April 18, 2024
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Four Sons, Four Stages

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of the four sons in the Haggadah, and the concise instructions on how to deal with each child al pi darko (in the way that each child learns). At first glance it would appear that the Haggadah is describing four types of people—four personality types: wise, wicked, simple, and shy or unintelligent. If the Haggadah’s purpose in mentioning these types of children is to offer direction on how to reach these children at the Seder and teach them about the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus)—and thereby enable the parents to fulfill their mitzvah of “Vehigadta levincha” (and you shall tell your child about the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim) by giving a crash course in “chanoch lenaar” (teach your child)—it might seem that the Haggadah’s concise offerings are too little too late. Finding ways to engage with individual personality types in education is a daunting task, and the idea of mastering this in one night—with the mitzvah of “Vehigadta levincha” depending on it—might induce a sense of panic.

However, if we take a slightly different approach to the four sons, we will find that the Haggadah’s instructions are both practical and easy to implement. Rather than viewing the four sons as distinct personality types, the four children mentioned by the Haggadah can also be interpreted as representing the different stages of learning through which everyone goes. We can see this very clearly if we reverse the order of the four sons.

The child who does not know how to ask is the absolute novice who has no prior knowledge of the topic. Were a person to walk into a physics lesson for the first time, he would not even have the vocabulary to ask a simple question, and it would indeed be somewhat foolish for him to do so, as he has absolutely no knowledge of the subject. In this situation, the onus is wholly on the instructor to open the topic for the student in a simplified way, starting from the beginning. This is exactly what the Haggadah instructs us to do with the novice Seder-goer who does not have the vocabulary to ask a question. We are to open the topic for this child in a simplified way that introduces the ideas and provides the child with a basic understanding of the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Once this basic understanding is achieved, the child moves up a level and graduates to the Tam—the simple son.

This second level, “simple” son, has a very basic understanding of the topic. We can tell that a child has reached this level by the type of question he asks. This student has only the basic knowledge to ask very general questions. He can point to something with some confidence that he’ll understand the answer, and ask, “What is this?” but he does not yet know enough to ask anything deeper. We meet this child on his level as well and tell him about the topic in slightly more detail than before.

The next-level student, “the wicked son,” is the student who shows disinterest (even disdain) for the topic at hand, because he feels that it is not relevant to him and therefore he doesn’t want to learn about it. This is similar to a child who does not want to learn math because he doesn’t believe he will ever “need to” know it. Once a child has reached a certain level of intelligence, the child must be convinced that the information is relevant and should be learned, or he will understandably disengage. In this situation, the Haggadah prescribes that we must blunt the child’s stubbornness by demonstrating the relevance of the topic in a compelling way.

The highest-level student is “the wise son.” We can tell that he is an experienced learner in the topic based on the wording of his question, which is very detailed and demonstrates an understanding of nuances. This child must be catered to carefully as well. His questions must be answered and he must be encouraged to explore the subject with fresh eyes with his higher level of understanding.

Not only is it essential to keep in mind that each child (indeed each person) at our Seder is at a different stage of learning, we must also bear in mind that each child may be at varying stages in different topics. A person may be a “wise son” about one topic, and a complete beginner in another topic. Using the Haggadah’s concise and simple instructions—which are perfectly placed at the beginning of the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim—we can successfully teach each child on his own level and help each child advance to the next stage in every area of the learning we are striving to help the child achieve. Chag kasher v’sameach.


Rabbi Yehuda Chesner is a third grade rebbe at RYNJ.

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