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The Imagery of the Four Sons

Apr 8, 2014 | Judaism

The Pesach Seder is the most observed Jewish ritual, beating out both fasting on Yom Kippur and lighting Hanukah candles. Every Jew thinks s/he knows what the Seder is. The reality is much more interesting. The Pesach Seder is an ever-evolving ritual expression of Jewish life. Torah commands us to refrain from eating, or even owning, hametz. We are told to eat matzah and maror, to offer the Pesach sacrifice, and to teach our children “what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.”

Mention of the Seder is absent from our rituals until the first century. Perhaps it developed as a response to the first destruction, perhaps as a response to exile and inability to make the annual pilgrimage. Whatever the reason, by the time of its mention in the Mishnah (circa 70 CE), it is an entrenched practice. Scholars have proven the Seder’s origins, from the practice of reclining to the asking of questions, and even the multiple cups of wine, find their basis in the Roman symposium, a popular activity among the intellectuals of the time. Through this and later evolutions, the development of the Seder becomes a window into Jewish life.

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One of the easiest places to see this is in the portrayal of the four sons. Early artistic renditions universally portrayed the Wise Son as a scholar. The Wicked was a soldier. The Simple and the One Who Cannot Ask were less important. Sometimes they were children growing, sometimes they were portrayed in ways that would never be politically correct today. Time change, and so does this.

In 1879 a US Haggadah showed Wicked Son smoking at the Seder, sitting in his father’s place at the head of the table, tilting back in his chair.  He is front and centre, with the Wise scholar and the two children bowing their heads to his impudence.

Forty years later, in the clothes of the time, the Wicked Son is a boxer, a sport played by many first- or second-generation American Jews to earn money to move away from the tenements and stigma of being immigrants.

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In 1927 Germany, stick figures show a Wicked Son mocking and a Simple class clown, along with the ever-present scholar and child.

By the advent of the State of Israel, the Wicked Son is no longer a soldier. Jewish soldiers were our pride and joy, from the liberating soldiers of the allies to the new Israeli Defence Force. Instead, we see four new images – the Wise Son is a religious Zionist; the Wicked Son a businessman using the land for profit, but also polluting and damaging it through the development. The Simple Son is a new immigrant, just off the boat, and the One Who Cannot Ask is a Hassid, not part of the new State, but not fully outside it either.

The 1980s had us examine ourselves to see there’s a little of each type in all of us (the Rabbinical Assembly Feast of Freedom). The early 21st century introduced daughters into the picture, but there was still gender discrimination: the Wicked Child was a tomboy, dressed in ball cap and cowboy outfit. She’s playing “cops and robbers,” and she is clearly playing the bandit. The Wise Child is a scholar, but no Jewish books appear.  The Simple Child is a “good girl,” reaching for a Barbie-style doll, and the last a babe in a carriage. By 2006 this is gone. An illustration from Israel shows the Wise Child as a Masorti or Reform businesswoman and a scholar. She’s in pants and wears a kippah. The Wicked Child is a protester, The Simple Child seems to be searching for spirituality in other places, and the One Who Cannot Ask reclines of the edges of society.

The latest crop of illustrations uses modern media references. Last year there were options from Star Wars and Glee, and the HBO series Girls. This dovetails nicely with internet quizzes like “Which [insert TV or movie title] character are you?”

The discussion of the Four Children should be one undertaken with both seriousness and levity. It is a discussion about ourselves and our interaction with the world around us. How do we judge? Should we judge? Where do we fit, and, how do we feel about being in that place?

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