Get to Know the Four Sons - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Get to Know the Four Sons

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Monday, April 15, 2019

“K’neged arba banim dibra Torah.”

“The Torah alludes to four children.”

Those familiar with Passover will be acquainted with the four archetypical children in the haggadah: the wise son (חכם), the wicked son (רשע), the simple son (תם), and the one who does not know to ask (שאינו יודע לשאול). In addition to recording these children’ s memorable words, Jewish scribes and artists have also used visual depictions to give more character and embellishment to these figures.

 The Four Sons

Above is an illustration of the four sons from HUC MS 444.1 (Amsterdam, 1716).

This depiction originally appeared in the 1695 Amsterdam Haggadah(HUC RBR C 1695), and was so well - liked that an imitator has given his rendition in HUC MS 445(Hamburg / Altona 1740), shown below:

The Four Sons Version 2

The style and detail of each of the sons give us useful information about their function and about how the Jewish culture of the time understood them. The wise son (on the right) is presented as wise and proud, dressed in a scholar’ s garb. He is shown in direct opposition to the wicked son (second from the right), who is dressed as a soldier, equipped with weapons of war. The wicked son’ s appearance may be intentionally“ non - Jewish, ”and representative of his self - ostracization from the Jewish people. The simple son (second from the left) appears bored and uninterested. He rests on his staff as if struggling to remain awake. The one who does not know how to ask (far left) is depicted as a small child, too inexperienced to understand what is going on around him. The elements presented in the above image appear consistently throughout haggadot of the period. The old and studious chacham, the warrior rasha, the sleepy tam, and the childish sheino yodea lish’ ol maintain their core traits throughout the following depictions.

Wise Son (MS 444) The wise son is shown engrossed in study. His open books reads "חכם אני"–“ I am the wise one.”
(MS 450) Here the wise son is again shown seated, reading from a book. The caption reads "צורת החכם שואל בענין בחכמה ובדעת ורבבנין"–“ The wise one asks with wisdom and knowledge.” Wise Son Version 2
the Wicked Son (MS 444) The wicked son shown in extravagant clothes, equipped with a codpiece and a sword. His banner reads, "רשעתי התורה לא שמעתי"–“ I have been wicked; I have not heard the Torah.”
(MS 450) the wicked son appears in similar garb, the caption "צורת הרשע וחניתו בידו וחרבו צמודה מתחת לצדו"–"The wicked son with a spear in his hand and his sword by his side.” Wicked son version 2
The simple son (MS 444) The simple son sits bored and sleepy, his book closed. The caption reads "מה זאת כי איניני חפץ שום אות“-"What is this ? I do not desire [to learn] a single letter.”
(MS 450) Here the simple son appears similarly slouched and uninterested, though his book is open, his hand covers the text. The caption reads "צורת התם שואל בשפה רפה ותלמודו אין עולה יפה" –“ The simple son asks weakly, and his studies do not yield much.” Simple son version 2
one who does not to ask (MS 444) Sheino yodea lish’ ol– The one who does not know how to ask is shown here in a jester’ s costume. His mouth is being held open by another, who declares, "הנני זורק דברים טובים בפיך"–“ I send good teachings into your mouth.”
(MS 450) The one who does not know how to ask is again depicted as a jester, equipped with pruning tools and possibly a rattle. The captions reads "צורת שאנו יודע לשואל מצחק כל כשומע לו יצחק"–“ The one who does not know how to ask makes jest of all, and all he hears makes him laugh.” one who does not to ask version 2


While these depictions are clearly intended to be playful, they are all treated with care and thought. The effort and symbolism show that the scribes and artists viewed these archetypes as instructive aspects of our family lives, no matter if they were given flaw or favor. May we all continue, like the sons, to ask questions. Happy Passover!


Contributed by Jason Schapera, Klau Library, Cincinnati

For your reference: These manuscripts are part of the HUC Rare Manuscript Collection. The illustrations can be found in HUC MS 444– Germany, 15th century and HUC MS 450– Italy, 1742 and can be viewed on the manuscript website