Lesson 10 – The Four Sons of the Haggadah

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein

The Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem

Midrash is a crucial element of the Passover Haggadah since the telling of the story of the redemption from Egypt is central to the seder night as we know it. The midrash of the Four Sons is one of the most memorable components in this collective recollection. This midrash with slight variations in the Mechilta, the Talmud Yerushami, and in the haggadah. In our lesson this week, we will examine it in its earliest context, the Mechilta, and then compare it with the versions found in the Yerushalmi and in the Hagaddah. Before we actually begin to examine the midrash, we will follow the pattern we have established up until now and look at the verses from Exodus (Shmot) and Deuteronomy (Devarim) which make up the kernel and jumping off point for the midrash. After all, the midrash of the Four Sons is an interpretation of the verses used to illustrate and inspire the images of each of the sons.

Sources From The Torah

The sources brought in this section should be studies not just for the given verse but for the context as well. Before each source, I will identify for what purpose it will be used in the midrashim but in this section, make note of the verses purpose within its given context.

1. The Wise Son Verse (Deut. 6:20)

דברים פרק ו

(כ) כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם:

(כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה:

(כב) וַיִּתֵּן יְקֹוָק אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל בֵּיתוֹ לְעֵינֵינוּ:

(כג) וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ:

(כד) וַיְצַוֵּנוּ יְקֹוָק לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל הַיָּמִים לְחַיֹּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:

(כה) וּצְדָקָה תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ כִּי נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ: ס

20 When your son asks you in time to come, saying: ‘What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD our God has commanded you? 21 then you shall say to your son: ‘We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our eyes. 23 And He brought us out from there, so that He might bring us in, to give us the land which He swore to our fathers. 24 And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. 25 And it shall be righteousness unto us, if we observe to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.’ {S}

Questions and Comments

  1. Who is asking this verse?
  2. To whom is this verse asked?
  3. What is the context of this verse?
  4. Is there any indication from the context, what kind of person might ask such a question?

2a. The Wicked Son – The Question (Exodus 12:26)

שמות פרק יב

(כא) וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְכָל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם וְשַׁחֲטוּ הַפָּסַח:

(כב) וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ עַד בֹּקֶר:

(כג) וְעָבַר יְקֹוָק לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְקֹוָק עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף:

(כד) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְחָק לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ עַד עוֹלָם:

(כה) וְהָיָה כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן יְקֹוָק לָכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת:

(כו) וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם:

(כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיקֹוָק אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ:

(כח) וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק אֶת מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן כֵּן עָשׂוּ: ס

21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said unto them: ‘Draw out, and take you lambs according to your families, and kill the passover lamb. 22 And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side-posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you. 24 And you shall observe this thing for an ordinance to you and to your sons for ever. 25 And it shall come to pass, when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as He hath promised, that you shall keep this service. 26 And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What do you mean by this service? 27 that you shall say: It is the sacrifice of the LORD’S passover, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.’ And the people bowed the head and worshipped. 28 And the children of Israel went and did so; as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they. {S}

Questions and Comments

  1. What is the context that this question is asked in?
  2. Is there any indication what sort of person might be asking this question?

2b. The Wicked Son – The Answer (Exodus 13:8)

שמות פרק יג

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:

(ב) קַדֶּשׁ לִי כָל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר כָּל רֶחֶם בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה לִי הוּא:

(ג) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא יְקֹוָק אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל חָמֵץ:

(ד) הַיּוֹם אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב:

(ה) וְהָיָה כִי יְבִיאֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה:

(ו) שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצֹּת וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי חַג לַיקֹוָק:

(ז) מַצּוֹת יֵאָכֵל אֵת שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ חָמֵץ וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל גְּבֻלֶךָ:

(ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְקֹוָק לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:

(ט) וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְקֹוָק בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִאֲךָ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרָיִם:

(י) וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה: ס

Exodus Chapter 13

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 ‘Sanctify unto Me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is Mine.’ 3 And Moses said unto the people: ‘Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place; there shall no leavened bread be eaten. 4 This day ye go forth in the month Abib. 5 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which He swore unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shall keep this service in this month. 6 Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee, in all thy borders. 8 And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. 9 And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in thy mouth; for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt. 10 Thou shall therefore keep this ordinance in its season from year to year. {P}

Questions and Comments

1. What is the context of the verse used to answer the wicked son?

2. From the context, is there any clue which might indicate the future use of this verse?

3. The Simple Son – Question and Answer (Exodus 13:14)

שמות פרק יג

(יא) וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִאֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לְךָ וְלַאֲבֹתֶיךָ וּנְתָנָהּ לָךְ:

(יב) וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ כָל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לַיקֹוָק וְכָל פֶּטֶר שֶׁגֶר בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ הַזְּכָרִים לַיקֹוָק:

(יג) וְכָל פֶּטֶר חֲמֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה:

(יד) וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:

(טו) וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג יְקֹוָק כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַיקֹוָק כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה:

(טז) וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרָיִם: ס

11 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring you into the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to you fathers, and shall give it you, 12 that you shall set apart unto the LORD all that opens the womb; every firstling that is a male, which you have coming of a beast, shall be the LORD’S. 13 And every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and all the first-born of man among you sons shall you redeem. 14 And it shall be when thy son asks you in time to come, saying: What is this? that you shall say unto him: By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage; 15 and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man, and the first-born of beast; therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that opens the womb, being males; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem. 16 And it shall be for a sign upon thy hand, and for frontlets between your eyes; for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.

Questions and Comments

1. Again, here pay attention to and note the context of the verse?

2. Is there any indication, here, to why the sages chose this verse to indicate the simple son?

4. The Son Who Does Not How To Ask – The Answer (Exodus 13:8)

Comments and Questions

  1. See above the answer to the wicked son. It also serves as the answer to the son who does not know how to ask.
  2. Does its context give any indication of this second role.

 

The Midrash

Again, we revisit the Mechilta – the midrash on the book of Exodus from the period of the Mishnah. This represents the earliest mention of the Four Sons as a midrashic entity.

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יח

והיה כי ישאלך בנך מחר (שמות יג:יד)

מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ אותנו (דברים ו:כ)

נמצאת אומר ארבעה בנים הם אחד חכם ואחד רשע ואחד תם ואחד שאינו יודע לשאול.

חכם מה הוא אומר? מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ אלהינו אותנו

אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן.

טיפש מה הוא אומר? מה זאת? ואמרת אליו בחוזק יד הוציאנו ה’ ממצרים מבית עבדים.

רשע מה הוא אומר? מה העבודה הזאת לכם.

ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל

אף אתה הוציאו מן הכלל ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל.

ושאינו יודע לשאול את פתח לו

שנא’ והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא וגו’.

And It Shall Be When Thy Son Asks You Tomorrow (in the time to come) (Exodus 13:14)

What Mean the Testimonies and the Statutes, etc. (Deut. 6.20). You find that you have to say: There are four types 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 testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God hath commanded us?” (Deut. 6.20). You explain to him, in turn, the laws of the Passover and tell him that the company is not to disband immediately after partaking of the paschal lamb. There should follow Epikomon.5

The simpleton— what does he say? “What is this? And thou shall say to him: By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Ex. 13:14)

The wicked one—what does he say? “What mean you by this service?” (Ex. 12.26). Because he excludes himself from the group, You also should exclude him from the group, and say unto him: “It is because of that which the Lord did for me” (v. 8)—for me but not for you. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.

As for him who does not know enough to ask, you should begin and explain to him. For it is said: “And you shall tell your son in that day” (v. 8).

Questions and Comments

  1. How does the chosen verse illustrate the “wisdom” of the wise son?
  2. Pay attention to the verse as it is posed in the midrash. Is it different from the verse in the Torah? If so, why was it changed?
  3. What sense to you make of the answer given to the wise son?
  4. The simple son asks a simple question. Is the answer appropriate for the simple son? What other reason might there have been for giving this answer?
  5. What makes the question asked appropriate for the wicked son?
  6. How is the answer to the wicked son an appropriate answer?
  7. The answer to the son who does not know how to ask is the same as that for the wicked son. What is the different nuance in the two answers?

The Talmud Yerushalmi

תלמוד ירושלמי פסחים פרק י הלכה ד (לז:ד)

תני ר’ חייה כנגד ארבע’ בני’ דיברה תור’ בן חכם בן רשע בן טיפש בן שאינו יודע לשאל

בן חכם מהו אומ’ מה העדות והחקים והמשפטי’ אשר צוה יי’ אלהינו אותנו

אף אתה אמור לו בחוזק יד הוציאנו יי’ ממצרים מבית עבדים

בן רשע מהו אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם מה הטורח הזה שאתם מטריחין עלינו בכל שנה ושנה

מכיון שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל אף אתה אמור לו בעבור זה עשה יי’ לי

לי עשה לאותו האיש לא עשה אילו היה אותו האיש במצרים לא היה ראוי להיגאל משם לעולם

טיפש מהו אומר מה זאת

אף את למדו הילכות הפסח שאין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקימון שלא יהא עומד מחבורה זו ונכנס לחבורה אחרת

בן שאינו יודע לשאל את פתח לו תחילה

Rabbi Hiya taught [in a baraita]: The Torah spoke with regard to four sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the foolish son, and the son who does not know how to ask.

The wise son, what does he say? ” What mean the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God hath commanded us? So you say to him: “With a strong hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt from the house of bondage.”

The wicked son, what does he say? ” “What mean you by this service?” (Ex. 12.26). What is this bother that you have troubled us with each and every year? Because he excludes himself from the group, you also should say to him: “It is because of that which the Lord did for me” (v. 8)—for me but He did not do for “that man” (the wicked son). Had “that man” been in Egypt, he would not have been fit to be redeemed from there ever.

The foolish son: What did he say? [He asked:] What is this?

So you should teach him the laws of Pesah: that one does not do afikomen after eating the Passover sacrifice – that one does not remove from one group that eats together the Pesah offering to another.

[With regard to] the son who did not know how to ask. You begin for him.

Questions and Comments

  1. The answer for the wise son is different in the Yerushalmi. Is it a more appropriate answer than in the Mechilta? Which answer do you prefer?
  2. The foolish son gets the wise son’s answer from the Mechilta. What do you think about the “switch? Which approach seems more authentic?
  3. The son who does know how to ask gets an entirely different answer from the other versions. What do you think about the Yerushalmi’s educational approach?

The Passover Hagaddah (Ashkenazic version)

בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה. אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם? לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִנָּיו וֶאֱמֹר לוֹ: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יי לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לִי – וְלֹא לוֹ. אִילּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

תָּם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה זֹּאת? וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו: בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יי מִמִּצְרָיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.

וְשֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יי לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.

Blessed is God, Who gave the Torah to His people Israel. Blessed is He. The Torah speaks about four sons: one who is wise and one who is contrary; one who is sim­ple and one who does not even know how to ask a ques­tion.

The wise son asks: “What is the meaning of the rules, laws and customs which the Eternal our God has commanded us?”

You shall explain to him all the laws of Passover, to the very last detail about the Afikoman.

The wicked son asks: “What is the meaning of this service to you?”

Saying you, he excludes himself, and because he excludes himself from the group, he denies a basic principle (God).

You may therefore tell him plainly: “Because of what the Eternal did for me when I came forth from Egypt” I do this. For me and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The simple son asks: “What is this?”

To him you shall say: “With a strong hand the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

As for the son who does not even know how to ask a question, you must begin for him, as it is written in the Bible, “You shall tell your child on that day: This is done because of that which the Eternal did for me when I came forth out of Egypt..”

Questions and Comments

  1. What do you think is the purpose of the “four sons” midrash?
  2. What is its relationship to the Torah verses?
  3. What does the “four sons” midrash say about the purpose of midrash?

End of Course, Go Back To Descriptions

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