Joseph H. Prouser
Joseph H. Prouser

The seder, the four children — and a barbershop quartet

In relating the parental obligation to teach the younger generation about the Exodus, the Torah is understood to allude to four different types of children.

One is analytical and so appears to be wise. One is indelicate in asking questions and so appears to be hostile — or even “wicked.” One is innocent, or “simple,” and one child does not yet know how to ask questions.

The fact that appearances can be deceiving, however, is a major theme and lesson of the Torah. The prophet chosen to convey the word of God to Israel is a man of labored and impeded speech. A small, powerless, and landless community of enslaved immigrants is in fact God’s chosen people, a “nation of priests.” God is revealed in a burning bush that is not consumed.

So, too, the four children are not necessarily what they appear to be. Is the “Chacham” wise or is he a wise guy, a smart aleck? Is she or he truly wise, or does the Chacham merely crack wise? Is “Chacham” to be taken literally? Or is the word spoken with irony or sarcasm? Is the wise child too clever by half? Is he or she an intellectual snob? An ostentatiously elitist braggart? It is not at all clear that the Chacham is the most admirable among the four children.

So, too, the “Tam.” Is the “simple” child lacking in intelligence or sophistication? Or does Tam indicate someone of pure heart and simple faith? Jacob, the eponymic founder of Israel, is described as Tam (Genesis 25:27). Noah, chosen by God from among all humanity to preserve life on Earth, is described as Tam. Job, with his defiantly unshakable faith, is described repeatedly as Tam (Job 1:1; 2:3). The Tam among our children is in worthy company.

A child who does not even know how to ask questions (or does not know that it is a sacred duty to ask questions), or an adult so far removed from Jewish ritual and learning that she or he is aptly represented by such a child, represents a special challenge. It has been insightfully noted that the Haggadah’s instruction regarding such a “child,” — at p’tach lo — “You begin the process for him” or “You open the conversation” — is best understood as a pun. Reading the Hebrew with an Ashkenazi pronunciation renders the phrase “at p’sach lo,” suggesting, “You are Passover (Pesach) for such a person.” Whatever blessing and inspiration the “One Who Does Not Know How to Ask” is going to wrest from the seder depends on our diligent efforts, openness, patience, and generosity of spirit.

The most misunderstood and unappreciated among the four children is the “Rasha.” How patently unfair and self-defeating it is to deem such a child “wicked.” Hostile? Perhaps. Disinterested? Possibly. A divergent thinker? God willing! It must be pointed out that the Rasha is, at least, present at the seder. That is a beginning. The offending question asked by this child, “What does this ritual mean to you?” is, furthermore, an entirely appropriate and valid inquiry. Is it not the obligation of each and every seder participant to find himself or herself in the ritual? “To view ourselves as if we each personally went forth from Egypt”? It is the parent’s duty — a sacred trust — to explain precisely “what this ritual means to you,” whether or not this question is actually posed by a child. That is a central goal of the seder. The Rasha is effectively facilitating our religious observance by asking precisely the right question.

How are we to understand the prescribed response to the Rasha — hak’heh et shinav? The phrase is translated variously as “Speak harshly (or aggressively, or sharply) to him” or “Blunt his teeth” or “Set his teeth on edge.” Elie Wiesel translates, “Make him feel uncomfortable.” Some understand the Hebrew to signify — we hope metaphorically — “Smack him in the mouth!”

Such interpretations of the word hak’hei are unnecessary, unfortunate, and misguided. Tellingly, this word is found in Rashi’s commentary to Mishnah Pesachim 2:8, the tractate dealing with Passover observance. In Rashi’s commentary, he uses the Hebrew verb to describe the effect of placing grain in the charoset (here not a ritual item, but a spicy dip or relish for dipping meat). The grain was used to counteract and dilute the sharpness of the dip. “Hak’heh et shinav” might best be understood, therefore, to indicate that we are to de-escalate any potential confrontation with the Rasha. We are to respond to her or his piquant questions not with hostile, aggressive, or caustic retorts: “Had he been there he would not have been redeemed!” Or, as in the original second-person formulation of the Mechilta, on which the Haggadah text is based, “If you had been in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed!” What an abusive and counterproductive sentiment! Rather, “hak’heh” indicates that we are to respond to the Rasha’s perceived “sharpness” with cool heads and calming words, aimed at making the experience more (certainly not less) palatable — like the grain used to counteract the spicy salsa.

Simply by reading the Mechilta’s prescribed response to the Rasha not as a harsh declaratory statement, but as a question, we cheerfully invoke the Socratic method: “If you had been there, wouldn’t you have been redeemed, too?” The answer implicit in this rhetorical question? “Of course you would have been! That’s why I celebrate. That’s why you have every reason to celebrate, too! So let’s celebrate together!” That is the response of a worthy parent — and an effective seder leader.

Just as more thoughtful analysis reveals that the Chacham may not necessarily be truly sage, and the Tam is no simpleton, the Rasha is not properly understood to be wicked in the literal sense, or even truly hostile. The Rasha plays an indispensable role in the seder, despite the seemingly harsh and misleading title he or she bears.

The Rasha is no devil. The term may find its closest semantic equivalent, rather, in the expression “devil’s advocate” — someone who asks the tough questions and expresses an unpopular perspective, not out of personal conviction or antagonism, but in order to clarify challenges and obstacles, and thereby effectively to move the debate closer to the truth. Rasha, we are in your debt!

A useful framework for considering the Four Sons — and particularly the plight of the misunderstood Rasha — is the music of the barbershop quartet.

In this a cappella (unaccompanied vocal) form of music, the lead sings the melody, while the tenor and bass harmonize from above and below, respectively. The baritone completes the chord. Not unlike the various hymns included in the Haggadah, barbershop music tends to emphasize songs and ballads with simple lyrics and accessible melodies. The most distinctive element of barbershop music — and in many ways its most alluring quality — is the “overtone.” Also known as “expanded sound” or the “ringing chord,” the overtone is a natural acoustic phenomenon in which sound waves interact and a fifth voice is produced over and above the four voices of the quartet as they combine to sing the chord.

The beauty of the overtone is achieved only in the context of four very different voices. The listener would be deprived of the experience, would be musically and aesthetically impoverished, if only a bass or only a tenor were singing the same piece, however gifted the singer and pleasing the rendition.

It is telling that barbershop musicians sometimes refer to the overtone effect as “the angel’s voice.” In the Haggadah, in our families and communities, as in barbershop music, it is in our integration of different voices and of people with varying strengths and perspectives that we become more than the sum of our individual constituent parts.

All four children contribute to the whole. Each is indispensable to proper celebration of the festival. No seder or Jewish community or family is complete (or, ultimately, very interesting) if comprised exclusively of sages or exclusively of rebels. Only in listening openly and lovingly to all four sons — to all four children — to each other, in all our personal, spiritual, theological, and vocal diversity, do we find our purpose, maximize our insight, hone our perception, and properly fulfill our divine charge.

In understanding the Haggadah, we need all four performers if we hope to hear the angel’s voice.

About the Author
Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
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