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Why Does This Child Not Question?

Why Does This Child Not Question?

Therapy for the inquisitively challenged


From a talk of the Rebbe on the second night of Passover, 1965

Translator’s note: Initially, I had planned to write an essay based on this talk. I changed my mind, because I am convinced that I would be strongly criticized for taking such a radical stance. Not that I have a problem with criticism, but, as Rabbi Akiva advised his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “If you want to be heard, hang yourself from a big tree.” Meaning: Make your statement in the name of someone who commands greater respect than yourself.

In this instance, the Rebbe quite explicitly places the rebel—who “locks himself out of the whole ritual” of the Seder—at a higher station than the religious Jew who does everything just the way it’s supposed to be done, but finds no meaning in any of it. Yes, perhaps only higher in one regard, since action, the Rebbe insists, remains the main thing. Yet, nevertheless, in regard to the spiritual journey of the Seder, the capacity to experience real transformation and attain spiritual freedom, the rebel comes out ahead.

Perhaps more significant is the Rebbe’s prescription for this Jew. Therapists, take note: Pesach, matzah and maror are a three-step formula to effect real change in the most stubborn of clients.

Not Knowing How to Question

The simple child and the “child who does not know how to question” are two very different sorts of Jews.

The simple child is a Jew who is moved by a wondrous event, by something that has to do with G‑d and with Torah. Pharaoh was a mighty tyrant, a world leader, and so many Jews escaped his grasp. So the simple child is excited and asks, “What is this? What’s behind all of it?”

He doesn’t know— meaning, he doesn’t connect. It just doesn’t mean anything to him.

But the one who does not know how to question is not moved. It doesn’t concern him. He lacks that sensitivity, that deep sense of attachment that would get him brewing, that would make him question and react. Perhaps this is the meaning of “he doesn’t know”—in the sense of “Adam knew Eve,” meaning to make a connection and come to a deep recognition. It doesn’t mean anything to him—so he has no questions to ask.

Certainly, we are not talking about someone developmentally challenged. On the contrary, it’s quite possible that in business, his mind is all there. He’s creative and comes up with good ideas. But when it comes to Torah and mitzvahs, somehow, suddenly there are no problems to solve. Why? Because he’s missing the spirit of life that gives a person the sensitivity that drives him to question.

When it comes to his daily conduct, he’s actually quite religious—even very careful about Torah and mitzvahs. And he’s ready to provide justification for his failure to ask questions: “That’s how G‑d works. That’s why He’s called the Almighty. So what’s there to question?” he says.

From within, however, he is a person who doesn’t know how to question. Torah and mitzvahs don’t move him—and therefore they elicit no questions. He may even fulfill mitzvahs to their optimum—but not out of an inner commitment, or because it really means so much to him. It’s just that this is his habit, his lifestyle. He had religious parents, learned in a religious yeshivah, and so on.

A religious Jew, he conducts the entire Seder with all the extras—but he’s in a dream

As he relates to other mitzvahs, so does he relate to the Passover Seder: He eats matzah, he eats the bitter herb, he conducts the entire Seder with all the customs—even with all the extras, beautifully—and it doesn’t touch him. He comes to the Seder in a dream—dreaming about his income, his business, about other similar matters—and he leaves the Seder in the same dream. When there’s no spirit of life, then everything is fine—there’s nothing missing that he has to question.

The jaded religious Jew versus the vociferous rebel

This explains why the one who does not know how to ask is situated at the very end of the four children—even after the wicked one. Seemingly, it’s astonishing: Here you have a person who keeps Torah and mitzvahs. How does he deserve to be seated after the wicked child?

But now we can understand: With the wicked child, the world of Torah does move him. That’s why he comes to the Seder, asks the questions, hears the answer—and all the rest that goes along with that. True, his agenda in coming and going through the service is a wicked one—just so that he can say, “What is the point of all this service to you?”—and with the negative intonation of “you—not me,” by which he locks himself out of the entire ritual. Nevertheless, the very fact that he comes and he argues, that itself indicates that it matters to him. He asks because it bothers him—his desires, his understanding and his feelings. When he asks, he’s immersed in the question. And since he argues, it’s possible that eventually someone could win him over.

The wicked child asks and is immersed in the question.

That’s where you see how he is higher than the one who does not know how to ask. For the unquestioning child, everything is fine and dandy. How could that be? He is an accomplished person, with a good understanding and acumen in the financial matters in which he is fully immersed! But the answer is that at the Seder he is not really there—not his mind, not his emotions, not his vitality. He says, “That’s what it says in Torah—so let it be that way. What do I care?”

Such a person is difficult to turn around. He is truly a Torah-and-mitzvahs Jew in actual deed—and actual deed is the main thing. But in intellect, emotions, and in what moves him in this world, there he stands even behind the wicked child.

Simplicity versus sophistication

To the question of the simple child, “What is this?” we answer:

For with a strong hand G‑d took us out of Egypt.

To the one that does not know how to ask, we answer:

It was for this that G‑d did all that for me when I left Egypt.

Reading both of these verses—these two answers to two different sorts of people—we can see that they express two very different, indeed diametrically opposed, modalities.

Look carefully: When answering the simple child, we say clearly that it was the all-powerful G‑d who took us out from there. Furthermore, to do so, G‑d had to use a “strong hand.” But when we express this to the one who does not know how to ask, we say simply, “. . . when I left Egypt.” We talk to him as though it were our own departure from Egypt, as though we did it all on our own.

The responses seem to be reversed. If we assume that the simple child has greater understanding than the one who doesn’t know how to ask—which their titles seem to clearly imply—then the second answer, “It was for this . . .” seems a more appropriate response for him. It’s a response that contains some sort of reasoning, a motive for the Exodus—that it was because of something.

If the one who does not know how to ask has no clue about the whole story, if it’s a whole new world for him, it would make more sense to tell him about the miraculous events. That’s the meaning of “a strong hand”—which is in the verse that we tell to the simple child.

The simple child feels the wonder, is moved and asks, “What is this?”

But according to how we’ve explained these two above, everything makes sense. The simple child feels the wonder of the exodus from Egypt. He’s moved and he asks, “What is this? What is this amazing miracle that happened? Show me the way to achieve the wonder of this exodus from Egypt!”

So, the Haggadah says, you must show him the way of the Exodus. You must tell him how a person can achieve such a thing, and how he too can leave his personal Egypt. You must tell him it takes “a strong hand”—which means the right hand, which represents the victory of kindness and compassion over strict judgment (the left hand). Because, by the strict letter of the law, our ancestors were not yet entitled to leave Egypt. G‑d had told Abraham that they would be there for 400 years. But the Almighty did not reckon strictly by the letter of the law, and “calculated the end”—recalculating and transforming the 400 years into only 210.

“And you, too,” we tell this child, “you must do the same, with your strong right hand. You, too, can experience your own exodus from your own Egypt. But to do so, you need to tear down your own self-judgments, your barriers and limitations, your limited estimation of what you can achieve—and then G‑d will take you, as well, out of Egypt.”

Such a response, however, is appropriate only to someone who is ready to hear about an exodus from a personal Egypt. He has a grasp of the idea, and actually wants to get out of his Egypt—he just doesn’t know how, and asks, “What is this?”

But when it comes to one who does not know how to ask, nothing bothers him. He’s quite satisfied with his situation. Speaking with him about the “how” of a personal exodus would be premature. To tell him that, ultimately, your own abilities alone are not going to be enough for this, that it must be G‑d who will take you out of your Egypt, and that even He will require a “strong hand”—he’s not ready for any of that yet.

With him, we have to first explain the basic concept of leaving Egypt—the “when I left Egypt.” We can’t yet talk about an exodus that comes from above. We first have to demonstrate to him that there is such a thing, that a person can and must work on himself, that he has to do something to get out of his Egypt.

Getting him out of Egypt

How do we inspire this child to leave his Egypt? We spell it out: “Because of this.”

“This” refers to three things: the Passover lamb, the matzah and the bitter herbs. Each has a spiritual meaning:

How do we inspire this child? With a simple formula: Pesach, matzah, maror.

The Passover lamb was to be eaten at the end of the meal, when everyone was already satisfied and filled with joy. It is a symbol of taking the high road, the spiritual greatness all of us can achieve.

Matzah expresses faith and taking on the yoke of heaven—transcending the tight framework of intellect alone.

The bitter herbs express the deep bitterness that comes about when contemplating one’s own enslavement of the spirit—knowing that he’s not where he could be, and feeling the bonds that tie him down. And that itself awakens great compassion from above.

So, for this one who does not know how to ask, “you must open up for him.” You have to open the way for him to leave his Egypt. First you must tell him that there is such a thing as the high road, a path that knows no limits. Then tell him that he has within him a strong faith that transcends the boundaries of plain intellect. And both of these will bring him to a bitterness—he begins to feel his spiritual bondage, and how he must escape the bounds of his own mind and emotions. He becomes torn with an inner bitterness over his own spiritual situation—and with that, he awakens divine compassion.

And then, “for the sake of this—G‑d was there for me.” The help he needs comes to him from above, so that he can actually leave his Egypt and come to the true heights of Passover and matzah.

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Hanalah Houston, Tx April 19, 2016

When I responded to the image of the child who "wits not to ask" and your expression of concern for him, I got it wrong. Without realizing it, I suggested the words that are to be offered to the simple child.

But this time the Rebbe, via your well-phrased translation, tells us what to say to the child who doesn't ask. He's not a child any more. He's a successful businessman.

But he doesn't care. He is like so many today who have left Yiddishkeit because he fails to see its content. He is like so many today who do all the mitzvos robotically, without feeling, without meaning, without kavannah. I failed to vew the fourth child as numb. I cannot imagine doing a mitzvah without caring, and so I missed it.

Thank you for this clarification of the Rebbe's words and of the Haggadah. Reply

Anonymous November 17, 2014

Stricken by a connection Could someone take a look at #60 in Likutei Moharan and tell whether the (very, very practical) concepts he expounds are the same as those in this article? They feel closely related, but I don't really trust that I understood either. Reply

Anonymous April 18, 2012

Luisa We caught up on news in the shul, but after the service was completed.

You are thinking just fine and okay. I don't think like you, but i accept you for what you are. Reply

Julie UK April 16, 2012

Questions The child who does not question is the one who worships the religion rather than Hashem (idol worship?). His/her security is bound up in the comfort of ritual and identity. It is very hard for such a person to question, much harder than for the rebel. However in the former it may be found that all his/her love is bound up with others with whom he/she shares the rituals and identity. In which case, is there in fact any need for such a one to question? Reply

Luisa Zitzer April 16, 2012

Why does this child not question? An anonymous person has said in his comment two or three things that disterbed me and I would like some explanation. First: Do jews talk about "sects" or e talk about different ways to observe jewish path? Do you believe that Rabbs do their work to avoid assimilation just because they are paid? What has money to do with this reality of assimilation that we suffer like a plague? Religion is one thing, and jeweshness in another thing. On Shabbes you dont´t ctch up with news in the temple, you try to be connected with Hashem, your soul i grateful, your heart yearns for Mashiach!
Please, tell me if I am thinking OK.
Leah Reply

Anonymous April 15, 2012

Proverb 22:6 Does the proverb actually use the word " train " ? You train animals. You train religious indoctrination.

The vast majority of Jews are secular. Those numbers and intermarriage are climbing. Rabbis want to turn this situation around. Well, they get paid to do it. No followers would mean no job. Simple economics. Better a secular philanthropist than a homeless observant. I see it.

Too many rabbis are a turn off to Judaism. Their life skills and intellect are too often limited, especially in the more observant sects. Even then you get the sects espousing their brand as closest to ways of Hashem. That kind of promotion is entertaining.

Seriously, I use as a religious guide. It is the only way i can stay involved with Judaism. One of the very few Chosids i know was in town for Pesach, so i went to the Shabbat service to catch up on news. Ends up i'll be putting on tefillin daily. Nowhere did i say that religion is dead. Reply

Danny Tracy, CA April 12, 2012

Proverb 22:6 IM wondering if the fault is not with the child but with the parent?
The child that does not care ask's "what's the point of all this" Isnt the whole point of Passach to teach this to our children? Maybe that lack of care is a mirror of the parents who raised the child?

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Prov.22:6 Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA April 10, 2012

Why Does This Child Not Question Dear Rabbi Freeman,
This is such wonderful meditative article. I do not know which child I am. All I know is that I ask Hashem a lot of questions. Sometimes fearful that He, blessed be He, get angry at me, and call me a revel. I do not want to lose Him. Being an Anousim, finding out after all these years. I always feel guilty of the way I live my life in the past. But how could I known? That is one of my question. Why? What did my ancestor do for us to deserve this separation? Now that I am beginning to know Him better, and know His true ways. I am simply more and more in love with him than ever. Yet I suffer for my family. Where are they going? Why? Every day, I feel that we are living in this Egypt which keeps us in prison. How can I help them come to Him? Yet I feel that I most separate for myself because I cannot make them change their mind. Although I love them. The battle is on, on a daily basis. Loneliness is the most terrible feeling. But I am not going back. So help me G-d!! Reply

Rabbi Moshe Otero Hollywood, FL April 10, 2012

The Fifth Child: The Jew who is not at the Seder Fascinating concept the rebbe presented about the Fifth Child who is not at the Pesach Seder, and the one we need to goand reach out to. For many of us involved in outreach, there is a group who is coming to the forefront and when he arrives is causing a lot of questons to be asked. The Fifth Child is coming back. Reply

Kenneth Sull CORAL SPRINGS, Select April 10, 2012

Simple child! This is my favorite subject. My oldest is Autistic and is an Adult but acts like a child. He is very special to me. I named him after my Zeidi and he is holy. I stand up to anyone to protect him and have sacraficed my life for him. To die to make your children happy is the most important thing a father can do. My other sons are moving on a fine young Jewish men about to serve America in Law Enforcement and US Army. I am just a simple Jew. Nothing more. Kalman Reply

Anonymous April 6, 2012

Lowenthal I have just finished an article by Rabbi Lowenthal - Just Keep Talking. i am referencing him as your article introduces. i agree. But it is only possible on this occasion because i went back to retrieve his name

I am somewhat observant in my roots. I have one son who went through Jewish school. He is bright. At 22 he is not religious, and i know that it is not a good idea for me to push him. Lowenthal's article supports my feelings. My son knows that i am an example of either the 3rd or 4th child, maybe a portion of what Lowenthal describes as the 5th child. I know that my son is the 5th child, and i have a duty to find him.

The point i am trying to make is mainly for myself, to keep all my children aware that i am very aware of my religious roots in Judaism. My hope is that they grow into it at their own pace. i am simply sharing with this forum my own predicament. Maybe it is useful to one other Jew. I am not looking for advice. Just sharing.

Thanks R.Tzvi and R Lowenthal Reply

Julie UK April 4, 2012

Egypt Deep and moving, this article is so deep. As I sit here reading it on my laptop I feel close to G_d, my soul curls up in his hand while my body is charged with energy and I feel G_d prodding me on in the world. There is joy for me now and hope. I put in the effort to leave my egypt but know that the waters part for me by G-d's hand and gratitude fills me up. I move my limbs and the obsticles disolve. Thank you for this translation. Reply

Luisa Zitzer Buenos Aires, Argentina April 4, 2012

Why does this child not question? Dear Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, as usual I get the message, I feel it in my heart and it stays in my mind. This essay gives me the strength to use my right hand and run away from my Egypt as I did with Moshe Rabeinu.
Thanks a lot !!!
Pesaj Kosher Sameaj for you, your family, the Chabad Family and all the People of Israel. Reply

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