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The Four Children •
Education Through Dialogue: A Reminder for Parents"The Four Parents": Children Label Their ParentsThe Pitfalls of LabelingQuestioning Our WisdomEmbarassing Your Parents Beating the Bounds: Producing Wicked ChildrenWho Is Truly Wise?The "Wicked" Child: An Unfair Description?The Parent of the Silent ChildThe Contemporary Four Children — A Child's Perspective Beyond LabelsBridging the Generation Gap

An Artistic Tour: 500 years of the Four Children of the Haggadah
Art of the Four Children 1526-1923 1924-1959 1960-1982 1985-present

Education Through Dialogue
A Reminder for Parents
     Thus far the Haggadah has given guidelines to the parent who is full of earnest enthusiasm to pass on an historical and cultural “message” to the younger generation. If ever there was an event which appeals to the parent’s desire to bring their youth-culture-centered children to appreciate the old values of cultural and ethnic pride and identification, the Pesach Seder is it! Here lies a dangerous pitfall for the parent-educator. The leader of the seder is likely to concentrate on the text of the Haggadah without sufficiently taking into consideration the audience – the younger generation – and their level of interest. Absorbed with the sales-pitch, the salesperson often forgets the customer!

"The Four Parents": Children Label Their Parents
IN THE DAYS of the patriarchal regime, we allowed ourselves to categorize our children harshly – accepting only one as positive – the wise one.
     The simple, the wicked and the one who knows not how to ask questions had to swallow hard and hide their sense of being insulted...
     Now in our days no child is identified as “the offspring of the parent” and often the parent is identified as “the parent of that child.” We have arrived at an era not of partiarchy or matriarchy but the rule of children. In our age it is then miraculous that our dear, delightful children don’t divide us up and categorize us. At the best, we would be rated “naive or simple minded parents” or “parents who don’t know how to respond to a question.”
(Israel Eldad, “The Victory of the Wise Son”)   top

The Pitfalls of Labeling
I INSTINCTIVELY recoil from static stereotypes that label persons simplistically. Therefore, I choose to interpret the midrash of the four children as a diverse set of strategies for addressing four different facets of each and every child. Each personality combines these facets in different ways. For example, the wise and the rebellious facets can be combined for evil. Then the cunning mind is used to inflict pain on one’s parents. Alternatively, the combination can produce a revolutionary chalutz (pioneer) seeking not just to undermine the traditional order but to create new frameworks of meaning. This requires an intelligence which is not conservative like the traditional “wise child” but which looks beyond the horizon, beyond the existing laws and their pat rationale.
(Yaariv Ben Aharon, Kibbutz author)   top

Questioning Our Wisdom
THE TRULY WISE question the wisdom of others because they question their own wisdom as well, the foolish, because it is different from their own.
Rabbi Leopold Stein, Journey into the Self (Germany, d. 1882)   top

Embarassing Your Parents
THIS DIFFICULT CHILD is determined to embarrass us, the parents (in the midst of the Seder before all the guests). He implies that the wine and lambchops are only for our culinary pleasure when he says pointedly, “This service is for you” (not for God).
(Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 15th C.)    top

Beating the Bounds:
Producing Wicked Children

THE PASSOVER CELEBRATION is aimed at the child in all of us, allowing us to open our imaginations, to rediscover the lost elements of wonder, pleasure, and hilarity that are captured in this event. Having children at the seder can help make this happen.
     If we make our children unhappy, they will remember Passover, but not fondly. In the British Isles, there is a custom of taking sons out every year to “beat the bounds.” Today they use the stick as the boundary markers, but they used to beat the boys at the site of those markers to ensure that they would remember the limits of ancestral property. Beating our ancient heritage into our children’s psyches may make them remember, but it is probably the reason so many people remember ritual and ceremony as intrinsically unpleasant.
(Ira Steingroot, Keeping Passover)   top

"Who Is Truly Wise?"
THE WISE CHILD of the Haggadah is portrayed as a knowledgeable, believing and obedient child. This child formulates long complex questions, distinguishes multiple categories of laws, and accepts the God who commanded “us.” But let’s beware of this stereotyped, academic brainchild. Is this child truly wise?
      Don Isaac Abrabanel, “The Smart Alec”: “This ‘wise-guy’ child is arrogant in his ‘wisdom.’ He shows off the distinctions he can make between types of mitzvot. ‘But you teach him the subtleties down to the last detail in the Mishna.’ Let the ‘smart-alec’ who appears wise in his own eyes see that there is still much for him to learn.
There is twice as much wisdom in these laws as in the question. Let the wise grow in wisdom and in humility.”
     Israel Eldad, “To Know When to Ask”: “No! The wise child does not derive his title from the pretense to know-it-all. One who thinks he possesses wisdom already, does not ask at all. ‘One who does not even know how to ask’ has a negative trait, typical of the know-it-all. The truly wise child asks genuine questions, not cynically and mockingly like the rebellious child and not superficially like the simple child. He seeks the essence of things, ‘What is the true nature of the laws, testimonies and statutes that God has commanded us?’”
      The Chassidic Seer of Lublin: “In my judgment, it is better to be a wicked person who knows he is wicked, than a righteous one who knows that he is righteous. Worst of all is to be a wicked person who thinks he is righteous.”
(Menachem HaCohen, Haggadah of HaAm)   top

The "Wicked" Child — An Unfair Description?
The "wicked" child expresses a sense of alienation from our Jewish heritage. In this age of liberalism and democracy, of pluralistic tolerance for many cultural expressions, should a person who expresses such a feeling be condemned as ”wicked” or “evil”?
      l Hold a brief discussion on the topic. Would a different characterization be more appropriate to our contemporary sensibilities - such as “the rebellious one,” “the skeptic,” ”the arrogant – chutzpadik?” Is “setting his teeth on edge” the best strategy to deal with such a person?
      Role-Playing: try to “get inside” the personality of the so called “wicked” children and their parents. Describe the feelings of each one in this tense confrontation described in the Haggadah.
     Suggestion: Have the younger participants at the seder describe the feelings of the parent, and have those who are already parents describe the feelings of the child.

The Parent of the Silent Child
THE CHILD DOES NOT ASK because he is afraid of making a mistake. He does not know how to phrase his question and lacks confidence. Therefore, the parent should try to lead him into a conversation, to encourage him, to strengthen him, to strengthen his confidence.
(Marc Angel, Sephardic Haggadah, p. 30)    top

The Contemporary "Four Children"
Which famous person today would be the best representative of the “wise child,” of the ”wicked child,” and so on? Suggest candidates and discuss their suitability.

A Child’s Perspective
Ask the younger children to describe the behavior of “a bad child” at the seder.
      What might be causing such behavior?
      Do they approve of the parent’s response in the Haggadah?
      How would they handle the situation?
      Why do they think the “silent child” asks no questions?
      How might that child be coaxed into greater involvement?

Beyond Labels
I DO NOT VIEW labels as static pigeonholes. I believe in the power of the educational act to release locked up potentials. For example, one who does not know how to ask may be silenced by the rules of society. The silence may hide an exceptional, sensitive child whose questions are choked. A parent can “open the child up,” remove the obstructions, enable personal growth and break stereotypes
(Yaariv Ben Aharon, Kibbutz author)   top

Bridging the Generation Gap
The inter-generational dialogues in the Torah explicitly refer to parents who participated in the Exodus addressing their children who have grown up in freedom in the Land of Israel. The parents have undergone an experience of slavery and redemption which is totally foreign to the reality of the younger generation. The gap in experience causes difficulties in the inter-generational dialogue.
     Invite the seder participants to discuss the following:
      What are the generational gaps among us, the participants of tonight’s seder? Go around the table and have people relate a particular experience connected with their generation which might be difficult for a person of a different generation to comprehend.

An Artistic Tour: 500 years of the Four Children of the Haggadah

Art of the Four Children

1526-1923 1924-1959 1960-1982 1985-present