Who Knows Four?

The Wise Son

What number comes to mind when you think about a Passover seder? Probably four. Four cups of wine. Four questions. Four sons. Especially those four troublesome sons. But they are challenging in the best possible way because they furrow our brows and engage and embarrass us, awake and inspire us. To paraphrase very simply:

– The wise one asks how to observe Passover, and is taught the laws and statutes.

– The wicked one asks: “What is this service of yours?” and is taught that because he did not include himself, he would not have been redeemed from Egypt.

– The simple one asks what this celebration is about and is taught that the seder commemorates their being taken out of Egypt.

– The one who does not know how to ask is engaged in conversation and taught that he is participating in a celebration
about the parent having been redeemed.


The Wicked Son

The answers the haggadah instructs us to teach the four sons are supposed to be according to each one’s ability to understand, but still, they do not seem very helpful. That is, if we imagined what it would be like to be in each of the children’s places and receive these answers, would we be satisfied by them? I doubt it. Indeed, the answers seem to imply that they will simply reinforce the outlook of each and not bring about any change at all. And so, I suspect, precisely for that reason, that we are not to accept them at face value. Especially since it seems that we all have elements of each of the children in us – wise in some ways, wicked in others. We can be uneducated or unable to ask – and sometimes we don’t even know the questions. That is, the answers are not simple answers at all. Rather, they inspire us to deeper questions.


The Simple Son

Ever since my husband, Jewish artist Alan Falk, painted “The Four Sons” his images of them shuffle, clack, scuff and pad around in my mind (see illustrations). In his vision, they represent four generations of assimilation. The wise patriarch who survived the Holocaust and is committed to his faith. His hard work and struggles are visible in his bent hands. He is bewildered and sad. The wicked son, who turned away from his father’s teachings, sits in his seder seat as if it is filled with needles. The simple son, who received no wisdom from his father, experiences the Passover seder as not much more than a dinner with wine. And lastly, the son who does not know how to ask, for his father had no wisdom to impart, is lost. He does not know how to be in the world at all.

not ask

The Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask

We we read in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of Our Sages) “Teach a child in the way to go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” So how did this happen? Didn’t the wise father try to teach his son But things don’t always turn out as we wish. And, while it is the parent’s responsibility to teach, it is the next generation’s responsibility to learn.

The troublesome sons of the haggadah and Alan’s paintings inspire us to question these four particular aspects of ourselves. Our responses will depend on how we see the sons, and ourselves. We can see them as emblematic individuals (and ourselves) with unchanging personalities, or as individuals – or even a family – capable of growing through stages in development.

Growth requires regular introspection and so we need to celebrate Passover every year with these four guests at our tables. They are the mirror in which we can see reflected our learning (and if we increased it), the direction of our personal direction (for better or worse), and our curiosity and commitment (or room for growth) to Judaism’s wisdom and teachings so we, and our loved ones, will not be like the fourth, lost son, but will be grounded in our faith and tradition. Because just like the four sons, we are never too young or too old to learn – or teach – or to gain the wisdom we seek. And that is where our freedom really begins.

Discover More

Answering the Four Children

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

Four Children, Many Questions

A brief history of the story of the four children

Wicked Child

All the Seder-goers I know love reading about the “four children” in the Passover Haggadah. But they all dislike the ...