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    The Fourth Son – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What can you tell me about the Fourth Son of the Haggadah?

    The third and fourth sons, from the Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695

    A. The four sons are four human types, listed in descending order of intellectuality – the wise (and his mirror image, the wicked, who is clever but antagonistic), the simple (the Jerusalem Talmud calls him foolish but he may simply be uninformed or of average intelligence) and the one who does not know how to ask.

    This fourth son may be too young to ask questions, or perhaps an adult for whom the occasion is overwhelming and strange. The leader of the Seder cannot ignore him, but must take the initiative; the Torah says v’higgadeta – “You shall tell your son” (Ex. 13:8). From this verse we derive the name Haggadah, i.e. telling or narration, and the duty to relate the events of the exodus. In a sense, therefore, the whole Haggadah is designed for the fourth son.

    So does that excuse the rest of us from attending the Seder? Clearly not. None of us can automatically claim to be the wise son; in many things in Judaism, and in life, we are unable to ask the right questions and even to begin to understand. So we are all needed at Seder.

    The Haggadah tells the parent, at p’tach lo – “You open the subject for him”. The word for “you” appears to be feminine. Grammatically it may simply be an old form and could have a masculine connotation, but maybe the command is addressed to the mother, who is usually the child’s first teacher and the greatest influence on his moral and Jewish awakening.

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