New Lessons from the Four Children

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(Source: Arthur Szyk, "The Four Sons")


Let’s turn back to the mysterious, riveting story of the Four Children, which we read every year at the Seder. The four children, or four kinds of children, approach Passover in four different ways, and we are told to respond to them differently, each in their own way: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask a question.
Whereas the most common interpretation may be that the wise child is the favorite, the Rabbinic authors buried a few treasures within this text that call that view into question. The Rabbis cared about people’s feelings and would not typically advocate, for example, cutting someone off from the people without at least processing the likely outcome of that. I don’t think any of the children is a favorite; I think they all have their strengths and flaws. Some of them are surprising.
We all know kids like these: the wise one with all the answers, the wicked one who disrupts everything, the simple one who isn’t sure what’s going on, and the one who is either too little or too simple indeed to form a question. The first point is that these are children — our children. Even when they act out, the Rabbis could not possibly have meant that we are to cut one of them off while smothering another with praise. All four of them are our future. If we want 100% of a future, instead of 75% or less, then we’d better figure out how to reach each one of them, so that when they grow into adults each of them too will be able to say, “This is what the Eternal God did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.”
The Wise Child
The Wise Child asks: “What are all the rituals, laws and customs which the Eternal One, our God, has commanded you?” You shall respond to him with the rules of Passover, down to the last detail, which is: There is no further eating after the Afikoman.
I always used to assume that the Wise Child was the favorite, the exemplar of how everybody else should ask. That does seem to be the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text. The child is called wise, which is a compliment, and shows interest in a correct observance.
The Wise Child’s question is a quotation from Torah (Deut. 6:20). Oddly, the recommended response to the Wise Child does not match the commandment given in Deut. 6:21-25 as to what to say. Are we to assume that the Wise Child already knows that “God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”? Are the Torah’s words too elementary for the Wise Child? Or does the mismatch signal that something deeper is going on?
I am not convinced that the Wise Child is the rabbis’ favorite. (I’ve already tipped my hand; I don’t believe any of the children are favored or disfavored.) The Wise Child is praised for being interested in the laws. But the point of the Seder, as we are told repeatedly, is not what we do or don’t eat after the Afikoman, but that God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In this way, the Wise Child has somewhat missed the point. The rabbinic authors answer in kind, giving an overly specific answer to the Wise Child’s overly specific question.
In pointing out that the Wise Child is imperfect, I do not mean to imply that they are bad. None of the children is bad. The Wise Child has further developing to do, just like everyone else. Children develop the ability to think abstractly quite late — often coincident with puberty and, in our culture, Bar/Bat Mitzvah. This is why we teach algebra and geometry in middle and high school, and why children of this age begin to ask more critical questions about religion, theology, and Jewish practice.
There is a phase in the development of any new skill, whether our first attempts at critical thinking as children and young adults, or accomplishing a task as an adult, in which we focus on tactics and specific instructions before graduating to strategy and broader goals. The Wise Child may be applying themselves earnestly to Judaism, putting in practice time on the scales before learning how to “make music to God on the strings” (Psalm 98:5).
In order to reach the next developmental phase, this child needs to develop a critical sense. In a way, the attitude of the Wicked Child (stay tuned) can help the Wise Child in this. The Wise Child needs to learn to look objectively in the mirror, questioning the authority of others and self. As we will see soon, too much questioning of authority leads to disengagement and waste, but an insufficient amount of it blocks progress and stunts leadership potential. The Wise Child wants to be effective, but needs to find a balance between autonomy and obedience.
The Wicked Child
“What does this service mean to you?” asks the Wicked Child. “To you, and not to him,” the Rabbinic authors further comment. Because the Wicked Child asks their question in the second person, we are told, they separate themselves from the community. Therefore, we are told, we should respond harshly, telling this child that they would not have deserved redemption had they been in Egypt with the Israelites.
Like the Wise Child, the Wicked Child’s question is also a quotation from Torah (Ex. 12:26), and as with the Wise Child, the recommended response to the Torah does not match what the Torah tells us to say in Exodus 12. (Have a look.) The Rabbis were not unaware of these mismatches; rather, they are increasingly clear markers of deeper meanings in the text. We now have two reasons to doubt that the Wicked Child really deserves to be cut off: first, that they are just a child, for goodness’ sake, and second, that the Wicked Child’s question was formed of holy words.
I don’t think the Wicked Child is at all wicked — except maybe wicked awesome — but we will continue using that name because it is, as I believe the Rabbis intended, provocative. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that the Wicked Child has distanced himself or herself from the community, as the text says. The Wicked Child, then, in the rubric we discussed above of autonomy and obedience, has made the reverse of the Wise Child’s error: the Wicked Child has erred on the side of autonomy.
Many of us, as adults, pride ourselves on rejecting authority. Before we return to that point, I hope we can all agree that some level of authority is good for children. The text speaks of children and not adults, and for children, a total rejection of authority is disastrous. For adults, too, I would argue that we do not generally succeed in rejecting all authority, even if we claim to do so. Authority may be gentle and subject to laws, it may be distributed among people in defined ways, but it may not be entirely absent in order for a community to function. The Wicked Child will not go far all alone, brashly charging forward under the youthful myopia of imagined invincibility. The Wicked Child needs a community.
But just as the Wise Child had a weakness buried under a strength, the Wicked Child has a strength buried under a weakness. The Wise Child and the Wicked Child need and complete each other. The Wicked Child’s strength is objectivity, the ability to think critically about group practices without feeling completely immersed in them. It can be lonely to be a critic, but the Wicked Child is unafraid. So, while the Wicked Child certainly needs a community, every community also needs Wicked Children. Without a Wicked Child within it, no community can ever become better.
We are to respond to the Wicked Child harshly, saying that had they been in Egypt with the people at the time of the Exodus, they would not have deserved redemption. We can’t forget that this text is talking about children. The harshness is metaphorical and is supposed to make a point; its intention is to provoke the cathartic realization that the Wicked Child must recognize their belonging to the community. Nobody is being kicked out of anywhere. Nevertheless, most of us find this harshness uncomfortable, and we might well ask whether such harshness, consistently directed at children, might not result in their leaving the community after all.
I, for one, am not a fan of the suggested response to the Wicked Child. It is typical of the pattern of threatened ostracism, which is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture but is no longer effective. The goal of threatened ostracism is that the Jewish child will come to develop a sense of personal belonging to the Jewish community. The hope is that the child will see what they would miss if they lost the privileges of belonging. However, today those approaches are more appropriate which encourage our Wicked Children to feel inextricably part of and at home in the Jewish community regardless of whatever may happen.
The Wicked Child asks, “What does this service mean to you?” and is reprimanded for using the word “you.” However, the Wise Child has done exactly the same thing! The Wise Child’s question was, “What are all the rituals, laws and customs that the Eternal our God has commanded you?” How in the world can we criticize the Wicked Child so harshly for something that the Wise Child just did?
To this argument, many traditional commentators respond that the Wise Child also said “our God,” thereby taking part in an inclusive “we.” But this strikes me as a weak apologetic for the plain-sense reading of the text. The Wicked Child is accused of using the word “you,” not of omitting the word “we.” Instead of explaining away such a large problem in this small way, I think the Rabbinic authors intended for us to stumble upon this serious logical flaw in the presented reasoning. The mismatch between the Haggadah’s and the Torah’s recommended responses to the Wicked Child’s and Wise Child’s questions further underscores that the text is not fully understood merely by taking it literally.
Perhaps the entire suggested response to the Wicked Child is based on a mistake, and we should not, after all, do what it suggests. (Perhaps we should take the Torah’s advice instead.) I think anyone who has had anything to do with children can attest that it is certainly possible, in our fallibility, to discipline one child for the same thing we just let another one get away with. It happens, and in the eyes of children themselves it happens very often. Perhaps the text is calling our attention to this issue, by burying within the story a possible signal that we, the disciplinarian, have erred.
Closer to the traditional reading, another response might be that the Wise Child’s use of “our God” gives us a pathway to redeeming the Wicked Child’s error and helping them build a stronger sense of belonging. Once again, the “you” and the “we” — the criticism from a distance and the participation up close — have to be balanced because the community needs both of them.
There is yet another “buried treasure” in the Wicked Child’s question. While the Wise Child asks about endless details, the Wicked Child alone among the Four Children is the one who sees that the Seder is a worship service. “What does this service mean to you?” — the word for service, avodah in Hebrew, can only mean a worship service. Not only that, but this word was used for the worship service in the Temple where sacrifices were made, so in that sense, only the Wicked Child has connected the “rituals, laws and customs” of the Seder back to the ancient Israelite pilgrimage festival which they symbolize. The Wise Child sees the details and wants more of them, whereas the Wicked Child, of faltering loyalty, unsure of his or her proper place, sees the big picture.
Only the Wise Child invokes God, but only the Wicked Child understands that the Seder is a worship service to God. Could the Wicked Child’s insecurity about belonging and place be due to his or her correct apprehension of the magnitude of what is going on? Could the Wicked Child be stammering because he or she has found awe?
The apprehension of the magnitude of God’s deliverance and the weight of responsibility it places upon survivors could drive anyone away from religion in the absence of some sort of structure. Moses himself tried to run away from the burning bush before partially accepting the responsibility that God wanted to confer on him. The Wicked Child, in this reading, has come too close to the holy place and feels repulsed by the enormity of the spiritual energy that threatens his or her sense of self. In the face of such mind-numbing enormity, we need guideposts and guardrails if we are to climb. These are provided, in Judaism, by the rituals that attracted the Wise Child’s intellectual interest. This is why I say the Wicked Child and the Wise Child complete each other. Each is missing a piece of the puzzle that the other has. The Wise Child needs the Wicked Child’s raw, emotional spirituality, big-picture view, and ability to criticize. The Wicked Child needs the Wise Child’s careful, plodding analysis, respect for well-traveled paths, and attention to safety and detail. Perhaps the best thing for both of these children would be for them to communicate.
The Simple Child
The Simple Child asks a simple question — “What is this?” — and gets a simple answer, that God freed us from Egypt with a strong hand. The Simple Child may seem either too young to form a more intelligent question, or perhaps comes across as dazed and confused, having no idea what is going on. Perhaps the Simple Child just woke up from a nap, and is surprised to see the table set with such unusual accoutrements. Simple, inarticulate, vulnerable and sweet, this child only asks “What is this?”
In many ways, the Simple Child has asked the best question of all. The Wise Child and the Wicked Child ask important questions that betray their respective attitudes and limitations. While the Wise Child and the Wicked Child each seem to possess half the truth, the Simple Child is sweetly whole. Unlike the preceding two children, the Simple Child does not know what is happening – and admits it. Also unlike the preceding two children, the Haggadah’s response to the Simple Child’s question matches that of the Torah (Ex. 13:14). Perhaps this match, in contrast to the Wise Child’s and Wicked Child’s mismatches, signifies that the Simple Child is in balance.
As can happen when two children become boisterous rivals, the crossfire between the Wise Child and the Wicked Child obscures the excellence of the Simple Child’s question. Sure, the Simple Child would benefit from gaining more knowledge so as to ask questions at a higher level. Of course. But the excellence of the Simple Child lies in his or her willingness to be vulnerable, to admit a lack of knowledge, and to ask in the most innocent way, “What is this?”
No matter how much knowledge we have — and I think applying all the more urgently to those blessed with greater quantities of information in their brains — we learn anything at all only when we keep ourselves open enough to new information not to assume we already know everything. The preceding two children raised other tensions in our lives and in our communities; the Simple Child testifies to the tension between past and future learning. When we rest on our educational laurels and put on airs as if the Simple Child’s question is beneath us, we close ourselves off to new insights. Let’s admit it: we don’t know what’s going on here, pretty much ever. If we are used to looking down our noses at the Simple Child’s excellent question, it might be time we rediscover our inner Simple Child, and emulate the intellectual and spiritual vulnerability and openness of this sweet, honest student.
The Child Who Does Not Know to Ask
Finally, we have the quiet child, in Hebrew shelo yode’a lish’ol, “who does not know [how] to ask.” From context, it is pretty clear the Hebrew means the child does not know how to ask a question, and this is the way we usually read it. Still, an alternative way to look at this child might be that the child knows how to form a question, but “does not know to ask:” they may not know that it is appropriate to ask their questions at this time, or that they have the right to do so. Chasidic commentators recognize both ways to read the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask.
Although the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask is often portrayed as a very young child who cannot yet form complete sentences, there are times when all of us go through this experience. We may be in a totally new situation and lack a vocabulary to communicate about it. Or, we may be so unsure of our place that the question we need to ask never leaves our mouths.
Seen in this way, the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask might be even less secure in the Jewish community than the Wicked Child, because at least the Wicked Child is in dialogue. Or, if a Child Who Does Not Know to Ask is not helped by our own initiative to feel comfortable — to feel comfortable asking questions, that quintessentially Jewish activity — they may grow into a Wicked Child who needs help more urgently to belong. For these reasons and more, we are urged to take the initiative ourselves, as it is written, “You shall teach your children on that day . . .”.
Imagine finding yourself at a dinner party where the table manners are strange. You don’t know what to do, why people are dipping things, why they lean to the side. You are unsure whether to follow along, or whether to sit there. It doesn’t matter whether you are a young child or an adult; the experience might be straight from an anxiety dream. This is what the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask may feel like. It is not socially awkward for a young child not to know what is going on; the older the Child having this experience, the more awkward it gets.
For the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask, whatever age they may be, the kind thing to do is to take the initiative ourselves. I get the sense that the whole fable of the Four Children has been a commentary on this last quote, which, unlike the others, is explicitly presented as a quote (“as it is written/said”). The quote is Ex. 13:8, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because of what the Eternal God did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.”
It is striking that the suggested response to the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask is exactly the same as that to the Wicked Child. It is the same verse of Torah. From this we can learn a fundamental principle of Jewish text study: that the meanings of words lie not only in their dictionary definitions, but mainly in the way we say them, in our tone, inflection and context. Words must be read in context and with intention. They may have different meanings when read with different intentions; all are part of Torah. Conversely, the meanings of words are also assigned by the listener. What to the Wicked Child is a harsh, exclusionary message is a kindly, introductory conversation starter to the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask. It is possible these two children may have heard the exact same message and interpreted it in different ways.
The Child Who Does Not Know to Ask is given a basic start to the study of Passover, in the hope that it will prompt them to ask questions.
Growing Up
Something magic happens as children grow up. We are learners all our lives; from childhood to our years as elders, we carry all of these Children inside us. But at a certain moment, the former child becomes a teacher too. This is another lesson in the use of the words “I” and “me” with the Wicked Child and the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask. There is a real difference between the parent and child: not just a difference in generation or chronological age, but a difference in who personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. The parent is commanded to experience the Exodus personally, while the child hears about the experience from the parent after the fact, as history and folklore.
The magic is that children become adults, and one day, if it is part of their life journey, they become parents as well. These Four Children can each one day become responsible to teach their own children what the Eternal God did for them — for them personally — when they personally went forth from Egypt. As children, we hear about the Exodus secondhand. As adults, we teach about it firsthand. The Exodus is not yet the personal experience of these Four Children, but with time, it will be.
Our growth, considered in this way, is not about leaving childhood behind; it is about taking on adult responsibilities. Each of us will always remain the Wise Child, the Wicked Child, the Simple Child, and the Child Who Does Not Know to Ask, all at once, perhaps letting these characteristics show in different contexts, perhaps muddling through a conversation showing all four. We may be aware, through our inner Wicked Child and Child Who Does Not Know to Ask, that the same remark may appear kind or callous, depending on our attitude as a listener. Our inner Wise Child may have all the answers, our inner Simple Child none of them; sometimes I feel both ways at once.
But what we also have as adults is responsibility. In terms of the Exodus, we have the personal feeling that we were taken out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In this way, Jewish adulthood may be a matter of it becoming true for us that we have escaped slavery and are now free to serve the good with sacred responsibility.
Whatever manner of teaching promotes the development of responsibility in a particular child is helpful to them in attaining readiness for adulthood, and fulfills the commandment to teach our children about our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Rabbi Jeremy D. Sher is president of This Is Judaism, Inc. (ThisIsJudaism.net), an online community of learning, ritual, and activism. He is a Ministry Fellow and Harry Austryn Wolfson Fellow in Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where he is also a past Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellow in Yafo, Tel Aviv, Israel. He has just written the new book Growth through Governance: What Every Jewish Nonprofit Leader Should Know. He enjoys the challenge of cooking with leftovers, and is an avid cyclist.