The text of the Four Sons is perhaps one of the best-known Jewish writings, and countless generations have puzzled over why the “wise” son must be told the laws of Passover, and whether the father's aggressive reaction to his “wicked” son is appropriate.
But like almost every text in the Haggadah, this one too has gone through extensive editing. In fact, there are two other versions, in the Yerushalmi Talmud and the Mechilta (a 3rd century exegesis of the book of Exodus).
Several differences emerge with the text we are familiar with. In both of those versions, for example, the “simple” son is called the “stupid” son ( tipesh ). In the Mechilta, the order of the sons is different, with the “wise” son followed by the “stupid” son, then the “wicked” one and the one who does not know how to ask questions.
The biggest difference, however, is in the answers given to each type. In the Yerushalmi, the “wise” son is given the answer that we typically associate with the “simple” son – “With a strong hand G-d took us out of Egypt and the house of slavery”. The “simple” son, meanwhile, is given the answer that we give to the “wise” son – we must explain to him the laws of Pesach, such as (or up to) the Afikoman.
So while we have generally regarded the father's approach to each child as an educational model – teaching the wise son details of laws, for example – in Jewish tradition, there is actually no one definitive approach to handling the different sons' questions and personalities.
Perhaps, then, what we actually answer the sons is less important than providing an answer in the first place. What counts is less the parents' wisdom per se, but their very presence, and their involvement, in the lives of their children.
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