Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hagadol 5766/ April 8, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Four Sons, Four Redemptions *


Rabbi Dr. Haniel Farber


The College of Judea and Samaria


The upcoming holiday has four names:  the Spring Festival, Passover, the Festival of Freedom and the Festival of Matzot.   These are indeed fitting names for Passover, a holiday unequalled in all the Jewish festivals and first in the biblical calendar.  Passover is the most elaborate of all the festivals, replete with commandments to be performed.   This is the holiday celebrating our liberation from bondage, the transition from enslavement  to redemption, from darkness to light.

The Bible uses four expressions to describe our redemption from Egypt:  

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people:   I am the Lord.   I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.   I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people (Ex. 6:6-7). 

Actually, the text goes on to use a fifth verb, “I will bring you into the land” (Ex. 6:8), but the rabbis were doubtful whether this word should be considered one of the expressions of redemption: perhaps redemption is complete when the people are taken out of Egypt, and not only when they reach the land of Israel.

On account of these four expressions the rabbis, in establishing the Haggadah ritual, stipulated that we drink four cups of wine, one for each of the certain expressions of redemption; to handle the doubtful case they added a fifth cup which is not actually drunk at the Seder.   This arrangement will continue until the prophet Elijah comes and settles the question.   Therefore the fifth cup is called the Cup of Elijah.

Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaim these four expressions of redemption?  Would not one such expression have sufficed?  The rabbis asked a similar question in Tractate Avot (5.1):   “With ten Sayings the world was created.  Could it not have been created with a single Saying?”  In other words, like the creation of the world, so too, the Exodus from Egypt could have been accomplished with a single word. But, just as the rabbis found a reason for a multiplicity of divine utterances in creating the world, “to requite the wicked and bestow a goodly reward on the righteous,” so too, there is a hidden purpose here:   to strengthen the faith of the Israelites in the Holy One, blessed be He, Who overturned the natural order of things to hasten their redemption.

From the above we learn that the Sages, who formulated the Haggadah, placed the number four in the center.   There are four expressions of redemption, [1] four sons, four questions in the Mah Nishtanah, four cups of wine, four times that one eats a token quantity of matzah, a four-fold repetition of the word Barukh, blessed, in the phrase, “Blessed is the Omnipresent, Blessed is He, Blessed is He who gave the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed is He,” and four foods that had symbolic import during the time that the Temple existed – the Pascal sacrifice, matzah, bitter herbs, and haroset.

To answer the question why there is more than one expression of redemption and to explain the difference between each of the four expressions, we must pose an additional question:   The Torah obliges us to recount the story of the exodus from Egypt to our children, insofar as the word ve-higgadeta, “you shall tell,” appears four times in the Torah in this connection (Ex. 12:24, 13:8, 13:14, and Deut. 10:20), from which comes the idea of the Torah speaking of four sons, “one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who knows not to ask.”  We are commanded to tell them about the history of their people, whether they ask or not, whether their question attests to their being wise or, heaven forbid, wicked.   That being the case, why did the Haggadah not command us to tell all our children about the exodus from Egypt, without going into the details of different sorts of children?

Passover (Pesah) is the holiday of peh-sah, “the mouth speaks,” i.e., of educating.  The obligation of telling on Passover is unique to the Seder eve; there is no similar obligation on the eve of the Feast of Weeks, nor on the eve of Tabernacles, even though these festivals also commemorate the exodus from Egypt.   The Seder eve is unique in that the Torah set this night aside for educating our children, and especial importance applies to treating all children equally; one must not despair of the wicked ones, nor of those who know not to ask.  The simpleton should be treated with patience, and the wise child should not be especially favored.

Similarly the four expressions of redemption express four stages or conditions along the way to redemption.   Rabbi Ephraim of Luntschitz, author of Kli Yakar, wrote the following on the four expressions:

The Holy One, blessed be He, saw fit to deliver them gradually, step by step.  First he delivered them from the most dangerous thing, which is oppression; in this regard it is said, “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians.”  Then He delivered them from bondage; in this regard it is said, “and deliver you from their bondage.”  Afterwards he delivered them from the easiest of all, which is being a ger, the state of apostasy, in which regard it is said, “I will redeem you,” for in doing away with their apostasy they would merit the Divine Presence staying with them, in which regard it is said, “and I will take you to be My people and I will be your G-d.”

This progression particularly illustrates the way one should relate to the “four sons.”  They should be stimulated according to their intellectual ability and character, and should be brought from the state of the evil one or simpleton and the one who knows not to ask to the state of the wise one.   Such a drastic change is possible only if one acts with patience, proceeding step by step, with perseverance and understanding between parents and children.   Just as Redemption occurs gradually, proceeding from the easy to the hard, so too parents should help their children gradually along the steep ascent, relating properly and wisely to each child’s abilities and inclinations, in a manner consonant with the saying, “Train a lad according to his inclinations” (Prov. 22:6).

It follows that the four stages correspond to the four sons, from the easy son to the difficult one. The most dangerous stage is that of oppression, which corresponds to the son who knows not to ask.  The condition of such a son is extremely grave, since he does not know how to worship the Lord and lack all skills of learning Torah.  He must be drawn out of his state of depression, extricated from his lack of all interest in anything sacred.

The educational advice for such a son is:   “You open the subject to him” – approach him with patience and rouse him from his stupor.   This is a sacred obligation on this important night.

A higher intellectual level is evinced by the wicked son.  He displays hostility and reservations, but one can see that he is clever and understanding.   However, he uses his intelligence for negative ends.  He must be delivered from bondage – from being enslaved to his evil inclination.   With proper direction, one can succeed and be saved from “their bondage.”

The condition of the simpleton corresponds to being a ger.   Such a person has a good character, innocence and naivete, but his intelligence is not sufficiently developed.   This is the condition of the ger who has a thirst for knowledge, yet knows nothing.   This son, too, must be “redeemed” and patiently given wisdom commensurate with his ability to comprehend.

The ideal condition is that of the wise son.   He seeks closeness to G-d.   He should be “taken” in hand, and his great wisdom and honest desire to worship the Creator should be put to good use, explaining him the minutest details of the law.   Such a procedure will bring him closer to the sublime in worshipping the Lord, and thus he will adhere to the ways of the Lord, and “I will be your G-d.”

Thus we see that the Torah took the trouble to use four expressions of redemption in order to have them correspond to the four sons.  The Haggadah seeks to arrange the Passover Seder on the theme of the number four as part of a didactic method of inspiring unity and good fellowship among brothers.   Only by showing loving understanding between parents and children is there a chance of educating the next generation successfully.

* Dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, Rabbi Meir Meir, z”l.

[1] Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Ba’al ha-Turim, finds a connection hinted at between the four terms of redemption and the four cups.  The gematria of these four verbs equals the numerical value of the Mishnaic statement that the poorest Jewish should not have fewer than four cups [of wine].