#220: The Parable of the Four Children
Marbeh Lesaper on the Haggadah
The Four Sons by Arthur Szyk, CCA-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Gimme Some Torah #220, For Your Sedarim
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We are well within the thirty days before Pesaḥ, a time when we are supposed to study and ask questions about the upcoming festival. Today, let’s take a look at a passage in the Haggadah that many Jews of all stripes know, the parable of the Four Sons:
בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה: אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.
Blessed be the Place [of all], Blessed be He; Blessed be the One who Gave the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed be He. Corresponding to four children did the Torah speak; one [who is] wise, one [who is] evil, one who is simple and one who doesn't know to ask.
Since the Haggadah says that these are four children (בָּנִים, banim), why does the passage refer to each child as אֶחָד (eḥad, one) rather than בֵּן (ben, son)?
R. Yedida Tiah Weil (bio) quotes the intriguing answer of Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (bio), a sixteenth century talmudist and physician. He says that the word אֶחָד (eḥad, one) refers each child’s conception of God, who is described as. being אֶחָד (eḥad) in the Sh’ma:
According to a person’s knowledge and intellect he will arrive at different levels of understanding of God. Therefore, in this passage, when we say “the ‘ONE’ of the wise child, the ‘ONE’ of the wicked child, the ‘ONE’ of the simple child and the ‘ONE’ of the child who doesn’t know how to ask,” we are speaking about their different perceptions of God. . .
For the wise, “One” means incomparable and indivisible, while for the simple child, ‘One’ is quantitative (God is one and not two). The ‘One’ that the wise child comprehends is the true oneness of God in the sense that the philosophers spoke of it.
For the wicked, God is not one in the sense of singular; “One” is a product of many joining together—such a person is guilty of heresy. In the way of Kabbalah, the child “who doesn’t know how to ask” is one who realizes that one cannot truly comprehend the absolute oneness of God. True comprehension of God’s oneness is only possible through the instrument of Torah and through the extent of a person’s intellect.
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I like this interpretation for two reasons: First, it gives a reason why the רָשָׁע (rasha, wicked child) is wicked. The wicked child’s problem is that he has been confused by שִׁיטּוּף (shittuf), the heretical belief that God is a partnership of several entities. (I assume R. Ashkenazi has the Christian trinity in mind.) His confusion caused him to shop elsewhere for meaning in life, and that brings heartache to his family. Those other religions are beautiful and good for others, but not for us.
Second, it suggests that the truly wise child is not the one we call wise, but the one who doesn’t know how or what to ask. The wise child is not the necessarily the one who knows the most Torah, but rather the one who joyfully understands that an intimate knowledge of God is above our pay grade and beyond our comprehension. I put myself in this category.
Have you ever met an actually wicked child? How did you know the child was wicked? (And I don’t mean wicked in the Boston slang sense!)
It is often said that the four children actually represent different sides that exist inside every person, not four separate people. What do you think of that interpretation?
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Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.
Nice. Where did you read this?