The Four Sons: Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Unable to Ask — What They Really Mean

When I was a child in Brooklyn in the 70s we used to sing a song about the four sons of the haggadah, to the tune of “My Darling Clementine”. The wise son pleased his father by asking about the customs of the seder:

“Of the customs of the seder would you please explain the laws”
of the something something something “would you please explain the cause”.

But his brother, the wicked son, did not make his father happy:

“what does all this mean to you?
The father was upset [something like this] and his grief and anger grew
IF yourself, you don’t consider as a son of Yisrael
Then for you this has no meaning, you may be a slave as well.”

This interpretation always baffled and upset me. The wicked son is branded as wicked for asking a reasonable question. The father’s response is disproportionate — crazy; for a tradition that vaunts itself and displays openness to questioning, why does the father call him a slave? Isn’t it in fact un-slavelike to be willing to risk his father’s displeasure and ask the question?

It struck close to home because I lived (as everyone does) in a time of transition. For some Jews, post-Holocaust, the traditions of Judaism needed re-interpretation and re-appropriation, while others thought the lesson of Hitler was to cling to these traditions even tighter. The song seemed to be taking the side of the orthodox against the reformed — if you have any questions you should be kicked out. If you ask questions that means considering yourself separate from the Jewish people. What an awful message! Compared to the brave wicked son, the wise son seemed like a priss, asking his father softball questions to which he knew the answer, presumably to make his brother look bad and bask in the extra love that the parental displeasure at his brother earned him.

And coupled with that — why the inclusion of both a simple son and a son unable to ask? Are those two categories of not-being-quite-with-it really so different that they each deserve their own son in the hagaddah?

The first chink of light in the shell of banality that surrounded the story of the four sons came for me in the Hasidic insight that the best son is really the one who is unable to ask. The one who is unable to ask is open and Zen-like. He’s not imposing his categories on reality. He is a perfect Heidegerrian, open tot he solicitation of the moment.

This was a cool insight but how to square it with the wise/wicked story set to the tune of “Darling Clementine”?

I believe the answer is forthcoming if we look at this as a story not with four characters but with five. There are four sons and one father. Two of the characters have a bad relationship — the father and the son he calls “wicked”. The wicked son has some problems with his father. Maybe his problems are about the dead Egyptians and how his family has earned freedom at the cost of dead Egyptian children. Maybe his problems are with how his father earned his money. Maybe with more contemporary injustices in the Middle East.

The song is right — the son’s questions cause grief and anger to the father. He can’t stand to be dragged into the light by his son’s questions. His son asks questions that make him feel pain of a trauma that he wishes to bury. He lashes out and enacts the slaying of the first born again.

Standing by is the wise son who does not rock the boat. Standing by is also the son who just asks “What is happening here? What is going on in my family? What is this?”

And also standing by the son with the most basic, primal response to witnessing trauma: he is struck dumb. Speechless before the family drama, his father’s shame,his brother’s shame, and the horror of it all.

I worked on “Malcolm in the Middle” with an actor named Kevin Thompson. Kevin was a little person. Kevin’s appearance would usually strike children dumb. They would stare rudely and gape but be too afraid of embarrassment to ask what his deal was. They were on some level suffering the narcissistic shame we feel when seeing another’s disability— if you never grew up does that mean I never will? And if I do and you don’t what kind of world is this?

Kevin always took the first step towards communication. “Are you wondering why I’m shorter than a regular adult?” YES YES YES the kids would answer joyfully. And Kevin would tell them.

The great kabbalist Isaac Luria, the Ari teaches that the soul is quinpartite — it has five parts. That’s what these five are — the guilty father, the accusing son, the son who curries favor, the son wanting to know what’s going on, the son struck dumb by the trauma of it all. Like Kevin the authors of the Haggadah give us a setting in which we can start talking — both to the different disparate parts of ourselves, all the various father and sons within us — and to our real biological fathers and brothers and sons.

Where are the mothers and sisters and daughters in this story? What does their absence show us, and what would their inclusion do? A good question for the seder.



12 thoughts on “The Four Sons: Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Unable to Ask — What They Really Mean

  1. Mikey says:

    I’ve always thought that Jesus’ treatment of the fig tree was pretty mental. I’m talking about the one in Mark 11:13 not the one in Matthew, because Mark went out of his way to mention that it wasn’t the season for figs, which is why it didn’t have any figs on it. Basically what happened was that Jesus wanted a fig, found a fig tree with no figs on it (because it was the wrong time of year), so he cursed it and a day or two later it was dead. And the disciples said “Hey, check that out!” and Jesus was just like “yeah, that’s how I be.”

    A friend of mine solved this particular riddle for me by pointing out that there also didn’t seem to be much reason for Caiaphas and all his pals to be so furious with Jesus. He was behaving just like any old preacher/magician so why did they keep trying to kill him? Because that was Caiaphas’ favourite fig tree! He loved that fig tree, and he was a reasonable guy – if someone had cursed it with a valid reason, he’d have been behind that. But he just kept playing it over and over in his mind “What was he expecting? It was FEBRUARY!!!”

    So yeah, sometimes it takes a while before you understand a story.

  2. >>>>>>>This interpretation always baffled and upset me. The wicked son is branded as wicked for asking a reasonable question. The father’s response is disproportionate — crazy; for a tradition that vaunts itself and displays openness to questioning, why does the father call him a slave? <<<<<<<

    You must be kidding. Even for non-Jewish me (my mother was Russian) it's easy. The tradition does not display openness to any kind of questioning. It's a waste of bandwidth and other resources to reply 99% of questions a curious kid would generate if allowed to ask, not to say if encouraged to ask.

    And, yes, if a kid did not get the ability to get in "hardware" on his birth the art of asking questions the Jewish way, his future role is "slave", not "thinker". That's why your father was that "crazy" about you asking him the kind of "stupid" questions.

    Sergey Sukhotinsky
    The Crimea

  3. I am not Jewish, so I think, I can judge Judaism unbiased. In my understanding, Judaism does not work by teaching a given person. Rather, it creates environment of inspiration so that a person on entering it would try to discover his own track up the mountain of knowledge. There is no much sense asking another man (even his dad) how he feels up his path, IMHO. Question not your dad, question G-d.

    • Haggadah starts with “we were slaves”. It’s therapy for communal post traumatic stress disorder. Not being willing to answer questions is a symptom that calls for treatment. God is Ain Sof — the ultimate freedom from limitations.

  4. eric would you be willing to talk about this on camera for a stand alone doc – i like what you said in response to shulem dean fb post ” I feel like I have all five parts in my psyche = a father who doesn’t want to be questioned, a son who asks questions, a son who tries to be good, a son who just wants to know what’s going on, and a son who can’t even articulate his questions. When I don’t repress any of these parts inside me, I find I have more understanding for others as well.” – thanks in advance

  5. Eric,
    We make our own Haggadah every year, and my wife and I would like to include this insightful post in next year’s. Can we have your permission to do so? (She was particularly moved by the last part, where you ask where are the mothers/sisters/daughters in all of this)

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