Free Associations on the Four Sons

The Torah speaks of four sons. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know how to ask the question.

What does the wise son say? “All these testimonies, laws, and rulings given to [you] by God, what do they mean?” And so you teach [him] all the laws of Passover, including the ruling that nothing should be eaten after the afikoman.

What does the wicked son say? “What does all this mean to you?” And because he says “to you” and not to himself, he removes himself from the community, and in so doing he denies God. And therefore, in return you must make him feel uncomfortable and say, “It is because of that which God did for me when I came out of Egypt.” “For me” and not for him. Had the wicked son been there, he would not have been redeemed.

What does the simple son say? That son says, “What does all this mean?” And you answer, “With a mighty hand God freed the Jewish people from Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

And what about the son who does not even know how to ask the question? You begin by quoting from the Torah, “And you [feminine] shall tell your son on that day, ‘We do all this because of that which God did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”

Elie Wiesel, Passover Haggadah

When I was a child, I spent many Seder evenings thinking about the four sons. Which was I, I wondered? It was clearly good to be the first one, smart, clean-cut, asking all the right questions. Some years I determined to reform, to be more like him. Was I really the Rashah, the wicked child? It seemed like I always asked too many questions, too many of the wrong questions. I hadn’t quite figured out what was wrong with asking the questions I did, but as I quickly learned, this was not the “son” to be. Then there was the simple son. The picture in the Haggadah looked benign; he was sweet. I didn’t think I had too much chance of being like him. But the son who intrigued me most was the last one. What does it mean, I wondered year after year, to not know how to ask?

Not long ago I sat with a teenage girl who was struggling deeply. After years of trying to be something other than “the difficult one” in her family, she had become anorexic. Unable to communicate with words, her body had become the messenger of her despair. The pressure from her family was palpable: Fix her, get her to eat. Why is she doing this to us? As she and I sat together I could feel her helplessness. There were no more words, no questions, no answers. She no longer knew how to ask.

The experience reawakened my historical inner dialogue with the four sons. Dusting off my Haggadah several months early, I was once again intrigued with the nuances of the parable. Far from being a simple description of four types of children, I now saw the parable as offering profound insight into the elements that impact the development of the child, and by extension, the formation and potential for transformation of the world. My father used to say that, with the movement of one small Hebrew vowel (or one transliterated English letter), “arba’ah banim” (“four sons”) becomes “arba’ah bonim,” or “four builders” of a society. In his commentary on the Haggadah, Elie Wiesel (1993) writes of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leader of the orthodox German Jewish community who believed that “the four sons symbolize four generations. The first follows the precepts of the father, the second rebels against them, the third submits without understanding them. As for the last, he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.”

With a slightly different perspective, I suggest that the four sons do indeed represent the impact one generation has upon the next, but this impact is neither haphazard nor unpredictable. As psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott famously said, “There is no such thing as a baby;” we cannot consider the existence or nature of a child outside the context of the care it receives from its (m)other. In similar fashion, I suggest that we cannot understand the four sons of the Haggadah without reflecting on the experiences that may have informed the questions they ask.


The first son, often referred to as the “wise” one, has been seen for generations as the one who brings “joy to his parents” and “hope for the future.” He demonstrates his interest in the traditions; he pleases everyone by asking for the most minute details of the observance of the Passover. Posing concrete questions, he is given concrete answers: instruction in the laws and traditions, dietary restrictions, guidelines for proper performance of the rituals. Yet strikingly absent in both questions and answers is the search for deeper meaning in the observances, the abstract rather than the concrete. Could it be that a child whose intelligent questions are met with concrete answers is left with a void in his field of creative vision? Becoming vested in being “good,” can he remain real?

How significant, I think, that our forbearers chose the word “chacham” to describe this son, rather than “navon.” Where chacham translates literally as “smart” or “intelligent,” navon is a term often reserved for those who possess not only intelligence, but also true wisdom. I cannot help but be reminded of those in all religious traditions whose concept of a righteous life is defined by following the proverbial “p’s and q’s” of ritual, who value the letter of the law over its spirit, who perform acts of physical or psychic violence in the name of God. Does the need to have “all the right answers” breed a moralistic perspective on the world, as opposed to a moral one? Did the Haggadah mean to clue us here to the profound difference between intelligence and wisdom?

When intelligent men and women build a society that is not based on empathy toward others, the result is a society with a foundation of concrete thinking: good and bad, right and wrong, black and white. Intelligence alone, the Haggadah seems to be reminding us, is but one small step toward an understanding of liberation. Those of intelligence may not necessarily be the bearers of wisdom.


Rashah, the evil, wicked, or rebellious son (depending on your translation) poses the next question. “What is all this work you are doing?” he asks. The Haggadah is swift in its reproach. Because this son has posed his question in such a way as to exclude himself from the community, it is the responsibility of the father to “hakeh et shinav,” literally to “hit him in the teeth” (a translation that rarely makes it into politically correct editions!). This son is to be told, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when he brought me out of Egypt; for me and not for him. For had he been there, he would not have been worthy of being redeemed.”

It seems to me that of far greater importance than the questions asked in this passage are the questions not asked: How did this son come to be considered so evil? What is it, in this very appropriate question of a child that causes his elders to react with such rage? Could it be that the intent of this passage is to show us that the seeds for alienation are planted in the nature of the replies given to a child? Might this response be less about the son than about the kind of parenting that allows little time or patience for listening to the deeper meanings in the questions of a child? The kind of parenting that asks “Why is she doing this to us?”  “Li v’lo lo” — to us and not to her?  How tragic that so many members of our society, including those of intelligence and righteous deeds, believe that values can be taught with a heavy hand and a big stick. How unsurprising that a child who is treated with such rage and lack of empathy becomes the rebel, or even eventually, another abuser.

When we label children “wicked” or “rebellious” rather than seeking out the source of their distress, the despair instilled in them can be turned back on the self; the rage implanted in them can be turned back on us. Alienation is the byproduct of a non-empathic environment, the breeding ground of the bigoted and the cynical. Those who identify with the aggression visited upon them as children often carry on the traditions in the moralistic and punishing societies they go on to build. Perhaps finding solace in carrying their own big sticks, they become the bullies of each succeeding generation.

In his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn writes of the abuses heaped upon those who dare to question the established norms. In recent generations, those who have protested war and violence have been called traitors, and those who have exposed abuse have often been despised. He who is called Rashah is often the one who sees what others refuse to see, who questions what others can’t or won’t question. To truly be a Rashah, however, is to consciously blind one’s eyes to what is around one. Rashah is the voice of the abuser, be he the menacing parent or the self-righteous legislator. Rashah is the one who tears the world down rather than building it up. To lack compassion for one’s fellow man is to separate oneself from the community. For those who have hardened their hearts, like the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Torah shows no mercy. For those who cannot find empathy in their hearts, there is no redemption.

In the biblical tale of the “Akadat Yitzchak,” the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham in preparation for his sacrifice at the behest of God, the moment of greatest significance seems to me to be the moment of negation. Abraham, nearly blind, demonstrates his devotion to God by his unquestioning willingness to follow His commands. But at the last moment, God calls it off. As if to say, “Open your eyes, O father of my people. Do not ever sacrifice your children. Not even in my name.”


The next child is Tam, the simple son, who asks a question not unlike the one posed by his ostensibly “wicked” brother. “What is all this?” he asks. Here the Haggadah models the differences in the way a child’s question can be related to. Where the first son is offered rules and regulations and the second son is verbally and physically struck down, this son is offered the mighty hand of God and his father to hold while he learns about the deeper meanings of a liberated life. Calling upon his developing capacity for abstract thinking, the child’s imagination is awakened and stimulated as he is told of the miracles God performed in the lives of his ancestors. It is not the child who is simple here, but rather the “simplicity” of the answer that fosters connection and loving-kindness.

When a child can pose a simple question to empathic parents and receive a clear and direct answer, the foundation for deep and meaningful thought is laid, and the roots of a compassionate and just society are laid down. When we can look around at the unfathomable elements of a hostile environment and ask, “What is all this?” we have moved a step closer to wisdom and redemption, to the possibility of “mending, repairing, and transforming the world.” Far from being the simpleton he is often depicted, Tam holds the hope for renewal.

Sh’eyno yodeah lishol

The final child is given no appellation. He has neither questions nor answers; he does not know how to ask. The illustrations accompanying this portion of the passage often depict a small child, too young to understand what is happening around him. As if to alert us to the significance of his silence, however, the answer given to him is the most complex of all. In fact, it is in response to this child that the entire story of the Passover is then addressed.

In this reply, the Haggadah guides us back to the beginning, to the earliest relationship in life when the newborn infant learns by absorbing meaning from the eyes and voice and touch of its mother. Before there are words, “at pitach lo,” it is the mother who opens the mind of the child. In saying “I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt,” in sharing her own spiritual and emotional experience, the (m)other connects with her child and implants the seeds of understanding and true wisdom.

Legend has it that, when reaching this place in the parable, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev would stop the Seder and meditate for a long period of time finally breaking his silence with this petition unto God:

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the fourth son who does not even know how to ask the question, that is me, Levi Yitzhak. If I knew how to ask questions, I would ask You these questions. Read them in my heart, Almighty God, they are waiting for You there… (in Wiesel, 1993).

In the son who does not know how to ask, we find the seeds of wisdom. For is it not the times that we are closest to our own humble centers that we not only lack the answers, but are at a loss for the questions? Like the teenage girl with whom I sat, the pain in one’s life at times can transcend mere words. But these may also be the times when, not knowing what to ask, we begin to listen, sometimes even to ourselves; when not knowing how or what to take in, we begin to absorb the whole, rather than its parts. These are the times that transform souls.

Retelling the Whole Story

With the four sons as preamble—perhaps even as guide—the story of Passover is now told “mi’tchila,” from the beginning. In the beginning, God created heaven and earth, and it was good. But when, despite his admonitions, Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge, God was filled with wrath. For as the lesson of the chacham, the first son reflects, knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge, unguided by spiritual presence and purpose, ultimately breeds shame and alienation. The generations that followed the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden became the Rashah, so lacking in loving-kindness that God found it necessary to destroy their world and begin again. After the flood, Noah, ish tamim, a simple man, returned civilization to its roots. Like the third son, he was given the tools and God’s guidance in securing the elements necessary for tikkun olam. But as the new society grew more complex and confused, it needed a code, a clearer moral and spiritual compass. Out of that need arose Abraham who, posing neither questions nor answers, listened and learned. Finding the wisdom in one God, and following in His footsteps, Abraham became the father of a great nation.

When we become open to learning by listening we open the door of possibility. When the intelligent son is responded to with wisdom, when the challenging son is responded to with compassion, we all reap the benefits of the simple and silent spaces of understanding within our hearts and minds. As the parable of the four sons teaches, in between intelligence and wisdom lie empathy and humility. For in a society that too often feels like it is spinning out of control in a vortex of violence and intolerance, hope lies in the simple questions we might begin to ask, and in the inner wisdom of answers that have not yet occurred to us.

Alitta Kullman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Laguna Hills, California.
tags: Child Development, Judaism, Passover   
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