The ‘four children’ conveys an impression of four different types of children, each of whom is sitting around the Seder table reacting differently to it. That picture is at best only half correct. The Haggadah’s source is the four times that Torah refers to the questions a child might pose. Yet a study of those sources suggests something far deeper than meets the eye in the Haggadah.
For one thing these children are most certainly not asking about Seder night. The ‘wise child’ confronted by an external culture different to their own, starts to ask probing questions about what their parents see in Jewish observance in general. What prompts the wise question is not Matzah, but everything Jewish: Shabbat, Kosher, giving 10% of our income to charity and so forth. Likewise the simple child’s question is prompted not by Seder night, but by observing the act of redemption of a first born boy. The ‘evil’ (or perhaps more fairly, the cynical) child’s question takes place a few hours before Seder night, whilst observing masses of Jews ascending to the Temple and slaughtering the sheep in preparation for the Pesach meal. Indeed the only child whose educational message is presented, in the Torah at least, as being on Seder night, is the one who does not know how to ask.
What relevance, then, do these four children have to Seder night? Once again the Torah texts provide the insight. The questions may not be about the Exodus, but the answers are. The Torah is telling us that no matter what a child asks, no Jewish question can be answered if it does not start with the Exodus. It is that central and that critical. Without it nothing else makes sense. With it we have the bedrock to face every question and address every challenge.
Yet that is not enough.
Although the Torah provides answers to each child, that refer back to the Exodus, the Haggadah at times seems to ignore the Torah’s answer and inserts one of its own.
Take the wise child. In Torah the wise question, probing to grasp the deeper meaning of the ‘testimonies, statutes and judgements’ of Jewish law, is given a perfect ‘Pesach’ response: “You shall say to your child: ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand. Hashem performed great and destructive marvels against Pharaoh and all his household. He freed us from there in order to bring us to the land that He had promised to our ancestors. Then Hashem tasked us to observe His laws, to revere Hashem our God, for our lasting good and for our survival as is now the case…’.”
Yet the Haggadah appears to offer a different approach: “So you should tell him as per the laws of Pesach, we do not have any desert after the ‘afikoman’ [final piece of the Pesach lamb (nowadays, the final piece of Matzah)].”
In fairness, the problem of the ‘wise child’ may not present a severe difficulty. The source-text of the Haggadah is the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, dating back between fifteen hundred and two thousand years. In the days it was written, ‘the laws of Pesach’ referred to one source: the Mishnayot (the redaction of the Oral Torah and Rabbinic law) of Pesach. When the Hagaddah says that you should deliver the wise child’s response, ‘in accordance with the laws of Pesach,’ it undoubtedly refers to the final chapter of those laws, which runs through an outline of our Haggadah text. The final teachings are introduced by the words, ‘we do not have any desert after the ‘afikoman’.’ In other words the text is not denying us the Torah’s response. The Torah is giving us an abbreviated response that contains within it all the key messages that should be addressed to any child asking a wise question. But on Seder night we should give a more elaborate and developed version of the Torah’s answer, exploring each aspect of it.
So the Haggadah’s alteration of the Torah’s answer is neither a shift of theme nor of focus. Instead it suggests that the whole of the Haggadah is an elaboration of the way that we educate a ‘wise child’.
How To Respond To The Evil Child
However the situation is far worse when it comes to the ‘evil’ child.
There the Torah’s answer and that provided for in the Haggadah do not match up. To the seemingly reasonable question, ‘What is this service to you?’, the Torah offers us to “...tell your child: ‘this is a Pesach offering for Hashem because He passed over our houses when he brought a plague upon Egypt and saved our homes’.”2 Nothing in the Torah’s message quite prepares us for the Haggadah’s strike: ‘[the child] said “[what is this service] to you?” - note ‘you’ excluding himself. Thus he has denied something fundamental. Likewise you should ‘blunt his teeth’ and retort, ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted for me when He brought me out of Egypt’ - ‘me’ and not him. Had he been there [with that attitude] he would never have been redeemed.”
What prompts the Haggadah to ignore the Torah’s gentle response in favour of delivering a sharp shock to the system? And if the Haggadah is correct that this child needs something stronger, why did the Torah abstain?
But the problem only seems to worsen when we realise that the Haggadah has not merely inserted a substitute answer; it directly plagiarised it from a different child, the one who does not know how to ask. “For the one who does not know how to ask, you should initiate for them as it says, ‘tell [lit. do Haggadah for] your child on that day: Because of this Hashem acted for me when He brought me out of Egypt’.”
Several commentators offer a compelling approach. The ‘evil’ child is also a child who does not know how to ask questions. The Hebrew word for question ‘sho’el’ implies a personal need. We ask because we are seeking something. We are searching for depth, meaning, understanding and identity. Like the English word ‘quest’ that is at the root of ‘question’. But the word ‘sho’el’ is not present when the Torah describes the ‘evil’ child. ‘When your child will utter to you: what is this service to you?’3 It is a pseudo-question. A cynical attempt to throw a mocking statement, with a question mark thrown onto the end. But there is no searching or seeking.
Indeed the Haggadah will eventually offer the very reply that the Torah gives. But first it must address not the question, but the questioner.
Still there can be a certain discomfort at the Haggadah’s suggestion for handling the ‘evil’ child. Worse, the very notion of labelling a child evil seems highly problematic. Indeed labelling any child seems far too dismissive for either contemporary sentiment or for Torah itself. Until we realise that the Torah never actually offers such labels. There is no such thing as a child who is purely wise, nor one who is purely evil, nor one who is just simple. And there is certainly no such thing as a child who does not know how to ask questions - at least not one capable of understanding the answer that Torah and Haggadah provide.
It’s Not About The Labels
From the context of Torah it is clear that any child could ask the wise question. Under the right circumstances any child indeed might. And the same goes for each child. Indeed if a child represents the paradigm of the questioner, then the four children express elements of each one of us. All of us have aspects of wisdom - a desire to seek deeper understanding; all have aspects of cynicism; all have a simple side that just wants more information; and all of us have an aspect to us that has stopped seeking and searching.
Seder night is a night for children. But it is also much more. It is night that demands that each of us becomes a child. Each of us must become a questioner.
‘If there is no child an adult should ask the questions… and if there is only one adult they must ask the questions…’4
We Are All Children
On second thoughts that should hardly surprise us. After all Seder night commemorates the creation not so much of a ‘Jewish nation’ as it does of the ‘Children of Israel’. God refers to the nation as ‘My child, My firstborn, Israel’.5 In our very founding we are children. Excited, curious, seeking and searching.
To re-enact the Exodus is to offer us an experience to climb to heights of unimaginable scale. It is an opportunity to open up worlds that we thought were unimaginable, and to achieve a freedom we thought impossible. The Haggadah will serve as our guide. But the journey is not one of information. It is one of wonder. And that requires us to be children. All of us.
Armed with that insight, the whole first section of the Haggadah becomes clear. We do all we can to provoke questions but we do not answer the questions. Instead we tell the questioner that we needed questions because tonight there is an enormously important discussion. Effectively we tell the child ‘it was so you would ask, seek and search’.6 That is not a trivial question-baiting; rather it is a deadly serious attempt to shift our modality.
To emphasize the point the Haggadah transported us to a room where the very Rabbis responsible for composing the source texts we use, could still not exhaust their discussion of it. Moreover, they tell us, it will be discussed even in the Messianic era! Finally the Haggadah addresses the four sons. It tells us that the extent to which we approach like the wise child, the Haggadah is there for us. To the extent to which we approach as a simple child, there is what for us to gain and grow. But the extent to which we think like the cynic, or to the extent to which we have stopped seeking and searching, we could read the entire Haggadah and simply miss everything.
What then is it that we must seek and search for? What, indeed, is the nature of the journey that Seder night seeks for us? Now we are ready to go and discover...
Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country.
Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".
Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.