Four questions, four sons, four cups, four phrases of redemption. Fours, fours, fours, everywhere one looks on seder night – except for one lonely little three;
‘Said Rabban Gamliel, anyone who does not mention these three things – the Pesach offering, matza, and marror (the bitter herbs) – has not fulfilled his obligation’.
Seder night and the reading of the haggada clearly contains a choreography, a routine of how the story should be told and acted out, and if this is so understanding why the number four plays such a central role may give us an additional insight into the nature and origins of one of the most cherished nights in the Jewish calendar.
Let us look at a single one of the fours, the four sons. Throughout the ages the four sons have taken on numerous guises, each reflecting the ideological dispositions of those telling the story – in the early 20th century traditional haggadot portrayed the wise son as a pious rabbi and the wicked son as a communist. The haggadot of the Jewish Socialist movement, the Bund, had precisely the same depiction, but with different labels attached – the pious Jew was the wicked or foolish son, and the Communist revolutionary the wise son. But who were the original four sons? The Talmud Yerushalmi sheds an unexpected light.
Said R’ Chiya; the Torah speaks of four sons, a wise son, a wicked son, a foolish son, and a son who does not know how to ask… What does the wicked son say? What is this that you have been commanded that you bother us with every year? Since he removes himself from the community so too you should respond to him, ‘On account of this did Hashem do for me’, for me did he perform these miracles, but for that man (Jesus) he did not perform the miracles, for if he had been in Egypt he would never have deserved to been redeemed’. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim, 10:4)
The first half of R’ Chiya’s statement is the same as the text in our haggadas. There are four sons, one of whom is wicked and who has no patience for the customs that God has commanded. But then a change occurs. Rather than the question being understood as a simple expression of apathy, it takes on the basic Pauline/Christian critique of halacha that rejects Jewish enslavement to the law and prioritises a religion of the spirit where hearts rather than bodies are circumcised. And the response to this claim is as sharp as it is laden with irony: if Jesus, the supposed redeemer of all mankind had been in Egypt, he himself would not have been redeemed!
R’ Chiya settled in Israel in the second century at a time when Christian communities lived in close proximity to major Jewish population centres. More than just a rival theology, the real challenge posed by Christianity at this period was its similarity to the Jewish tradition from which it had sprung. Where Western Christianity emphasised Jesus’s resurrection on the Sunday, Eastern Christianity celebrated the anniversary of Jesus’s death on the 15th of Nissan – the same night as Jews celebrated Passover. Indeed it wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the Church banned the celebration of Passover on the 15th of Nissan, and the practise continued in Christian communities in Syria and Asia Minor until well into the 5th century before eventually dying out.
In an article in the journal Tarbitz, the Israeli scholar Y.Y. Yovel claimed that both Jewish and Christian celebrations on the 15th of Nissan developed as responses to the destruction of the Temple in 70C.E. with each group giving their own theological interpretation to the tragedy – the one claiming a new salvation as God had rejected His people, and the other claiming God had not forsaken His people and that even in the absence of the Temple and living under Roman rule, we were still free men ‘seeing ourselves in every generation as if we have just left Egypt’.
As with Rabbi Chiya’s wicked son, the need must have arisen for the rabbis of the first to third centuries to show that their interpretation of the events was the correct one, when the celebration of redemption contained so much raw material that was being used for other purposes.
Lest anyone think that the trinity of Pesach, matza and marror has any other connotation, Rabban Gamliel makes it clear that their sole reference is to the Exodus from Egypt ‘… and one who lengthens his discussion of this is deemed praiseworthy’.
And perhaps, to return to our original question, the prominence of the number four takes on new relevance. Four and not three. The four phrases of redemption, through which God brought His people out of slavery and to Him, and not three, a number so pregnant with symbolism for the groups who had understood the events of 70C.E. to mean that God had rejected His people.
Christianity hardly poses the major threat and challenge to Judaism today that it has in the past, neither as theological competitor, nor as willing persecutor and seder night’s meaning and significance has developed and evolved in new directions. Nevertheless, it may be worth reminding ourselves that seder night as we know it originated as an articulation in a hostile environment of our most precious beliefs about what it means to be Jewish and to be free, and that this opportunity is as valuable today as it ever has been.