Friday, April 03, 2009

Shabbat Hagadol (Zohar series)

For more teachings on Tzav, and on Pesah, see the archives to this blog at April 2006.

Four Sons and Four Questions

One of the most popular sections of the Seder is the beraita of the Four Sons. Indeed, I have participated at many Seders in which so much time is spent on discussion of this passage that they ended up running through the rest of the Haggadah in order to begin dinner before midnight. (The Four Sons is also a popular motif of Haggadah illustrators. My late mother, an artist, was perpetually fascinated by the variety of ways in which artists depicted these four figures in different times and cultures.)

There are so many creative interpretations and exegeses of this passage, that one often overlooks the simple meaning of the passage. The basic question we shall attempt to answer here is: What is the role of questions in the Seder night? And, specifically, is the Seder ritual itself conceived as a fixed text, or as the dynamic outcome of dialogue between father and sons? We shall begin by presenting the text itself:

Blessed is the omnipresent, blessed is He. Blessed is He who gave Torah to His people lsrael, blessed is He.. Of four sons the Torah spoke: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, one who knows not how to ask.

The wise one, what says he? “What are the statutes and testimonies and laws that pur Lord God has commanded you?” And you tell him the laws of Pesah, even [down to that] one does not leave anything after the Afikoman.

The wicked son,. What says he? What is this service to you? To you ;an not “to him,” Since he took himself out of he collectivity, he denied the essence. And you shall blunt his teeth and say: “because of this the Lord did to me when I went out of Egypt.” To me and not to him; had he been there he would not have bee redeemed,’

The simple son, what says he? What is this? And you shall say to him, with a strong arm God took our out of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

And he who knows not how to ask, you shall open to him, as is said “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, Because of this the Lord did to me when I went out of Egypt.”

One of the first things to strike one here is the way in which the Sages “mix and match” the biblical verses that serve as the raw material of their exegesis. The Torah speaks of four sons”—that is, there are four different biblical verses in which the father is told that, at some point in the future, he will be called upon to retell the story of the Exodus to his son, either in response to the son’s question or that he will simply “tell it to your son.” But the Torah’s answers to these questions are totally different from those given in our passage. For purposes of clarification and comparison, we shall present the biblical verses, to which we have assigned numbers based on the order of their appearance in the Torah:

[1] And it shall be when you come into the land… and you shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your son asks you, saying What is this service to you? You shall say: It is a paschal offering to the Lord, that He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt…. (Exod 12:25-27)

[2] And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: Because of this the Lord did for me, when I went out of Egypt. (Exod 13:8)

[3] And it shall be, when your son asks you tomorrow: What is this? And you shall say to him: With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exod 13:14)

[4] When your son asks you tomorrow, saying: What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord your God has commanded you? And you shall say to your son: We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deut 6:20-21)

One immediately sees that, while [3] and [2] correspond respectively to the simple son and to the one who does not know to ask, [4], which corresponds to the question of the wise son, and [1], the question of the wicked son, are given completely different answers, while the Torah’s original answers are given elsewhere in the Haggadah (interestingly, the answer to the wicked son is [2], the same as that given the simple son, but with a completely different “spin”). Clearly, the Rabbis had their own picture of the Passover night and of what the sons were asking; as in so many other cases, the Torah verses served merely as a point of departure for their own exegetical creativity.

To complicate matters further, we ought to mention that the Four Sons appear in at least two other places in Rabbinic literature: in the ancient tannaitic midrash, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, and in the Palestinean Talmud, with greater or smaller variations from the text familiar to us—not to mention further alternative readings in the various manuscripts of the above. Thus, instead of the simple son, we have the “foolish” or “stupid” son (בן טיפש); the foolish son is brought second, as the counterpoint to the wise son, while the wicked son is contrasted with the one who does not ask; the answers to the wise and simple son switched around; etc. As this is not a critical textual study per se, I have brought the text from the Yerushalmi in an appendix at the end, for those interested.

The general lesson implied by this beraita is, first of all, that the Passover Seder or, more specifically, the telling of the story of the Exodus which is its central mitzvah of that night (סיפור יציאת מצרים, in halakhic terminology), is not meant to be a fixed ritual, with a canonic text to be recited and no more, but is meant to grow out of the questions asked by the children and the answers given by the parents in response to them. Starting from the obvious insight that children differ from one another in their intellectual capacity and in their attitude towards Judaism—not to mention the obvious differences among variegated age groups—the conclusion is that, notwithstanding the strongly traditional elements of the Seder and its fixed components, the parents must respond in an appropriate manner. In short, the Passover Seder is portrayed here as an occasion for free-flowing dialogue between parents and children about the Exodus, itself understood in the broadest sense, ultimately, as: “What does it mean to be part of this people, anyway?”; “What is the meaning of our peculiar history and destiny?”; and even, simply, “Why bother to be Jews?”

But let us turn to other sources. Prior to reading the passage of the Four Sons, with the four questions and answers, we have the Four Questions, which opens the narrative part of the Seder. After Kiddush, the dipping of the karpas—a kind of green vegetable aperitif—in salt water, and the ceremonial display of matzot with the call “Let all who are hungry come and eat; Let all who need to do so come and make the Pesah with us,” the youngest child recites a series of four questions. This is a central moment in every family, a highlight of the Seder as a child-centered event, with parents and grandparents kvelling (glowing with pride) as their little darlings display their ability to chant the well-rehearsed phrases. Yet the ritualized character of the Four Questions would seem to belie the free-flowing form of the Seder. The Four Questions, and the narrative part of the Seder generally, are described in a mishnah at Pesahim 10.4:

They pour him the second cup. Here the son asks his father And if the son has no knowledge [or: intellectual capacity] his father teaches him: “How different this night is from all other nights…” According to the son’s knowledge/intellectual capacity, his father teaches him. One begins with degradation and concludes with praise And he expounds the passage, ”A wandering Aramean was my father…” (Deut 25:6) until he completes the entire passage.

I have deliberately omitted the text of the Four Questions as it appears in this mishnah, as a detailed discussion of its points of difference from our own text—based upon its rootedness in the reality of the Temple, and the paschal sacrifice which was the focus of the evening there—would take us too far afield. I am more interested in the overall picture conveyed in this mishnah: “Here the son asks his father; and if the son has no knowledge, his father teaches him.” Does the son’s question consist of Mah Nishtaneh, or is it something else entirely? I have heard it suggested—I don’t remember where or by whom—that the passage beginning Mah nishtanah is in fact a kind of introductory declaration or statement with which the father begins his response to the questions: “How different this night is from all other nights!”—followed by a short list of some of those “differences”: “that all other nights we [may] eat hametz and [or?] matzah, tonight we eat only matzah,” etc. Following this initial statement, the father continues to teach, following the guidelines put forward in the mishnah: that he guides himself by the mental capacity (da’at) of the son; that he begins with “degradation” (i.e., the initial negative situation of the people, whether that of slavery or of pre-Abrahamic idolatry) and ends with “praise,” i.e., the positive tidings of Redemption and the Covenant with God; that, in terms of the broad outline, he expounds the verses of the capsule account of the Exodus found in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, the Vidduy Bikkurim (proclamation recited upon bringing first fruits); and, as stipulated in the next mishnah by R. Gamaliel, that somewhere along the line he explains the meaning of the symbolic foods—Matzah, Pesah sacrifice, and bitter herbs—eaten on this night; and that he concludes with the two opening psalms of Hallel, Psalms 113-114.

This picture of the Haggadah as being in response to “free-form” questions is reinforced suggested by several other texts. Thus, the Talmud on this mishnah suggests, at b. Pesahim 116a:

Our Rabbis taught: If the son was wise, he asks him; and if he was not wise, his wife asks him; and if not, he asks himself. Even two learned scholars who know the laws of Pesah ask one another…

Rav Nahman said to his servant Daro: A servant, whose master liberated him and gave him gold and silver, what ought he to say to him? He said: He needs to thank his master and to praise him. He replied: You have exempted us from saying Mah nishtanah. So he began and said: “We were slaves….” [i.e., the beginning of the narration or “answer” part of the Haggadah]

* * * * *

What is the role of questions in the educational process? We know that the Socratic method was based upon the teacher asking questions, coaxing the pupils to think. In Zen Buddhism, an important role is played by the koan, the paradoxical question that forces the initiate to think outside of conventional patterns. A similar motivation may have moved the old donkey driver in the Zohar’s Sabba de-Mishpatim, who asked seemingly absurd questions that proved to allude to deep mysteries.

But all these are questions initiated by teachers. On Seder night, the crucial questions are those asked by the sons, whose education is the ultimate goal of the Seder. Hence, the beraita of the Four Sons emphasizes that each son asks a different question, rooted in his own existential situation, in who he is. Advocates of progressive education (such as John Skinner in his book Summerhill) claim that education works best when based upon the students’ own questions and interests, allowing them to follow their own natural curiosity and interests. And indeed, the best questions are those that come from the person—not merely one learned by rote, a fixed ritual repeated every year by custom or tradition, but one that reflects the pupil’s own inner intellectual or existential world. A person may or may not listen to a lesson, a sermon, or a speech, but he likely to listen, and to listen carefully, to the answer to a question he himself has asked.

But questions can also be dangerous and, especially within a traditional culture or dogmatic religious system, based upon the a priori acceptance of certain beliefs or axioms, even threatening. One sometimes hears people talk about how they were spoiled for Judaism by the old-fashioned religious education, in which questions were not only discouraged (by the proverbial teacher with the ruler smashed over the knuckles of recalcitrant pupils), but actively rejected as apikorsis—“heretical.” In the Four Sons, this threatening aspect of questions is exemplified by the “wicked son” who asks a question that comes from a perspective of alienation, from outside the community framework; to quote the expanded version found in the Yerushalmi: “What is this great bother with which you bother yourselves every year?” Isn’t it the job of the truly committed Jewish parent or educator to wrack his brains, if need be, to find an answer that will cause the alienated youth to rethink his negative posture? Perhaps the phrase הקהה את שיניו must be read as meaning, “you should refute / dull the [speech of] his teeth” with persuasive, eye-opening answers.

On a certain level, this may be a point on which contemporary people differ from the mentality that seems to be implied by the beraita of the Four Sons. In modern, open society, we don’t see any alternative to intellectual openness, taking the intellectual and spiritual risk of dealing with any and every question asked. After all, what good Jewish family doesn’t have its “wicked son“ who asks: Why bother with all this stuff anyway?

Another aspect of this: while it is surely good to encourage questions, existential questions are by their very nature rooted in the present. Yet the whole thrust of the Seder is to open up another kind of consciousness: an awareness of living within a historical continuity, of the past being meaningful, a vital part of ones identity. But in modern times, particularly, people live very much in the present (unless one is an unusual person, who has somehow acquired a different kind of mentality and education). The average person is oriented towards the “Here and Now”—contemporary science and technology and music and writing and entertainment and politics and forms of social interaction. Even advanced degrees, for most, is primarily oriented towards acquiring skills and kinds of knowledge that are marketable in today’s economic climate, and not “culture for the sake of culture” (a kind of classicist, secular counterpart to the old Jewish ideal of Torah lishmah). The classic Jewish mind-set, by contrast, is one in which the individual sees himself as a link in the chain of generations; in which he sees past events as significant in their own right, and as important paradigms for understanding the present (e.g., Ramban’s famous rule, “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the sons”). Perhaps the rasha represents that kind of one-dimensional, present-oriented mentality—what Eliezer Schweid once called “Akhshavsim,” the cult of the Now—which must somehow be blunted in order to make the story what happened long long ago come alive and be seen as relevant.

* * * * *

Notwithstanding my emphasis on understanding the peshat of the Four Sons, I cannot conclude without bringing my own new vort on this passage. In past years I’ve quoted my friend Yaqub ibn Yusuf’s mystical interpretation, in which the order is reversed, and the one who does not ask questions because he is on the highest level of all, a state of mystical unity with God ; or Deena Garber‘s statement that the four sons really reflect more upon the father’s attitude, and that each parent, through his own attitude towards his children, elicits one of the four responses.

My late friend and mentor, Rav Meir Feist, quoted one of the Hasidic rebbes who said “Ehaaaaa…d hakham; ve-ehaaaaad rasha,” etc. , drawing out the Hebrew word for “One” as one does when reading Shema:. As if to say: God Himself is at once wise, and wicked (the source of evil in this world), and simple, and beyond all questions.

But this year I wish to suggest that each of us must know how to be all four of the sons. The wise son asks what is essentially a conventional question: he is not troubled by any existential dilemmas, but simply requests information: he accepts the traditional axioms without objection, but wants to know more: to fill in the lacuna in his knowledge of Torah. (By analogy, some scientists today say that there are no more great theories to be discovered; the task of science today is simply to fill in the holes in our knowledge of the universe, within the context of an overall picture that is complete). The pursuit of halakhic and textual information is surely important, as far as it goes, but in a certain sense it is no more than an initial stage in the religious quest.

May it be that the question of the rasha is really the best of all? (I can imagine the Kotzker saying something like that) Each year we must ask ourselves: What is this service to you? What is your own personal connection with this rather stereotyped and fixed ritual?

And the tam: what is his special quality? He possesses an innocence, a certain simplicity, naivete of perspective: he sees the thing as it is. What Ruth Calderon, in another context, once referred to as “barefoot reading”—looking at the contents of Jewish culture without any preconceptions. His question, Mah zot?, means: What is this really about? There is a kind of wisdom in this: the ability to erase what one has learned and look at phenomena anew.

And the fourth son, who does not ask at all, what is his quality? Wonder? Acceptance? Simple Presence? Or perhaps Thoreau’s depth that goes beyond speech and sinks into silence.

Appendix: Variant Texts of the Four Sons

One important variant is Mekhilta de Rabbi-Yishmael, ed. Horowitz-Rabin, end of Parshat Bo, pp. 73-74. Several manuscripts read the word טיפש rather than תם, while some exchange tam and rasha: i.e., the contrasting pairs are thus the wise and the stupid; and between the one who provocative challenging questions and the one who does not ask at all.

Far greater differences appear in the Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 10.4:

Rabbi Hiyya taught: the Torah spoke of four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a foolish son, and a son who knows not how to ask. What does the wise son say? “What are the statutes and testimonies and laws that the Lord our God has commanded us?” And you say to him: “With a strong arm the Lord took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The wicked son, what does he say? “’What is this service to you?’ What is this trouble with which you trouble yourselves every year?” Since he removed himself from the collectivity, you must say to him: “Because of what the Lord did for me..” He did it “for me” and not for that person; had that person been in Egypt he would never have been deserving to be redeemed forever. The foolish son, what does he say? “What is this?“ So you teach him the laws of Pesah, that one does not leave anything after the Afikoman. That he should not get up and leave this group and go in to join another group [eating its paschal sacrifice]. And the son who knows not how to ask, you open to him first. Rab Yosseh said: Our mishnah said that: “And if the son has no knowledge his father teaches him.”


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