Significance of the Number Four

Question: The Passover Hagadah speaks of four cups of wine, four sons, the four questions, and so on. What is the number four so significant in the Passover Seder?  I would also like to know about the specific origin of the famous Four Questions during Seder.

Answer: Good question. In the interest of time, let me be succinct. The idea of “four questions,” the “four types of children” draws heavily on the symbolism of the number four. The number four represents a totality e.g.,  world’s four cardinal directions, the cosmic ordering of time as seen in the four seasons, the four elements, and the four temperaments of classical thought. Basically, the number four conveys how reality is experienced in this world.

This is certainly evident with respect to the “Four types of Children” which covers every kind of conceivable child. The wise, the contrarian, the simple, and the silent serves as a spiritual diagnostic for the healthiness of the traditional Jewish family. Our Sages used the number four to stress the importance of having each child present at the Seder.

Indeed, the real problem child is not the one who asks rebellious questions–at least he is still participating.  The silent child who does not ask questions poses a much more serious challenge; perhaps his silence is due to apathy.  Over time such a child may grow up to become totally detached from his religious roots and holiday celebrations. Therefore, to be a wholesome family – every child must be present participating. A wise parent must learn how to engage each member–regardless of the difficulties each one poses.

From where did the original Seder derive?

Perhaps influenced by the philosophical meals of the Greek symposium, the rabbis saw the Seder as a wonderful time to ask didactic questions about the meaning of the Seder. Support for this tradition was based on the Biblical precept “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exod. 13:8; see also 13:14, 15).

Now the Mishnah in Pesachim (9:9) adds a different text from what normally exists nowadays: “For on all other nights we eat meat which is roasted, stewed, or boiled. Why on  this night all of the meat is roasted?” This of course alludes to the time when the Passover sacrifice (Korbon Pesach) was eaten roasted, but since the time of the Temple’s destruction, this is no longer possible. Therefore, the Rabbis changed the question to focus on the significance of leaning at the Seder instead.