Four Children, Many Questions

A brief history of the story of the four children

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Some modern Haggadot, such as the Feast of Freedom, return to the version of the Yerushalmi. It does make the difference between the wise child and the wicked child much clearer.

A the same time, the renditions of both the wicked child and the one who does not know how to ask are fairly similar in the Yerushalmi, in the Mekhilta, and in our Haggadah, at least in implication if not in precise language. But the differences in the precise language are also interesting. The Haggadah reads:

"The wicked child asks: 'what is all this work to you?' S/he says to you and not to him. Thus s/he separates her/himself from the community and denies the point of it all. You should set her/his teeth on edge (hak'he et shinav) and tell her/him that God did this for me when I went out of Egypt, for me and not for her/him. Had s/he been there, s/he would not have been redeemed."

The phrase hak'he et shinav is particularly remarkable. It is an odd phrase, usually translated as "setting the teeth on edge,"--that is, making the child very uncomfortable. This bears some resemblance to a passage from Jeremiah 31:28, that in the future days no longer will parents eat vinegar and set the teeth of the children on edge. But literally it might mean to punch the child in the mouth, thus getting the child's attention rather dramatically. Furthermore, that phrase does not appear in the Yerushalmi, and while it does appear in some printed version of the mekilta, it is not found in the manuscript versions. Perhaps it was even retroactively put into the printed mekilta to make the text accord with the familiar Haggadah.

Again, times change and later generations apparently found the need to be clearer and more graphic in the treatment of the wicked child. The passage without the phrase "hak'he et shinav" did not censure the wicked child strongly enough.

Modern Questions

Modern Haggadot bring other questions to the story. Perhaps the four children represent four generations of American Jews (Riskin). Perhaps every one of us is in reality all four of these children (Feast of Freedom, and others). Perhaps the four children represent questions asked at different ages and life positions (Prince of Egypt Haggadah). Maybe we should be worried about a fifth child the one who does not show up at seder at all (Hartman).

The passage begins: "k'neged arba banim dibra Torah," the Torah speaks of four children. But this passage is not a quote from the Torah and it has grown, changed, and developed over the years, each generation finding meaning in the text as they found it.

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