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Four Daughters

Biblical women represent royalty and redemption, passion and compassion -- themes that are surely welcome at any seder
Athaliah and Joash, by José Aparicio, 1773–1838. (Wikimedia Commons)
Athaliah and Joash, by José Aparicio, 1773–1838. (Wikimedia Commons)

The penultimate song of the Passover Seder counts four mothers, but many feel that what the Haggadah, the seder’s “bible,” really needs is four daughters.

We have, famously, four sons, based on the Midrash (Mechilta 125). But is that the proper translation? The term “ben” is used, but that is somewhat ambiguous. Take the phrase “and he has no ben,” which appears twice in the Torah. In Numbers 27:8, it clearly means a son: “When a man dies and he has no ben, you shall pass his inheritance to his daughter.” In Deuteronomy 25:5, “When brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and he has no ben,” it is taken as “child” or “offspring,” as the Talmud states (Bava Batra 109a): “For levirate marriage, a son and a daughter are equal.”

Thus, it is fair to translate the Four Sons as Four Children, and indeed Rav Ovadia Yosef rules (Hazon Ovadia 21) that the mitzva of recounting the Exodus applies equally to daughters. Perhaps we have the illustrators to blame for erasing women from the Haggadah.

Still, it is interesting to think about how we can actively bring more women’s voices into the Haggadah — and although they may not appear in the Five Books of Moses, the rest of Scripture does give us wise, wicked, mild and “unknowing” women.

The wise one, what does she say? “We are the peaceful and faithful in Israel. You are trying to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why do you want to swallow up the Lord’s inheritance?” (II Samuel 20:19)

This anonymous woman is a daughter of the city of Avel Beit Maacha (Maacha is a name used by both men and women in the Bible). David’s general Joab comes to the town on the trail of a rebel, and the wise woman (ibid. 16) convinces him to spare her town and avoid needless bloodshed.

The wicked one, what does she say? “She looked, and there was the king, standing by his pillar at the entrance. The officers and the trumpeters were beside the king, and all the people of the land were rejoicing and blowing trumpets, and musicians with their instruments were leading the praises. Then Athaliah tore her robes and shouted, “Treason! Treason!” (II Chronicles 23:13)

This “wicked woman” (ibid. 24:7) is Athaliah, daughter of the House of Omri, King of Israel. You may have heard of Omri’s son Ahab and daughter-in-law Jezebel. Athaliah marries into the Davidic dynasty, but when her son is killed, she eradicates the House of David and seizes the throne for herself. Six years later, she discovers that her grandson Joash survived the purge. Things do not end well for her.

The mild one, what does she say? “I slept but my heart was awake.
    Listen! My beloved is knocking:
“Open to me, my sister, my darling,
    my dove, my mild one.
My head is drenched with dew,
    my hair with the dampness of the night.” (Song of Songs 5:2)

The Song of Songs is often taken as a metaphor for the love between God and Israel. It is read publicly during Passover, and some read it after the Seder as well.

The one who does not know to ask, what does she say? “But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” (Joshua 2:4-5)

This is Rahab the Harlot, who plays an integral role in the conquest of Jericho, saving her family from destruction while helping the Israelites win their first major battle in Canaan. Her professed ignorance saves the lives of the Joshua’s spies.

These themes of royalty and redemption, of passion and compassion, would be at home in any seder. Which women’s voices will be heard at yours?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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