One of the main focuses of the Pesach Seder is the transmission of our traditions to the next generation. As such, one of the prominent parts of the Haggada (i.e. the actual words we read) is the question and answer section featuring the four sons. They are usually described as the wise son, the wicked son, the simpleton and the son not yet able to even ask about what he sees around him at the Seder.
In comparing these sons, the Haggada quotes four places in the Torah that refer to the father giving the traditions over to his son, and assigns each to a particular son. Three are questions asked by the son, along with the answer to be given to that son, while the fourth is just an “answer,” indicating that this son did not ask on his own. One would expect the answer the Haggada provides for each son to correspond to the answer the Torah gives to the question attributed to that particular son. However, this is not the case.
The “Chacham,” or wise son, asks, “What are these testimonies, statutes and laws that Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?” (D’varim 6:20). The Torah then provides a lengthy answer (6:21-25), none of which is part of our response to this son, or any of the other sons. The first verse of the response (6:21) is similar to our first words when we respond to the four questions (“we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G-d took us out”), but not exactly the same, and it is said before we even mention the four sons. The only (other) verse from this response mentioned anywhere in the Haggada (6:23) isn’t said until long after we have finished discussing the four sons (before the first part of Hallel, when we mention that each and every generation must consider it as if they themselves came out of Egypt). Additionally, this question is presented in the Haggada as if it is being asked about the Seder when it is really about keeping the Torah in general, not specifically the laws of Pesach.
The “Rasha,” or wicked son, asks, “What is this service to you?” (Sh’mos 12:26). While this was asked regarding the Passover offering, it was not referring to anything we do at the Seder itself, but about setting aside the animal to be brought as the offering, which is done a few days before the Seder. Yet, the Haggada presents this question as if it’s being asked about the Seder, with the response being that the Rasha wouldn’t have been redeemed. The words used in the Haggada are not from the Torah’s response to this question, but to the question asked by one of the other sons (see below). The Torah’s response to this question is pretty straightforward (12:27), without any hint of putting down the one who asks it for the way it was asked.
The “Tam,” or simple son, asks, “What’s this?” (Sh’mos 13:14). The Haggada gives the same answer the Torah does, except that the Torah’s answer is 36 words, and we only say the first seven. However, this can be explained by the context, as the question in the Torah is not about the Seder, but about giving the firstborn animal to G-d (or redeeming a firstborn son), which the additional words refer to directly. Nonetheless, once again the Haggada is presenting a question that was not about the Seder as if it was. To complicate matters even further, when the “four sons” are described in the Yerushalmi (P’sachim 10:4), the answer given to the Tam is not the one the Torah gave, but what the Haggada says is given to the Chacham, with the Chacham given the answer that the Haggada says is for the Tam. How can the answer appropriate for the Chacham being given to the Tam (and vice versa)?
The “Aino Yodaya Lishol,” or son unable to ask, is based on the Torah telling us to teach our son without quoting any question being asked (Sh’mos 13:8). The “answer” in the Haggada is the same as in the Torah, although the Torah (13:6-7) refers to eating Matzah for seven days as well as not eating anything leavened, not to the Seder itself. Additionally, this is the same verse used to answer the Rasha, yet there is no indication that this son did anything to warrant being put down — nor does the Haggada indicate that it is meant as a put down. If no put down is inherent in the verse, why is it used as such for the Rasha? If there is, why is it (also) used for the Aino Yodaya Lishol? Why is the same verse used for two sons?
Finally, the Haggada, in relaying the questions of the sons, asks what each “says.” In the Torah, only the Rasha “says” his question (indicating that it is not a question, but a statement as to why he doesn’t involve himself in performing the Mitzvah). The Chacham and the Tam ask their question, as would be expected. Why does the Haggada refer to these questions as having been “said” rather than asked? How can the Haggada answer the same questions asked in the Torah differently than the Torah does?
The four types of sons referred to in the Torah (and by extension, in the Haggada) are not describing different stages of development. We wouldn’t consider the difference between the Chacham and the Rasha to be based on their ages, but on the choices they’ve made. Similarly, the Tam shouldn’t be looked at as being younger, or having spent less time learning Torah, than the Chacham; they just have different approaches towards their spiritual growth. The Torah refers to Yaakov as an “Ish Tam” (B’raishis 25:27), and we wouldn’t think of him as anything but righteous. The Chacham might favor “d’rasha” while the Tam might prefer a simpler, more straightforward approach, but both are righteous and completely committed to performing the Mitzvos. We can look at the Rasha and the Aino Yodaya Lishol (AYL) in a similar way. Both don’t want to follow the Torah, but the Rasha challenges anyone who does, while the AYL just doesn’t get involved. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to ask, but that he doesn’t know (or realize) that he should be asking. He won’t argue with those who keep the Torah, preferring to avoid confrontation; any conversation on the topic must be initiated by the other party. Ben Ish Chai (Otzros Chayim) compares the Chacham to Yitzchak, the Rasha to Eisav, the Tam to Yaakov and the AYL to Yishmael. Malbim also says that Chacham and Tam refer to two kinds of righteousness, while Rasha and AYL represent two kinds of wickedness. These four types of personalities manifest themselves throughout the year, not just at the Seder. The Haggada prefaces the discussion of the four sons by blessing G-d for giving the Torah to all of Israel, no matter which personality type they are, and for preparing us to deal with each of them.
At every step of the way, the Rasha will challenge the Mitzvah being taught to him. The Torah uses, as an example, preparing for the Passover offering, but a similar question would be asked the rest of the year regarding other Mitzvos. And we are supposed to give a full and direct answer, as the Torah describes in its answer to the Rasha. The Chacham will inquire about the details of every Mitzvah and the rationale behind them, and the Torah tells us to fully explain it to him. The Tam is also given a full explanation for the Mitzvah he is asking about, despite the brevity of his question. The AYL, who doesn’t ask any questions, is told about the Mitzvah. However, whereas the conversation(s) with the other sons take place all year long, the Torah specifies that when the father is instigating the conversation, it should be at the Seder, “on that day” (13:8), when we can point to something tangible during our explanation.
After the Haggada tells us about the Biblical requirement to talk about the Exodus, it informs us that this requirement includes teaching it to all of our children, no matter what their personality type is, as the Torah alludes to four distinct type of sons. Not that the Torah refers to these types specifically regarding the Seder, but that the Torah discusses these four types regarding the manner in which, all year long, they ask (or don’t ask) their questions. The Haggada is not saying “this is what each son says,” but that “this is what the Torah says when referring to each type.” This is why the Haggada doesn’t say it is what the Chacham or Tam “asks;” telling us only what the Torah “says” about each type.
The Chacham is told all the laws of Passover, up to and including the prohibition against eating anything after eating the Passover offering (represented by our “afikoman”). It is precisely because the Chacham’s question is not limited to the Seder that the Haggada says “we must detail all the laws of Passover;” if the question was specifically about the Seder, these words would be superfluous. The Tam, who is also righteous, is taught all the laws of Passover as well; he is virtually interchangeable with the Chacham, as evidenced by the Yerushalmi. The Haggada quotes the part of the Torah’s response to the Tam’s question that is applicable to the Seder, and we add more specifics about the Seder just as the Torah answers more specifically about the firstborn (which was what the question there was about).
The Rasha, despite his antagonistic question, is given a full explanation all year. At the Seder, though, when the story of the Exodus is retold, we make sure that he understands that not every member of the Children of Israel left Egypt, and he would not have been redeemed. Although the verse quoted in the Haggada is from the conversation with the AYL, since both are wicked, it applies to the Rasha as well, and is used for both. Nevertheless, since the AYL is not as hostile as the Rasha, we don’t put him down explicitly.
This explains another issue as well, one that is discussed by many commentators–why anyone would think that the obligation to tell our children about the Exodus begins on Rosh Chodesh (Nisan) if the Exodus itself didn’t happen until the fifteenth. Even though conversations with the other three sons occur throughout the year (when they ask questions about other aspects of Torah observance), and preparation for and fulfillment of Passover obligations (such as learning its laws and designating an animal for the Passover offering) are well underway (“in this month,” see Sh’mos 13:5), so the other sons have likely already started asking their questions, the obligation to start a conversation with the AYL does not begin on Rosh Chodesh. Rather, “and you shall tell your son,” i.e. the AYL, “on that day” (13:8). On which day? When you can say “because of this” and can point to the Matzah and Maror on your Seder Table.