What’s With The Fours?

Despite the late hour and exhaustion (not to mention wine), many a Jewish mind has wondered long and hard during a Passover Seder about all the Haggadah’s “fours.” Four questions, four sons, four expressions of redemption, four cups. There’s clearly a numerical theme here.

While some may superficially dismiss the Haggadah as a mere collection of random verses and songs, it is in truth a subtle and wondrous educational tool, with profound Jewish ideas layered through its seemingly simple text. The rabbis who formulated its core, already extant in pre-Talmudic times, wanted it to serve to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our tradition teaches, is aimed. And so the author of the Haggadah employed an array of pedagogical methods, including songs, riddles and puzzles, as means of conveying deeper understandings. And he left us some clues, too.

When it comes to the ubiquitous “fours,” we might begin by considering the essential fact that Passover is when the Jewish people’s identity is solemnly perpetuated; the Seder, the ritual instrument through which each Jewish generation inculcates our collective history and essence to the next. Which is likely a large part of the reason so many Jewish parents who are alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even – if they have strayed too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original – to compose their own. (I once joked before an audience that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book – though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

And so the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very specific one. We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.

At the Seder, in other words, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of a people, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but linked by history and destiny. We impress them with the fact that they are links in a shimmering, ethereal chain stretching back to birth of the Jewish nation, to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort – to God – at Sinai.

So, on Passover, as we celebrate the birth of the Jewish nation and plant the seed of Jewish identity in the minds of smaller Jews, we are giving life – giving birth, one might say – to the Jewish future. And, while it may be the father who traditionally leads the Seder, he is acting not as teacher but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a spiritual nurturer of the children present.

In Jewish religious law, Jewish identity is in fact dependent on mothers. According to halacha, or Jewish religious tradition, while a Jew’s tribal genealogy follows the paternal line, whether a child is a member of the Jewish people or not depends entirely on the status of his or her mother.

It’s only speculation, but the recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reminding us of that. After all, the book has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books’ keys and indexes are found. We’re a little hazy once it’s reached, after four cups of wine, but it’s unmistakably there: “Echad Mi Yodea” or “Who Knows One?” – the song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

“Who knows four?”

If you don’t, you can look it up.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay was distributed in 2003]

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3 Responses

  1. Russell says:

    Any family tree produces some lemons, some nuts and a few bad apples

  2. Chaim Cohen says:

    Rav Moshe Wolfson speaks about this in his famous Shiurim on Emunah. He adds that the shoresh for the word Eim (mother) is really Aleph, Mem, Nun (in the same way, he explains, that the shoresh for Gan (Garden), is Gimmel, Nun, Nun, and the Shoresh for Shen (Tooth) is Shin, Nun, Nun). R’ Moshe begins his Shiurim series by explaining that Sefer Chareidim divides up the Taryag Mitzvos according to each Ever (limb) of the body. Contrary to what we would initially think, Emunah is a Mitzva of the Lev (heart), not the intellect.
    The 3 Matzos correspond to the 3 Fathers. The Bread (or Matza – Bread in its simplest form) is what gives us the Sechel, the intellect.
    The 4 cups of wine, however, bring out our true feelings (Nichnas Yayin, Yotza Sod) and emotion – corresponding to the 4 Mothers.. and indeed to every Jewish Mother.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The fours I knew about, but the “decoder” in Echad mi yodeah is wonderful. Who talks about this? Absolutely a great point.

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