Jon Spira-Savett

The 4 children of North American Jewry at this year’s seder

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught that we are all at times each of the four children.

At our North American seders this year, many of us will want to talk about Israel and own situation as Jews since October 7. How do we do that in conversation, not a fruitless debate? How can we use this opportunity to be heard and acknowledged, in a circle of people who care about us or who are meeting for the first time?

One of the most generative parts of the seder has long been the Arba’ah Banim, the Four Children the Talmudic rabbis imagine were hinted at in the Torah. We have come to understand them as four types, four postures toward the Exodus story and toward Torah and Jewish peoplehood. And as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught, each of us has each of the Four Children within. No matter how old or experienced we are.

So one way to invite people into conversation at this year’s seder might be to talk about Four Children of 5784, and which of them resonate with us and with others we have been hearing from and talking to? Chances are it will be more than one.

The Four Children of this first year after October 7:

One is chacham – hoping that knowledge and learning will lead to wisdom and make a difference.

One is mochi’ach – challenging, criticizing. (Let’s retire or at least table the label of rasha, “wicked.”)

One is tam – needing a starting point.

And one is she’aino yode’a lish’ol – not knowing how to form the right question, or fearful of the response that may come if they ask the question on their mind.

What is the chacham asking?

In the Torah, as quoted in the Haggadah, the chacham says: “What are the testimonies (edot), the laws taken on faith (chukkim), the laws that can be explained (mishpatim), that the Divine has commanded?”

The chacham starts from a place of commitment, an appreciation of the ins and outs of Israel, and an awareness that there is much more to know.

The chacham today wants to know about “testimonies.” To make sure to have a picture of what has actually happened, not filtered through an ideological lens. About the reality of the day of October 7 and the experiences since. About the personal stories of hostages and their families. About what has taken place in Gaza since the fall, and what happened in 1948, and before and in between. Whose stories might I not have heard, or do I need to hear again? What testimonies have I been blocking out, because I find it hard to hear them?

The chacham wants to know as much as possible about mishpatim, about “laws” we can reason with. The laws of war, where they are clear and where they are not. The treaties and agreements that have been made or proposed. The way the Israeli parliamentary system works. And what about the patterns of international conflict and intergroup conflict – how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles others, and how it decidedly does not.

And the chacham wants to think about chukim, about how to stand firm in light of matters that can’t be resolved objectively or definitively. Such as who is to blame for the emergence of Hamas, or where the moral responsibility is for the suffering of innocent Gazans right now. About how to articulate a Zionism to stay committed to, even if some of the critiques of Israel ring true.

In the Haggadah, the response to the chacham is to teach everything we’ve figured out so far – including where the story itself needs to be probed further and questioned.

What is the mochi’ach asking?

This is the challenging voice – concerned or outraged today about the loss of civilian life and about starvation in Gaza because of the Israeli operation. How is this Jewish, asks the mochi’ach?

In the Torah, as quoted in the Hagaddah, the mochi’ach asks pointedly, “What is this worship of yours?” Today it’s the voice that asks: Are you committed to Israel, or have you made this venture of the Jewish people into an idol?

The mochi’ach might be the one who wonders, as the Haggadah suggests, whether the commitment is worthwhile, or whether to dissociate.

The traditional response in the Haggadah is to dismiss this voice entirely, or to project it onto someone else who can be written out of the community. But the questions of the mochi’ach are necessary, and they aren’t only being asked anti-Zionists. They deserve to be explored in the same spirit as the chacham.

What is the tam asking?

The Haggadah puts their question as “What is this?” This is the one who wants a starting point, and doesn’t feel qualified to express a view about the more complicated issues.

The tam wants to know: What is Israel? What are some fundamental things to know about Israel? What happened on October 7? What is Palestine?

And where do I look for an orientation to these things, to layer on more so I can be more prepared to think intelligently about what is going on now?

The Haggadah says the response to the tam begins with the strong Divine hand that redeemed us from slavery. So too, if you are responding to the voice of the tam today, talk about Israel’s strengths first, and what Israel and Zionism have done to rescue Jews from danger and persecution from the later 1800s until today. Invite them to see themselves in a story that we are proud of. That’s a foundation from which to learn more, and eventually to explore complexities.

And it’s important for the tam to know that no one can be criticized for saying I need to know more before I can engage intelligently in the debates of today.

What is the one she’aino yode’a lish’ol trying to say but cannot ask?

This may be someone who is simply or profoundly overwhelmed right now, or has been ever since October 7. There may be nothing to say from within the sadness.

This may be someone who truly doesn’t know where to start.

This may be someone who has something to say, but is afraid to say it – for fear of being called an apologist for genocide by some of those protesting against Israel most vocally today, or for fear of being labeled disloyal by other Jews.

This may be someone who wants to learn more, but can’t find anyone they trust to ask – on a college campus especially, but not only there.

No one has to speak. No one can force another to speak. But for those who want to, the most important thing is to be there for them, to offer an ear with generosity. The traditional Haggadah says to begin personally: Let me tell you my experience, and what this all means to me. Start with a one-to-one conversation. Don’t worry just yet about how to convert it to a conversation in harder places.

At our Seders this year, we might read out loud the above characterizations and ask: Which of these Four Children are you right now? Are you even all four of them? Which of the questions within each type of questioner are yours? Which of the responses are the ones you need?

We probably won’t learn at our Seders the one thing that will settle our minds or the one policy we can all agree around the table that we should support. We can come away less alone in our thoughts, and appreciating the many experiences and ideas behind the questions we are each bringing to the reality of being Jewish after October 7. That enriches and strengthens all of us, and brings the Four Children together as Am Yisrael.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett serves the Jewish community of southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. He is co-host of "Tov! A Podcast About 'The Good Place' and Jewish Ideas", available on podcast apps and He blogs at and Rabbi Jon’s Podcasts are available through Apple and Podbean. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the organizer of, an initiative to transform how we choose a president by asking better questions.
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