The Four Sons in a Jewish Day School

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). The Haggadah. The Four Sons (1934); via Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). The Haggadah. The Four Sons (1934); via Wikimedia Commons

By Daniel Weiss

How is Jewish Day School education like a multi-year Passover seder? How are the Four Sons examples of different types of learners in one classroom? How do we encourage discovery, critical thinking and “big questions”?

Each year at my cousin’s seder, he makes his younger brother read the section of the Haggadah about the “wicked son.” It’s not that my younger cousin is wicked. He’s not. In fact he’s a really good guy. Maybe that’s part of the joke in having him read that section each year. The older cousin of course reads the “wise son” section and I usually get stuck with the “one who does not have a capacity to even ask”.

A few years ago, I hosted my first seder. My wife and I wanted to make sure that our seder was kid friendly and full of deep insights and new understandings of the text of the Haggadah. Without my cousins arguing to determine who of them is the “most” wicked son, we needed to find a way to bring the story of the four sons to life. We decided that each of the four sons at our seder would wear a different hat, symbolic of the son’s identity. Our wise son wore a hat from The Ohio State University. The wicked son wore a 1920’s jailbird hat. The simple son donned a propeller beanie. And the son who could not ask a question wore a homemade hat with a large question mark. In this simple way, the text came to life.

That is one of our major objectives in having a Passover seder. It is also one of our major objectives in Jewish Day School education.

The symbolism of the four sons (children) carries over to four types of learners found in our school and the importance of why at Schechter we focus on differentiated instruction. The Passover seder is a family’s opportunity to take that approach into the home. The seder itself is designed much like a classroom lesson; it is the telling of a story in order to educate the youngest to the oldest.

The order of the seder proves this point. It would make the most sense for the Four Questions to come later in the seder. The Four Questions are really one question in four parts. The youngest child at the very beginning of the seder stands up to ask “Why is tonight different than all other nights? On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, tonight, just matzah. On all other nights we can eat any type of herb, tonight, just maror. On all other nights we do not dip even once, tonight we dip twice. On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, tonight we all recline.”

It would make more sense for these questions to come later in the seder. Perhaps it would be best to divide them up and ask them at different times. Ask about matzah when we eat matzah. Ask about the maror, when we eat the maror, and so on.

The simple answer; we want the youngest to be awake. We know that the seder starts late and ends very late. The seder begins and ends with pieces that are the most fun for kids, the questions at the beginning and the songs at the end. It’s the appetizer and the dessert. It’s an example of how we teach our children; we help them get started, give them the time to work and discover and then creatively demonstrate all that they have learned.

Education is not one size fits all. It cannot be. Each child comes to school with different interests, abilities and oftentimes, with baggage from home. We must therefore know our students and know how to reach them, where they are.

The interesting part of the Haggadah is that it is not complete if we eliminate one of the children. In fact, each plays a predominant role. Just like in our classrooms.

Many of us aspire to be the wise son. We want our children to embody the traits of the wise son. The wise son shows interest by asking lots of questions.

According to the text of the Haggadah, the chacham, wise son asks, “What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments…” The answer that is given is direct and to the point, simply stating, “after the paschal lamb, no dessert is to be eaten.” Quick and simple. Direct and to the point. Both the question and answer lack a deeper dive. Does the wise son simply want to know the answer so they get a higher test score; or do they want the answer so that they learn something that is transformative for their life? In the Ethics of Our Sages, Pirke Avot, 4:1, Ben Zoma says “Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise…” The seder is an opportunity for questions and answers, for the student to be the teacher and for the teacher to be the student.

The rasha, the wicked or rebellious son asks the question differently. He asks “what does this service mean to ‘you’?” He takes himself out of the equation. Ross W. Greene, in his book The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, suggests that “kids do well if they can.” It is when they don’t believe that the can, they exhibit rebellious behavior. What’s key here is not that the child can’t do it. It’s that they “believe” that they cannot. It is therefore the teacher (or in the case of our seder, the parent or seder leader) who must show them that they can. What’s most important is getting to the root of the problem. What is truly going on that this child “believes” that they cannot do it? What might be going on in their life, inside and outside of school that may be contributing to their acts of rebelliousness? As teachers and as parents, we may never get to the root of the problem, but I believe that if we simply answer the question the way that it is answered in the Haggadah, we are doing a disservice to this child. The answer given “This is done, because of what God did for me…” We further alienate the child with an answer like this, while what we must do is find a way to bring this child back in, not to continue pushing them away.

In the Haggadah, the wicked son comes immediately after the wise son. Perhaps the “wicked” sharpens the wise, perhaps the opposite. In school we often put our students into partners, chevruta (literally meaning “the friends”). We do this so that the students can sharpen each other as they learn. They can ask questions and learn from each other. They can show each other that they can do it. What’s most important is turning the question of the wicked son around. Rather than pushing them farther away, they must be brought back in so that they feel a valued part of the conversation.

The tam, simple son simply asks, “What is this”? The simple son is a kinesthetic learner. They need to be able to use their imagination for hands on learning. This type of learning has resulted in the rise of Design Thinking and Makerspaces. The answer that is given simply states “with a mighty hand, God took us from Egypt…” This answer requires a child to use their imagination to truly see what the answer means. There is anthropomorphism in this answer that would require a child to think deeply about how the answer may be possible. One of the latest viral videos making the rounds on the Internet is of a Rube Goldberg machine, created by the students at the Technion, explaining the Passover story. Another, less viewed video comes from The Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in St. Louis, where students were tasked with creating a visual depiction of the Passover seder. The results are the type of thinking indicative of the simple son. His question might be simple, but the way we answer it will allow for a deep personal connection to the story.

Finally, we reach she’eno yodea lish’ol, the son who does not know how to ask a question. Why doesn’t this son know how to ask the question? Perhaps they don’t care, or appear not to care. This child does not know where to begin; yet the answer is the most complex. If the teacher however ignores this student, it continues to encourage the student to be silent. Kay Burke in her book, What To Do With the Kid Who… Developing Cooperation, Self-Discipline and Responsibility in the Classroom, contends “If teachers do not provide feedback to an individual who appears to be uninterested, bored, or apathetic, the student could ‘drop through the cracks’ (p. 182).” There may also be a level of inadequacy that this child is filling. Kay goes on to say “Some ‘inadequate’ students need to realize that it’s okay to be imperfect (p. 227).”

This question, or lack there of, from the fourth son, is the beginning of our telling the entire Passover story. We have children in our classrooms that don’t even know where to begin. They may not know how to formulate the question. They may even be afraid to ask the question. They don’t know what they don’t know and may be afraid to admit it. It is for this reason that we hang posters throughout the classrooms, place pictures on the boards, have music playing, and why we as teachers often have to start the conversation.

Our teachers are like the leaders of our seders. They are not simply a sage on the stage, rather a guide on the side. They empower students to learn, to ask questions, to challenge, to learn by doing and to begin the conversation. Each teacher works with each student based on their individual ability and sometimes inability, pushing students “in” rather than having students pull themselves “out.” It’s why as parents, we choose to send our kids to a private Jewish Day School. We want them to have individualized attention in a classroom setting. We want them to learn critical thinking skills even when they feel they do not have the capacity to do so. As parents, we must embrace our opportunity to mirror what our children get at school. The Passover seder is our chance, no matter what type of child we might have.

How will you help to make sure that all Four Sons have a meaningful Passover?

Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas. He is a fellow in Cohort 9 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI). Daniel is a Schechter alumnae and the father of 3 Schechter students.