important because Jewish educational philosophy pays close attention to both the acquisition of knowledge and the respect for teachers.
In whatever way the Four Sons are interpreted, the text suggests two distinct propositions about Jewish education. The first is the message that the obligation to teach our children diligently cannot be fulfilled if we only meet the learning needs of the elite or even of the average student. We, as a community, must take note of the objective of teaching – which is to ensure that all Jewish children gain knowledge and understanding of Jewish history and Jewish law. In other words, the requirement of educating our children is focused on the learning outcomes of each student. So any teaching strategy that only engage a percentage of the students is simply not satisfactory.
The second lesson we can draw from the story of the Four Sons, is that everyone can and should be taught in the same setting. The Seder has elements to appeal to each type of learner – from written text, to oral reading; from detailed discussion to symbolic representation; from the taste of the food; to appeal to the sensations. While young children may not last the distance of the Seder (which in many houses finishes after midnight), there is an expectation that the majority of participants will stay in the room. Engagement is a key to the learning experience of the Seder, and the Four Sons invites us to find ways to ensure everyone is included as a participant among equals. If thousands of Jewish households can achieve this, surely it is not too much to ask of schools and teachers with professional training and institutional learning.
For more on the Four Sons see Avraham Roos “Variant Translations of Passover Haggadot and Their Implications” and Russell Hendel “The Educational Pedagogy of the Four Sons” SHOFAR, Summer 2004, Vol. 22, No. 4