The most celebrated ritual across global Jewry is the Pesach Seder. With nearly every type of Jew coming to the table, one of the most famous passages relates to the four children, ‘one wise and one wicked and one simple and one that does not know how to ask [a question].’ Layered with meaning, there are countless interpretations of this ancient passage, including the simple representation of four individuals, four stages of the same individual, four types of parents/ teachers and four representations of successive generations. While all of these interpretations present advice in broad strokes, each is connected and leads towards a certain approach to the questions posed in providing insight to our Pesach experience and beyond.
Psychology: Four Stages of Life
We all go through multiple stages in our own life and invariably, each of the four children represent different times in our lives in which we have different desires, needs and aspirations. We begin not being able to ask a question and accepting the world as it is, completely dependant on our carers to live. Curiosity is the catalyst for learning and the next stage entices our interest, whereby we want to ask about everything. We ask as a simple child with each new encounter, however, once we have learned, we often want to challenge. This sometimes comes from a wicked place, testing boundaries as we discover ourselves and the world around us. Finally, we reach a stage of wisdom where we harmonise all of the above, by utilising it in a constant journey of learning and growth.
This can be categorised into the different areas of cognitive development, similar to the four stages devised by psychologist Jean Piaget. We begin as a baby who does not know how to ask, become an infant who is simply interested in everything, reach adolescence sometimes pushing the limits and finally, grow into an adult with wisdom. While these stages are characteristically dominated by one of the four children, the author of the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, explains that within each individual these differences coexist at all times. Every person has to balance these conflicting inclinations and intuitions, striving in the righteous direction, without neglecting to deal with the other elements.
Sociology: Four Generations
Often attributed to one of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbes, some view the different children as a homily for different stages along the generational continuum (sociologically represented in both Israel and many parts of the Diaspora). The wise child could be seen as the generation prior to immigration, steeped in religious righteousness, with a love and tremendous respect for our heritage. Confronting the new realities of displacement, many rejected the past which was perceived as antiquated in an attempt to pave a different future that is modern and innovative. The third generation was sometimes confused by the predecessors and as such was simple in trying to make sense of this conflict. The fourth generation did not have the guidance of the righteous great-grandparent, but was rather confused by the parent’s simple understanding of the grandparent’s wickedness. Unfortunately, while the rejecting generation was steeped in learning because it grew up in a house of righteousness, the fourth generation is ignorant and therefore unable to appreciate the depth of our heritage or ask a more meaningful question in the pursuit of spiritual growth.
What about the fifth? While humanity marches forward through each successive generation, legacies do always continue and the silence of the fifth in this case is deafening. Without a memory of the righteous predecessors, a glimmer of the wicked great-grandfather, a simple but confused grandfather and a father that doesn’t even know how to ask, the next generation often does not even make it to the seder table. The Midrash states that one fifth of the Jews were not prepared to adopt a new lifestyle outside of Egypt and disappeared in the plague of darkness. There is a darkness of assimilation in today’s society which precludes the presence of a fifth child, alluding to the approximate fifth of affiliated Jews not practicing in the ritual of the seder at all.
Education: Four Types of Teachers and Parents
Nearly every child has a parent and a teacher and while nature definitely influences the type of person we become, nurturing that nature can be more powerful. One kind of parent/educator is domineering, telling instead of teaching, resulting in a child who is not taken by the treasures of his tradition, feeling alienated and not even knowing how to ask a question. The second type of parent/educator places his universal identity above his particular identity, investing all his energy in broader humanity at the expense of his Jewish community, resulting in a simple son that understands the broader world, but not his unique place within it. The third category of parent/educator does not provide boundaries, allowing the child to grow in his own way and sometimes leading to wickedness, as there was no moral compass or sense of meaningful direction. The fourth is the wise role model, resulting in a wise child, for sincerity breeds sincerity and when the child sees the the earnest pursuit of wisdom, taught in a palatable way, he often wants to follow suit. Following on from the previous discussion, the fifth child may be absent because the fifth parent was absent in the child’s life.
Philosophy: The Fourth Perspective: One
The phrasing of these four children is strange in it’s extraneous use of the word ‘one’, ‘one wise and one wicked and one simple and one that does not know how to ask a question.’ Perhaps the word ‘one’ is emphasised before each of the categories because each has a place at the seder – each person is a ‘world in and of themselves.’ Moreover, each can be traced within the same single person. While these four approaches sometimes contradict one another, they each provide insight into different stages within one person. Life is by no means a simple process with black and white results, however the categorisation of the four children teaches a lesson to our children just as much as it does to society, educators and parents, encouraging us to think about how we bring up our children and live in the next generation. Ultimately, one-size does not fit-all and each person must ‘educate [and be educated] according to his way.’
Throughout this journey, each person sits at the table, no matter which stage they are currently leaning towards or which person they may be labelled as. For our community to continue and for each of us to grow, we must continue coming to the table to engage in the important rituals and meaningful conversations that the Seder has provided across the generations, and will continue to provide every year!
 This passage from the Pesach Haggada is found in different forms in the Mechilta D’rabi Yishmael, Parshat Bo 18 and the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 10:4. It is based on the four times the Torah discusses the importance of parents discussing the Exodus with their children, namely, Exodus 12:27-27; 13:8; 13:14; Deuteronomy 6:20-21.
 Jean Piaget divides this into the sensorimotor, preoperational, concreate operational and formal operational stages, see his works The Psychology of the Child, Basic Books, New York, 1972 and The child’s conception of the world, Littlefield Adams, New York, 1990.
 Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, Sfat Emet, Pesach 5634, Keneged.
 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, A Haggadah Happening, Ohr Torah Stone, Efrat, 2005, p. 39 attributes this to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Frierdiker Rebbe or Rebbe Rayatz (1880 – 1950) and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Jonathan Sacks Haggada, Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2013, p. 132 attributes this to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902 – 1994).
 Rashi cites the Mechilta and Tanchuma on Exodus 13:18 in explaining that the Jewish people left Egypt chamushim, ‘armed’ because this term derives from the same root-word as chamesh, the number five, hinting at this idea.
 Towards the end of his Haggada, Rabbi Norman Lamm tries to identify the types of parents that raise each of the different children as outlined in this paragraph, see Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Royal Table: A Passover Haggadah, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 2015.
 Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5.
 Proverbs 22:6