We are all familiar with the following portion from the Pesach Haggadah (from Sefaria.org The Sefaria Edition of the Passover Haggadah):
My question today is, why is the second son (child) considered evil (rasha)? We do not know the vocal tone of the question and the original source (from Exodus 12:26-27) is quite innocuous and in the plural (from Sefaria.org The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by JPS):
Additionally, the further explanation from Exodus 13:8 (Sefaria.org The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by JPS) is also not a sharp retort as the Haggadah would suggest:
We are told to “explain to your son on that day”. Isn’t it possible that the question “What does this rite (worship) mean to you?”, is an innocent question? Well, it depends. To the authors of the Haggadah, the assumption is that a wise child would know the reasons for the festival and thus inquire about the deeper halachic aspects . A child who does not know anything, would simply ask “What is all this?”. Exodus 13:14 states (Sefaria.org The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by JPS):
In verse 8, no question is asked by the child, but in verse 14, a question is asked by the child. On the other hand, the question given by the wise child comes from Deuteronomy 6:20-22 (Sefaria. org The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by JPS):
However, what if I go out on the street today and ask random Jewish people what does performing the seder mean to them? Does that make me an evil person? Clearly, the authors chose selected verses to make a point regarding the level of religious observance and spirituality involved in carrying our Hashem’s commandments as they viewed it. But unless we know the context (or vocal tone), why should we assume that a question like “What does this worship mean to you?” implies that the person asking it is necessarily excluding themselves? Why does the Haggadah label them a rasha (wicked or evil)?
Let’s look at the Hebrew. The word rasha (reish-shin-ayin) is usually translated as “wicked”. The word ra (reish-ayin) is usually translated as “bad” or “evil”. So the question I ask is this: “Is a wicked person, also an evil person”?
The Talmud provides some guidance from Meseches Brachos 7a (Sefaria.org The William Davidson digital edition of the Koren Noe Talmud Bavli):
This is further elaborated on in chapter one of Sefer Tanya by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (from Sefaria.org, from the Chabad.org edition):
In these two paragraphs, we see the Hebrew words ra and rasha used. This is not the time nor place to go into the Tanya in depth. I merely point it out that the concept of the rasha is not as simple as it first seems. Now, back to the second son in the Haggadah. We have discussed context, now we see from the Tanya that the person’s intention is also involved.
If we look at the Hebrew word rasha (reish-shin-ayin), we can interpret it as rahsh (reish-shin) ayin . The Hebrew word rahsh means “to be impoverished” and ayin alludes to the “eye”. Thus, the rasha is a person who is rahsh ayin (one who has an “impoverished eye”), meaning that they are not interpreting or analyzing what they are seeing. The rasha simply observes and concludes without analysis. That does not necessarily make the person “wicked” or “evil” (ra), but one the rasha is a person who must further be educated (hence the Torah’s answer that the child needs explanation). In the Haggadah, the authors took it one step further to mean that the basic understanding of the “Exodus from Egypt” (and meaning) was to be taken for granted.
The additional letter shin (in the word rasha as opposed to the word ra, which does not have the letter shin in it) alludes to “tooth” which is between the rosh (reish; head) and ayin (eye); meaning, what the eye sees must be “chewed on” (or thought about) before a conclusion is made by the head (brain). Think, before speaking we are often told. The wise child understands what occurred during the Exodus from Egypt, but wants to know more and at a deeper spiritual level. This is in contrast with the rasha who wants to know what the service means to others. If the rasha wanted to exclude himself, then why didn’t the Torah (or Haggadah) say “The rasha says, ‘What does this service mean to you? It means nothing to me!’ “?
So is the rasha in the Haggadah an evil or wicked person? As we have seen, the answer is not so simple. So please, my friends, chew on that a bit before the seder!