The Four Sons and Chinuch - Part I

In this 6-part series, Rabbi Orlofsky will present the Four Sons as a framework for chinuch.  

Those of us who have had the privilege to study Torah beyond the most elementary level are aware of certain basic concepts. Our Rebbeim would often emphasize, for example, that the Torah is not a history book. Events don't have to be presented in chronological order, nor will unnecessary information be included. Anything written in the Torah is essential for our understanding of the Ratzon Hashem. Certainly there are no extra words, and often many halachos are learnt from a vav, or the dot in the mapik hei.

Therefore, when the Ba'al HaHaggada tells us כנגד ארבעה בנים דברה תורה, it cannot possibly mean that the Torah is merely telling us an informational point. There must be an essential message for us lidorei doros. The point, I believe, is that the Torah is teaching us how to fulfill the mitzva of לספר יציאת מצרים. It is not enough for us to tell a story to our children. Rather we have to understand that there are four different types of children - each one asking his own question.

Here the Torah is giving us a keen insight into chinuch bonim. It is not enough to answer the question, rather we have to answer the questioner! We often forget to take into account who is asking the question and why.

Answering the Questioner

My son once said "Abba, I have a question." Now in my home, questions are not only tolerated, they are encouraged. Why would my son suddenly be seeking permission just to ask a question? "Well, what's the question?" My son looked around and, although we were in a car with the windows closed, said in a whisper "I'm afraid it's apikorsus" (heresy).

My son looked around and although we were in a car with the windows closed said in a whisper ‘I’m afraid it’s apikorsus’

Now, for years I have had the privilege to teach in the Ohr LaGolah Rabbinical-training program. My course deals with kiruv, youth work and informal education. The curriculum includes a series of classes dealing with how to answer questions. One of the fears I find people have when going into kiruv is that they will meet THE apikores. The former Talmid Chacham gone bad, waiting to shower them with mekoros disproving their most fundamental beliefs. I assure them that to date, I haven't found him. One has to be pretty educated to be an apikores. Most of the people I meet are merely ignorant. So when my ten-year-old son tells me he's afraid he may be an apikores, you have to wonder.

"Well Yaakov," I pointed out, "how will you know if it's apikorsus if you don't ask it?". "But what if it is?" he insists. I assure him that it will remain between us. "Alright" he begins hesitantly, "how old is the olam (world)?" Now remember, don't just answer the question, rather, answer the questioner. I thought to myself that since my son is a ten-year-old in a cheder in Yerushalayim, he probably isn't troubled by the theory of evolution. "Well," I began carefully, "pashtus the world is five thousand seven hundred and fifty seven years old." "And what" my son asked furtively, "was before that?"

Okay, crime-stoppers, let's think. What is bothering my son? Why would a ten-year-old be pondering the existence of the universe, and be so troubled about it? To me it was obvious, since I knew he was learning mishnayos Chagiga in class. In the second perek it says "כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם: מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור ." "Anyone who looks at these four things it would have been better if he hadn't been born: What is above the heavens, what is below the Earth, what was before creation and what will be after the end of the world." As a rule, there is probably no better way to get a kid thinking about something than to tell him not to think about it. As Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, a master mechanech once told me:

There is no better way to get a child to look at a Rashi than to tell him not to learn it!

Understanding why my son was troubled by the question made it easier for me to explain the mishna.  Since we human beings are finite beings, it can drive us crazy trying to grasp the concept of the infinite. Try spending some time contemplating what an existence devoid of time, space and matter is like and you will see what the Mishna means.

Now we can understand why the Torah has to explain the concept of answering the questioner and not just the question in regard to the Pesach Seder. For on Pesach night, when there is a special mitzva of לספר ביציאת מצרים, we need to learn how to be professional storytellers. The secret, the Torah explains, is to tell it to each child in his own way. That's the only way to get the message across.

Do we have anything to tell them?

I was once invited to speak to a group of parents before the Pesach Seder. We all know that Pesach is a time involving tremendous preparation. The shopping, the cooking and of course the manic cleaning (or if you're going away for Pesach, the clothes shopping and packing, which in my opinion is worse). With all the many preparations we should never lose sight of the goal - the Pesach Seder.

We parents often complain that our children don't listen to us. If only we could get our children to listen! Well tonight, I remind them, for one night in the year, the Torah commands us to talk to them and our children are commanded to listen. The question is - do you have anything you want to tell them? How many people spend time preparing what they want to tell their children at the Pesach Seder? Many young people tell me how their fathers say over the same vortlach year after year, devoid of enthusiasm. We must ask ourselves, do we have a message that we want to convey to our children, something that will have meaning for them? With all the Pesach preparations, don't forget what we're preparing for, and let's spend some time figuring out what we want to give over to our children.

This is why the Torah needs to go to such length to explain how to do this mitzva. The mitzva is not just to tell a story, but to give a message that will have meaning and relevance to our children. חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. "Every person has to see himself as though he went out of Egypt." The Seder is not a commemoration of something that happened thousands of years ago. The object is to relive that event today, for our children and for ourselves.

Teach them what they need to know

A friend of mine told me about the time that he had the zchus to spend the Seder at the home of Rav Dov Schwartzman, shlita. He and a number of the other bochurim from Bais HaTalmud who were invited to join the Rosh HaYeshiva and his family were very excited by the prospect of the Seder at the home of an Adom Gadol. They began preparing vortlech to say and questions to inspire deep discussion. They spent hours researching intricate points regarding galus and geula, chometz and matza, and hilchos Korben Pesach. When the evening arrived, the Rosh Yeshiva was happy to answer all of their questions, but whenever they tried to say over any of their pre-packaged vortlach he would smile and toss nuts to his grandchildren.

The point he was trying to teach my young friend was how to run a Seder. There is an old magic trick involving cutting and restoring a rope. It is a very simple trick and one that most neophyte magicians learn to perform. As such, magicians have since devised hundreds of methods to cut and restore a rope. None of the illusions are better than the original and most are less impressive. But they serve one function - to fool other magicians. This has led to the adage that when performing magic shows "don't do tricks for magicians."  Don't try to impress people at the seder for the sake of impressing them. Teach them what they need to know. Reb Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, ZT"L would often give shiur on the basic pshat, because that was what the talmidim needed to hear. He wasn't interested in impressing them with how much he knew but rather in developing their personal capabilities. That's true chinuch.

What can we possibly gain by teaching our children to steal and blackmail?

We should never let our children ask the Ma Nishtana and then be sent away without an answer. This perhaps is the explanation of a very strange minhag. The children are encouraged to "steal" the afikomen and are taught to demand a ransom, for without the afikomen the Seder can not conclude. Now what can we possibly gain by teaching our children to steal and blackmail? The answer might be this very point. Don't invite me to the Seder to ask the Ma Nishtana and then ignore me. I deserve an answer. And if I have to "steal" my parents attention in order to remind them that I'm still here, to prove to them that they can not finish the seder without me, then it's a small price to pay.

The Seder is a paradigm for chinuch in general. If we can learn to prepare ourselves to answer each of the different questioners at the Seder, then we can begin to learn how to develop the character and potential of each child for the rest of their lives.

In the articles ahead we will be examining the different types of children and will examine how to teach the Chacham, the Rasha, the Tam and the Sheaino Yodea Lishol, each according to his needs.

[A version of this article originally appeared on]

Illustrations adapted from the Katz Haggadah © 2017 Rabbi Baruch Chait & Gadi Pollack. May not be reproduced in any form. Used with permission.

The Four Sons Series

This series is available as an ebook