Who are the Four Sons ?
The 4 Sons are an educational and instructional tool that was integrated into the Seder meal by the Talmudic rabbis for the purpose of guiding the current generation, that is, the father who is head of the household, in determining which method of communication would be most appropriate for properly transmitting the story and messages of the Passover festival or Pesach festival to the future generation, that is, their children. Each Son poses a general question about the Passover festival or Pesach festival and the answer that is given for each of the 4 Sons depends upon the words and manner in which each question is posed by each of the 4 Sons. After each question and answer is recited, the father then decides which type of Son applies to each of his children and explains the appropriate answer for each child in further detail. For instance, the Wise Son literally asks his father what are these testimonies, statutes and ordinances that G-d has commanded you to do? This question is posed in the Torah, in Devarim or Deuteronomy 6:20, and the answer given is a brief historical account of why we are obligated to follow these laws: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the L-rd brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. ...", followed by the fact that G-d commanded the Hebrews/Jewish people to accept, study, and fulfill these laws for our own good so that G-d may preserve us to this day and beyond (Devarim or Deuteronomy 6:21-25). In the Haggadah, the "instruction manual" for conducting the Seder meal, the Four Sons ask their questions and each are given the appropriate answer to their question according to their personality type, and the answer given for the Wise Son, as in the Torah, is that he should be instructed in the laws of Passover or Pesach, and that the time to teach these laws should be immediately after the Son is told that G-d brought us out of Egypt.
The story of the Four Sons is also read at the Passover Seder table. As mentioned, each of the Four Sons symbolize a different type of Jewish person based on the question each asks about the Passover festival or Pesach festival. One son is deemed to be "wise" ("Chacham" in Hebrew) because of his discerning question, another son is simple or lazy ("Tam" in Hebrew; this son is regarded as simple or lazy because of his indifference and unconcern as reflected in his question), another son is wicked (or rather, rebellious; "Rasha" in Hebrew) based on the anti-social words that characterize his question, and the final one is very young in age, too young to inquire about Passover, and therefore silent ("She'aino Yodea Lishol" in Hebrew, meaning "The Son who Doesn't Know Enough to Ask"). The wise son inquires about the meaning of the laws, statutes and customs of Passover that are practiced by the Jewish people. Those assembled at the Passover Seder table respond in unison, describing this son as wise, since he wants to acquire more in-depth knowledge about the Passover traditions of his people. The assembled further state that it is necessary to re-tell the facts of the Passover story in public so that all in attendance - whatever their level of knowledge - will be spiritually and morally educated and uplifted by the Passover story. The simple and indifferent son asks in more general terms what is all this he sees at the Passover Seder table. Those at the Passover Seder table respond by educating and reminding the simple and indifferent son about G-d's favors toward the Hebrews during the time of slavery in Egypt, and the importance of remembering and observing them, and remembering them with gratitude. The rebellious or wicked son wants no part of the Passover traditions and asks why the Jewish people - other than him - practice the laws, statutes, and customs of Passover. Those at the Passover Seder table respond by describing this son as either rebellious or wicked, since he thinks the laws, statutes, and customs of Passover are meant to be practiced by other Jews, but not him. In fact, in the Passover story, since only the Hebrew households that had followed G-ds' instructions during the 10th and final Plague were saved, the assembled respond that had the wicked or rebellious son been in Egypt at that time, the wicked or rebellious son would not have been spared from the 10th Plague based on his detached attitude from the laws, statutes, and customs of Passover. Finally, the young and silent son who does not know enough to inquire is simply told about the Passover story in accordance with the biblical command: "And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: it is because of that which the L-rd did for me when I came forth out of Egypt" (Shemot 13:8 or Exodus 13:8).
The story of the Four Sons reflects different perspectives of Passover and teaches that no matter what view one has about the Passover festival, the meaning of the Passover festival is the same in response to each view: that one should remind oneself and feel grateful for the deeds done by G-d for the Hebrews so long ago.
The story of the Four Sons also demonstrates that it is necessary to emulate the wise son by remembering our obligations to our people and to Judaism. What are these obligations? Well, we must begin by learning more about the Torah and the Jewish way of life. If we do not develop our knowledge of the Torah and hence our knowledge of G-ds' commandments and traditions such as Passover and instead leave this to others, then we have failed in our responsibility to not only advance our own education in our heritage, but to apply our newfound knowledge to the benefit and betterment of both our fellow Jewish brethren and for humankind as a whole. It is the wise son who understands the importance of learning his traditions so that he could be a positive role model for future generations in his family, for fellow Jews, and for all of humanity.
The Fifth Son : A Pesach Message
Adapted from a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
During the Seder service, we read in the Passover Haggadah that the Torah speaks of four sons, "one wise, one wicked (or rebellious), one simple, and one who does not even know how to ask a question." The Passover Haggadah then proceeds to tell us the questions posed by each of these 'sons', and the reply which we are to give to each of them.
The Wise Son inquires about the special Mitzvos ("Commandments" in Hebrew, as in commandments from G-d that are stated in the Torah and are obligated to be followed by the Hebrews/Jewish people) of Passover and we are to tell him in detail all the laws and customs of the festival. The (Rebellious or) Wicked Son asks: "What is this service to you?" By saying "to you", he excludes himself from the Jewish community, and we are told to reply to him sharply. The Simple Son asks: "What is this all about?" In reply, we are to tell him of the Exodus from Egypt. As for the son who does not know how to ask, it is for us to open the conversation with him, as the Torah says, "You shall tell your son on that day, as follows: 'This is on account of what the L-rd did for me when I went forth from Egypt'."
While the Four Sons differ from one another in their reaction to the Seder, they have one thing in common: they are all present at the Seder. Even the ("Rebellious" or) "Wicked" son is there, taking an active, though rebellious, interest in what is going on in Jewish life around him. This, at least, justifies the hope that some day also the (Rebellious or) "Wicked" one will become wise, and all Jewish children attending the Seder will become conscientious, observant Jews.
Unfortunately, in our time of confusion and spiritual bankruptcy, there is another kind of a Jewish child - a "fifth son", who is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder; the one who has no interest whatsoever in Torah and Mitzvoth ("commandment" in Hebrew), laws and customs; who is not even aware of the Seder-shel-Pesach ("The Passover Seder" in Hebrew), of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent Revelation at Sinai.
A challenging and pertinent question is: What brought about this regretably all-too-common phenomenon of the "fifth son"?
The "Fifth Son" is the result of an erroneous psychology and misguided policy on the part of some immigrants arriving in a new and strange environment. Finding themselves a small minority, and encountering social and economic difficulties, some parents had the mistaken notion, which they transmitted to their children, that the way to overcome these difficulties is to become quickly assimilated into the new environment by discarding the heritage of their forefathers and abandoning the Jewish way of life. Finding that this process leads to the discomfort of inner spiritual conflict, some parents resolved to spare their children this conflict altogether. They simply gave their children no Jewish education or training.
To justify the desertion of their religion and appease their stricken conscience, it was necessary for them to devise some rationale. They persuaded themselves, and in turn their children, that the Jewish way of life, with the observance of the Torah and Mitzvos, was incompatible with their new surroundings. They sought, and therefore also "found," faults with the true Jewish way of life; while in the non-Jewish environment everything seemed to them only good and attractive.
By this attitude, these parents hoped to assure their children's existence and survivial in the new environment. But what kind of existence is it, if everything spiritual and holy is traded for the material? What kind of survival is it, if it means the sacrifice of the soul for the amenities of the body?
The tragic consequence of this utterly false approach was, that thousands upon thousands of Jews have been severed from their fountain of life, from their true faith, and from their fellow Jews. Deprived of spiritual life, there has risen a generation of children who no longer belong to the "Four Sons" of the Passover Haggadah, not even to the category of the (Rebellious or) "Wicked" one. They are almost a total loss to their fellow Jews and to true Yiddishkeit.
The Exodus from Egypt and the Festival of Pesach are forceful reminders that an attempt to emulate the environment does not lead to survival, deliverance and freedom. These come from staunch loyalty to our traditions and the Torah way of life. Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority, and lived in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, they preserved their identity, and with pride and dignity, tenaciously clung to their own way of life, traditions and uniqueness. Precisely in this way was their existence assured, and eventually their deliverance from every slavery, both physical and spiritual.