Answering the Four Children

What to make of the wise, wicked, simple, and silent children at the seder

Print this page Print this page

By telling us the story of the four children, each with a distinct question and each with a distinct answer, the Haggadah is telling us to accept each person where they are and to begin from there. The questions that are asked must be addressed, and the questions that are not asked must be addressed.

The Responsibility of Responding

How we answer questions is a big responsibility. Try, for example, reading the story of the four children backward, with the answers preceding the questions. The story then becomes a demonstration of how our approach to answering questions can so strongly influence the kinds of questions that will be asked in the future. An open sharing of knowledge, such as is offered to the "wise" child, encourages more questions, more searching, and this is possible at any age and any level of learning. Defensiveness and belligerence--such as is offered to the "wicked" child, encourages belligerence at best and complete turn-off at worst.

Simple explanations encourage simple thinking; even simple questions often have complex answers, and ignorance is not the same as stupidity. And, always beginning the discussion for a child will prevent the child from learning how to ask. Too often, our categorizations of children become self-fulfilling prophesies, because of the power of our responses to influence future behavior. (I want to thank Uri Sobel for this insight.)

Different Renderings

One of my favorite activities at the seder was to pass out different Haggadot and to compare illustrations of the Four Children. Depictions of the wicked child are particularly interesting. Many Haggadot render the wicked child as a knight or a soldier. It is not hard to realize where that image came from. Haggadot from the early part of this century often depict the wicked child as a gambler or a gangster, complete with a cigar. A kibbutz Haggadah shows the wicked child as a city dweller.  A communist Haggadah shows the wicked child as a business man.

In introducing the tale of the four children, the Haggadah says: "k'neged arba banim dibra Torah." This is usually translated as: "the Torah alludes to four children." But perhaps it could also be rendered as: "The Torah speaks against the notion that there are four children."  One illustration that I find particularly meaningful comes from the Haggadah put out by the Rabbinical Assembly, and it shows paper cutouts of four bigger people with four littler people within. One cannot tell which child is which. As I see it, this illustration interprets the Haggadah to be teaching us that we are composite people. Sometimes we are this and sometimes we are that.

Each one of us contains aspects of each child; each one of us is sometimes wise and sometimes wicked, sometimes simple and sometimes silent. We are the four children. As such we ask questions and we provide answers, different answers for different needs.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Miriam Spitzer is the Judaic Studies Curriculum Coordinator and School Rabbi at the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Stoughton, Mass.