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Zev Farber





The Four Sons: How the Midrash Developed





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Zev Farber





The Four Sons: How the Midrash Developed








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The Four Sons: How the Midrash Developed

In four passages, the Torah has a father explaining different commandments to a son by referencing the exodus from Egypt. Comparing the wording in these biblical passages, the rabbis reinterpreted—and even revised—them to reflect a father explaining Pesach to four different sons: wise, stupid, wicked, and one who doesn’t ask.


The Four Sons: How the Midrash Developed

The Four Sons, Arthur Szyk, 1934, Łódź, Poland. Szyk.org / Wikimedia

The Midrash of the Four Sons

One of the best-known and popular elements of the Passover Haggadah is the questions from the four types of children.[1]The oldest extant version of this idea is found in the 3rd century Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (Pascha, 18):

נמצאת אומר ארבעה בנים הם: אחד חכם ואחד טיפש, אחד רשע אחד שאינו יודע לשאול.
It turns out that [the Torah] has four sons: a smart son, a stupid son, a wicked son, and one who does not know how to ask.
חכם מה הוא אומר? ”מה העדות החקים…?“ אף אתה פתח לו בהילכת הפסח, אמור לו: ”הפסח אין מפטירין אפיקימון.“
The wise son, what does he say? “What are the testimonies, statutes…?” (Deut 6:20) So you should open for him the laws of Pesah. Say to him: “[After eating] the Paschal lamb, one does not follow up with reveling (or ‘dessert’).”
טיפש—”לאמר: ’מה זאת?‘ ואמרת אליו: ’בחוזק יד הוציאנו ה’ ממצרים. ‘“
The stupid son, “saying ‘What is this?’ And you should say to him: ‘With a strong hand God took us out of Egypt’” (Exod 13:14).
רשע אומר: ”מה העבודה הזאת לכם“—לפי שהוציא עצמו מן הכלל אף את הוציאו מה הכלל. אמור לו: ”’בעבור זה עשה ד’ לי‘—לי ולא לך, אילו הייתה שם לא היתה נגאל.“
The wicked son says: “What is this service to you?” (Exod 12:26) Since he excluded himself from the whole you should exclude him from the whole. Say to him, “‘because of what God did for me’ (Exod 13:8)—me and not you, if you had been there, you would not have been redeemed.”
ושאינו יודע לשאל: את פתח לו, שנאמר: ”והגדת לבנך וגו’.“
And the one who doesn’t know to ask: you open with him, as it says, “you shall tell you son, etc.” (Exod 13:8).[2]

This derasha (homily) is based on four different passages in the Torah.[3] Each passage has the father explaining something else:

  • In answer to “the wise son’s question,” the father explains why we keep God’s commandments (Deut 6:20–25).[4]
  • In answer to “the stupid son’s question,” the father explains why firstborn animals are offered to God (Exod 13:14–15).
  • In answer to “the wicked son’s question,” the father explains why we offer the paschal sacrifice (Exod 12:26–27).
  • Finally, the father explains to “the son who does not ask,” why we eat only matzot during the festival (Exod 13:8).

Whereas the Torah is presenting a generic father answering explaining four different matters to one generic son, the rabbis envision four different sons asking about the same thing. To understand how this reading developed, we need to unpack a variety of intricate midrashic hooks, which come from the rabbinic practice of reading verses in light of each other.

Midrash 1: The Smart and Simple Questions

The Torah’s introduction to two of the questions is phrased almost identically:

Firstborn (Exod 13:14) Torah (Deut 6:20)
וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר: מַה זֹּאת
כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר: מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ (אֶתְכֶם) [אותנו].[5]
And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying: “What is this?” When, in time to come, your children ask you, saying: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our God has enjoined upon (you) [us]?”

For the Rabbis, this virtually identical phrasing invited comparison, and once the two were compared, the extreme difference in the nature of the questions is stark: Whereas the question in Exodus is extremely short and concrete, the question in Deuteronomy is long and abstract, making use of legal terminology.

Such a distinction would have suggested to the rabbis that we cannot be speaking of the same son, but two different sons: A “smart” (חכם) child would ask the question in Deuteronomy,[6] while as “stupid” (טפש), or in the Haggadah, and “simple” (תם) child would ask the one in Exodus.[7] In his discussion of the Haggadah in his Sefer Abudarham, R. David Abudarham of Seville (fl. 1340) points this out explicitly:

בבן טפש שאינו יודע להעמיק שאלתו הכתוב מדבר וזהו תם:
The verse is discussing a stupid son who does not know now to ask a deep question, and this is [what the Haggadah means by] the simple son.

Insofar as the change in terminology from stupid in the Mekhilta and the Yerushalmi (see appendix) to “simple” in the Haggadah, David Henshke, Professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University, suggests that the incorporation of this text in a family-friendly home ritual, occasioned the softening of harsh terminology.[8] But the original language, and the fact that the wise and stupid sons are juxtaposed in the Mekhilta, sharpens the observation that the rabbis see the two questions as opposites.

Changing the Wise Son’s Answer

The answer to the simple son’s question is the one that appears in the Torah, though shortened to exclude the references to the offering of the firstborn animals that would be inappropriate to a seder context (which is not about offering firstborn animals but specifically about offering the paschal lamb).[9] In contrast, the wise son does not receive the biblical answer, which is,

דברים ו:כא וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה.
Deut 6:21 You shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and YHWH freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.[10]

Instead, he receives a two-part answer having to do with Jewish law. First, the father is to introduce him to the laws of Pesach, and second, the father is to tell him the law that no afikomen (reveling or dessert) is to take place after consuming the Pesach.[11]

The rabbis turned to Jewish law because of the phrasing of the question, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules…?” The Torah means the question to express “what is the reason we keep the laws” whereas the Mekhilta understands it as “tell me the laws.” Thus, the derasha skips over the Torah’s answer and suggests teaching the child the laws of Pesach.

But why mention the afikomen specifically? Here Henshke notes a subtle difference between the original, Mekhilta text and that in the Haggadah. Whereas the more familiar Haggadah text has the afikomen law as the only law the father is to teach, the Mekhilta divides the father’s role into two parts: he opens by teaching the laws of Pesach in general, and he should also tell him the afikomen law. This second law is meant to underscore the purpose of the seder night: we do not spend time in post-meal entertainment, but we pass the night studying the laws of Pesach (a point that is lost in the phrasing in our Haggadah).[12]

The point is clearest in the way the Tosefta juxtaposes the afikomen law with Torah study:

אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן כגון אגוזין תמרים וקליות חייב אדם לעסוק בהלכות הפסח כל הלילה אפלו בינו לבין בנו אפלו בינו לבין עצמו אפלו בינו לבין תלמידו
One does not follow up [eating] the Paschal lamb with afikomen (dessert) such as almonds, dates, or nuts. A person must be busy with the laws of Pesach all night, even if only between him and his son, even just by himself, even between him and his student.

In short, the wise child has reached the pinnacle of what the rabbis wished for from a seder. Once the son has expressed interest in understanding the laws, he is ready to study halakha with his father. (For an alternative rabbinic text, which switches the wise and simple sons’ answers, see appendix.)

Midrash 2: The Wicked Son

The rabbis identify the third son as wicked based on two observations. First, when the Torah describes the questions of the wise and simple sons, it uses the root ש.א.ל, “ask,” but for this son, it uses the root א.מ.ר, “say.”

שמות יב:כו וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם.
Exod 12:26 And when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this rite?”

The rabbis likely saw this as implying a statement rather than a question. Second, the son includes the pronoun לכם, “you,” which the rabbis read as the son distancing himself from the ritual.[13]

This reading went hand in hand with their reading of another verse, where the father is meant to explain to his son about matzot and says that it is “because of what God did for me when I left Egypt” (בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם). Why does the father say “me” and not “us”? The rabbis note that this answer reads well as a response to the wicked son. The wicked son say “what is this to you” so the father answers “this is important to me.”[14]

Once the rabbis decide that this is the answer to the wicked son, they are forced to jettison the answer that the Torah offers to this question:

יב:כז וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַי־הוָה אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל…
12:27 You shall say, “It is the paschal sacrifice to YHWH, because He protected the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved our houses.”

Moreover, the Torah’s answer is not negative in tone at all, and does not highlight the son’s use of the word “you,” and thus they preferred to make use of the answer from the other passage, which uses the term “me.”[15]

Midrash 3: The Child with No Question

Of the four passages in which a father is to teach his son something, only one lacks any question:

שמות יג:ח וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְ־הוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 13:8 And you shall explain to your son on that day saying, “It is because of what YHWH did for me when I left Egypt.”

The rabbis deduced from this anomaly that the passage is referring to a son that cannot ask questions.[16]

Putting this together with the previous two sons, we get a hierarchy from wise, stupid/simple, unable to ask. Moreover, we can see literally that the instructions to the father for the first and last son are literarily parallel, since they both begin with “you open for him” (את/אתה פתח לו).

Strangely, the derasha does not specify what the father should tell the son, only that he should tell him something. It quotes the biblical phrase “and you shall tell your son” (והגדת לבנך) as a proof text, to show that the father must teach him, but ignores the rest of the verse, that explains what he should say.[17] This is because the answer provided in the Torah context was already an integral part of the derasha about the wicked son, and could not be reused.


Reversing the Answers

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) has a version of this midrash that follows the order of sons with which we are familiar from the Haggadah, but reverses the answers of the wise and stupid sons (j. Pesachim 10:4):

תני רבי חייה: ”כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה תורה; בן חכם בן רשע בן טיפש בן שאינו יודע לשאל. “
Rabbi Hiyya taught: “The Torah spoke with reference to four sons; a smart son, a wicked son, a stupid son, and a son who does not know how to ask.”
בן חכם מהו אומר? ”מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה יי’ אלהינו אותנו?“ אף אתה אמור לו: ”בחוזק יד הוציאנו יי’ ממצרים מבית עבדים.“…
What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonies statutes and laws with God our Lord commanded us?” So too, you should say to him: “With a powerful hand God took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”…
בן רשע מהו אומר? ”מה העבודה הזאת לכם?“ מה הטורח הזה שאתם מטריחין עלינו בכל שנה ושנה? מכיון שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל, אף אתה אמור לו: ”בעבור זה עשה יי’ לי“, לי עשה, לאותו האיש לא עשה, אילו היה אותו האיש במצרים לא היה ראוי להיגאל משם לעולם.
What does the wicked son say? “What is this service to you?” What is this bother that you bother us with every year? Since he removed himself from the group, you should also tell him: “Because of that (which) God did for me. He did it for me, for that guy he did not do it. If that guy were in Egypt, he would never have been fit to be redeemed.
טיפש מהו אומר? ”מה זאת.“ אף את למדו הילכות הפסח, שאין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקימון, שלא יהא עומד מחבורה זו ונכנס לחבורה אחרת.
What does the stupid son say? “What is this?” So too, you should teach him the laws of Pesach, that one does not “dessert” after the eating the Pascal lamb; (i.e.) that one should not leave this group and go to another group.
בן שאינו יודע לשאל, את פתח לו תחילה. אמר רבי יוסה: ”מתניתא אמרת כן: ’אם אין דעת בבן, אביו מלמדו.‘“
The son who does not know to ask – you start (talking) with him first. Rabbi Yosse said: “The Mishna says as much: ‘If the son has no knowledge, the father teaches him’.”

In this version, the stupid son is taught the rabbinic laws of Pesach and the wise son is taught that God took the Israelites out of Egypt. Assuming this switching of answers was intentional and not a scribal error, we have here a debate about priorities. According to the Mekhilta, the ultimate goal of the night was to study halakha, and therefore, this is what the wise son should be taught.

According to the Yerushalmi, the ultimate goal was to speak about the story. Thus, it understands the wise son’s question not as a technical “what are the laws” but as a higher order question: “why do we keep them?” A child like that should be taught the responsibility of being a Jew and remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt and that God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

The simple son, however, is given no philosophical explanation, but is simply told to stick around and not go looking for other forms of entertainment. Perhaps the point was that he should stay and watch the discussion with the wise son.

Yet a third possible answer for to the simple son is found in Midrash Tannaim, which suggests that the appropriate answer is what the Torah uses as an answer for the wise son:

”עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים“ – לפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו, שאם היה טפש או קטן אומר לו: ’בני כולנו היינו עבדים לפרעה במצרים, כמו שפחה זו או כמו עבד זה,‘ שנאמר: ”עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים.“
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” – A father should teach his son according to his (the son’s) knowledge. If he is foolish our young, say to him: “My son, we were all slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, like this servant girl, or like this slave”, for it says: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

The point here seems to be that mentioning that we were slaves is something concrete, allowing the father to point to a slave and say, “that is what we were.” This fits with the way this simple or stupid son asks the question “what is that?” The son points to the paschal offering or the matzah and the father points to the slave serving the meal.


April 16, 2019


Last Updated

June 5, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).