Sunday, September 2, 2012

Four non-literal children, part 2

From The Wandering Is Over Haggadah:
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As we tell the story, we think about it from all angles. Our tradition speaks of four different types of children who might react differently to the Passover seder. It is our job to make our story accessible to all the members of our community, so we think about how we might best reach each type of child:

What does the wise child say? The wise child asks, What are the testimonies and laws which God commanded you?
You must teach this child the rules of observing the holiday of Passover.
What does the wicked child say? The wicked child asks, What does this service mean to you?
To you and not to himself! Because he takes himself out of the community and misses the point, set this child’s teeth on edge and say to him:
“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”
Me, not him. Had that child been there, he would have been left behind.

What does the simple child say? The simple child asks, What is this? To this child, answer plainly:
“With a strong hand God took us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.”

What about the child who doesn’t know how to ask a question? Help this child ask. Start telling the story:
“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”
I like a lot of aspects of this translation. The language is clean and simple. None of the children are gendered except the wicked child. The wise child’s question is nicely simplified, though I’d still change the final word of that question to “us.” There’s a good introduction which explains our obligation to reach out to everyone. The types of children are not actually enumerated at the beginning, which is a step towards realizing that the children of the haggadah are oversimplified archetypes, not categories into which we should slot our own children.

Enumerating the children at the beginning better hews to a repeating pattern in the haggadah: a complete statement is made, and then is expanded upon. Adding something along the lines of the final sentence of the first paragraph above really completes the first paragraph.

I’m less enamored of starting each child with a rhetorical question to the reader. I think it only works well for the fourth child.

Testimonies in the wise child’s question may refer to either the stone tablets given to Moses containing the ten commandments, or to the ark containing the tablets. Can you imagine a wise child asking “What are the ten commandments?” To me, testimonies is so much more commonly a Christian term that it is jarring in this context. I still want to remove the word, and I’m a bit surprised that it was retained in this translation. Lisa points out that this may be the only place in the haggadah which mentions the stone tablets. So much of the movie Exodus Book of Exodus is left out of the haggadah (most notably any mention of Moses) to encourage questions and to make us tell the rest of the story in our own words.


shmuel said...

Testimonies in the wise child’s question may refer to either the stone tablets given to Moses containing the ten commandments, or to the ark containing the tablets.

...umm, no, it doesn't. Where did you get that idea from? (For that matter—putting aside the fact that testimonies [eidos], the tablets [luchos] and the ark [aron] are three entirely different words—how would referring to the ark make any sense here?)

The wise child asks about three different categories of commandments: eidos, chukim, and mishpatim. These might be translated as "testimonies, decrees, and statutes." As the name suggests, "testimonies" are those laws that testify or recall historical events, such as Passover itself. ("Decrees" are those commandments that don't seem to have any rational basis, such as the prohibition against wearing a garment made with both linen and wool, and "statutes" are those laws that do seem logical, such as the criminal justice system.)

shmuel said...

(As for where the tablets are mentioned in the Haggadah, here's a hint: who knows two?) :-)

Michael said...

Thank you for both comments! Re your first comment, I started checking English dictionaries after not finding an explanation in the commentaries I was looking at.

Re your second comment, that's also where Moses is actually mentioned in the haggadah, but that song is outside of the seder service itself.

shmuel said...

It's a fair cop, re: that song being more or less supplemental. And you're very welcome. :-)

(The actual reason the Sinai portion of the proceedings is hardly mentioned is that there's a whole other holiday for that seven weeks later. But you knew that.) :-)

Michael said...

The first place I found discussion of testimonies as meaning the tablets that Moses brought is actually on the Yad Vashem site at They were not talking about the haggadah, and Shmuel is clearly right about the words explaining a way to classify the commandments.

As for how to translate eidos, we are commanded to observe Shabbat as a testimony to God's resting on the seventh day. The word testimony works well for me there when explained. Remembrances, which Shmuel suggests and which is used extensively elsewhere in the haggadah, works better.

So what is gained by enumerating the types of commandments? Well, it encourages us to think about how to classify particular commandments. But the haggadah seems primarily concerned with eidos (naturally, given that Passover is all about doing various things in remembrance of what happened in our departure from Egypt). If you ask someone to classify commandments and the first 20 all come out as eidos, the task becomes a bit boring.

The wise child asks, What do all of God's commandments mean?