R. Chiyya taught: The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one stupid, and one who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you?” (Deuteronomy 20:6) Accordingly you will say, “With great might, Adonai took us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage (Exodus 13:14).” What does the wicked child say? “What do you mean by this rite? (Exodus 12:26) What is this toil that you make us toil each and every year?” Since such children exclude themselves from the community, accordingly you say, “It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8).” “For me” did God do it and not for “that person.” If “that person” had been there, they would not have been worthy of being saved. What does the stupid child say? “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14). Accordingly, teach them the laws of the pesach offering—that we may not eat the afikoman after the pesach offering, so that a person should not get up from one eating group and go to another. The child who does not know how to ask, you will speak first. R. Yosa said: The Mishnah said, “If the child has no understanding, the parent teaches them.”
On four occasions and in four different ways, Torah speaks of parents who, in the future, will explain the celebration of Passover to their children. Three are inspired by questions the children ask; the fourth does not mention the child posing a question. From these differently worded passages, the Rabbis constructed the section of the Haggadah known as the “Four Children,” a seeming typology of children based on character and attitude. The four biblical passages are:
- “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
- “What do you mean by this rite?” (Exodus 12:26)
- “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14)
- [A fourth child seems unable to shape a question, yet receives an explanation:] You shall explain to your child on that day, “it is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8 )
The Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) uses the four biblical verses cited above to create a typology of sorts of children, delineating four categories: wise, wicked, stupid, and unable to ask. If you are familiar with the text of the Haggadah, you will immediately recognize that the Haggadah speaks not of a “stupid” child (tipesh), but rather of a simple, or innocent, child (tam). Apparently, the Yerushalmi interprets the unadorned question, “What is this?,” as the query of a stupid child. Further, the verse taken by the Yerushalmi to allude to a fourth type of child is used in the Haggadah to construct the response to the wicked child.
If not from the Yerushalmi, whence the label “tam” (innocent, or simple), found in the Haggadah? The source is Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, a compilation of rabbinic midrashim. There are two striking differences between this version and the Yerushalmi. First, Mekhilta reads “What is this?” as the question of an innocent child, not of a stupid child. Second, Mekhilta offers an emendation to Deuteronomy 6:20: couching the “wise” child’s question in the first person plural (“What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon us?”) thereby heightening its contrast with the simpler question of the wicked child, which remains in the second person plural (“What do you mean by this rite?”). Yet Torah couches both in the second person plural. This slight-of-hand allows the Mekhilta to continue with a far harsher parental retort to the wicked child than the Yerushalmi imagines. Borrowing and embellishing on the parental response to the fourth child and emphasizing “me” in the parent’s response, Mekhilta supplies this response to wicked children: “‘To you’ and not to them. Because they disassociate themselves from the community and deny the foundation [of the faith], you, likewise, blunt their teeth and tell them, Because of what Adonai did for me when I went out from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). For me and not for you, for had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS1. An aerial eye view of the two versions of the Four Children reveals:
Yerushalmi: wise, wicked, stupid, unable to askMekhilta: wise, wicked, simple, unable to askTradition has voted with the Mekhilta, which identifies the third child as “simple” rather than stupid. This, along with its far harsher response to the wicked child, is included in standard texts of the Haggadah. Do you agree with this choice? Why or why not? Were you to add a fifth child, or even sixth child, how might they be described? What lesson would you wish to teach?
2. Considering four Torah verses that speak of parents teaching children, how would you characterize the children, and why? Do the labels depend upon the words alone, the tone in which they are asked, the listener’s sensitivities, or something else?
3. The Yerushalmi presents wise and stupid as opposites. The wise and wicked children ask virtually the same question; the difference is located in their attitudes. The stupid child and the one unable to ask are likewise similar—both are assumed unable to learn as one would wish. This typology seems to suggest that knowledge and intellectual acumen are the most important determinate of how we see, evaluate, and respond to children. Do you agree? What is the danger of this perspective? Do you think this is why the Haggadah did not use this version?