Tuesday 19 April 2011

Four Questions, Five Sons

Passover 2011 (Jewish year 5771) starts today and continues for 7 days until next Monday (25th April).

The Jewish Board of Deputies is encouraging Jewish families this year to remember the plight of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as the “fifth son” this Passover.

The Hagaddah, or Passover Order of Service, tells of four sons: the first is wise, the second is evil, the third is simple and the last doesn’t know enough to be able to ask questions. A tradition of a fifth son has developed; the absent son, the child who has no interest in Torah and the commandments and is not even aware of the Seder and the miracles it recalls.

Due to the influence of persecution a fifth son, a son who was absent from the Seder through no fault of his own, was introduced to the Seder. In each generation, the fifth son has taken on a different identity. In the 19th century, he was the persecuted Jew of Czarist Russia. In the 1940s, he was the child perishing in the Death Camps of Europe. A spokesman for the Board of Deputies this week told the Jewish Chronicle: “For our generation, that fifth son is Gilad Shalit and all the captive soldiers who are absent from their families’ Seder tables.”

Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas operatives on 25th June 2006. Although human rights organisations have stated that the terms and conditions of Shalit’s detention are contrary to international humanitarian law, Hamas has refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visits to him. Since his abduction, the only contact between Shalit and the outside world has been three letters, an audio tape, and a DVD. This Passover will be the 23 year-old soldier’s fourth Passover in captivity.

The board hopes that the “Gilad Shalit – Fifth Son” project will result in Jewish families praying for him and other Israeli troops at their Passover Seders. We should pray for him also.

Visit the Board of Deputies website for more details.

During the Passover Seder, the youngest person present at the meal asks four questions. The general preliminary question is Mah nishtanah ha-lahylah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-layloht, mi-kol ha-layloht? “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Then follow the four questions:

• Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either [leavened] bread or matzoh [unleavened wafers], but on this night we eat only matzoh?

• Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?

• Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs even once, but on this night we dip them twice?

• Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?

In answer, the story of the Exodus is told, after which the assembled family is told of four sons who also ask four questions.

The Wise Son asks: “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that God, our God, has commanded to you?”

The answer is given in the words of Deuteronomy 6:20ff: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .” The son must also be instructed in all the laws of Passover, up to and including the final command, which says that after eating the Passover offering, one should not conclude the meal with dessert for that would wash away the taste of the Passover offering.”

The Wicked Son asks: “What is this service of yours?”

The Hadaggah points out that by asking, “What is this Passover Seder of yours?” the son is implying that the Passover is not for him. By so doing he excludes himself from the community because he denies the essential principle of Judaism, the obligation to fulfil the commandments of the Torah.

The Simple Son asks: “What is this celebration about?”

He is to be told: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand God took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).

The fourth son does not know how to ask a question and that he must be told: “It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

Quaint as all this may sound, the Passover Seder serves as a multi-sensory teaching experience which inculcates lessons about Jewish history, Judaism and duty to God in the minds of Jewish children. Stories, songs, symbols and symbolic actions, riddles and food all help to keep the children awake and attentive. Christians can learn lessons in communication from Passover.

According to one Jewish commentator, every Jewish person is a composite of those four types of Jews. To some extent, he says, like the first son, all Jews long for meaning; they are searching and thinking. Yet sometimes Jewish people treat life as though it were a joke and, like the second son, they rebel. Sometimes, like the third son, he observes, it takes something dramatic to arouse us to think and change. At other times we are like the apathetic fourth son.

As those who believe “Messiah, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” for us, these thoughts are worthy of our own contemplation. “Paul urges us to “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened”, adding, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7f).

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