The four sons: Rabbi Yehuda Fishman

Our Four Sons

by Rabbi Yehuda & Nechami Fishman

"Concerning four sons does the Torah speak: a wise one, a wicked one, a simple one and one who is unable to ask".

Four types of Sons, Four types of Questions & Four types of Answers.

We'll start with the WISE Son. He asks: "What are the testimonies, rules and laws that Hashem our Lord commanded you?" This son knows Hashem. He knows to turn to his parents for answers. He wants to learn Torah, the laws, the statutes. Unfortunately, on Seder night there is not enough time to answer his question. In fact, an entire lifetime would not suffice to present him with a complete answer. Still, because leaving him empty‑handed is also not an option, we teach him the last of the laws of Pesach: "One may not eat any more after the final taste of the Passover offering". This is the Haggadah's answer ‑ the one we read on Seder Night.

Yet, if we open up the Torah to the book of Deuteronomy (6:20‑24) we find a completely different response to the wise son's question, an answer that in all truth appears to be unrelated to the question. It contains no lesson in Jewish law; rather, it consists of a tale from the past: "You must tell him...We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt but Hashem brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand...Hashem commanded us to keep all these rules..."

The Torah managed to seize upon the wise son's real intention. Even if on the face of things he appears merely to want information ‑ in truth he is troubled by a much greater question: What is the deeper significance of these testimonies, rules, and ordinances? Why must I study, teach, safeguard, and perform so many commandments and prohibitions? Therefore, it is only fitting that the dialogue begins with the Exodus from Egypt. It was at this point in history that we became Hashem's nation. This, then, is the answer that the Torah provides the wise son.

The answer that the Haggadah gives is very different. It does not contain any deep ideas, only the law. Ours is a Haggadah of destruction and exile. In this vein the sages teach that "Since the destruction of the Holy Temple the Almighty possesses no more than four cubits of Jewish law in His world." And so, on Seder Night, the son who asks a truly wise question receives only half an answer...

What does the WICKED Son say? He gives us a hard time. "What's all this Passover stuff to you?" he says: I don't need this. He excludes himself from the Jewish people. He's mocking, making fun of it all. He's not even asking a question; he's hoping you won't have an answer... Why isn't the Wicked Son placed last? Isn't he the worst?! Why did the Sages list him after the Wise Son? Because even though the Wicked Son is fighting, at least he's engaged in the discussion and you've got somebody to talk to. He's alert and thinking. If you can turn him around, you've got another Wise Son! You may ask why the wicked son is listed here at all? Because he's still part of the Jewish people, one of our sons! We have to make an effort to reach him.

The third son is the SIMPLE (yet sincere) Son. He says: "What is this?" So you say to him: "With a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt from the house of bondage" (Exodus 13:14).

Who is this simple son? In many illustrated Haggadot one finds the simple son portrayed as a sort of fool with an appropriately idiotic expression... But "simple" (tam) really means calm, plain. He's not an intellectual maybe, and he may not know much about Judaism, but he wants to do the right thing!

The fourth son is the one who is UNABLE TO ASK. So what do we tell him? "It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt..." (Exodus 13:8) The fourth son is apathetic. He's not thinking and he doesn't much care. This child is unable to ask because he is too far away from the fold or just completely uninterested. You should therefore initiate with him, start a conversation.

The Haggadah is teaching us a very important lesson. We learn that we have different kinds of sons who need different kinds of answers. But not only are they different in what they ask, but also in who they are, in what they can listen to and in why they are asking what they are asking.


In fact, each of us is a composite of these Four Sons, the four types of Jews. To some extent, we all want meaning; we're searching and thinking ‑ like the first son. Yet sometimes we just rebel ‑ like the second son. Sometimes it takes a suffering to arouse us to think and change ‑ like the third son. And at times we feel apathetic, walking around in a daze ‑ like the fourth son. These are the Four Sons within each of us.


During our (nearly) three years in Cambridge we have met and dealt with many types of Jews, some wise, some simple, some just are unable to ask and some even wicked... BUT the most important thing is that they ALL were our sons.

It was an honour and a pleasure to be here in such a lovely, dynamic and loving community. We wish you all to go from strength to strength.

Pesach Kasher, V'same'ach

The Fishmans (Yehuda, Nechami & Kids).