Haggadah’s ‘Wicked Son’ in new light

Haggadah’s ‘Wicked Son’ in new light

B’khol dor v’dor – in every generation – much ink has been spilled to resolve an array of problems that engaged our sages’ attention upon a careful close reading of the texts in the Haggadah.

Indeed, in the context of the Four Sons composition, two fundamental issues were singled out for special scrutiny.

First the traditional Haggadah allocates a singular place for the Four Sons – the Chakham, or Wise Son; the Rasha, conventionally rendered as the Wicked Son; the Tam, or Simple Son; and the She-eino yode’a li’shol, the son who is unschooled to ask questions. The common denominator that marks the sons’ personal characteristics is their intellectual perception and readiness to gain new information, knowledge, and wisdom, rather than any moral, spiritual, or religious perfection or deficiency. Consequently, using the term Rasha – designating one of the sons as an evil person – appears to be jarringly out of place. Despite the fact that many Haggadot use the term evil in defining the Rasha. They also liken him to our historical oppressors starting with the despotic tyrant Pharaoh, then Haman, and later Torquemada and Chmielnitzki, including an array of contemporary villains. Tellingly, the Szyk Haggadah published when Hitler’s atrocities were fresh on our minds depicts the Rasha as a loathsome Nazi.

Secondly, the biblical verse designated as the question the Rasha ostensibly asks is similar to that assigned to the Wise Son, and yet the former is harshly rebuked, while the latter is singled out for praise.

Succinctly stated, the Rasha is not “wicked” at all. Rather, he is a cynic.

In my book “Text Archeology in Jewish Law and Liturgy,” I culled an array of proof-texts that attest to the fact that by the time the midrashic compositions of the Four Sons were fashioned, there no longer was a suitable term or appropriate linguistic designation for the second son that would fit the contextual intent of the compositions.

However, in the Bible there are ample attestations that indeed there was a word for cynic that the authors of the Four Sons composition might have employed – but no longer could, since by that time the original meaning of the term denoting a cynic was lost, overwhelmed by new denotations. Tellingly, even in modern Hebrew there is no adequate word that precisely describes a cynic’s persona and his distinct characteristics.

The biblical denotation used to describe a cynic became obsolescent because it was overwhelmed by subsequent usages. During post-biblical times and thereafter, the word for cynic, “letz,” assumed the meaning of a simple-minded and frivolous person, and still later it came to mean a jester, a buffoon, a prankster, and the like.

Consequently, our sages had to settle for the multivalent term Rasha, with the hope that the context would guide the reader to discern the intended meaning – namely, a person whose distinctive attitude toward instruction and any attempt at tutoring were invariably met with scorn, sneering, and an array of bitingly sarcastic rejoinders.

Whereas another person in a similar situation might express skepticism or a degree of doubt, not unlike the attitude of the son designated as Simple, the archetypal cynic strongly resists any attempt to guide him toward erudition and the acquisition of valued knowledge and wisdom.

My research is based on a methodology focused on the intersection of language and law in order to retrieve original precision-oriented terminology, which unfortunately became obfuscated and on occasion completely lost – buried under layers and layers of subsequent interpretive encrustations.

It demonstrates that through the Bible, and invariably in the chapters in the book of Proverbs, which focus on a series of instructions and teachings that provide spiritual insights as well as practical truths, the Wise Son will harken and learn, while the Cynical Son will rebuff any attempt at furthering his education in order to attain valuable new information.

An illustrative example is the verse, “Letz takeh u’peti ya’arim” (Prov. 19:25) – “Beat the scoffer and the simple will become clever. Reprove the intelligent person and he gains knowledge.” Tellingly, just as the author of Proverbs recommended physical punishment, so, too, in the text of the Haggadah, the cynical scornful son is worthy of physical punishment – “haqheh et shinav” – “Blunt his teeth” – in order to blunt his biting sarcastic remarks. For, in fact, it is not the words that the cynic uses to ask his question that are found to be objectionable, but the tone of his voice.

Indeed, in the Bible, the word “letz” appears ubiquitously in contexts of learning, tutoring, instruction, and acquisition of knowledge. That is particularly true in the Wisdom Literature, which offers guidance and teachings to attain spiritual insights and practical truths. Moreover, in a number of contexts, the “letz” is juxtaposed to the “peti,” a simpleton, not unlike the Simple Son or the Son Who is Incapable of Asking a Question. Even more compelling is the version that reads Tipesh, dull and foolish, instead of Tam, as attested to in Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:4 and cognate versions, including material from the Cairo Genizah.

Hence, there is no Wicked Son among the Four Sons. There is a Letz – a cynic, a scoffer – but not a wicked or evil outcast. His sarcasm is to be blunted but he does not deserve to be ostracized. He sits with us at the seder table.

Evidently, the very first verse in the book of Psalms, which extols the person who did not sit in the seat of the scornful, “b’moshav leitzim lo yashav,” paralleling the phrase that praises the person who did not join the counsel of the wicked “lo halakh b’atzat r’shayim” (Psalms 1:1) and the synonymous usage of Letz paralleling Rasha served as an additional trigger text, stimulating the creatively and thoughtfully crafted composition of the “Four Sons” in our Haggadah.

Tellingly, Rabbi Jacob Emden’s commentary also indicates a similar understanding of the Rasha as a cynical scoffer, as per his insightful elucidation, “Rasha … ba l’yidei mida zu lil’og … … u’mitlotzetz k’apikores” – “the Rasha attained this attribute to mock and scoff, and ridicules like a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus” – in other words, a disciple of the ancient Greek Cynic School of philosophy.

Rabbi Zvi H. Szubin is professor emeritus of classical languages and comparative legal studies at CCNY of the City University of New York. This article is an abridged version of a segment in the forthcoming book, “Text Archeology in Jewish Law and Liturgy,” focused on the retrieval of original precision oriented terminology. The author expresses gratitude to his former chavruta, Israel Ta-Shma, for bringing to his attention Rabbi Jacob Emden’s commentary, and to Rabbi Isaac Herzog, his teacher and mentor.