Friday, 26 Mar 2010

Written by LBC Vice Principal, Rabbi Dr Michael Shire

1. And when your children say, “what does this service1  – avodah -mean to you?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved our houses,” Exodus 12:25-26

“And you shall tell your son on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.” Exodus 13:8
And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, “what is this?” You shall say to him, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Exodus 13:14

When in time to come your children ask you, “what means the testimonies, statutes and judgements that the Lord our God has commanded you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand” Deuteronomy 6:20-21

2. ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2)). We must own our own Judaism before we can pass it on. We must live it if we are to inspire those who will live on after us. No parent can leave a child unredeemed. (Jonathan Sacks, 2003)

3. Because afikoman (carousing) was forbidden on Passover, the final bit of matzah was seen as a substitute for afikoman and then later took on the name afikoman. The Mekhilta and the Yerushalmi switch answers for the wise and wicked children. The Haggadah follows the Mekhilta. The Yerushalmi however assigns the prohibition of the afikoman to the wicked child! (Joel Hoffman, 2008)

4. Afikoman (Greek; Epi-Komonos): He that cometh. The messiah is a broken off portion of the Jewish people, existing but as yet concealed and his coming at the end of the Passover meal will make the people complete (cf. number four). The portion for the afikoman is broken from the middle piece (levites) and represents a substitute for the pascal lamb. (David Daube, 1966)

5. Abudarham (14th Spain) asks why the Haggadah presents the four children in a different order than their respective passages appear in the Torah:
Torah: wicked, doesn’t know, simple, wise
Haggadah: wise, wicked, simple, doesn’t know
He answers that the Haggadah presents the children in descending order of wisdom.

6. The Mekhilta emphasises the denotative, the conceptual, the didactic. The wise son seeks knowledge. The Yerushalmi represents the experiential, the connotative, the element of involvement. The wise son shares; he participates and includes himself. The Haggadah following the order of the Yerushalmi but the wording of the Mekhilta combines both tendencies. This is therefore not two versions of one original passage which has become corrupted but two independent original sources deliberately combined. The first represents rational control and the second poetic, experiential depth. (Eugene Mihaly, 1960)

7. The Yeruslami identifies the author of the midrash as Rabbi Hiyya (tanna) introducing a baraita. Hiyya was a pedagogue described in Ketubot 103b as making nets to hunt deer, make scrolls out of skins, write out sefer torah, teach children parts of torah and mishnah to which they then taught each other. ‘He preserved the Torah from being forgotten’. He had four children; twin sons named Judah and Hezekiah (Sukkot 20a) and twin daughters named Pazi and Tavi (Yevamot 65b) (John Rayner, 1991)

8. The Vilna Gaon sees the four types as two pairs of opposites: qualities of mind and qualities of character. The ‘wise child’ is set opposite the ‘one does not know’ in their intellectual capacity.  The simple/pure who behaves uprightly is set opposite the wicked one in a moral capacity. There are therefore four examples of the relationship between learning and goodness. The ‘wise child’ represents the combination of learned and good, the ‘wicked child’, the learned but not good, the ‘simple/pure’, not learned but good and ‘the one who does not know’ represents the category of not learned and not able to distinguish good and bad. These sets of categorisations therefore encompass all of the combinations of a learning and moral religious identity. Here in the Haggadah, the major Jewish festival of national and personal liberation, four types of children are used to symbolize how all Israel struggles with growing in wisdom and goodness. (John Rayner, 1991)

9. In years of work with Jewish children, I have encountered such moments over and over again to the point that I feel it makes up an aspect of the righteousness those children keep espousing, describing , urging upon one another. At its best this is a righteousness that avoids the fatal deterioration of self-righteousness precisely because it is not accompanied by professed certainty. I know exactly what the Lord wants and why he wants it and anyone within my sight or sound of my voice had better take heed. On the contrary, as these four children kept reminding us all “God doesn’t let on all his plans but He’d like us to show we trust Him and the best way to do it, is by doing some good while we’re here” An acknowledged uncertainty as an aspect of religious passion. (Robert Coles, 1990)

10. All other prescriptions in Jewish law depend on the achievement of adulthood. At the seder, it is the state of imperfect knowledge that gives the boy or girl a part in the ritual…Childhood as one unlearned has an ageless connotation in a culture who prime value is found in continual study. At the seder the child demonstrates his relationship to purity and this connects the child with the promise of redemption. (Ruth Gruber Fredman, 1983)

11. Therefore the purpose of the Midrash is to make the point that the goal of Jewish education (childhood) must be the cultivation of an ideal which combines learning with loyalty, comprehension with commitment and knowledge with goodness. (John Rayner 1991)

12. A disciple of Rabbi Dov Baer, the maggid of Mezerich had to make a long journey. His master instructed him to take a box of matzah even though it was months before Pesach. The disciple became lost and was taken in by a poor Jewish family with whom he celebrated the seder with his box of matzah. When the master of the house came to the passage of the fourchildren, he shouted out the reference to each one of them – ONE is Wise, ONE is wicked and so forth. The disciple asked his host about this strange custom. The man replied, I am not learned but I do remember my father teaching me that when I recite the word ‘one’, I need to shout it out. Upon his return home the disciple related this strange custom to his master. The Great Maggid responded, I saw in a vision that there was a poor man who was able to unify all the children of Israel through his holy intentions and now I know that you have found him.” (Larry Kushner, 2008)

13. Perhaps there is a wise child within each of us, just as there is a wicked child, a simple child and one who does not know how to ask. All these characteristics are part of our Jewish lives and are reflected in the way we approach the seder. (Michael Shire, 1998)


Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
March 2010


 1Service to Pharaoh or service to God?

Robert Coles (1990) The Spiritual Life of Children, Houghton Mifflin, Boston
David Daube (1966) He that Cometh, St Paul’s Cathedral, London
Ruth Gruber Fredman (1983) The Passover Seder, New American Library, New York
Joel Hoffman (2008) in Hoffman, ed. My People’s Passover Haggadah, Jewish Lights, Vermont
Larry Kushner (2008) in Hoffman, ed. My People’s Passover Haggadah, Jewish Lights, Vermont
Eugene Mihaly (1960) the Passover Haggadah as PaRaDiSe, CCAR Journal, New York
John Rayner (1991) The Children of the Seder, Dorfler Memorial Lecture, Leo Baeck College, London
Jonathan Sacks (2003) The chief Rabbi’s Haggadah, Harper Collins, London
Michael Shire (1998) Illuminated Haggadah, Frances Lincoln, London
        (2005) Learning to be Righteous: A Jewish theology of childhood in Karen Marie Yust, ed. Nuturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality, Rowman and Littlefield, New York

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.