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The Four Children Explained

The Four Children Explained

An anthology of classic and kabbalistic teachings

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Four Blessings, Four Children

Blessed is the omnipresent one, blessed be He!

Blessed is He who gave the Torah to His people Israel, blessed be He!

The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.

Blessed is the Omnipresent. At this point, the Haggadah begins focusing on the explanation of Biblical verses. This passage therefore begins with an exclamation praising G‑d, which is customarily done prior to teaching Torah (Avudraham).

In the passage we bless G‑d four times, corresponding to the four Torah passages that instruct us to retell the Exodus. This mitzvah would essentially require a blessing, as do all positive commandments. In practice, we do not recite a blessing over it (see below). Nevertheless, out of affection for the mitzvah, the Sages ordained these four informal blessings (Shibolei Haleket).

Why not recite a proper blessing over the mitzvah to relay the exodus? The following opinions are cited in the Haggadah authored by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory:

  • We have already fulfilled the basic obligation during the Kiddush with the words “commemorating the Exodus...” (Rif).
  • We fulfilled the obligation during the reading of the Shema (during which we remember the Exodus), which we prefaced and concluded with blessings (Shibolei Haleket).
  • According to some, there is no defined measure for the “discussion of the Exodus” and a mere mention is in effect sufficient [and such a mitzvah does not require a blessing] (Rashba).
  • The entire Haggadah is a blessing and form of praise, especially since it includes the blessing “Who has redeemed us”—and one does not recite a blessing over a blessing [just as we do not recite a blessing over the blessing after a meal] (Maaseh Nissim).
  • This mitzvah is fulfilled with interruptions—eating and drinking, etc.—and in such a case one does not recite a blessing (Shevach Pesach).

The Omnipresent (literally “the Place”). “Why do we provide an appellation for G‑d and call Him ‘the Place’? For He is the place of the world, whereas His world is not His place”—the world is contained in Him, not He in it (Bereishit Rabbah 68:9).

Wise, wicked, simple, does not know how to ask. This order conforms neither to the order in which the children are mentioned in the Torah (Wicked, Simple, Does Not Know How to Ask, Wise), nor to the order of their moral standing, in which the wicked child should be last.

Rather, they are listed in order of their intellectual capacities: The wise child; the wicked child, who is also wise but whose insolence leads him to act wickedly; the simple child, who has at least enough intelligence to ask; and finally the one who does not know how to ask (Avudraham). Alternatively, the Haggadah first mentions the extremes, then the ones in the middle.1

Individuality

The Torah generally speaks of one truth and one path for every person. With the Exodus, however, the Torah uncharacteristically provides a different explanation for each of the four types of children, thereby conveying a critical lesson in education:

When reaching out to others, to educate them and help them transcend their “Egypts,” we should not use a standardized, unvarying approach for all types of students. To reach students and affect them, teachers must tailor their words and method to conform to each individual student.

By providing different answers for each of the four children, the Torah enables and inspires us to find the right words and approach with which to engage every individual and successfully ignite their G‑dly spark.2

Four in One

Since all of Torah addresses all of Israel, we must say that all four messages of the Torah are applicable to all of us, since we all possess the “four children” within ourselves. We are therefore all required—even one who does not have children—to recite all four answers, since we are in essence speaking to the wise, wicked, simple, and “unable to ask” elements that exist within every one of us.3

The Wise and the Wicked

The Haggadah mentions the wicked immediately after the wise. This teaches the wise that they cannot ignore their “wicked” brethren, for we are all responsible for each other.4

Every Jew is like a letter in a Torah scroll: if even one letter is missing, regardless of what that letter is, the holiness of all the letters is compromised. Similarly, the condition of the entire nation is dependent on each individual.

Additionally, the wise should not imagine themselves so far removed from the reality of the “wicked.” The “wicked”—the potential for self-destructive distractions—is the immediate neighbor of the wise.

The wise must therefore remain vigilant against this susceptibility within themselves and pray to remain above it.

In fact, the two lessons overlap:

By reaching out to help the “wicked,” the wise will gain the spiritual merit that will help them overcome and transform their own, inner “wicked child.”5

The Fifth Child

“Unfortunately, there is, in our time of confusion and obscurity, another kind of a Jewish child: the child who is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder Service; the one who has no interest whatsoever in Torah and G-d's commandments... who is not even aware of the Seder, of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent revelation at Sinai.

“This presents a grave challenge, which should command our attention long before Passover and the Seder night, for no Jewish child should be forgotten and given up. We must make every effort to save also that “lost” child, and bring the absentee to the Seder table. determined to do so, and driven by a deep sense of compassion and responsibility, we need have no fear of failure...” (The Rebbe).6

The Wise Child


What does the wise one say?

“What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that G‑d, our G‑d, has commanded to you?” (deut. 6:20)

You should respond to him as the Torah commands, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, etc.” and also instruct him in all the laws of Passover, up to and including its final law: “After eating the Passover offering, one should not then conclude the meal with dessert which would wash away the taste of the Passover offering.”

What are the testimonies, statutes, laws? These three terms for G-d's commandments signify three types of commandments:

StatutesChukim: Inexplicable Laws (e.g., not to mix wool and linen)

TestimoniesEdot: Explicable but not Intuitive Laws (e.g., Shabbat and Festivals)

LawsMishpatim: Intuitive Laws (e.g., not to steal)

G‑d our G‑d has commanded to you. When the wicked child says “What is this service to you?” we assume he is excluding himself. But doesn’t the wise child also refer to “the testimonies… that G‑d our G‑d has commanded to you”?

The wicked child makes no mention of G‑d; the wise child refers to “G‑d our G‑d,” clearly including himself. He uses “you” in the sense of “you who came out of Egypt and received G‑d’s commandments,” as opposed to himself who was not yet born when the commandment was given (Machzor Vitri).

The wise child. True wisdom refers to absolute awareness of G‑d—to know that He is the source and sustenance of everything and yet transcends everything. This is the deeper meaning of the Talmudic saying: “Who is wise? The one who sees what is born.”7 Read simply, this means that the wise foresee the consequences of their actions and behave accordingly. On a deeper level it means that the wise perceive that all of existence is “born”— comes into being—and continues to exist by G‑d’s will, without which nothing can exist.

We all possess an inner “wise child,” a chacham. Hence our unbreakable bond with G‑d: We neither desire nor are capable of separating ourselves from G‑d.8 This is because our inner chacham knows that there is no real existence outside of G‑d.

The greater our awareness that G‑d is all, the lesser our awareness of “self,” of anything outside of Him. Self-orientation is only possible where G‑d is concealed, where our source and purpose is obscured. Wisdom, then, is the conviction that “G‑d is all, and there is nothing besides Him.”9

It is Pure

This selfless dimension of the soul is called “pure.” In the morning blessings we say: My G‑d, the soul that you placed within me—it is pure. You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me…. These four descriptions allude to the four stages of the soul’s descent into the world. At each stage, the presence of G‑d becomes less obvious and the illusion of an autonomous self-increases.

The highest level, “pure,” describes the soul at the highest of the four worlds, the world of Atzilut, absolute divine awareness. At this level, the soul is a “chacham,” filled with divine awareness and therefore absolutely free of self-orientation.

The Chacham’s Question

The “pure” aspect of our souls, the chacham within, therefore asks:

What are the Testimonies, Statutes, and Laws? These three categories of commandments are distinguished by the extent to which they resonate with human intellect.

This resonance or lack thereof is only relevant to the soul’s lower consciousness, not to the chacham aspect of the soul. To the chacham, a mitzvah is an opportunity to fulfill the divine will. From this perspective, the particular features of the commandments are secondary.

This feeling is expressed in the saying: “If G‑d had commanded us to chop wood, we would do it with the same fervor as when putting on tefillin” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi).10 For in either case we would be fulfilling G‑d’s will.

The chacham therefore asks: Why categorize commandments as if they were somehow different from one another?

This implies, says the chacham, that our ability to understand a given mitzvah by reason or intuition matters in some way. Yet to the chacham, these features of the mitzvah are irrelevant, since the overriding definition of all commandments is identical in each one: fulfillment of the divine will.

Response to the Chacham

Instruct him in the laws of Passover. A true chacham already knows the laws. “Instruct him...” alludes to something deeper:

The words “laws” and “Pesach” represent polar opposites. Pesach, which means “passing over,” represents absolute transcendence; “passing over” the natural order. On Passover, the very essence of G‑d “descended” to Egypt—“not an angel…. but G‑d Himself.” And to where did G‑d “descend”? To the lowliest of places, to the coarse and idolatrous land of Egypt. Such a phenomenon completely disregards and “passes over” all norms.

Yet the celebration of the transcendent and rule-bending “Passover” is very much within order and structure. There are laws of Passover. The celebration itself is called Seder, “order.”

For it is G‑d’s will that we channel the intensity and loftiness of what transcends the natural order into the world of structure and order.

Internalizing the Transcendent

So we tell the chacham:

It is true that the essence of the soul transcends the “natural order” of the person—the intellect and emotions—and therefore is blind to distinctions between commandments. It is likewise true that one can observe commandments without understanding them but simply because of the innate, essence-connection between the soul and G‑d. One can “pass over” and bypass the complications and limitations of self.

But it is G‑d’s will that we experience commandments within the “natural order” of our psyche, within our intellect and emotions. The transcendent “Passover” of our souls then finds expression within and permeates the “laws” of our minds and hearts (The Rebbe).11

The Wicked Child

What does the wicked one say?

“What is this service of yours?!”12 He says of yours—implying that it is not for him. By excluding himself from the community, he denies the essential principle of Judaism, the obligation to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.

You should also “blunt his teeth” (speak harshly to him13) and say to him:

“It is because of this that I would fulfill His commandments, such as this Passover offering, matzah and maror14that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8)—for me, but not for him. If he [the wicked child] had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

You should also (blunt his teeth). In addition to giving him the response the Torah gives to his question (Exodus 12:27), It is a Passover offering [to G‑d, Who passed over the homes of the Children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote Egypt and saved our homes], you should also blunt his teeth (Abarbanel).

It is because of this that G‑d acted for me. This verse appears in the Torah as the response to the child who does not know to ask. But the words “(G‑d did) for me” clearly do not mean to exclude him. We therefore apply the exclusion as a teaching about the wicked child (see the Avudraham and the Abarbanel).

For me, but not for him. In the Mechilta the phrase reads “for me, but not for you.” The editor of the Haggadah evidently changed the text out of consideration for the participants at the Seder [so it should not appear as if the leader of the Seder is addressing and insulting them] (The Rebbe’s Haggadah).

Embracing the Wicked

The Talmud15 records a debate between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Meir regarding our designation as G‑d’s children. According to Rabbi Yehudah, we are only considered G‑d’s children when we behave as G‑d’s children. Rabbi Meir, however, holds that either way we are called G‑d’s children. He cites several verses in the Prophets where we are chided as foolish, or impious, and yet we are called foolish children, impious children.

TheRashba rules16 that although Jewish law generally follows Rabbi Yehudah’s view, in this case we follow the view of rabbi Meir, since the verses from the Prophets clearly confirm Rabbi Meir’s view.

Here in the Haggadah, rabbi Meir’s view is likewise displayed: The Torah speaks of four types of Jews, including the wicked child, yet refers to all of them as children, alluding to their status as G‑d’s children.17

Yet how do we reconcile this benevolent view with the Haggadah's instruction that we tell the wicked child that he would not have been redeemed from Egypt? The answer is that we are not, G‑d forbid, trying to reject him. To the contrary, we are encouraging him by saying: “In Egypt, your distance from G‑d would have prevented you from being redeemed. But we have since received the Torah. And the Torah speaks of four children, including you. G‑d spoke to you at Sinai, when He said: ‘I am the L‑rd Your G‑d.’ At Sinai, G‑d was engraved into the depths of your soul. And so despite your distance, the Torah considers you connected. You would not have been redeemed from Egypt, but you will be redeemed in the future redemption.”

As the Talmud states, a Jew cannot lose his Jewishness.18 Regardless of the degree of his disengagement from Judaism, the Jewish spark lives on within him.

Kabbalah teaches that the wicked child, second of the four children, corresponds to the second of the Four Cups.19 This means that that the bulk of the Haggadah is recited over the cup related to the wicked child! Clearly, befriending and educating the wicked child is a central aspect of the Haggadah. For this effort helps bring about the ultimate realization of the Egyptian Exodus:

The Egyptian Exodus was incomplete. It will only be fully realized in the Messianic age, a time that will be ushered in by uniting all Jews—including those who seem most distant—and revealing their inherent connection to G‑d, their inner “wise child.”20

Wicked or Ignorant?

Today there is the “wicked” child who in reality is not wicked but simply ignorant.

In today’s day and age, there is virtually no such thing as a renegade Jew! Those who do not observe Jewish practices and the like, cannot be faulted, since they never received a proper Jewish education. In the past, there were those who had a choice and chose to rebel.... But children born in the last 70 years were never told about Judaism or in such a manner that would translate into observance. They cannot be blamed for their disinterest….21

“The attitude of the Chabad Rebbes, especially my father-in-law, was to befriend all of Israel, even those in the category referred to at the end of chapter 32 of Tanya (‘heretics who have no portion…’), to try to bring them back to good…” (The Rebbe).22

Getting to the Root

Blunt his teeth. The word for tooth, shen, is spelled like the Hebrew letter shin, the middle letter of the word for wicked, rasha. Blunting the “tooth” of the rasha alludes to subduing the letter “shin” in the word rasha.

Everything must have a holy foundation, a spark of holiness, to exist. For example, falsehood must possess some truth in order to be believable—this is the shin in sheker, falsehood.10823

The shin of rasha is the spark of holiness that resides in evil but which is “swallowed” and concealed by the letters reish and ayin that surround it, letters that embody negativity—ra. To blunt the “shin” of wickedness means to identify and redeem its spark of holiness (Arizal).24

In the case of irredeemable evil, this means that the evil entity loses its existence, since its source of existence has been removed. In the case of redeemable evil, such as the rasha of the Seder, we apply the teaching:25 “May sins be removed from the earth, not the sinners” (The Rebbe).26

The Simple One

The Simple One—what does he say?

“What is this celebration about?” You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand G‑d took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).

With a strong hand. The simpleton is the sort who has the sensitivity to get excited over a wondrous occurrence that involves G‑d and Torah. When he sees that so many Jews left Egypt, despite Pharaoh’s global power,27 he gets excited, and asks: “What is this?” He wants to know more about the Exodus and how he can connect with it. So we tell him:

Even though we were unworthy of redemption—sunk as we were in “the forty-nine gates of impurity” and serving idols like the Egyptians—G‑d used a “strong hand” to overrule strict justice and redeem us.28 And although we were supposed to stay in Egypt for 400 years, G‑d used a “strong hand” to recalculate the 400-year decree and take us out after only 210 years (Chida).

We tell the simpleton how the Exodus occurred and how he too can experience a personal “Exodus”: Just as G‑d used a strong hand to “overcome” the attribute of justice, we too must use a strong hand to overcome those aspects of our personalities that impede our spiritual growth. We then experience a spiritual liberation from our personal enslavements (The Rebbe).29

Not So Simple

The four children are introduced with the phrase: “One is wise, one is wicked, etc.”—emphasizing that each of the four children knows and speaks of the One G‑d.

(Even the wicked child speaks of G‑d but asserts that G‑d is uninterested in the affairs of man.)

The simpleton perceives G‑d with pure and innocent faith (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch).30

Does Not Know How To Ask


As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.

As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

You must open up for him. The commentators differ on how to define this phrase. Some maintain that our obligation is to provoke this child to ask, so that the story can be told as an answer to a question. “You must open for him” then means to create an opening for him through intriguing rituals and by telling him about the Exodus, until he is inspired to ask questions (Pirush Kadmon; Shibolei Haleket).

Others understand the phrase to mean “begin for him,” i.e., since he is not asking any questions, we have no choice but to begin relating the story to him, even though he has not asked about it (Rashbatz; Chida). As we read in Proverbs (31:8), “Open your mouth on behalf of the mute” (Avudraham). Hence the verse cited, which does not speak of any question, yet states tell your child… (Ritva). The Rashbatz thus concludes that tonight’s mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus can be fulfilled with or without the question and answer form.31

The Bashful Child

The fourth child may actually want to ask but lacks confidence and fears being seen as a fool. The Haggadah instructs us to be sensitive to such people and to put them at ease by initiating conversation with them until they are comfortable sharing their thoughts confidently and clearly (R. Shlomo Alkabetz; Chida).

Knows Not How To Ask

The fourth child's inability to ask may be the result of having been deprived of a Jewish education: “By placing this child at the end, the Haggadah emphasizes that the worst thing, even worse than wickedness, is ignorance. This is because the wicked child has studied Torah and performed commandments. Once he repents, which he can do in the blink of an eye, he knows what to do…. The wicked child has a choice. He can choose good or evil.

“But then there is a place that is a parched and thirsty land without water.32 This is the reality of the ignorant Jew, who was not given a choice...” (The Rebbe).33

Too Smart For Questions

This fourth child may be a ritually observant Jew who fulfills all the customs of the Seder. But his Judaism is cold and dry. He does not feel a need for spiritual liberation. He has no questions about or real interest in the Exodus because he does not think of himself as being in exile.

He claims that he is not the excitable type and thus excuses his lifeless Jewish practice. Yet while he cannot muster any excitement for Judaism, he is easily exercised and engaged by material ambitions. He does not realize that his heart and mind are in exile, oblivious to the spiritual content of life.

We cannot begin by telling this Jew what G‑d did (as we tell the simple child); we must first inspire him to seek spiritual liberation. We therefore tell him:

“G‑d did this for me when I left Egypt”—you too are in need of leaving Egypt (The Rebbe).34

The Angelic Child

On a deeper level, the fourth child refers to a lofty sort of soul, one that is perfectly in tune with the divine truth. Though inhabiting this world like the rest of us, such souls maintain a heavenly consciousness in which there are no questions, even when they are faced with personal challenges. They experience none of the dissonance and tension between matter and spirit that is the usual lot of mortals.

On this level, the fourth child’s lack of questions is something to admire (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch).35

An excerpt from the new Passover Haggadah: With Commentary from the Classic Commentators, Midrash, Kabbalah, the Chasidic Masters and the Haggadah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Set in elegant, two-color type with lively, original artwork, and printed in a deluxe gift edition, the Haggadah sets a new standard for beauty, clarity, comprehensiveness and relevance.

The new Haggadah will sparkle on your Seder Table and will be the subject of conversation of friends and family as the beauty of Passover and its eternal messages come alive in this monumental work.

Purchase the new volume here.

FOOTNOTES
1.

See, similarly, Bava Kama 4b, Tosfot s.v. Shomer Chinam (The Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, vol. 1, p. 248).

2.

Torat Menachem vol. 32, p. 315.

3.

Torat Menachem vol. 8, p. 76.

4.

See Sanhedrin 27b; Tanya, ch. 32

5.

Likutei Torah, Shelach 40a.

6.

Letter dated 11 Nissan, 5737, Haggadah Shel Pesach with commentary vol. 2, p. 578ff.

7.

Tamid 32a.

8.

See hayom Yom, 21 Sivan and 25 Tamuz.

9.

Tanya ch. 43.

10.

Likutei Torah Shelach 40a.

11.

Likkutei Sichot, vol. 3, pp. 961-965; Torat Menachem 5713, vol. 2, p. 539.

12.

Exodus 12:26.

13.

Sidur Rashi.

14.

Rashi.

15.

Kiddushin 36a

16.

Response §194 and §260.

17.

See the Chida.

18.

Sanhedrin 44a.

19.

Pri Etz Chaim 21:5.

20.

Likkutei Sichot vol. 1, pp. 248-252.

21.

Torat Menachem 5743, vol. 3, p. 1280.

22.

Likkutei Sichot, vol. 13, p. 235.

23.

The kuf and resh are associated with falsehood and negativity—see Zohar, Introduction 4b.

24.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, Igrot Kodesh, vol. 2, p. 420.

25.

Brachot 10a.

26.

Likkutei Sichot, vol. 28, p. 156.

27.

See Mechilta, Bo 14:5.

28.

See Zohar II:170b and Yalkud Reuveni on Exodus 14:27.

29.

Haggadah Shel Pesach with commentary, vol. 1, p. 141.

30.

Sefer Hasichot 5709, p. 315.

31.

See, however, Minchat Chinuch (mitzvah 21), et al., and The Rebbe’s Haggadah, p. 15.

32.

Psalms 63:2.

33.

Torat Menachem 5743, vol. 3, pp. 1279-7283.

34.

Haggadah Shel Pesach with commentary, vol. 1, pp. 139-142.

35.

Sefer Hasichot 5696-5700, p. 262.

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Discussion (2)
March 1, 2013
This was so helpful
Sam
April 3, 2012
A new revelation for me. How I wish I can live every minute realizing the ever presence of the Almighty. Thanks for presenting such a wonderful truth for me to live by. Blessed be His name. Thanks .
Anonymous
Houston, USA
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