At Pesach, the number four features heavily: four names for the holiday; four languages of redemption; four cups; four questions; and four children (often called “sons,” though not intrinsically gendered).
What is the nature of the number four, its uniqueness? Our minds are organized to think in four directions. Around these, one can create a circle. The squaring of the circle gives rise to the mandala shape, extensively researched by Carl Gustav Jung as an archetype that cuts across cultures and represents cosmos and perfection.
Four is also the first instance of higher complexity. One equals unity; two equals duality; three creates an initial complexity. But with four, we can begin to pair things off, to create separate structures. It gives rise to combinations in the form of both X and Y; X but not Y; Y but not X; and neither X nor Y. We see this form, for example, on Sukkot in symbolism given to the four species: the two factors of taste and smell – symbolizing Torah and good deeds – are played off each other to create four different permutations, following the pattern mentioned. We also see this in listings in Ethics of the Fathers that follow this structure or a similar one (5:10-14).
With this in mind, let’s discuss the four children. They are based on four instances of Torah verses containing educational activity around the Exodus story, aimed at children. With admirable rabbinic imagination, a few generalized verses about education are brought to life and transformed into flesh and blood human beings. On Pesach, the ultimate festival for the act of stepping into a narrative, it is deeply appropriate for the magic of rabbinical creativity to conjure up these four children for us: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask. Down the ages, these figures have become alive for us. We are invested in the question of exactly who they are, and we see them colorfully portrayed repeatedly, in drawings ranging from medieval sketches to the Marx brothers, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
So, can we pair these children off in a higher complexity? If so, how?
An answer is to group them by two factors: of intellect and of question. By intellect, in the form of AABB – placing the wise with the wicked, the simple with the non-asking. By question, following the form ABAB – this time linking the wise with the simple, the wicked with the non-asking.
This latter permutation is hinted to by the structure of the Baruch HaMakom that precedes the four children in the haggadah, in which the phrase “Baruch Hu” is repeated on the second and fourth line.
But, you protest, why do I term this a grouping by question in the form ABAB? There are, after all, three questions here and it should be AAAB?!
Well, notice the words “ba’avur zeh” (“it is for the sake of this”) repeated in the answers given to both wicked and non-asking. This teaches us that the wicked child has not genuinely asked a question. What sounds like a question from an intelligent and interested interlocutor “What is this service for you?” is actually a dogmatic, rhetorical statement, a demand, and accompanied by an inability to hear any kind of reply. What can we do with such a person? We might give up in despair – there is no point trying to answer, they will never be convinced. But instead, we treat them as we do the non-asking child, by giving over information, in the hopes it can be heard nonetheless; and at the same time, we are provocative in our language, trying to shake this person out of their shell.
Additionally, with the emphasis removed from intellect in this grouping, we can remove the stain from the third child and redefine this typology not as a simpleton, but as a tam, as Noah or Jacob were described as being – whole-hearted and pure, not primarily focused on analysis or critique, but on devotion and faith.
We now have a four-way structure that looks like this:
— Wise child – intellect, question.
— Wicked child – intellect, no (real) question.
— Whole-hearted child – de-emphasizing intellect, question.
— Non-asking child – lacking intellect, no question.
In all similar four-way structures, we find the one with both attributes is generally considered the superior one. Thus, the etrog that has both smell and taste symbolizes the Jew who has both Torah and mitzvot.
In that case, might it not seem ideal to have a seder populated only by wise children?
We can answer a resounding, “No.” Just as on Sukkot all four species are needed in order to fulfill the mitzvah, let us posit that all four of these children not only belong to, but are a prerequisite for, the seder table. From this perspective, a seder containing only wise children is not a real seder.
The implication, if we follow this train of thought, is that we need to ensure the presence of at least one person whom we might consider wicked! And since truly wicked people are not necessarily easy to discern or find, perhaps we can extrapolate the discussion above to define “wicked” as someone we find dogmatic and stuck in their views, asking questions that are merely rhetorical and unwilling to hear our answers.
As seen frequently on social media, many of us (myself included) struggle with mustering patience for people who refuse to listen to our very reasonable arguments, and stubbornly continue to disagree with our truths. On social media, we can block someone; in real life, it is not that simple. Can we manage to host someone at the seder who will say things with which we profoundly disagree, making us uncomfortable? This often occurs de facto, with relatives of different leanings being forced together by the occasion. But it takes courage, love, and tolerance to deliberately invite someone like this over for a dinner lasting several hours. We would have to work very hard not to be “triggered” and “offended,” those buzzwords of our age. Yet, perhaps such a person must be present to make a proper seder? (And perchance, WE are the wicked ones for them, in being resistant to their truth?)
In the well-known mysterious talmudic tale of the “four who entered the Pardes,” only Rabbi Akiva came out whole. Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went mad, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. It could be argued that Rabbi Akiva parallels the wise child, Elisha the wicked, Ben Azzai the tam — the simple or pure one — and Ben Zoma the non-asking. Elisha, now a heretic, was shunned by the rabbinic community, but his student, the great Rabbi Meir never gave up on him. Though Elisha proved unable to hear any answers that might draw him back into the fold, his story lives on in our tradition and in the efforts of Rabbi Meir to draw him back in, and (some claim) his Torah lives on through Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Meir loved his teacher and lived in eternal hope of reconciliation. If we can love our “wicked” a little more, perhaps we can work harder to not give up on them or on dialogue – and perhaps they too can work harder not to give up on us.
 Quoted in Masa el ha-herut – leil ha-seder ketahalich tzemichah by Gabriel Strenger, in the name of the kabbalist Friedrich Weinreb.
 To what degree the apparent aggressiveness of the response to the wicked child is effective or appropriate, or even true to rabbinic intention, is a subject for discussion.
 Ben Azai does not appear to have actually died young. Instead he spends his life in devoted, ecstatic Torah learning and very likely does not marry. I would suggest that by entering a static state of devotion and celibacy, it as if he has died, in cutting himself off from ordinary life.
 Ben Zoma was a darshan – he interpreted. If he asked a question, it was only to immediately answer it. In Tosefta Chagiga 2, we see that after has gone insane, Ben Zoma does not greet Rabbi Yehoshua and the latter has to open the conversation with him, just as we do with the non-asking child. (Ben Zoma actually appears in the haggadah adjacent to the four children).
 There is a tradition that where it say “acherim omrim” (“others say”), this refers to teachings received by Rabbi Meir from his teacher Elisha. See e.g, Tosfot Sotah 12.