Life & Culture

Which kid was the wickedest?

And how long before the Seder designates a 'misunderstood' child?


Another year, another Seder. I did my best. I know it’s meant to be about passing on the story of Exodus to the next generation, but I get so stressed and shouty trying to keep the kids focused, that if they end up not alienated from Judaism forever then that’s a win. This year, though, I did have a bit of a breakthrough with ‘The Four Children.’ For that section they were as quiet as a mouse. I think it was because they wanted to see who’d won this year’s prestigious role of being the “wicked” child. In the Howie household that’s as close as you get to the Oscars.

Over the proceeding 12 months, points have been allocated, tallies made. Hit your brother, tick for the wicked. Homework done ahead of time, tick for the wise. Criticise my cooking when there was going to be ice cream for dessert. Tick for the simple. Of course this is all done in my head, but it may be time to make the system official, with wall charts and stars. I suspect though, that year to year, the outcomes would pretty much remain the same.

I don’t want to embarrass my children by stating who’s who, especially my eldest who’s very modest about being the wisest, but it’s somewhat unnerving that when it comes to archetypes, a couple of thousand years ago the rabbis called it. The Four Children get their first mention in the Jerusalem Talmud and Mekhilta midrash around the first century CE. Sprinkled across the Torah are responses to these kids, and so I imagine these learned men looked to their own lives to figure out who’d be the sort of child to elicit them.

“Itzik he’s such a pain in the tuchus, he never does his tithing chores, and now there’s a whole load of tithing I’ve got to tithe. He’s so the one who’d say, ‘What is this service to you?’ That’s exactly the kind of smart arse comment he’d come up with. And now I can answer, ‘It is because of this that Hashem did so for me when I went out of Egypt.’ So HAH! Take that Itzik, you wicked wicked child. And then I’ll blunt his teeth.” Whatever that means. I read it could be a punch in the face, bit harsh, but this is pre-social services, so no records exist. It’s probably a mistranslation, it should read instead, “Accordingly, you should brush his teeth,” — send him to bed without his supper. Although not forcing him to stick around, as we plough through the rest of the Haggadah might seem more like a reward.

Judaism has seen a fair amount of change through the ensuing millenniums. With “The Four Children” alone, answers have been switched between them, Haggadot across time made them all into boys, before society deemed to remember that daughters also exist. I have no doubt that some progressive Haggadah in LA has the children identifying as they/them. Interpretations of what the children represent have also shifted. Wise, wicked, simple, don’t know how to ask, isn’t that us all at particular times, the multitudes within? Or it is the levels of spiritual development; unknowing begats challenging begats committed? Or the stages of life, babbling toddler to ignorant child to rebellious teenager to conforming adult?

There’s also been a shifting emphasis on the merits of the different qualities. If wicked is so bad then why is it put just after the wise child? An acknowledgment that struggling and pushing back are important factors for growth, or just that secretly we all have a soft spot for the kid who’s a pain in the arse? “Simple” might be perceived as a negative, but doesn’t it denote openness and lack of assumptions? Although that sounds a bit too much like someone’s trying to make excuses for having a thick kid.

The biggest change over the last few years has been the language used to describe the different children, in a move to not hurt anyone’s feelings. There’s still some Haggadot out there with the simple child illustrated as someone almost drooling, but now that child is the one with the “good heart.” The “evil” child became “wicked” and is now “rebellious”. Soon they’ll be described as “misunderstood” before finally settling on “sensitive”.

Whatever the specific description, those rabbis managed to create a break down of the who’s who in family dynamics that’s still recognisable today. Although I’m not sure what they’d make of the social media child who films a TikTok dance to Dayenu. Typecasting’s a dangerous business, as it doesn’t take too much for the roles to become a self-fulfilling prophesy, so the easiest option is probably to just tell all your kids that they’re the wise child. Even though it’d be a massive, massive lie.

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