Raymond Apple

The fate of the Wicked Son

The Wise and Wicked Sons, as depicted by Arthur Szyk (Wikimedia Commons)
The wicked and wise sons as depicted by Arthur Szyk (Wikicommons)

Amongst the best loved sections of the Seder is the one about the four sons, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who knows not how to ask.

Of course the word “son” is not to be taken too literally. It really indicates a human type. All types of people interest the Haggadah, even “wicked sons” known for their negativity. The “wicked son” might even be one of the people we know, just as Miss Marple always knew someone in St. Mary Mead who evoked memories of a character in an Agatha Christie case.

The second son in the Haggadah is not a nice person but he is no fool either. He has a clever mind. He takes many forms. “Rasha” pictures in illustrated Haggadot depict villains that range through a Roman soldier; a Russian Cossack, often with a dog; a materialist with a monocle; a Maskil (a proponent of the often irreligious Enlightenment); an old atheist; or a teenage dropout (as in more recent Haggadot).

It’s not outside factors that make them “wicked” but their own misguided choices. In the Haggadah, the rasha is an “odd man out”. The Wise Son is a role model; the third (“simple”) son can’t help himself; the fourth son (“he who knows not how to ask”) will eventually mature. But the rasha is a problem. He has brains like the wise son but what’s wrong is his attitude. The Haggadah thinks that if he had been there in ancient Egypt, “he would not have been redeemed”. The Jews would have left without him. The Baruch SheAmar says that in messianic times he would have been denied redemption.

What is the rasha’s wickedness?

  • Religious – he rejects fundamental tenets of belief.
  • Intellectual – he does not ask but tells.
  • Social – he mocks family tradition.
  • Psychological – he is eaten up by his negativity.
  • Ethical – he undermines the community.
  • Behavioural – he is a confrontationist.
  • Theological – he leaves God out of history.

The Haggadah knows that we don’t like him and tells us to “blunt his teeth”. This doesn’t mean to physically hit him and break his teeth: it is a metaphor for “rebut his argument”. Intellectual honesty should have kept him away from the Seder, but he can’t stay away. Something in him still wants to be there and he can’t overcome the gut feeling that this is where he ought to be. Just because he is there, we have a chance to argue with him.

The Haggadah doesn’t like him, but I do. He has spirit and a mind of his own, not the conventional piety of the good boy who learns his lessons and does all the right things. The wicked son has to be himself. He actually has a point.

“What does this service mean to you?” he demands (Ex. 12:26-27), implying, “To you – not to me”. He gets punished for saying “to you”. But – strangely – the wise son also says “to you” (Deut. 6:20-21), and no-one thinks of rebuking him! Why give the wicked son such a rough ride for saying “to you”?

Compare his words with those of the wise son, and you have the answer. Says the wise son, “What are the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” The word “you” that each one uses denotes that it was his parents’ generation who were saved from slavery: maybe he himself was not yet born. But the really important distinction between the sons is that the wise son mentions God whilst the wicked son leaves Him out.

How did Pesach come to be, according to the rasha’s reasoning? Presumably it just happened: its source is sociology or anthropology, not religion. That’s the “denial of a fundamental principle” of which the wicked son is guilty. Imagining that the world can manage without God, that’s his offence. He is a secularist for whom God is irrelevant, though as our age has shown, his secularism is a god that has failed.

Do I really like the rasha? Yes, I do: but I would be the first to try and persuade him that he is wrong.

About the Author
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem.
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