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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

So Who Are These Four Sons, And Why Do They Ask So Many Questions!? - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 1

Anyone who has been to a seder has met the Four Sons. How they came to attend every seder is a point not often discussed, though. Also, do we ever really get to know them? Doubtless, many of you are familiar with a plethora of questions and explanations about who they are but please indulge me while I reintroduce them and hopefully understand them more intimately. The oldest source for the section of the Haggadah with the Four Sons is the M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael which is primarily a halachic midrash on Shmot (Exodus). Here is the text as it appears there:
מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא - מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יח

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. רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל. תם מה הוא אומר מה זאת ואמרת אליו בחוזק יד הוציאנו ה' ממצרים מבית עבדים. ושאינו יודע לשאול את פתח לו שנא' והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא וגו'.

M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael, Parshat Bo, Tractate Pessach, Parsha 18

What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord commanded us? (Deuteronomy 6:20—In the original text it actually says 'commanded you'. We'll address that later). We find it tells us that there are four sons: One is Wise, one is Evil, one is Tam (we'll translate that later), and one Who Doesn't Know To Ask.

The Wise, what does he say? ”What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?” So you should open to him with the laws of the Passover: We don't finish off after the Passover (sacrifice) with dessert.

The Evil, what does he say? “What is this service to you?” To you and not to him. And since he removed himself from the community and denied the essence, so you break his power (literally 'blunt his teeth') and say to him 'because of this the Lord did for me in my going out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8).' For me and not for you; had you been there you would not have been redeemed.

The Tam, what does he say? “What is this?” And you say to him: With a strong hand He took us out of Egypt, out of the place of bondage (Exodus 13:9).

And The One Who Doesn't Know To Ask: You open to him, as it says “and you should tell your son on that day...(Exodus 13:8)”


Let's begin understanding this midrash by pointing out that the Torah commands us to tell our sons about the going out of Egypt. This is learned from the verse that says:

שמות פרק יג (ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְקֹוָק֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
Exodus 13:8 And you will tell your son on that day saying “For this did the Lord do for me in my going out of Egypt.”

This commandment is anticipated earlier in the story just before the plague of locusts.

שמות פרק י (א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֫י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֪י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ:(ב) וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י יְקֹוָֽק:

Exodus 10:1,2 And the Lord said to Moses “Come to pharaoh for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants heavy in order to place these, my signs, in his midst; and in order that you will recount to the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of Egypt and my signs that I placed with them and you will know that I am the Lord.”

In fact, then, one of the purposes of the spectacle of the plagues was to talk about them later to our sons (and our daughters—but I won't digress on that here).

So it doesn't surprise us when we find the Torah telling us later that we should tell about the going out of Egypt to our children (let's stick with that term from here on in).

What does provoke some thought, though, is that the Torah mentions this in more than one place. Chazal (our sages of blessed memory-- the rabbis of the Talmudic era) understood that the Torah does not repeat itself for no reason, therefore, each time this notion is mentioned warrants further inspection to figure out what the Torah is adding that we didn't know previously.

It turns out that in four places we're told in command form to tell our children about the going out of Egypt. Moreover, in three of those places the command is introduced by a question that our child will ask us.

Why the four answers? Why the three questions? Why not four questions and four answers? Why not just one question and one answer?

The M'chilta answers this by telling us that the Torah understood that there are four types of people whom we need to address, namely a wise one, an evil one, a tam one and one who doesn't know to ask.

How does the M'chilta know that these are the four types spoken of? The easiest to figure out is the one who doesn't know to ask. After all, the answer we give him from Exodus 13:8, and you should tell your son on that day saying, etc., is not preceded by a question. So this must be addressed to one who didn't know to ask.

The other types are not so simple to deduce from the verses themselves. We will examine each one carefully and derive an approach to understanding how the M'chilta figures them out.

But before I end this posting, let me point out that the types listed don't seem 'balanced;' that is, we don't talk about the wise son and the stupid son (although in alternate versions a stupid son is substituted for the tam), or the evil son and the good son.

Rather, Chazal understood that the four types are archetypes of different kinds of people all of whom must be considered in this context. Moreover, I would say that Chazal understood that all of these archetypes are actually part of each of us as individuals.

So next time, we'll start off by looking at the wise son.

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