J.J Gross

About Those Four Sons

The Four Sons section of the Haggadah begs more questions than it answers. After all, the Wise and the Wicked son ask the identical question, with almost identical phrasing. So why is one blessed while the other is chastised?

Moreover, the Wise Son should, if anything, be juxtaposed with the Simple Son. The fact is that some kids are born smart while others are not the sharpest pencil in the box. Hence the contrast would be apt.

So why do we believe that the Haggadah is contrasting Wise kids with Wicked ones?

I have always been somewhat skeptical of the contortions rabbis and commentators go through in order to reveal and highlight the difference between the first two Sons.

A clever child asks questions. And he or she is not congenitally endowed with a gift for nuanced phrasing. Yes, smart kids ask endless questions, each in their own way.

Hence, I would like to suggest that the Four Sons is not about the kids, and everything about their parents.

For, indeed, the Wise and the Wicked sons are identical. They ask the same question.  But one of these kids has a wonderful and patient father who, overjoyed by his child’s intelligent question, proceeds to share with his precocious child the story of the Exodus.  The other father is short tempered, impatient and has little interest in spending time with his son. He considers him a nuisance, constantly pestering him with questions. And so, he understands his sons query as being obstreperous, and he smacks him on the mouth to shut him up.

We hear nothing further about the Wise Son. We know that his father is investing time and patience in nurturing his intellect. We have every reason to believe that this child will evolve into a Tzaddik, a righteous man, which is indeed the opposite of Wicked

By contrast, the Haggadah tells us exactly what happens with the Wicked Son.  His father’s rage becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As the child matures into adolescence and early adulthood he proves his father right. indeed, he becomes a rebel and transgressor. He certainly shows no further interest in Torah or in spiritual development of any kind.

As is often the case with delinquent children, once he comes an adult the Wicked Son mellows. But of Torah he knows almost nothing. He has become an intellectual and spiritual simpleton, A Tam. He is the harmless uncle who asks very basic questions.

And, as inevitably happens, in old age, the Wicked-turned-Simpleton Son forgets even the very little that he learned as a child.

In old age, the Simpleton deteriorates into a doddering senior who can’t even ask a basic question. His caregiver, while spoon-feeding him soft matzoh brei has to both literally and figuratively open his mouth and share with him the little she knows about Passover.

The Four Sons is a lesson for parents, a cautionary tale. The trajectory of a clever child is determined at a very early age.

Perhaps the only great rabbi I ever knew, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, had spent twenty years a first grade cheder melamed before being a recognized as both the Hassidic and Torah giant that he is to this day.  I once asked him why he had wasted so many years teaching first graders. He replied that first grade is where it all happens. After that, it’s usually too late. Had he not lost his voice, he said, he would have remained in the first grade for his entire life.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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