Why the Haggadah comes down so hard on the wicked child

Andy Oram
14 April 2003

One of the most disturbing parts of our liturgy to modern, liberal-minded Jews is the treatment of the wicked child in the Haggadah. Repeatedly I’ve heard people complain about the virulence of the rabbis’ response to an apparently neutral question, “What is the service to you?” Some try to soften or explain away the caustic reply, which essentially excludes the questioner from the Jewish people. The prominence of the Haggadah, being one of the few religious documents read regularly by many of these modern Jews, makes it crucial to understand the passage.

Recently I came up with a possible explanation for the passage. It came to me while reading the classic commentary titled The Rabbinic Mind, by Max Kadushin. Now I actually like the passage. I leave it to you to judge whether this is because I am bending it to my personal prejudices.

First, a summary of the relevant insights from The Rabbinic Mind.

Kadushin describes the central preoccupations of the Talmudic texts as “value-concepts” that come with no formal definition (unlike the precepts of many other religions) but that provide ways to understand and organize Jewish experience. Such concepts include Torah (which we all know is immune to precise definition), God’s kingship, Chesed (which I have spent a lot of time discussing in other messages), Tzedek, and many others. The Rabbis never define these terms, although later Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides do. Instead, the terms stand on their own—but being rich in connotation and open to interpretation, they allow people to benefit from their daily activities and religious practices in emotionally meaningful ways. Like coral reefs (my analogy, not Kadushin’s) the value-concepts collect much living practice around them.

Kadushin also focuses on the way the Rabbis bring religion into the consciousness of the Jewish people. Judaism is an experience, not a doctrine, so the daily practices enjoined on us by the laws become our way of understanding God. Kadushin calls this “normal mysticism,” to stress that it’s a subjective process, not conveyable in words, but that it’s not a peak experience either—it’s something we renew many times a day by consciously following laws and reciting prayers.

In short, one does not talk directly of one’s mystical relationship with God—in fact, it would be superfluous to try—but one is led to this relationship by one’s routine activity.

I would like to add one more observation of Rabbinic practice that is not mentioned by Kadushin: the importance of a student’s respect for his teacher. We know from Pirke Avot that teaching is an august responsibility that every teacher must pursue with great care so as not to corrupt young minds. In turn, the student is expected to ask intelligent and pertinent questions, and to adopt the mental attitude of the teacher.

Now let’s return to the Haggadah and look carefully at the responses of the four children. Three of them stay safely within the bounds of objective observation, with one child saying nothing but looking on the scene with interest, another asking what are “these,” and the most precocious asking about laws and drawing scholarly distinctions (edot, chukim, and mishpatim) that would warm the heart of any diligent father.

The wicked child is distinguished by asking “What is the service to you?” This is subtly but fundamentally different from the other questions, because it demands an explanation of precisely the subjective experience described in The Rabbinic Mind. The phrase “to you” is particularly pertinent, and the Rabbis hone in on it almost obsessively, because it indicates that the child is demanding an account of a personal experience (which applies even though the pronoun happens to be plural).

Even though the same pronoun appears in the question from the precocious child, it’s a pure formality there; it refers to God’s commandments to us. In the wicked child’s question, the pronoun is the culmination of the whole sentence.

The question uttered by the wicked child is therefore profoundly insulting—first because words can never suffice to convey the requested information, and secondly because the question intrudes upon the most personal religious experience one can have.

How can I convey the enormity of the challenge in the wicked child’s question? It can be compared to asking someone “What do you see in your husband?” or “Do you ever wish you were more talented?” One could argue that the wicked child’s question is even more impudent and intrusive than these, because there is no relationship or feeling deeper than one’s experience of God. Thus, the rabbis advise replying, “Because of what the Lord did for me”—and by implication, I have nothing more to say about it.

A question that is so simple, but that violates the personal integrity and intelligence of the listener so perniciously, was assumed by the Rabbis to stem from deliberate malice. We can debate whether they are right. But given their perception of the question, we can actually be impressed by the restraint and dignity of their reply.

And so the response to the wicked child reminds us of the personal commitment each of us has to keeping our religion active and vital. It also gives us permission to form our own feelings and relationship to our tradition, free from prying or moralizing from others. It is unfortunate that such a positive message has to be conveyed in such a negative manner, but if it is understood the way I’ve explained it here, it becomes one of the most instructive moments in an otherwise plodding collection of citations that makes up the Passover Haggadah.

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