The Torah Speaks to Four Sons

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

"The Torah Speaks to Four Sons"

by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a


In the Mekhilta (Bo, parasha 18), we find the following celebrated passage:

"'What are the testimonies and statutes and laws which God commanded us?' - From here we say that there are four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know to ask.

"The wise son - what does he say? 'What are the testimonies and statutes and laws which the Lord our God commanded us?' You shall initiate him into the laws of Pesach, beginning with 'No dessert is to be eaten after the consuming the Pesach sacrifice.'

"The wicked son - what does he say? 'What is this service to you?' 'To you,' not 'to him.' Since he has removed himself from the community and denied the major principle of faith, you shall smite his teeth, and say to him: 'It is for this that God acted for me when I left Egypt' - 'for me,' not 'for you.' Had you been there, you would not have been saved.'

"The simple son - what does he say? 'What is this?' You shall say to him, 'With a strong hand God took us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.'

"And he who knows not to ask - you shall initiate the conversation for him, as it is written, 'And you shall tell your son on that day.'"

Looking at this section of the Haggada, we see that the questions posed by each of the sons differ one from the other, both in content and in their respective standpoints.

The wise son asks about the details of the halakhot - "What are the testimonies and the statutes and the laws?" He asks from within the framework of Halakha. He asks the key questions, the questions which would be asked by anyone immersed in Torah learning. Someone who never asks these questions, who peruses without analyzing, might fulfill the mitzva of learning Torah, but his connection with Torah is severely flawed - he has no connection with the depth of Torah, and there is no depth to his connection with it.

The question posed by the wicked son is different. The wicked son poses his question from outside the framework of Halakha. He is familiar with Halakha, but remains outside of it, "above it," as it were. As a result, the content of his question is also different. He does not inquire about the details of Halakha, but rather says in a general and dismissive manner "What is this service to you?" It is as if to say, "I know this routine, and I consider it unnecessary."

The difference in attitude and perspective exists not only between the wise and the wicked sons, but also between the wicked and the simple sons. The questions posed both by the wicked and by the simple sons, in contrast to that posed by the wise son, are connected with the entry into the land, but there the similarity ends. For the wicked son, the connection is an intrinsic one: "And it shall be when you come to the land... and you shall observe this service. And it will be that when your sons say to you, 'What is this service to you?'...." The wicked son asks his question against the background of the entry into the land, with a full awareness of the Halakha. To his mind, since the national and social reality has changed, there is no longer any need or justification for antiquated laws and statutes, as it were, which were designed for existence in exile.

For the simple son, on the other hand, the entry into the land is incidental to the question. It serves to sketch for us a background of increasing distance in time from the Exodus and Mount Sinai, a background of forgetfulness and ignorance. "When your son asks you tomorrow" - Rashi explains (based on the Mekhilta): "There is a 'tomorrow' which is immediate, and there is a 'tomorrow' which is after some time." The simple son asks his question 'tomorrow - after some time.' Hence the content of his question - "What is this?" What is going on here? He is unfamiliar with the system.

Two pedagogic directives issue from the Torah's words and from Chazal's commentary on this parasha:

The first is the need for careful differentiation in the fields of education and outreach. There is no one answer, eternal and triumphant, to every question. Rather, the Torah teaches us that each and every generation, society and cultural milieu requires its own type of response. As the questioners differ one from the other in background and attitude, so must the answers.

The second lesson is that answers to the generation's questions must be prepared in advance. "And it will be that when (or if) your son asks you tomorrow..." - the Torah is telling us that it is not enough to respond to current questions; thought must be devoted to questions the future will bring, and our responses must be made ready. The disintegration that has occurred in the Jewish world since the end of the eighteenth century is due in part to a lack of preparation for the future, a lack of foresight. This phenomenon, it must be admitted, was inevitable, owing to a lack of familiarity with the outside world and with developments that were occurring in Western culture at the time. To this day religious society still suffers from a lack of foresight, and we see how political and ideological developments are greeted with complete surprise even though they could have been predicted and prepared for in advance.

Among the general population there is no shortage of "simpletons" who know not the first thing about Judaism - complete ignoramuses, who need to start at the very beginning. But there are also some who are "wicked" - those who are knowledgeable in Torah matters but are ideologically opposed to it whether on the left (Marxism and the like) or on the right (those who oppose Torah because it deflects public attention from national and social issues). "What is this service to you?" - you are laboring in things which have no significance today. The resistance to Torah grows out of opposition to the "Diaspora mentality" which is all that it symbolizes for them.

There are those whose attempts to influence these "wicked" ones revolve around the idea of the "Jewish spark" which exists even in them, but which is masked by a "shell." This is not our way. We believe that it is sometimes necessary to enter into conflict with them and to oppose them strongly - "you shall smite his teeth." We may not embrace their system and accept their ground-rules and principles in order to conduct our debate. We have to contradict their assumptions and transfer the debate from their playing field to our own. The response to the wicked son, "It is for this that God acted for me..." is not written in the same parasha in the Torah in which his question appears. It is brought from a different parasha. Chazal transfer the debate to a different playing field, to a different parasha, with different assumptions and principles.

There is a final lesson to learn from the Four Sons: In contrast to the variety of sons, the Torah has only one father, one respondent. The Torah aspires to a situation in which one person can answer all of the questions - from the wise son who asks about tiny details; from the wicked son who is quarrelsome and aggressive; from the simple son who knows nothing but asks; and from the son who does not even know to ask.

(Adapted from a speech delivered at Seuda Shelishit on Shabbat Parashat Bo 5748. Translated by Kaeren Fish.)