A Grammar Mistake in the Haggadah?

Though we are secular, on Passover Eve my family and I, like most Jews, will be reading the Haggadah, an ancient Hebrew text celebrating the historical event in the Book of Exodus that tells of the liberation of the people of Israel — their escape from hardship and slavery in Pharaoh’s Egypt. The text also includes an exegesis of that event. Scholars dispute the exact date the text was written, especially since it is a compilation of segments from different centuries, but very generally it dates back to the first to fourth centuries. The declared purpose of reading the Haggadah is making every Jew feel as if he or she was personally liberated from slavery. And we, like many non-religious Jews, will try to make sense of this age-old text, sometimes seriously, sometimes in a humorous way.

One story in the Haggadah, believed to have been written in the second century, is about four sons inquiring about the meaning of Passover. I always find it especially interesting and intriguing; I feel it holds profound observations on the process of educating one’s children and instilling one’s culture and heritage.

Oddly, every child has a single characteristic:

One is wise

One is wicked

One is naïve (normally translated as ‘simple’ or ‘simpleton’, but tam means naïve, innocent)

One who doesn’t know how to ask

I find the typology of the boys rather strange: not ‘good’, ‘naughty’, ‘disrespectful’, ’diligent’. They seem like the children parents find the hardest to cope with: a very smart boy whose good questions are sometimes difficult to answer, a boy lacking any empathy, a boy so naïve he finds it hard to admit evil does exist, and one that finds the world so perplexing he doesn’t even know what to ask.

The narrator begins with a son with intellectual merits, moves on to the one with a moral fault, then to the one with moral merit, and finally to the son lacking intellectual ability. And with each son he provides a recommendation how to answer his question on the significance of Passover.

The smart son is the easiest: he wants to understand the meaning of the holiday, God’s commandments and laws. Here an intelligent well-founded answer is enough, “you, in turn, shall instruct him the laws of Passover.” Simply explain in a rational coherent way what it all means.

Then comes the wicked son. Strange that anyone would describe a son as wicked, isn’t it? Well, he is not really bad. The problem is that he separates himself from everyone else, asking vainly: “What is this service [of Passover] to you?” Not to ‘us’, to ‘you’. This arrogance and social alienation is met with the anger of the narrator. He calls this son ‘wicked’, suggests physical violence (“blunt his teeth”) and mainly aims at reviving the historical circumstances in an alarming way: “If he had been there, he would have not been redeemed.” In other words, excluding yourself from your community implies deprivation of the benefits and protection it offers!

The tam, the naïve son, simply looks at the Passover service and asks: “What is this?” The answer the narrator puts forward completely ignores the terrible suffering of the people of Israel in Egypt. Feeling that this son finds it hard to cope with evil, it would be wise to emphasize the happy ending of the story: “With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, from the house of the slaves.” Evil exists, but eventually goodness prevails.

Last is the son who doesn’t know how to ask. I have always liked this son. I felt that underneath his perplexed appearance lies a profound understanding of the complexity of this historical event. Phrasing a question is almost like finding the answer. Yet he is so overwhelmed by life’s intricacies he hasn’t reached the stage of posing questions.

And here come the blunt grammatical mistake! Unlike in English, every word in Hebrew is either masculine or feminine, both nouns and verbs. After the description of this weird son, with this uncommon defect, comes the narrator’s recommendation, which literally translates into:

You [in feminine form] should open [in masculine form] for him. (at ptakh lo).

Generations have read and rewritten this text, and no one corrected it! It is normally translated into ‘you must initiate him’, but this overlooks the implicit appeal to the mother, not the father, to explain the meaning of Passover. What can a mother do in order to make her non-asking child understand the holiday?

She ‘opens’ for him. Perhaps new horizons, maybe suggests untraditional explanations, or simply hugs him, waiting patiently for the long process of intellectual development to mature. The narrator knows there is no immediate solution here. His only recommendation is to repeat the story of how God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt.

If you encounter a child who can’t ask, take the advice of this ancient text: open his eyes; a new path; new options — and wait.

About the Author
Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein is an author, academic in the Humanities, and a blogger. She wrote Five Selves, a collection of five stories published in the UK. Her academic books deal with cultural interpretations of Nazism. She runs a blog on cultural themes and Israel: onourselvesandothers.com
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