What’s With the Fours?

This number appears over and over in the Passover Haggadah.

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Reprinted with permission from Am Echad Resources.

Despite the late hour and exhaustion (not to mention wine), many a Jewish mind has wondered long and hard during a Passover seder about all the Haggadah’s “fours.” Four questions, four sons, four expressions of redemption, four cups. There’s clearly a numerical theme here.

While some may superficially dismiss the Haggadah as a mere compendium of random verses and songs, it is in truth a subtle and wondrous educational tool, with profound Jewish ideas layered through its seemingly simple text. The rabbis who formulated its core, already extant in pre-Talmudic times, wanted it to serve as a tool for planting important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers–especially its younger ones, toward whom the seder, our tradition teaches, is aimed. And so the authors of the Haggadah employed an array of pedagogical methods, including songs, riddles, and puzzles, as means of conveying deeper understanding. And they left us clues, too.fours on passover

When it comes to the ubiquitous “fours,” we might begin by pondering the essential fact that Passover is when the Jewish people’s identity is solemnly perpetuated. The seder is the ritual instrument through which each Jewish generation inculcates our collective history and essence to the next. Which is likely a large part of the reason that so many Jewish parents who are alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of seder, to read a Haggadah, or even–if they have strayed too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original–to compose their own. (I once joked before an audience that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book, though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

And so the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis-a-vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very specific one. We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information per se that we are communicating, but something more: identity.

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Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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