Dan Ornstein

Kick the shin out of him

In a couple of nights we will read about the four sons who are the Haggadah’s symbolic paradigms for the varieties of Jews, their personalities and Jewish identities. They show up at the Seder and we are obligated to tell them our ongoing narrative of slavery and redemption. Each one of these sons distresses us in some way: the wise son is so wise and intellectual as to be insufferable to us; the wicked son refuses to stand and suffer with us; the simple son is so simple that we find it hard to suffer his apparent lack of depth; the son who doesn’t know how to ask a question seems so disempowered, we feel compelled to fight for his spiritual suffrage by speaking in his behalf.

The rasha, the wicked son, receives a disproportionate amount of attention from commentators and Seder attendees because of the pejorative label attached to him. Recall what the wicked son asks: “Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lakhem?” What does this service of the Passover offering and worship mean to you? Seeking to make a polemical point about the dangers of not expressing solidarity with the community, the Haggadah picks up on the wicked son’s use of the term, “To you”, rather than “To us.” He asks his question in a way which reads him out of the collective experience – past and present – of the Jewish people. The Haggadah instructs us, quoting Exodus 13:8, to respond to the wicked son’s query by telling him, “I perform this service to remember what God did for me when I left Egypt,” not “Here is what God did for all of us,” thus including that wicked child. Had he actually been there during that time of the Exodus, he would not have been liberated because he did not view himself as a part of the liberated community.

Think of how much ink Jewish thinkers have spilled trying to sharpen or smooth over the rough edges of the wicked son’s presence and dialogue with the community in the Haggadah. Jewish survivalists understand the wicked son exactly as the Haggadah presents him: an unrepentant renegade who renounces his or her solidarity with the fate of the Jewish community, past, present and future. We reject him just as he has rejected us. Jewish inclusivists are loathe to reject or to label as a wicked person, anyone who reads himself out of the community. For them, the wicked son’s intense antipathy is a symptom of apathy borne of alienation. Rather than reject him, we should do what the Haggadah does: engage him in a difficult but hopefully meaningful dialogue of what being Jewish means to us, in the hope that it will come to mean something to him.

The Hasidic masters have an altogether different approach. For them, the way to deal with the wicked son is to, “Kick the shin out of him.”

I hope you read correctly what I just wrote: I did not write what you may have thought I wrote, using a four letter word, and I also did not write that we should kick the wicked son in the shin bone. I wrote that we should, “Kick the shin out of him,” referring to the Hebrew letter shin, the middle letter of the Hebrew word, rasha, a wicked person. Note what the letter shin looks like: ש.

According to the Hasidim, the three lines of the letter stand for the founders of Judaism, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The letter is symbolic of Judaism as a whole. In the word rasha, רשע, the letter shin stands between the letters resh and ayin, which with the shin letter removed, form the word ra, רע, evil. A wonderful teaching of the Belzer Hasidic sect holds that the shin – an inherent, positive Jewish identity and decency – resides within every Jewish person, regardless of the ra, the apathy or antipathy, which that person exhibits outwardly. The Haggadah commands us, hak-heh et shinav, to set on edge the teeth of the wicked son by castigating him forcefully. The Belzer Hasidim use a sound and word play on shinav, שניו, one’s teeth, and interpret the word as “the letter shin within a person.” What, in other words, are we supposed to do to the wicked son? Kick his inner shin out of him, that is, reach out to him with unconditional love, to help him bring out the shin, that best Jewish and human part of him which is buried deep inside.

Whether at the Seder table or the negotiating table, we sometimes find ourselves sitting across from or next to people whom we label as rasha or who label us as rasha, evil people who at best should be dismissed, at worst, should be destroyed. This teaching is not naively claiming that evil is an illusion: there are people in the world who are genuinely, incorrigibly wicked. It is reminding us that our casual labeling as a rasha, a wicked person, anyone who rubs us the wrong way, who does not pass our litmus tests of correctness, or who makes us uncomfortable, is itself evil. The absolute certainties and judgments of others we employ at times might be convenient and emotionally efficient; however, they dehumanize others, and they impoverish us intellectually and morally.

Thus, at your next Seder or any other time in the future, when you find yourself turning another person into a rasha in your mind, stop yourself, reach out with a bit more love to him, then respond in a way which makes that person want to show you his best Jewish or general human self.

Kick the shin out of him.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at