David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Do the ‘four sons’ belong in the Haggadah?

One of the highlights of the Haggadah is the section known as the “Four Sons” which refers to the questions that four different types of sons—the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask—will likely ask (or not ask) regarding the Pesach festivities and rituals and the responses that the Rabbis propose for the parents of each. Since the different personality types as reflected in the “Four Sons” have generated such interest and intrigue, one can find many artistic depictions as well as a wide range of commentaries relating to the nature of their specific questions and to the message parents are meant to convey in the proposed answers. To make this section even more interesting, some families encourage participants at the Seder to act out each son while others offer more contemporary versions that include four daughters as well. The question I’d like to ask, however, is whether this section belongs in the Haggadah in the first place.

Let me explain. The concept of the “Four Sons” on Pesach evening is based on a Midrash (Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael on Shemot 13:14) that tries to understand why, in the context of the story of the Exodus, the Torah refers to a dialogue between parents and children in four different places. According to this Midrash, the Torah is not referring to a dialogue around four distinct topics but to a dialogue with four distinct types of children around the same topic—the meaning of the Pesach festival—and is offering important pedagogic advice.

The lesson the Torah is trying to impart is that it is incumbent upon parents to teach their sons about the festival in a way that acknowledges their personal capabilities and interests. Indeed, this is what the Rambam (Maimonides) means when he says “A father should teach his son according to the son’s knowledge…” (The Laws of Chametz and Matzah, Chapter 7)

Based on the above, it seems that the best place for the section of the “Four Sons” is in the guidelines for the leader of the Seder, but not as a text within the Haggadah itself, much as the instructions for a game appear alongside the game but not as a part of the game itself. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the “Four Sons” in the Haggadah leaves us with the (false) impression that it is a text to be read and analyzed rather than as a thoughtful piece of pedagogic advice to be followed.

Thus, whether or not parents choose to depart from tradition and omit the section of the “Four Sons”, I urge all to at least internalize its’ pedagogic wisdom so that the meaning and significance of Pesach can be transmitted to our children in a way that resonates with them, in accordance with their individual capabilities, proclivities and interests.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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