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08.04.2019 18:36    Comments: 0    Categories: Holidays      Tags: hagim  holidays  pessach  matza  

“Inquire of your father, and he will tell you” Questions of the sons in the Haggadah

Children are commanded to learn the heritage of their forebears, and parents are commanded to teach their children:  “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will tell you, your elders, they will say to you” (Deut. 32:7).  This is especially true of Passover, the founding event in the history of our people, regarding which a special commandment is placed on the father:  to teach his son the story of the exodus from Egypt and the laws of Passover, as expressed in the verse:  “And you shall tell (Heb. ve-higgadeta) your son on that day…” (Ex. 13:8).[1]

When it comes to education and teaching, questions and answers are a frequently used didactic technique.  The answers are given in accordance with the age of the person asking and the level of his questions, following the general rule of “Train a lad in accordance with his way” (Prov. 22:6), which is explained in the Mishnah:  “The father teaches his son according to his level of knowledge and understanding” (Pesahim 10.4).  Indeed, the Torah uses a variety of expressions in the verses dealing with Passover and the exodus from Egypt:

  1. “And when, in time to come, your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand…’” (Ex. 13:14).
  2. “When, in time to come, your son asks you, ‘What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our G‑d has enjoined upon you?’ you shallsay to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh…’” (Deut. 6:20-21).
  3. “And when your children say to you, ‘What means this rite to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord’” (Ex. 12:26).
  4. “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8).[2]

To sum up: in two of the verses we have saying in response to the son asking, in one we have saying in response to the son saying, and in the fourth we have telling to the son who does not ask.

The way the Sages employed these verses in the passage about the “four sons,” written in the tannaitic period and comprising one of the first core passages of the Haggadah, is instructive.  Presumably the tanna made some sort of association between these verses dealing with Passover and different types of sons.  Here we present two early sources containing this passage.

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate de-Pishah, ch. 18:

When, in time to come, your son asks you…what mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our G‑d has enjoined upon you?[3] (Deut. 6:20).  You find that you have to say:  There are four type of sons:  the wise, the simpleton, the wicked, and the one who does not know enough to ask.  The wise—what does he say?  “What mean the decrees”…The simpleton—what does he say?  “What is this?”…The wicked—what does he say?  “What means this rite to you?”  As for the one who does not know enough to ask, you should begin and explain to him.  For it is said:  “And you shall tell you son in that day…” [Adapted from Lauterbach ed., pp. 166-167]

The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pesahim (37d):

Rabbi Hiyya taught:  The Torah spoke with reference to four sons:  a wise son, a wicked son, a stupid son, and one who does not know enough to ask.  What does the wise son say?  “What are the decrees…”  What does the wicked son say?  “What means this rite to you?”  What does the stupid son say?  “What is this?” so you should teach him the rules of Passover…and as for the son who does not know to ask, you should begin and explain to him…If the child is not knowledgeable, his father should teach him.

In several places, Sefer ha-Hinukh[4] notes the importance of preserving Jewish tradition for future generations.  Historical remembrance of the festivals and of days of destruction, for example, when expressed only by retelling the story, will not long endure and is doomed to fade and ultimately pass into oblivion.  This is what the author writes prefacing the commandments pertaining to Passover (Commandment 16):

My son, do not think to seize on my words and say, why should the Lord, blessed be His Name, command us to do all these things in commemoration of that miracle?  Is one memory enough to call it to mind and not have it be forgotten by our offspring?...You should know that a person is acted upon in accordance with his actions, and his mind and all his thoughts always follow the deeds that he does…for the mind is drawn after the actions…for it is well known and true that every person is acted upon in accordance to his actions, as we have said.

Malbim takes the interpretation of the four sons very far (Ex. 13:14), viewing them as standing for the various branches of Judaism in his day:[5]

When, in time to come, your son shall ask you—these words of the Sages in the Haggadah prompted me to come out strongly against them all when the Reform sect banded together to show their hate of our sacred times and religion, saying that the Sabbath should be observed on Sunday…and I said in a sermon that He who reads the future saw what the sons would ask on the morrow, which means in time to come, and then four sons would come forth:

  1. The Rabbis, who uphold the Torah, written and oral, are the wise son.
  2. The masses, who listen to them, are the simple son.
  3. The Reformers, who question and answer scornfully, are the wickedson.
  4. The masses who are attracted to them are the son who does not know to ask, meaning that they also want to ask scornful questions like the wicked son, except that they are uneducated and do not know how to pose the questions.

The wise son accepts the established foundation that all the commandments of the Torah were given us by the Lord, and they are commandments that will exist for all eternity; but insofar as the commandments of the Torah fall into three categories…

What does the wicked son say?  “What means this rite to you?”  The wicked son’s question is two-fold:  1) Why this rite?  Considering that the commandments of Passover are all about remembering the day of the exodus from Egypt, what need is there for the excessive rites and trouble that we are put to during this festival?  We could simply make a note on the calendar to commemorate that this is the day we left Egypt and be done with it!  2)  What is this rite for you, for you have already tasted from the fruit of the Tree of Enlightenment, you have been following the spirit of the times of Enlightenment, so how is it that you are not ashamed of holding on to these archaic things whose time has passed?

What does the simple son say?  “What is this?”  The masses, who are simple in their ways and fear the Lord, do not know how to investigate into the fine differences between decrees, laws, and rules as does the wise son, so they only ask a general question about the substance of the commandment, and they receive an answer which is simple and can be understood at their level.

The son who does not know to ask represents the masses who follow the wicked son, except that they do not know how to pose insulting questions as does the wicked son who leads them astray; with him, you should take the initiative, since he goes astray only from lack of knowledge and not lack of intelligence.  Hence you must try to persuade him.

Talmudic and rabbinic literature developed the didactic notion of creating stimuli on the Seder eve (by making changes and departing from the usual order of things) in order to keep children wakeful and prompt them to ask questions.  Thus we are taught in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10.4):  “The second glass of wine is poured, and at this point the child asks his father, and if the child does not know to ask, his father teaches him:  How different is this night from all other nights!... according to the level of knowledge of his son his father teaches him.”  The Tosefta (loc. cit., 9) says:  “Rabbi Lazar said:  Matzah is grabbed [playfully] from the young ones to keep them from falling asleep.”  Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy says:  “When your son asks you—if he asks, you tell him; but if he does not ask, are you not to tell him?  This is what the Torah meant by ‘You shall tell your son,’ (Ex. 13:8)—even if he does not ask you…and in accordance with the son’s level of knowledge, his father teaches him, for if he were stupid or young, he would say to him:  My son, we were once all slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

The Talmud extends the circle of those who ask questions:  “The Rabbis have taught:  If his son is intelligent, he asks him, while if he is not intelligent, his wife asks him; but if not, he asks himself.  And even two scholars who know the laws of Passover ask one another” (Pesahim 116a).  The redactor of the Haggadah added the clarification:  “And even if we are all sages and all know the Torah, we are nonetheless commanded to tell about the exodus from Egypt, and the more one tells, the better.”[6]

Mahzor Vitri adds an idea to stimulate the children:  “And afterwards, one takes the Seder plate from in front of him, as it is, with its two and a half matzas, its vegetables, and two casserole dishes, and places it at the head of the table, so that the youngsters will ask Mah nishtanah…and if there is no youngster to ask, he asks himself” (Hilkhot Pesah, par. 69).[7]

Maimonides gives a fine summation in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 7.2):

It is a mitzvah to inform one’s sons, even though they do not ask, as [Exodus 13:8] states:  “You shall tell your son.”  A father should teach his son according to the son’s knowledge.  How is this applied?  If the son is young or stupid, he should tell him, “My son, we all were slaves…,” and if the son is older and wise, he should inform him what happened to us in Egypt and the miracles wrought for us by Moses, our teacher; everything according to the son’s knowledge.

Parents and educators note the work of the Haggadah’s redactors with approbation, also making room on the Seder eve for the wicked son.  However, that does not suffice; it is still troubling to think that the place of the fifth son remains empty, the son who has removed himself from the Seder table altogether.  Is this not, perhaps, the same son that the family or the society has excluded from their midst?

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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