Four Sons

Four Sons


The haggadah mentions four sons, sourced from the Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 10:4 and Mechilta on Exodus 13:14, which in turn are derived from the following verses:

Son                                                      Verses

Wise חכם                                            Deut. 6:20-24

Wicked רשע                                        Exodus 12:26-27

Simple תם                                           Exodus 13:14-15

Does not know what to ask             Exodus 13:8

שאינו יודע לשאול

Each son addresses Pesach in his own way and consequently the Torah answers each son differently. It is interesting to note that the answers by the Torah, Talmud and Mechilta are different. This article will analyze the text of the questions and answers especially with regard to the different terms used in the answers.

Wise Son


Only the question of the wise son is in the book of Deuteronomy. The questions of the other sons are in parshat Bo in the book of Exodus, implying that the wise son has the overview of the five books of the Torah but the other sons are limited to the story of the exodus from Egypt. The wise son asks about the details of the commandments given by Hashem but not for their justification which he accepts without question. He seeks Torah knowledge and attempts to understand the laws at its different levels. Therefore he asks in terms of עדות testimonies (laws that commemorate historical events of the Israelites), חקים decrees (laws whose reasons are not revealed in the Torah), and משפטים ordinances (laws whose reasons are obvious). The Torah considers him a worthy son בנך by replying that we were slaves to Pharaoh, Hashem miraculously took us from Egypt, and brought us to the land of Israel. In addition Hashem commanded these laws to obtain a proper reverence of Him and to acquire merit.

Jerusalem Talmud

By contrast the Jerusalem Talmud quotes Exodus 13:14, “With a strong hand Hashem removed us הוציאנו from Egypt from the house of bondage” as the answer to the wise son. This verse was chosen to emphasize that the wise son is included in the exodus from Egypt because his question was directed to the adults, apparently excluding himself אתכם. Perhaps this inclusion indicates that he should use his intellectual gifts for the benefit of the Jewish people.

Mechilta – Haggadah

The haggadah answers the wise son’s question from the Mechilta, “We may not eat anything after eating the Pesach offering”.  There are numerous questions to this answer. Why did the Haggadah choose an answer not found in the written Torah?  Some explain that the answer mentioned in the Torah was used by the Haggadah in response to the four questions. Others explain that the wise son needs an answer from the oral law because he knows the answer from the written law. In addition this law is taught near the end of tractate Pesachim (119b) implying that the wise son should attempt to master as much Talmud as possible and not be content with a simple answer. Homiletically we teach the wise son that his studies should remain with him and be delightful just as the taste of the Passover offering should remain with him that night.

Wicked Son


The statement of the wicked son differs from the other sons in the following:

  1. Statement not question.
  2. Plural not singular.
  3. Criticizing (burden) not understanding.

The wicked son does not ask a question but rather states his opinion יאמרו in plural, a group challenge to Torah, without expecting an answer. By contrast the other sons who ask a question ישאלך, in singular, expect an answer and receive one. (It is interesting to note that the form יאמרו is first used in the Torah (Exodus 4:1) to express disbelief. Moses complained to Hashem that the Israelites will not believe him when he says that Hashem appeared to him. This word also implies disbelief in terms of the challenge of the wicked son. In addition the form, ישאלך ask you, only appears twice in all of the Torah, the questions of the wise and simple son.)

The wicked son uses the term העבדה burden without mentioning Hashem, indicating that these laws are both burdensome and manmade. By contrast the wise son acknowledges the divine origin of mitzvoth by mentioning two of Hashem’s names in his question. (It is again interesting to note the first time that the term העבדה is used in the Torah (Exodus 2:23) is when the Israelites cry out from hard labour. The wicked son cynically insinuates that the Passover mitzvoth are as burdensome as the slavery in Egypt. Elsewhere in the Torah the word העבדה could imply divine service without being burdensome. The wicked son cleverly uses a loaded word which could be interpreted in different ways, thereby veiling his criticism.)

The Torah apparently suggests answering the wicked son by stating (Exodus 12:27),” You shall say, it is a pesach offering to Hashem… when he smote the Egyptians but He saved our households”. However the Torah does not directly answer the wicked son, rather it says that we should say as a declaration, implying that this declaration is for our benefit to strengthen our belief that Hashem will save the Israelites and punish their enemies. This statement implies that the wicked son is excluded because he disassociates himself from the Israelites and would not have been saved. However by not rebuking him directly there is still room for reconciliation and returning to Hashem תשובה.

Jerusalem Talmud

The Jerusalem Talmud understands the challenge of the wicked son, as what is the purpose of this burden that the observant burden us every year? He denies the divine origin of the commandments and thereby separates himself from the Jewish people. Therefore we answer him from Exodus 13:8, “…Because בעבור of this Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt”, meaning that if the wicked son was there he would not have been redeemed.  Rather he would have died in the plague of darkness. The word בעבור is also used in Exodus 9:14 and 9:16 to emphasize that the plagues are direct manifestation of Hashem’s power, “…so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world”. This clearly refutes the view of the wicked sons who denies Hashem’s power and regards the mitzvoth as pointless. The Talmud emphasizes the importance of observing the mitzvoth to maintain Jewish identity and survival. Many movements have tried to change or abandon the mitzvoth, even with good intentions. However throughout history these movements have failed (e.g. Sadducees, Essences, Karaites), because their beliefs are not in consonance with the divine will.   

Mechilta – Haggadah

The haggadah answers the wicked son’s question from the Mechilta, by saying, “Since he separated himself from the Jewish people and denies the divine origin of the mitzvoth blunt his teeth הקהה את שיניו (defang his argument) by saying if he were there he would not have been redeemed.” The haggadah use the same verse as the Talmud (i.e. Exodus 13:8) with similar emphasis on the redemption of believers and punishment of non-believers. The expression הקהה את שיניו is unusual with many possible explanations. This article will suggest alternate approaches depending upon the parents of the wicked son whether wicked or righteous.

Wicked Parents

The expression blunt the teeth occurs in the bible (e.g. Jeremiah 31:28-29, Ezekiel 18:2) as a parable in which the fathers eat unripe grapes and the teeth of the children are blunted, implying that the children suffer for the sins of the parents. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel explain that this thinking is incorrect because Hashem punishes the individual for his own sins. Although the Torah mentions the concept of visiting the sins of the parents on the children (Exodus 20:5, 34:7) the Talmud Sanhedrin 27b explains that this applies when the children follow in the sinful paths of their parents. Perhaps the haggadah is suggesting that when we confront the wicked son we should consider his parents and upbringing that lead him to his erroneous beliefs. We should judge him leniently and not be guilty of the “parents eating unripe grapes and the teeth of the children are blunted”.     

Righteous Parents

By contrast the Talmud Sanhedrin 109b uses the same expression with regard to Korach who blunted the teeth of his righteous ancestors, namely a wicked son from illustrious lineage. Perhaps the haggadah is suggesting that we may deal more firmly with someone who should know better by saying, “If he were there he would not have been redeemed”.

(Note: This discussion about the wicked son should not be applied to today’s secular Jews because they are considered by the majority of authorities of halacha as “children taken captive by a non-Jewish society” and therefore not liable for lack of observance. On the contrary observant Jews are obligated to teach secular Jews the depth and beauty of Torah, as explained in the section of the son who does not know what to ask. Numerous outreach groups have been successful to both educate and inspire secular Jews leading to a baal teshuva movement.)   

Simple Son


The simple son asks a basic question מה זאת, “What is this?”  Unlike the previous two sons he does not seek a detailed answer nor does he criticize.  In actuality his question relates to the redemption of the first born, especially the donkey, not the exodus from Egypt. Here the Torah answers him (Exodus 13:14) by the term אליו to him and not to your son, לבנך as it does for the wise son and the one who does not know to ask. The Torah does not regard him as a leading son of Israel, along the lines of Talmud Berachot 64a “אל תקרא בניך אלא בוניך” do not read as your children rather as your builders. Of course he is obligated in the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvoth. However the Torah advises the father not to be angry with him but rather direct him according to his limited capacity which was decreed by Hashem (Talmud Niddah 16b).

Jerusalem Talmud

The Jerusalem Talmud calls this son טפש (foolish) because of his limited capacity.  The Talmud advises the father to teach him that we do not eat after the afikoman to avoid eating the Passover offering in more than one place. It seems that the simple son is primarily interested in food and not the message of spiritual freedom, following the popular adage, “They tried to destroy us; we were saved; and now let us eat.”

Mechilta – Haggadah

The haggadah, drawing from the Mechilta, answers the simple son directly from the Torah’s answer to this son, “With a strong hand Hashem took us out from Egypt from the house of bondage, implying that he needs a short and simple answer.” The haggadah calls him תם which can mean either simple or pure to avoid directly insulting him since he is present at the seder. By contrast the Jerusalem Talmud calls him foolish because it is speaking to the father who must train him and accept his limitations.

Does not know what to ask


This son is alluded to in Exodus 13:8 where the Torah commands the father, “And you shall tell your son on that day”. Since this command is not preceded by a question the Torah must be referring to a son who does not know what to ask. In the past this referred to a young son, typically less than 5 years old, who has not begun formal studies. However today this can apply to secular Jews who have little connection with Judaism and unfamiliar with the laws of the d a seder. The Torah did not directly specify this son, perhaps to spare him embarrassment due to his tender age or lack of education. Nevertheless he is present at the seder and must be treated with respect. Unlike the simple son, the Torah addresses him as a son (or a potential builder) as the passage says לבנך והגדת. The Torah is informing the father of a young child or teacher/mentor in the case of a secular Jew to consider the tremendous potential of this son despite his current limitations.

The Torah uses the expression והגדת which means tell a story to engage a young or uninformed mind. The word הגדה (haggadah) is the noun form of the verb הגד which in turn is derived from the root נגד (facing or opposite), implying that the father must direct the story to the listener (i.e. facing) and be prepared for unexpected questions or observations (i.e. opposite) because each person interprets a story according to their level and perspective. It is interesting to note that this word והגדת occurs only once in the Torah indicating the great importance of telling the story on Passover night. In addition this verb form הגדתי is used in the bikkurim (first fruits) declaration (Deut. 26:3) which forms the basis of the haggadah narrative, explaining why these verses are expounded rather than verses in Exodus.

Jerusalem Talmud

The Jerusalem Talmud calls this son בן שאינו יודע לשאול literally a son who does not know to ask, either because of age or lack of education. The Talmud advises the father את פתח לו literally you (feminine) open him up and thereby gently expose this son to Torah according to his capacity. In addition the word את contains the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet indicating the goal to eventually teach him the full range of Torah topics. The Talmud adds that this lesson is stated in the mishnah (Pesachim 10:4), “If the son lacks knowledge the father must teach him”, initially the four questions and then the answers relating to the exodus from Egypt. The Talmud emphasizes the importance of teaching the uninformed and especially in a question and answer format. 

Mechilta – Haggadah

The haggadah follows the Mechilta and quotes Exodus 13:8, “You shall tell your son…” as the answer to this son. It is interesting to note that the haggadah uses the latter part of this verse “Because of this…” for both the wicked son and the one who does not know what to ask, warning the father to provide a meaningful answer to the latter son or risk losing him to a rebellious group. In addition the Talmud uses the expression את פתח לו also for the wise son indicating that the father or mentor should strive to educate the young or uninformed to develop into a wise son.


The written and oral law use different wording for the questions and answers of the four sons indicating the responsibility of the father or teacher/mentor to teach each son according to his way (Proverbs 22:6). The following table summarizes from the Torah, the son’s reaction to the seder and the father’s response.

WiseQuestionSingularSon (Builder)
WickedStatementPluralNo response
SimpleQuestionSingularTo him (not a builder)
Does not knowSilenceSingularSon (Builder)

1 thought on “Four Sons”

  1. Really deep and informative. Such clear research. You might think of setting up a print PDF format so people can review this on Shabbat or Yom Tov

    Comment: You can print these articles by right clicking the mouse and use the print option YG.

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