Four Children, Many Questions

A brief history of the story of the four children

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K'neged arba banim dibra Torah--the Torah speaks of four children. We might be forgiven for thinking that this section of the Haggadah is a quote from the Torah, and indeed, the familiar story of the four children asking questions about Pesach does include many quotations from the Torah. But the passage itself is an adaptation of texts found not in the Torah, but rather in the Mekhilta, a midrash from the time of the Tannaim (first and second centuries C.E.), and in the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi).

Reversing the Answers

Interestingly, the version in the Yerushalmi contains some significant differences from the version we find in our Haggadot. (Though we might think that our Haggadah would be closer to the later Yerushalmi version, instead it more closely resembles the earlier Mekhilta version).

From the Yerushalmi: "The Torah speaks of four children. One is wise, one is wicked, one is foolish (tipesh), and one does not know how to ask questions. The wise child asks: What are the testimonies, statutes, and ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded us to do? And you should respond: with a mighty fist has the Lord rescued us from the bondage of Egypt (Exodus 13:14)."

We know that answer: It is the one given to the simple child in our Haggadah!

Meanwhile, in the Yerushalmi: "The foolish child asks mah zot, what is all this? And you should: 'teach him the laws of Passover, that they do not end [with] afikoman [M 10:8]. What is afikoman? That one should not get up from one fellowship and join another fellowship [as was customary in after-dinner revelry gatherings]." (Translation, Baruch Bokser.)

That answer, too, is familiar to us--as the answer our Haggadot offer for the wise child.

How is it that the Yerushalmi has confused the answers of the wise and the simple children? Or is it the Haggadah that has confused the two?

The implication in our Haggadah is that since the wise child has asked an excellent and intelligent question, he or she is treated to a lengthy explanation of the laws of Pesach, including the laws of afikoman. The answer is meant to be a compliment; perhaps such a child is even to be told laws known only to the scholars, the best and the brightest. On the other hand, even though similar words are used, the implication of the answer to the foolish child in the Yerushalmi is that he or she is too ignorant even to know the rules of the afikoman. We have to explain it to the foolish child.

Times change, generations change, places change, expectations change. An answer that is regarded as foolish and simple in Israel in the early years of the Common Era is regarded as considered and wise in medieval and modern times.

More Differences & Similarities

Nor is that the only difference between the story of the four children as we know it in the Haggadah and the much earlier version in the Yerushalmi; there are many. For example, in the Yerushalmi the wise child asks what the Lord our God has commanded us, while most Haggadot follow the Mekhilta version and have the wise child asking what the Lord our God has commanded you, sparking many a discussion about the differences between the wise and the wicked children.

Some modern Haggadot, such as the Feast of Freedom, return to the version of the Yerushalmi. It does make the difference between the wise child and the wicked child much clearer.

A the same time, the renditions of both the wicked child and the one who does not know how to ask are fairly similar in the Yerushalmi, in the Mekhilta, and in our Haggadah, at least in implication if not in precise language.  But the differences in the precise language are also interesting.  The Haggadah reads:

"The wicked child asks: 'what is all this work to you?' S/he says to you and not to him. Thus s/he separates her/himself from the community and denies the point of it all. You should set her/his teeth on edge (hak'he et shinav) and tell her/him that God did this for me when I went out of Egypt, for me and not for her/him.  Had s/he been there, s/he would not have been redeemed."

The phrase hak'he et shinav is particularly remarkable. It is an odd phrase, usually translated as "setting the teeth on edge,"--that is, making the child very uncomfortable. This bears some resemblance to a passage from Jeremiah 31:28, that in the future days no longer will parents eat vinegar and set the teeth of the children on edge. But literally it might mean to punch the child in the mouth, thus getting the child's attention rather dramatically. Furthermore, that phrase does not appear in the Yerushalmi, and while it does appear in some printed version of the mekilta, it is not found in the manuscript versions. Perhaps it was even retroactively put into the printed mekilta to make the text accord with the familiar Haggadah.

Again, times change and later generations apparently found the need to be clearer and more graphic in the treatment of the wicked child. The passage without the phrase "hak'he et shinav" did not censure the wicked child strongly enough.

Modern Questions

Modern Haggadot bring other questions to the story. Perhaps the four children represent four generations of American Jews (Riskin). Perhaps every one of us is in reality all four of these children (Feast of Freedom, and others). Perhaps the four children represent questions asked at different ages and life positions (Prince of Egypt Haggadah). Maybe we should be worried about a fifth child – the one who does not show up at seder at all (Hartman).

The passage begins: "k'neged arba banim dibra Torah," the Torah speaks of four children. But this passage is not a quote from the Torah and it has grown, changed, and developed over the years, each generation finding meaning in the text as they found it.

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Rabbi Miriam Spitzer is the Judaic Studies Curriculum Coordinator and School Rabbi at the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Stoughton, Mass.