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Friday, April 3, 2009

The Wicked Son in the Passover Haggadah

The Wicked Son in the Passover Haggadah*
Excerpt from "Emanations"
Rabbi Ari Kahn

The story of the four sons, popularized by the Passover Haggadah, has engaged centuries of readers. The questions of the four sons may be found in various sources and varying forms. The Haggadah version reads:

The Torah refers to 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 testaments, the laws and the judgments which the Lord our G-d commanded you? And you shall tell him of the laws of Pesach…
[The] wicked [son], what does he say: What is this service to you [or, of yours]? To you and not to himself. And because he separated him self from the community [he] rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy]. And you will blunt his teeth and say to him 'Because of this [i.e., in return for my offering the Pesach sacrifice] G-d acted for me [or, in my behalf] in my leaving Egypt.' For you and not for him [the wicked son]; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.
[The] simple [son], what does he say? What is this? And you shall say to him 'With a strong hand did G-d take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage. '
And for the son who knows not to ask, you shall open for him [i.e. prompt him], as it is said: "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘Because of this G-d acted for me in taking me out of Egypt."

The questions posed by each of the first three sons are actually biblical verses which in the original are not associated with one another. The Midrash related in the Haggadah brings these verses together, and fashions "answers" out of other verses.

The Haggada’s sources for this passage are the Yerushalmi and the Mechiltot of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai [Rashbi]. In the latter two sources, the Midrash actually exists in two forms. It appears at one point in the form familiar to us from the Haggadah. At another point, only the wicked son is mentioned; no siblings are mentioned, nor are any other biblical verses cited. It is unclear, however, which of these two sources is the earlier one, which version of the four sons’ Midrash came first.

In the more familiar version, the reader is presented with a wise son whose question is respected and even encouraged, and then a wicked son whose "teeth are blunted" because of the question he poses. Yet what distinguishes these two questions from one another? The careful reader will note that the wicked son, accused of separating himself from the community, refers to the People of Israel in the collective other: "to you” and not "to us" or even "to me." However, the wise son uses almost identical language in asking about the laws and testaments "which the Lord our G-d commanded you." Why is one son condemned while the other is praised?

The verse from D’varim attributed to the wise son seems to question all law and ritual as such: In its original context, the question relates to the relationship between G-d's rule over Israel and all of Mosaic law. Yet the verse attributed to the wicked son is far more circumscribed, relating, as it does, only to the isolated ritual of the Pesach sacrifice. The wise son uses the phrase “the Lord our G-d”, and this alone may suffice to distinguish between the wise and wicked sons. But the distinction would have been sharper had the wise son said “the Lord our G-d commanded us”. Indeed, other versions of the Midrash have attempted to alleviate the problem posed by the wise son's reference to “you” rather than "us". The Yerushalmi, Mechiltah and the Haggadah of the Rambam simply change the biblical verse attributed to the wise son to a more palatable form: "What are the testaments the laws and the judgments which the Lord our G-d commanded us?"[1]. In this case, the wise son is not citing the verse, he is paraphrasing it.[2]

Whether motivated by exegetical necessity or literary cohesiveness, the alteration of the biblical text placed in the mouth of the wise son is less important than the question which remains unanswered: What is it about the "wicked son" which so infuriates Chaza”l and the compilers of the Haggadah? The answer must lie deeper than the language used in the questions of the sons; otherwise, the "wise son" would either have been condemned as well, or the text of his question would have been uniformly altered. The answer must lie in the point of view each son represents, for in each case, the essence of each son’s question, surprisingly enough, is overlooked. The Haggadah responds not to the content of the questions but to the point of view from which they are posed. Our sages, in either preserving or elaborating on this Midrash and including it in the Haggadah, hoped to convey a very specific message. The four sons represent points of view or ideologies which are more meaningful than simply the terminology in which their ideas are couched.

This is clearly seen in the case of the wicked son. The verse from Sh’mot quoted by the wicked son is not, in its biblical context, seen as a negative query:

And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, ‘What does this service mean to you?,’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the People of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians, and saved our houses.’ And the people bowed their heads and worshipped. (12:26,27)

The answer offered the child in Sh’mot is seen as a wonderful, educational response, with no hint of negativity. What made Chaza”l change the answer offered in the Torah, and paint the questioner in the Haggadah as wicked? Why would Chaza”l “overlook” the answer to this same question offered in Sh’mot, and replace it with an answer more appropriate for one so wicked? Clearly, it is not the words of the rasha which are problematic, rather the tone of voice which Chaza”l hear. The question, in and of itself, is one which would normally be encouraged; indeed, it is the goal of the parent at the seder to encourage the child to ask just such questions. The sages, nonetheless, heard something insidious in this formulation which led them to define the questioner as a “wicked son”.

We may go so far as to say that the sages had a specific typology of evil in mind when they formulated this Midrash, someone who would have cited verses, but would have twisted them to serve their own purpose.

We saw that it was the tone of voice of the rasha which represented his heresy. The biblical verse reads: ‘What is this service to you?’ The Mechilta’s response indicates the tone of the question:

רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל. (מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא - מס' דפסחא בא פרשה יח ד"ה "והיה כי")

‘To you’ and not to himself. And because he separated himself from the community and he rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy]…

Emphasis was clearly placed on the word “you”. The tone of voice in the Mechilta is quite different from the tone used by the rasha in the Yerushalmi, where the wicked son asks:

What is this service to you [or, of yours]? What is this toil with which we are burdened each and every year?(Pesahim 10:4)

The Yerushalmi emphasizes the word “service”. This wicked son clearly has some problem with the content of Jewish ritual, whereas the wicked son presented in the Mechilta seems very different. In fact, the subtle difference in the answers to each version of the question are indicative of the different ways each question was perceived. The Yerushalmi addresses the content of the wicked son's question:

Because of this, because of my offering the Pesach sacrifice, G-d acted for me. For me, and not for that man; had that man been in Egypt he would not have been worthy of redemption from there for eternity. (Pesahim 10:4)

In this case, our sages impart some of the significance of the ritual which the wicked son questions. The wicked son of the Yerushalmi is condemned for questioning the efficacy or relevance of Jewish ritual, whereas the Mechilta's wicked son is condemned for separating himself from the community. We may say, then, that the two sources represent two traditions; they portray two different wicked sons.

Interestingly, the Mechilta offers this teaching anonymously, while the Yerushalmi presents this teaching in the name of Rav Chiya. The version in the Mechilta is certainly the original source, as Rav Chiya in the Yerushalmi makes reference to it.


תני ר' חייה כנגד ארבע' בני' דיברה תור' בן חכם בן רשע בן טיפש בן שאינו יודע לשאל.. בן רשע מהו אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם מה הטורח הזה שאתם מטריחין עלינו בכל שנה ושנה (בכי"ל שעה ושעה) מכיון שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל אף אתה אמור לו בעבור זה עשה ד' לי. לי עשה לאותו האיש לא עשה אילו היה אותו האיש במצרים לא היה ראוי להיגאל משם לעולם (תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת פסחים פרק י דף לז עמוד ד /ה"ד)

What is this service to you [or, of yours]? What is this toil with which we are burdened each and every year (Lieden manuscript reads “hour”)? Since he separated himself from the community you say to him…

Rav Chiya clearly utilizes the teaching in the Mechilta, as can be seen from his second sentence, “Since he separated himself from the community,” a statement which does not relate to the efficacy of ‘service’ and is a clear reflection of the Mechilta’s understanding of the wicked son’s crime of separation. Thus, Rav Chiya created a new teaching which compounded the rebellion of the rashsa: Not only is he guilty of separating himself from the community, he also questions the necessity of the Paschal service.

The sages who formulated the Mechilta had consciously created their own teaching in a similar manner. They rejected the biblical response to the son and insisted that such a question, such a questioner, is wicked, apparently reacting to the philosophical trends which must have been current during the formation of the Midrash and served as the model for this dialogue. There must have been dissidents on the fringe of the Jewish community who articulated their ideology in this manner.

We may attempt to identify each of these wicked sons historically, with early Judeo-Christian sects who deviated from the Jewish mainstream at the time our sources were developed. Scholars have traced the theological development of various distinct streams of thought which later branched off from Judaism completely. Two of the major trends of thought espoused by these groups are voiced precisely by the wicked sons in each of our sources: One Judeo-Christian sect considered itself completely "Jewish," but would not take sides politically in the struggle against Rome. To this sect, our Sages may very well have said:

To you and not to himself. And because he separated himself from the community and he rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy]…

The sages condemn this political neutrality as incompatible with Jewish identity: One who separates himself from Jewish destiny also cuts himself` off from Jewish history. He can- not remain in the religious community if he takes no part in the historical community and does not feel the historical continuity which begins with the Exodus and culminates in the final messianic redemption. Such a Jew, the sages of the Mechilta intimate, would not have been redeemed from Egypt; such a Jew would possibly have expressed sympathy for Egypt. He may even have refused to take part in the Exodus.

According to historians there were two occasions when the Judaic Christians separated themselves from the community. One was the battle against Rome in 68 CE which culminated in the destruction of the Temple. The second occasion was during the Bar Kochva rebellion some 60 years later. We can clearly see why the Judaic Christians failed to rally around Bar Kochva, a man labeled “The King Messiah” by no less of an authority than the great Rabbi Akiva. The Christians felt that they already had their Messiah and had nothing at stake in this parochial battle between the Jews and Rome.[3] At just the time of these events, the Mechilta was formulated. It then comes as no surprise that the rifts in the Jewish community are reflected in the Midrash.

The sages who later compiled the Haggadah created their own unique teaching by dropping off one letter which appears in the Mechilta. The Mechilta version has an extra letter (in the Hebrew text; in the English it becomes an entire word) as compared to the version in the Haggada. The Haggada equates the wicked son’s heresy with his separation from the community:

To you and not to himself. And because he separated himself from the community, he rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy].

In the Mechilta the word “and” (in Hebrew, the letter “Vav”) is added: he separates himself, in addition to already being guilty of heresy! First, this son accepted the Christian belief. Now, he separates himself from the community:

רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל. (מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא - מס' דפסחא בא פרשה יח ד"ה והיה כי)

To you and not to himself. And because he separated him self from the community and he rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy]…

The Haggadah, in omitting the word “and”, subtly changes the message brought across by Rav Hiya in the Yerushalmi. The wicked son is now guilty solely of separating himself from the community; the issues of Christian belief are no longer the current problems which the sages sought to battle.


The wicked son of the Yerushalmi has other historical parallels in Judeo-Christian theology. We know of the early Christians' objection to the entire practice of sacrifice, and of the particular significance they credited to the Pesach sacrifice. It is not difficult for us to associate the Christian concept of the obsolescence of sacrifice after the crucifixion with the point of view of the wicked son in the Yerushalmi. In stressing the word “service”, he asks specifically why the sacrifice must continue to be offered year after year; implying that its utility is outdated. The new symbol of redemption, the “ultimate Paschal lamb”, has made continued sacrifice unnecessary according to this view. It is to this specific claim that the Sages in the Yerushalmi respond:

G-d acted for me; for me and not for that man. Had that man been in Egypt he would not have been worthy of redemption from there for eternity.

'That man', אותו האיש , the Christian answer to Paschal sacrifice, was not himself worthy of redemption; it would therefore be absurd to believe that his life or his death could redeem others. This is the theological answer to Judeo-Christian theology.

It is fascinating to trace Rav Chiya’s adaptation of the earlier teaching to match the rasha of his own day. In a sense, this process of adaptation has been applied for generations. The rasha remains a dissident, either at the edge of, or outside of the Jewish community. Mainly through artistic representations, we have clear evidence how the face of the rasha has evolved, to match that which was considered askance in a particular place or time.

The rasha in the Mechilta “won” over his relative in the Yerushalmi, and serves as the direct source for the formulation incorporated in the Haggadah, most likely for a number of reasons: The Mechilta enjoyed a greater sphere of influence, it represents the original formulation, and its teaching seems somewhat broader. Nonetheless, we have noted the slight change which was made upon incorporation in the Haggada, labeling the wicked son’s separation as his heresy as opposed to being in addition to his heresy. Ostensibly, this change was made in order to fashion a generic rasha who could be used as an example of infamy at Sedarim for millennia.

*The ideas for this article were formulated in 1985 and were published in 1986. Over the years I have returned to this theme in various lectures, and have finally re-written it. This version resembles the original piece, but has undergone numerous changes.
[1] See the comments of Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman to Dvarim, where the change from “you” to “us”, is explained exegetically. Also see the discussion by Rav Kasher in Haggada Shelama.
[2] It is difficult to establish the authoritative version of these texts - see the discussion in the HaYerushalmi Kiphshuto by Saul Liebermann page 520.
[3] See Gedalyahu Alon, “The Jews in Their Land in The Talmudic Age” page 295 note 28, pp. 305-306

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