Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Haggadol 5765/ April 23, 2005


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,




The Four Sons: What to Ask or How to Ask?


 Dr. Yossie Liebersohn


Department of Philosophy



A linchpin of the Seder and the Haggadah is questioning and the ability to ask, and the heart of this theme is undoubtedly the passage of The Four Sons. [1] In the hierarchy of sons presented in this passage the fourth son is generally presented as speechless, one without the ability to ask.   This notion is consonant with the idea of a progressive decline in the generations from the wise son, by way of the wicked son and the simpleton, until we reach the one who does not know to ask. 

However, if we examine the matter more closely, I believe that this view of the passage is problematic.  We shall make do with two questions:  first, one might wonder whether the one who does not know to ask is not preferable to the wicked one, and should therefore precede him?   The simple and immediate response would be to argue that the wicked son comes before because he still has a chance of learning from his questions, which is not the case for the one who does not (even) know to ask.  However, a second look shows that the emphasis in this progression of decline in the generations is not necessarily on the ability to ask, but rather on the content of the question. If that were not the case, the simpleton (tam) would belong in second place, before the wicked son, since he too knows how to ask and there is no malice in his question. [2]   The second difficulty is more basic:   it is hard to imagine a person who is not capable at least of asking a question like that of the simpleton, “What is this?”

In what follows I shall argue that the fourth son asks, as well, and thus a certain symmetry is created-- four sons with four questions.  On the other hand, the question of the fourth son has certain characteristics which place him at the bottom of the ladder.

Different kinds of knowing

In Hebrew, the verb “to know” changes meaning according to the relative pronoun or infinitive that follows it:   to know that, or to know how (+ an infinitive).  Some people know that the sum of angles in a triangle is 180 degrees, and others know that there is a G-d in this world; others know how to build, how to play an instrument, and ... how to ask a question.   ‘To know’ in the second sense means expertise, having a skill, and all skills have their limits. A person who is skilled at using a saw must know not only how to use a saw, but he must also know when it is not to the point to use a saw.

The ability to ask is also a skill.   Questions are a tool for gaining knowledge, yet using this tool itself requires knowledge; one must know how to ask.  That is precisely the problem of the fourth son.  He is not speechless; he asks, but he does not know how to ask. [3]   He asks, but not in the right way.   The most fundamental requirement for anyone who wishes to use any tool is knowledge of what cannot be accomplished using that tool.  The same goes for using the tool of asking questions; before deciding what to ask, one must know what not to ask, and especially when not to ask.

To ask a question one must have some prior knowledge; at least one must want to know something.   The firs three sons knew certain things, but they had questions.  No doubt their various questions attest to the differences in their nature, but what they all have in common is knowledge of something, even if what they know may appear mistaken in someone else’s eyes.  Therefore we match each of their questions with the response that befits it. 

Questions need knowledge

What about a person whose very existence is questions?   He does not know anything except how to ask questions, but he asks about everything.  The answer is plain: he does not truly wish to know anything, rather he wishes to appear to know everything.   such a person is an impostor.  He does not commit himself to anything; he just asks. This seems to us to be the fourth son.

Returning to the Haggadah, we see that each of the first three sons asks a question.   The fourth son asks, as well; but he does not ask just one question, rather, he asks and asks, because he “does not know how to ask.”  Here is the main point:   his questions are merely for the purpose of asking, only to appear smart.  The first three sons ask in accordance with their nature, but the fourth son does not even have a nature of his own.  He can imitate any one of the sons, and he does so by means of questions.   He can ask the question of a wise son, a wicked son, or a simple son.  He is what the Greek’s called an aristokos.   Often, he does not even expect an answer; he just asks.  Essentially, he does not know “how to ask.” 

Questions may open the way to wisdom, but they can also be the road to ignorance.  It all depends on whether or not one knows how to ask.  Hence it is not surprising that the answer to the son who “does not know how to ask” is not to let him ask.  The answer to that all-questioning son is, “You must begin by speaking to him,” [4] since from the moment that he begins to ask there is no turning back; if you attempt to answer his questions, you confirm his status as an asker. The son “who does not know how to ask” we address by speaking first, telling him, “Because of this, the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.”   We teach him; but not only the content, rather also that in order to ask one must first know something, and more importantly, one must want to know, not only to ask.

Is the issue moral or intellectual?

A major question in the study of this section of the Haggadah concerns the depiction of the sons.   Daniel Goldschmidt, and Aharon Shemesh, who followed his lead (see note 1), have noted the exceptional place of the wicked son, who is situated on a moral continuum, as opposed to the other three sons, who are situated along an intellectual continuum.  According to the interpretation we propose here, all four sons are situated on a moral continuum.  The wise son is essentially a righteous man who is interested in knowledge; the evil son is not interested; the simpleton does not even know what he should be interested in; while the one who does not know how to ask turns out to be an intellectual impostor, and thus morally worse than the wicked son.  At least the wicked son does not pretend to be something else.   Note that the verse cited in response to the “question” of the one who does not know how to ask is precisely the same verse as is used in responding to the wicked son.

In our day, questioning is applauded.   Interviewers of all sorts, who have nothing more in their bag of tricks than questions, are considered greatly knowledgeable. [5]   Sometimes it even seems that the solution offered by the Haggadist – “You must begin by speaking to him” – is not all that helpful, for popular talk show hosts begin to speak, and they are the ones who conclude as well. [6]

The Haggadah encourages questions.  It seeks various ways of evoking questions.  It knows that without questions knowledge is unattainable.  However, precisely at the climax of the mission to encourage questioning it does not forget the other side of the coin – the one who knows nothing but to ask questions.  The fourth son is at the bottom of the heap.  Precisely because he specializes in nothing but pretending to be something else with his questions, precisely for that reason he is the only son who is not answered.  By speaking first we make it clear to him:  we have not fallen into the trap; you do not know how to ask a question. [7]


[1] This is one of the more difficult passages in the Haggadah, both because of its placement and the history of its formation. Scholars think it is a composite of Midrashic sources with changes, additions, and accretions. See Daniel Goldschmidt, Haggadah shel Pesah ve-Toldoteha, Jerusalem 1960, pp. 22-29; A. Shemesh, “Keneged Arba’a Banim Dibbera Torah”, Sidra 14 (1998), pp. 131-136. I thank Prof. Shemesh for his generous help in clarifying some of the issues.

[2] Indeed, in the ancient version of the baraitha in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael ( Pisha 18, Horovitz-Rabin ed. P. 73; see also JT Pesahim 10,4; 37d) the simpleton (in the original, a  “fool”) appears in the second place, after the wise son.  Our question, of course, concerns the version of the Haggadah as we have it.

[3] The verb “to know” in conjunction with another verb, in the sense of knowing how to, is found in great abundance throughout the literature of the Sages (for example, see Tosefta, Hagigah 1.2 (Lieberman ed., p. 375).  This form also appears quite frequently in negation.  For example, Sanhedrin 6.2:  “… and if he does not know how to confess, he is told to say:   Let my death atone for all my sins…”   A sick person on his deathbed may know to confess, but he may not know how to confess properly; that is, he may not be familiar with the formulation that the Sages established (also cf. Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy [Hoffman ed., p. 26] 6.6:  “He does not know how to love the Omnipresent”).

[4] It should be noted that this verse is the only one of the four verses in which we do not find the language of questioning.  Moreover, in the version appearing in the baraitha in Tractate Pesahim it says, “For a son who does not know how to ask, you begin by speaking to him first.”

[5] Of course the interviewers must know something in order to be able to ask questions.  Here precisely lies the great difference between them and between those who truly wish to know.   If the purpose of questioners is to attain knowledge, the knowledge that the interviewers have serves only their goal to ask questions.

[6] These days every interview ends with a summarizing sentence by the interviewer to which the interviewee has no opportunity to respond since his time is up.

[7] The source for the fourth son apparently comes from a homily in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, “You shall tell your son, even though he has not asked you” (Epstein-Melamed ed., p. 40).   According to this source, it would seem there is no place for viewing the fourth son as asking anything.   Nevertheless, as we have noted, the baraitha that appears in the Haggadah is an adaptation that makes use of earlier sources, and changes of context or meaning are commonplace in such adaptations.  As far as we are concerned, the change of context regarding the fourth son is expressed in the change of expression from the words, “even though he has not asked you,” to the words, “who does not know how to ask.”   One cannot rule out the possibility that the Haggadist, seeing before him the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael and the baraitha of Rabbi Hiyya in the Jerusalem Talmud, was using ancient materials in which the fourth son was indeed seen as one who asked nothing at all, but by this change of wording he imparted a change in the meaning, or at least added another meaning of his own.