Answering the Four Children
What to make of the wise, wicked, simple, and silent children at the seder
Four children came to seder. One was wise, one was wicked, one was simple, and one was silent.
It was seder night at long last. The family gathered around the table, and Zayde (Grandpa, in Yiddish) began reading the Haggadah. Suddenly one child was heard to ask in an undertone: "What is going on here, anyway?" At that point another child muttered: "Yeah, what does all this mean to you? Let's eat already!" Another child piped up: "I know what is going on. I know what he is reading. I know everything about Pesach." The last child didn't say anything, but managed to look manifestly bored, as Zayde continued reading the Haggadah, oblivious to the murmuring.
No, that can't be how it happened. I'll try again.
It was seder night at long last. The family gathered around the table, and Zayde began reading the Haggadah. Suddenly one child interrupted: "What are all these laws and customs and practices which God has given to you? I want to know." Zayde began to explain the intricacies of Pesach law, when there was another interruption: "You tell us all these things, but what do they really mean to you, Zayde? Why do you still do them?" And before Zayde could finish responding to this question, a third sibling interrupted: "But what is really happening here tonight, Zayde?" Zayde smiled and began to explain, waiting for the last child to interrupt. But that kid was too busy reading the commentaries in the Haggadah to ask anything at all.
Hmmm. I am not sure that that is the way it happened either.
Which Child Was Which?
Four children there were at seder, one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who did not know how to ask a question. But which child was which? Was the wise child smart--or a smart aleck? Was the wicked child bad--or challenging? Was the simple child really simple? And was the fourth child unable to ask a question--or unwilling to do so? Which one was which?
Four children there were at the seder, and we all take it for granted that one was wise and one was wicked, one was simple, and one did not know how to ask. But imagine that a parent declared: "I have four children: This one is the brain, this one the troublemaker, this one the dope and this one the silent." Would we let such a statement pass? Would we let a teacher get away with saying, "I have four students, the brilliant one, the idiot, the loudmouth, and the one who never says a word?" What is the Haggadah getting at?
Perhaps the Haggadah deliberately provides caricatures of four types of children to teach us something about the care we must take when we answer questions. Each person at our seder is coming from a different place. This one is older and more experienced. That one has never been to seder before. That other one was sick and did not expect to make it to seder, but is there. That one never learned to read Hebrew, and that one knows French.