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The 4 Sons—and the 4 Big Questions on Judaism

The Rational Child, the Depressed Child, the Selfish Child, and the Apathetic Child

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • April 17, 2019
  • |
  • 12 Nisan 5779
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Who are the four children of the Haggadah? What’s this great hullabaloo about them? Why four and not five, six or ten? What are their questions and why are these questions so important?

The premise to answer these questions is that these four children are not external to us; they are within each of us.

What are the four biggest questions on Judaism? 1) The strange laws that we simply cannot wrap our brains around. 2) How can small people really believe that G-d cares about their actions? 3) I lead my own life and define my own destiny. I don’t need G-d. 4) I simply don’t care.

The Haggadah addresses each of these four powerful and timely questions.

Dedicated by Menachem Yisroel Abrams in honor of his family: David Chai, Moshe, Dvora, Menashe Chaim, Bracha Esther, Rachel, Yenon, Batya, Liev David, Mazal Yishua, Ayala & Emma.


One day, the phone rang, a little boy answered.

"May I speak to your parents?"

"They're busy."

"Is anybody else there?"

"The police."

"Can I speak to them?"

"They're busy."

"Is anybody else there?"

"The firemen."

"Can I speak to them?"

"They're busy."

"Let me get this straight: Your parents, the police, and the firemen are there, but they're all busy? What are they doing?"

"Looking for me."

The Origin of the Four Sons

It is impossible to think about Passover without the four sons occupying a central place. The four sons with their vexing four questions have captured the Jewish imagination for millennia.

The origin of the “four sons” is fascinating. Four times, in four places, does the Torah address our duty to tell the story to our children—three of them in the book of Exodus (Parshat Bo), right after the actual Exodus story, and once in Deuteronomy, at the end of the forty years in the desert.

The first is in Exodus 12:25-27:

When you enter the land that G-d will give you as He promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children say to you, 'What does this ceremony mean to you?' then tell them, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to G-d, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'

The second is in Exodus 13:8:

On that day tell your son, 'I do this because of what G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt.’

The third is in Exodus 13:14:

In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand, G-d brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

The fourth passage is in Deuteronomy 6:20:

In the future, when your son asks you, "What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our G-d has commanded you?" tell him: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but G-d brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.

Why the need for four separate passages?

Our sages, in their attentiveness to nuance, deduced that Moses was addressing four different types of children. We must speak—the Torah is intimating—to each of our children, but we cannot speak in the same way, with the same language, to each child. What modern education techniques have discovered in the last half-a-century, the Torah has articulated 3300 years ago by communicating the story of the Exodus in four passages, in four different ways, addressing four different types of children. Each child requires an individual dialect relating to his or her composition, challenges, and strengths.

In the famous words of the Passover Haggadah:

כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה. אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.

“The Torah speaks of four sons: The wise, the rebellious, the simple one, and the one who knows not to ask.”

4 Critical Directives for Education

Listen carefully to these words of the Haggadah. They contain four critical points:

1) We are not dealing with one child; we have at our table four different types of youth. What works for one, may not work for the other. 2) despite their differences, all of them are our beloved children. They are not strangers; they are our flesh and blood. None of them should ever be rejected. 3) The Torah does not speak to one genre of children; rather, it addresses all of them, containing life-messages for each of the four children. If we can’t find the words for each of them, it is because we are not accessing the full wisdom of Torah. 4) The Torah message to each child is distinct. You can’t speak the same words to two children.

Every communicator knows that before you communicate, you must know your audience well. So Moses—and the Haggadah—are cautioning us: Before you communicate the story of your heritage, history, and faith to the next generation, you must “know your audience.” You need to spend time understanding the unique persona—both strengths and challenges—of your “audience,” of your children, so that you can address each of them appropriately, in a way that might enter their hearts.

Many of us try to speak to our children, on the night of Passover and other nights, but we fail to evaluate the audience properly. I may speak to the child I would have liked him/her to be, or to the child in the way I depict him/her in my imagination. But how can I be effective if I do not understand what you are hearing and experiencing?

Who Are They?

Who are these four children? What’s this great hullabaloo about them? Why four and not five, six, or ten? Why are they central to our Passover experience? What are their questions and why are these questions important?

The premise to answer all of these questions is that these four children are not external to us; they are within each of us.[1] Each of us asks their four questions.

What are the four biggest questions on Judaism? These are the dilemmas raised by each of the four sons. And Passover is the time when we dedicate ourselves to addressing these dilemmas, within our own minds and within the mind of our loved ones.

The Wise Son

We begin our journey with the wise child. This is the first question on Judaism which comes from the person who cherishes wisdom.

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

The intellectual citizen asks, "What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our G-d has commanded you?" This child, an attentive student of Judaism is thoughtful, reflective, and inquisitive. He does not mind the rational principles of Judaism. What perturbs him or her are all the different types of laws in Judaism, including the “chukim,” the laws that don’t seem to make sense.

Most of us ask this question, in one way or another. Few of us have a serious problem (at least intellectually) with “Thou shall not murder,” or “Thou shall not steal.” Who can argue with Judaism’s dedication to charity, justice, education, its injunction to honor your father and mother, and its caution against delaying payment to an employee? But why would any G-d care for black boxes placed on my head and arm? How could a rational Harvard or Oxford graduate in the 21st century believe that eating crunchy matzah on Pesach is a holy act? How about using a mikvah instead of a bathtub? And can shrimp be so bad? Does G-d even know the difference between fake and real crab? Does a logical G-d really care if I cook on Shabbos? Eat a cheeseburger? Mix wool and linen in my garments? Religion should be about ethics, being a good person, decent, kind, and generous. Why all of these strange laws and rituals?

A Bizarre Answer

The answer we give to this “wise” question, at first glance, seems bizarre:

וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח, אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

Tell him the laws of Pesach, (including the law that) one is not allowed to eat after the Afikoman.

Huh? How does this answer a profound, philosophical angst?

The most profound matters in life are often beyond our rational grasp. After all the amazing discoveries in science and cosmology, is there a single human being who truly understands the mysteries of the universe? Even the untold brilliance of a single genome in a single cell is beyond the grasp of three pounds of grey matter residing in our skulls. Whence the hubris to think that I can wrap my brain around the Creator?

Judaism, to be sure, values rational thinking and the full usage of our brains. Yet toward the end of the Seder, we consume the Afikoman, the humble, flat matzah, representing our internalization of a critical truth: If G-d is real it would be foolish to try and reduce Him to our finite brains. The matzah, with its unleavened humility and lack of posturing, sitting there so flat and innocent, is the quintessential symbol of accepting G-d on His terms, not mine. Of acknowledging that there are things that will sometimes elude our grasp and being okay with that.

Of course, whatever we can grasp intellectually we must strive to grasp, but reality transcends our understanding, and when we limit our lives only to that which we understand, we deprive ourselves of having a relationship with true reality, with ultimate reality, with the infinite source and core of all. 

When we discover that it is futile to reduce our relationship with G-d to our limited and narrow perspectives, then we realize that, on the contrary, the greatest delight in life is the ability to do something simply because G-d said so—since this is what allows us to connect with the core of all truth, with the essence of all reality, with the most authentic, transcendent truth. 

This is the message we communicate to the wise member of our people: Let the taste of the Afikoman linger in your mouth. Do not eat anything afterward which will obliterate the taste of the matzah. The taste of the Afikoman—the taste of humble submission to G-d—is the sweetest taste in the world. Do not dilute it with any other food. Nothing comes close to it!

"Don't eat anything after you digest the matzah!” That is the deepest, most delightful taste in the world.

The Atheist

The other day, I met an atheist. He told me he doesn’t believe in anything that cannot be proven to him beyond a reasonable doubt.

I told him I don’t believe him.

“What don’t you believe?” he asked.

“That you don’t believe,” I answered. “Can you prove that to me—beyond a reasonable doubt?”

“Well, I’m telling you so!” he replied.

“So,” I answered, “I’m just supposed to naively believe anything you tell me without proof?”

The truth is, there is no human being without beliefs. Belief is to humankind as sunlight is to the forest. Without belief, there is no life.

If lovers didn’t believe “this is the one!” if couples didn’t believe “our children will be beautiful!” if parents didn’t believe, “one day they’ll grow up and it will all pay off”—oh, what a desolate world this would be.

The Depressed Child

What’s the next child’s issue with Judaism? We call this child the “Ben Rasha,” the wicked son, or the rebellious son. But a more subtle and accurate translation is the “depressed son,” or “the broken son.” For, as we shall see, he’s not as wicked as we may make him out to be.

Let us listen to what he says:

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם? לָכֶם - וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִנָּיו וֶאֱמֹר לוֹ: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לִי - וְלֹא לוֹ. אִילּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

"What is this whole thing you have going on here serving G-d, being in a relationship with Him? As if He has time for you. If you believe in G-d, you have some audacity sitting there pretending that your small little actions can capture His interest and attention!

This child, as is often the case with rebels, cynics, mockers, scoffers, and alienated children—suffers (consciously or unconsciously) from profound internal pain. He cannot bring himself to believe that he has a beauty, a grace, to the extent that G-d Himself wants to connect with him. He asks a profound question: If G-d really exists, and G-d is infinite, it is absurd to believe that G-d cares about me and my behavior. It is ludicrous to assume that our lives have real, absolute meaning.

And if life is inherently meaningless, then the only way to numb the pain of meaninglessness is through distractions, addictions, gluttony, narcissism, and an obsession with materialism. Not every “rasha” is really a rebel. Often, rebelliousness is born from an internal sense of worthlessness. My life does not matter; I am a random mistake, a speck of dust in an endlessly-ever-expanding universe.

This is a struggle many of us endure. Sometimes we wake up in the morning passionate about life, love, and purpose; sometimes we awake, and we just feel that nothing really matters. How can I celebrate something which is so meaningless?

The Problem Is the Solution

The answer to this question is very moving.

Tell him, says the Haggadah, that it is "Because of this for which G-d took me out of Egypt."Bavur Zeh.” Because you are an imperfect being, so small in comparison to an infinite G-d, so easily tempted, so easily distracted, so mortal, flimsy, and weak—that is precisely why G-d chose to forge a relationship with you.

The very basis for the rasha's question is his answer.

You think G-d is interested in the grand and the awesome? He's got enough of that between His infinite Self and His perfect angels! What really captures His attention is when a small, fragile human fraught with troubles and imperfections shows up and says, "I'm here; I want to become Your partner in the work of repairing the world.” The very purpose and objective of creation is that G-d wanted a relationship with something (that perceives itself as) “outside” of Himself—something that is not infinite, eternal, perfect, flawless. It is our “smallness” that He finds so attractive and irresistible. It is our simple humaneness that matters most.

Your smallness is your greatness.

Look Not at the Teeth

How do we see this in the Haggada's response? The Haggadah says: “Blunt his teeth."[2] This is hardly the paragon of sensitive understanding.

But there is a beautiful message here. Sometimes the bite of our children’s teeth hurt. The Haggadah challenges us with this question: Can we look beyond the “teeth?” Can we disregard the scathing bite and listen to the whisper of our children’s souls, buried beneath the biting, stinging, cutting, and piercing words? Does your child perhaps need more of your emotional presence? Does he/she need to feel your heart more? Does this child need more understanding and sensitivity?  Can you notice the underlying anxiety, depression, or trauma? Can you see the inner hopelessness, despair, and sense of worthlessness in this child’s brain?

[The Vilna Gaon teaches:[3] The Hebrew word שניו, “his teeth,” is numerically equivalent to 366. The Hebrew word for Rasha (רשע), wicked, is 570. When we "blunt his teeth,” subtracting 366 from 570, what we are left with is 204, which equals the word Tzaddik (צדיק). In other words, when you remove the “teeth,” the scathing biting words, you will see that inside this child is a Tzaddik, a glowing, beautiful, and sacred person!]

What is more, we must help this child blunt and dull his own biting view of himself or herself. We want to help our children begin celebrating their existence and seeing the value of their souls. Stop “biting” into yourself and viewing yourself as small, valueless, and meaningless. G-d loves you. He needs you. He wants you. He is so proud of you! You are small? Sure, that’s exactly why he wants you and cares for you—as the infinite G-d was searching for a relationship with the finite soul who fuses the infinite with the finite.

The Selfish Child

We now come to the third child, the “Tam,” which literally means “the complete son.” He is the exact opposite. If the rebel or cynic thinks he is worthless and G-d would never really care about his actions, the “complete” person represents that internal voice which grows arrogant to the point it feels all success and failure is predicated on human action alone.

תָּם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה זֹּאת? וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו: בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְיָ מִמִּצְרָיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.

The complete son, or the selfish child, declares, “What’s this?” See how well I am doing. I am a success story. Why mix G-d into this? What’s this strange behavior of worshipping G-d? We will be just fine without Him.

This mindset does not think we are small and valueless. On the contrary, we are everything. We do not need or have anything above us. We are the masters of our own fate. We owe nothing to anyone.

This is the third question we may have on Judaism. We understand that in the ancient past when people did not understand science, they needed G-d to explain the universe and its insanity. Superstition reigned. But now that we know enough about science and biology, let’s stop mixing G-d into the picture.

It’s a Gift

The answer the Haggadah presents to this child is: "Bichozek Yad!" "With a strong hand, G-d took us out of Egypt." On our own, we would not be able to lift a finger. We were liberated from Egypt, not due to our talents, but due to His “strong arm.”

When things are going well, we tend to become smug and desensitized to the miracle of life. Is it normal that our universe and our planet continue to follow predictable rules we call the “laws of nature” allowing for the continuity of life? Is it logical that one cell develops into 40 trillion cells, each one containing the program manual for the entire organism? Is it rational that our tiny brain grows 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections? Is it sensical that the combination of seed, soil, air, water, and sunlight creates myriads of types of fruits, vegetables, plants, etc?!

At moments of bliss, people often feel that they are on top of the world and they do not need anybody. They forget their humaneness and simplicity. They forget that every breath, heartbeat, every flow of vitality, inspiration, and energy comes from the Creator and source of all life.

The coronavirus has demonstrated to us the absurdity of a smug scientist. 

The Bull & the Badge

A DEA officer stopped at a ranch in Texas to speak with an old rancher.

"I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs."

The rancher said, "Okay, but don't go in that field over there."

The DEA officer verbally exploded: "Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!" Reaching into his rear pants pocket, the arrogant officer removed his badge and proudly displayed it to the rancher.

"See this badge?! This badge means I can go wherever I wish. No questions asked or answers given! Have I made myself clear? Do you understand?!"

The rancher nodded politely, apologized, and went about his chores.

A short time later, the old rancher heard loud screams, he looked up and saw the DEA officer running for his life, being chased by the rancher's big Santa Gertrudis bull.

With every step, the bull was gaining ground on the officer, and it seemed likely that he'd, sure enough, get gored before he reached safety. The officer was terrified.

The rancher threw down his tools, ran to the fence, and yelled at the top of his lungs.

"Your badge, show him your BADGE!"

The Son Who Does Care to Ask

At last, we arrive at the fourth child, “the one who does not care to ask.”[4] The mindset of this boy doesn’t think everything needs to be rational (the wise son), doesn’t think life is meaningless and that G-d doesn’t treasure his actions (the depressed son), doesn’t think all his success and power comes from his own talents and ego (the complete son). What he says is, "Look, I'm here, you guys mean well, but my heart is just not here. This does not mean anything to me. It’s all boring."

וְשֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל - אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.

A common enough experience for us, at least at times. This is not a question based on theology or philosophy. It is simply the young man or woman who says: I just don’t care. I just have no emotions toward any of this. I do not know what to ask, because I do not care to ask.

So the Haggada is telling us, "At pisach lo". You must open his or her heart. You must be the one to inspire them.

There is no such a thing as a child who is truly careless and indifferent. That child does not exist. Rather, it is you who must open his or her heart. You may have not found the right words or the right approach. Perhaps you may have to look deeper into yourself and discover a much deeper and more authentic relationship with G-d. What comes from your heart will enter his/her heart. Work on yourself. Analyze your heart. See where you are coming from—is it from a place of love, or anger; from a place of acceptance, or intolerance; from a place of wholesomeness or insecurity. But one thing is sure: If you put your soul into it, you can open him or her up. Every person wants to live a genuine life. Every person, deep down, craves truth, depth, dignity, and soulfulness. But if we don’t work on ourselves to make our Judaism deep and authentic, we may never reach them. It is not their fault; it is ours.

You, says the Haggadah, can open his heart. G-d believes in the youth. You must too![5]


[1] We can see this from the Hebrew wording: “Echad chacham, echad rashsa….” "One is wise, one is rebellious..." when the Haggada could have just said, "There are four sons: the wise, the rebel..."
The fact that the text says “one is...one is...” before all of them intimates that all the ones are within. When we read it, we must say: "There are four mindsets, one type of mindset I have is wise, one is rebellious," etc.
[2] The translation “knock out his teeth,” or “strike his teeth,” are inaccurate. The term “hakha” (with a Kuf not a Kaf) means “dull, unsharpen, dilute.
[3] Quoted in Hagadas Hagra.
[4] The common translation is, “the one who does not know to ask.” But the Hebrew term for “not knowing” really means “not connected,” As in the verse: “And Adam knew Eve.” This child feels disconnected. He is unmoved to ask. He is apathetic.
[5] This essay is based on Sefas Emes Pesach 5634 (1874); Sichas Pesach 5721 (Likkutei Sichos vol. 3 p, 961), and other sources.


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  • TY

    Tzvi Yehuda -2 years ago

    I read this in my birthday 

    thank you for a most beautiful and meaningful gift- food for my soul

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Zichron moshe

    I'd like to thank you reb yy for greatly assisting me in cultivating a persona of brilliant speaker by plagiarizing your phenomenal drashos

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • R

    Ridas -2 years ago

    תודה רבה 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • CB

    Chana B -3 years ago

    I've been looking all week for a shiur that would light me up and also give me something geshmack to share at the Seder: well here it is! Thank you Rabbi and G- d bless you for your varied and exciting classes 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • B

    Bruce -5 years ago

    Profoundly beautiful.

    Thank you!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • SE

    salomon E. -5 years ago

    The 4 sons

    Git Moed Rabbi YY.

    I have no words to describe your gift from H'sm in being able to bring out the meaning and depth of the Torah That everyone can relate to. 


    Best to you!!!


    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • B

    Breinda -5 years ago

    Wishing you a joyous, meaningful Pesach! Especially appreciated and gained deeper understanding from your article on The Four Sons.
    With gratitude. 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Pesach

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • April 17, 2019
  • |
  • 12 Nisan 5779
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by Menachem Yisroel Abrams in honor of his family: David Chai, Moshe, Dvora, Menashe Chaim, Bracha Esther, Rachel, Yenon, Batya, Liev David, Mazal Yishua, Ayala & Emma.

Class Summary:

Who are the four children of the Haggadah? What’s this great hullabaloo about them? Why four and not five, six or ten? What are their questions and why are these questions so important?

The premise to answer these questions is that these four children are not external to us; they are within each of us.

What are the four biggest questions on Judaism? 1) The strange laws that we simply cannot wrap our brains around. 2) How can small people really believe that G-d cares about their actions? 3) I lead my own life and define my own destiny. I don’t need G-d. 4) I simply don’t care.

The Haggadah addresses each of these four powerful and timely questions.

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