Painting the Haggadah: The Five Children.

Five children of Passover

The Haggadah is of course the primary liturgy of the Passover service, one that is in the home, not in the Synagogue. Before the destruction of the Temple, the primary part of the Passover festival was a burnt sacrifice of a lamb, parts of which were then eaten. But with the destruction of the Temple, sacrifice ended, and the major part of the Passover festival was impossible. Not to be put back by this, the Rabbis of the Mishnah began to create a service at home, where certain things had to be done in order to fulfill the mitzvah of observing Passover. For example, we have in the Mishnah:

MISHNAH. They then set [it] before him. He dips the lettuce before yet he has reached the after course of the bread. They set before him matzah, lettuce [hazereth], and haroseth and two dishes, though the haroseth is not compulsory. R. Eleazar son of r. Zadok said: it is compulsory. And in the temple they used to bring the body of the Passover-offering before him.
R. Gamaliel used to say: whoever does not make mention these three things on Passover does not discharge his duty, and these are they: the Passover-offering. Unleavened bread and bitter herbs

While not yet in a order, the components of the Passover Seder were set. By the thirteenth century, this home liturgy were being compiled into Haggadot, and were often illustrated. The illustrations were not decoration, but an integral part of the Haggadah, as important, if not more than the text. It was the illustrations which often worked as the editorial that could not be written down into a traditional text. For example for "This bitter herb" instead of pointing to the maror, one common fifteenth and sixteenth century illustration has the man pointing to his wife.

For about thirty years a Hebrew school version of a Haggadah served my family at our Seders. As my family moved to from New York to Chicago, it was our Haggadah. Many of them were "well-loved." Often there were food stains and matzah crumbs attached to the pages for the, other pages were stained with wine and haroset as well. Yet we came to the point where there were more people than the number of copies of this no longer in print Haggadah. And so I redesigned the Haggadah, complete with illustration.

The most challenging section to work on was the four children, which had turned into five in our family tradition. Several years earlier, I had written the "four sons meditation", my modern interpretation of the ancient text which had become part of our tradition. But there was another level to consider: the illustrations. As a painter, I wanted to address that as well.

As a collector of Haggadot, I had many different versions, with illustrations editorializing the Haggadah. In no place is this tried to editorialize more prevalent than the four sons. One rather mid 20th century version illustrated by Arthur Szyk shows this well. Szyk's agenda was evidently political, and Zionist. There are few illustrations of Moses, but some rather large ones of King David, the liberator of Israel, whose enemies the` Philistines, in Latin Palestinians, are crushed under his chariot. Throughout the pages of this Haggadah, the victories of the Israeli army are the theme. Yet for Szyk’s four sons, the wise son is a thin pale yeshiva student, while the simple son is a fat imbecile. The Son who does not know to ask is a strong, proud proletarian farmer while the wicked son, interestingly looks like a plump German official, complete with Hitler-like mustache. The simple and wise sons, showing some observance, are wearing tzitizit, with the simple son almost slovenly showing two tzitzit, while the other two sons do not.

The Santa Cruz Haggadah a very contemporary, New Age Haggadah had cartoon versions of the four children. Interestingly here, the wise son is a boy not showing Jewish practices, but Hindu and Buddhist ones, sitting in lotus position with the third eye of enlightenment. The only female among these four is the wicked child, a cranky girl.

Israeli artist Agam also illustrated and typeset a Haggadah. In many Zionist Haggadot, the wise son is a soldier, in opposition to many centuries where the wicked son was the soldier. However, Agam takes a more traditional approach. The wise son here is the pious student, with his book of Tanach. The wicked student is once again a killer, carrying the curved dagger of the Sacarii. In total contrast to the mythic martyrdom of the Sacarii at Masada which is common in Israel, Agam once again relegates them to violent terrorists who literally stabbed people in the back. The bow tie clad simple son is merely happy. Riddled with question marks, the one who does not know is rather sad and puzzled.

Another Israeli Haggadah, The Dor L' Dor Passover Haggadah illustrated by Michael Lev, portrays the Wise child is an older bearded man in a kittle with a cane while the wicked child is a wheat stalk chewing vagabond. The simple child is a clueless teen, and the one who doesn’t know to ask is a young boy, both scratching their face in confusion. In this Haggadah there is a definite progression of age from old to young. Like Szyk, however, the simple son Lev portrayed is once again plump and the wise son thin, associating fat with stupid and thin with learning.

As a watercolor artist, I painted five paintings for the Haggadah. In my own choices I had a few design issues. My usual subject matter was inappropriate, as I often paint scantly clad women. One of the design parameters issued by the whole family was "no nude women!" Indeed for a family piece, it was inappropriate and I agreed whole heartedly. But the issue of women brought up another issue: what would be the genders of the four children? The traditional text and most of the illustrations I studied had all four as male. The Santa Cruz Haggadah had the only female, but she was the wicked child, reminiscent of the late Charles Schultz' crabby female character Lucy Vanderpelt. As I began to make the sketches, I realized the Wise child would be female. From there I decided that the wicked would be male, and the simple would be female.

wise child

The image of the Wise Daughter had it origins in my own shock at my first exposure to seeing a woman donning tefillin and talit at the Aleph Kallah in Corvallis Oregon in the summer of 1999. While the other images, particularly Agams, are more about learning and books, this woman is about practice. The question she asks is not a intellectual one, but one of halakah, the way to perform the practice. The tallit and tefillin for her are covered under the time-sensitive positive mitzvot exemption, but here, ready to davven the morning prayer, she wears them any way, being incredibly diligent about practice, even mitzvot she does not have to do. For her, it is not only is it knowing the law, it is doing the law. To paraphrase the Talmud, knowledge leads to action.

rebellious child

The Wicked son was an all together different type of person, for lack of a better term, a self absorbed lounge lizard. He does not drink four cups of wine, but four martinis. He is there to bring attention to himself, by wearing the best styles, like the hairstyle, but in the loudest colors, like the yellow double-breasted jacket and gold chains. Always self absorbed and trying to look more important than he really is, the cell phone in the pocket and the ear piece are a constant, even at the Seder table. He is the archetype of self absorption, and thus unable to be completely part of the community. Asking "to you" fits for him because there is himself and the rest of the world, and he looks out only for "numero uno." In the Exodus from Egypt, he would have been left behind. He would have been too busy seducing all the newly widowed Egyptian women who had married the firstborn, or staring at the mirror so intently, he never would have noticed everyone left. In iconography, this is closest to Szyk's rich German, and not the other images of violence or anger of the other haggadot.

Simple child

The simple daughter sits quietly in Lotus position. Similar in nature to the wise son of the Santa Cruz Haggadah, she sits in the meditative position of eastern religions, wearing clothes that would be common western version of Yoga clothing. The simple child is the one who has a superficial practice, borrowed from many cultures. Unlike the wise daughter, she does not go for depth in order to understand her practice. She does whatever feels good, regardless the source. On the other hand, her demeanor is calm and collected. She may also be a righteous person, who has attained so much wisdom, that she appears simple, as did Jacob. But as noted in my four sons' meditation, it is impossible to tell one from the other. Legends of hidden tzaddikim come to mind. When she asks "ma zot, what is this?" We cannot be clear if this is a simple superficial question, or a deep riddle.

Doenst know child

The fourth son, the son who doesn't ask, was painted after the first Passover of the new Haggadah, for inclusion in my revision for next year. Originally, running out of time before Passover, I skipped this painting, using the illustrations by others only. However at the second Seder, which was only my parents, my sister, her husband and kids, my infant nephew played with a plastic wine cup, while wearing an oversized kippah, which was incredibly cute. This image became the sketch for the final painting, of a baby holding an empty wine cup. Like the Santa Cruz Haggadah, it is a baby who is the child who cannot speak, because he has still to learn language. There is not simplicity, or evil or wisdom, just potential. Like the painting of the wicked, he holds a glass, but it is in the future to see what he will fill it with. The kippah is oversized; his head is yet to grow into it. And in his youth he cannot speak for another reason; as a baby he has a pacifier in his mouth, silenced by his parents.

the child not there

The final painting was for the fifth son, the one who was not there. The second painting I finished, this painting was of an empty chair sitting at the foot of the table in my parent's living room, where we have had our Seders. Behind is the big picture window that would look out to the front yard of their house. But instead of a cul-de-sac there are two scenes. To the right, in reference to the Holocaust, there is the barbed wire of a concentration camp at Night. To the left is a city, centered on a protestant church. Two critical issues of waning Jewish population, the Holocaust and the assimilation into secular and other religions are the background for the empty chair. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, What kills our bodies and our souls keeps the chair empty.

The five children provided the greatest challenge in creation of the Haggadah. It was a struggle to keep the traditional elements and not cater to mere style, and risk obsolescence of the text in a few years. I opted for much of the same tack as many of those before me, and gave my editorial in paint and color. When editing the Haggadah, I added a new editor's introduction, describing my reasons for creating the Haggadah I wrote and painted:

My goal was to create something that will last into the next generation, a bit of the story of our family, all of us here at this table, inscribed into the pages of the Haggadah. I hope it will be as "well loved" as its predecessor, with wine, haroset and matzah reminders from the years before.

Most significant in the world as it is, I hope to inspire the last three of my family to continue the Passover traditions and practices of hundreds of generations of Jews before them. The fourth child, in my illustrated schema is the child with the potential to be any of the other four. I pray that my efforts will sustain my family, and there will be family Passover Seders long after I have passed on. Hopefully my Haggadah will be a book which will inspire the traditions and practices of Passover. This is my gift to my nieces and nephew, in the hope and prayer they will be there to hear their own grandchildren and great grand children recite to them Ma nistana Ha- lailah hazeh mikol halleilot, and they will be able to tell those little ones why.

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