A Note on the Four Sons
To the Editor:
In his interesting article “What Does the Seder Celebrate?” in the April issue of COMMENTARY, Theodor Gaster points out how “even the illustrations of the older Haggadah editions conspire to create a picture of the entire stretch of Jewish history. The wicked son is simply a Roman centurion; the one who is too young to ask is taken directly from an earlier print of a slave in supplication before Hannibal.”
Since this reference alludes to an article of mine cited by Dr. Gaster in his Passover book, I would like to add a few words about these illustrations.
The figures of the soldier in Roman armor, and of what actually is “Hannibal swearing eternal hatred for Rome,” were taken from engravings by Matthaeus Merian in J. L. Gottfried’s Historische Chronica, Frankfort, 1657. They appear in the Haggadah printed in 1695 in Amsterdam. The figure of Hannibal (who was nine years old at the time of the event portrayed) was chosen because the gesture of the hands expresses the notion of a child who does not know how to ask. For similar reasons the figure in the Merian volume of David bending his head while receiving the anointing oil was used for the dull son.
However, in adapting the figure of a soldier for the wicked son the Haggadah illustrator was not attracted merely by the appropriate gesture or posture; he followed a tradition. The wicked son . . . was portrayed in the medieval Haggadah as a German Landsknecht or a Moorish warrior. . . .
There still remains the question of how the concept of the four sons of the Haggadah originated. . . . Perhaps this concept was patterned upon the four types of pupils in Pirke Abot (Sayings of the Fathers). . . . Here four possible combinations of the ability to learn and retain learning are distinguished: learning fast, forgetting fast; learning slow, forgetting slow; learning fast, forgetting slow; learning slow, forgetting fast.
The Haggadah author, no doubt an able teacher, concerned as he was with the ability of the child to pose purposive and leading questions at the Seder ceremony to be duly answered by the father, rated the son who in Exodus 13:14 rather awkwardly and inarticulately asks: “What is this?” as dull, and most ingeniously assumed that the explanation of the meaning of Passover given by the father in Exodus 13:8, without being asked to do so, implies the presence of a child that does not know how to ask. Thus out of a teacher’s mind sprung up the four sons of the Haggadah: the bright, the uncooperative, the dull, and the little child.
New York City