What's with the fours?

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

March 24, 2010

Despite the late hour and exhaustion(not to mention wine),many a Jewish mindhas wondered long and hard during aPassover Seder about all the Haggadah's"fours." Four questions, four sons, fourexpressions of redemption, four cups.There's clearly a numerical theme here.

While some may superficially dismiss theHaggadah as a mere collection of randomverses and songs, it is in truth a subtle andwondrous educational tool, with profoundJewish ideas layered through its seeminglysimple text. The rabbis who formulated itscore, already extant in pre-Talmudic times,wanted it to serve to plant importantconcepts in the hearts and minds of itsreaders - especially its younger ones,toward whom the Seder, our traditionteaches, is aimed. And so the author ofthe Haggadah employed an array ofpedagogical methods, including songs,riddles and puzzles, as means of conveyingdeeper understandings. And he left ussome clues, too.

When it comes to the ubiquitous"fours," we might begin by consideringthe essential fact that Passover is whenthe Jewish people's identity is solemnlyperpetuated; the Seder, the ritualinstrument through which each Jewishgeneration inculcates our collectivehistory and essence to the next. Which islikely a large part of the reason so manyJewish parents who are alienated fromvirtually every other Jewish observancestill feel compelled to have at least somesort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even -if they have strayed too far from theirheritage to comfortably confront theoriginal - to compose their own. (I oncejoked before an audience that a"Vegetarian Haggadah" would likelyappear any year now, and someone inattendance later showed me preciselysuch a book - though it lacked the"Paschal Turnip"I had imagined.)

And so the role we adults play onPesach night, vis a vis the younger Jewswith whom we share the experience, is avery specific one. We are teachers, to besure, but it is not information that we arecommunicating; it is identity.

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