The simple son is not so simple


The Haggadah, or playbill-like book that sets the order for the Passover seder, talks about The Four Sons in the magid section, or portion of the Haggadah that retells the Exodus story. The typical narrative is there is a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son — sometimes translated as “innocent son” — and a son who does not know how to ask, with guidelines of how parents should respond to each son. Some argue that The Four Sons are archetypes () and each person at the seder imbues traits from all of The Four Sons. However, “simple” is a mistranslation, as no English word can fully encapsulate the meaning of the Hebrew word “tam.” 

Since language has evolved, the colloquially used “basic” is the most accurate translation. As Michael says in “The Burrito,” an episode of “The Good Place,” “basic… is a human insult.” Urban Dictionary defines “basic” as “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” Both of these descriptions convey the “tam” son, who does exactly what is expected of him and nothing more. He is different from the wise son, who asks an inquisitive question and goes above and beyond expectations. The basic son simply asks “what is this?” which is certainly enough to participate and learn, but not taking that extra step.  

People often speculate that the characters on “The Good Place” each represent one of The Four Sons. Chidi is the wise son, Tahani is the wicked son, Jason is the “simple” — or basic — son, and Eleanor is the son who does not know how to ask. Jason is loyal to those he cares about, but lacks the intellectual drive Chidi has. In the afterlife, Chidi is determined to study philosophy forever, solely because of passion, proclaiming, “I can’t wait to have breakfast with Kant, and lunch with Michel Foucault, and then have dinner with Kant again so we can talk about what came up at breakfast!” PJ Griser writes of Jewish philosophy within “The Good Place,” “heaven is the yeshiva shel ma’ala — or the ‘yeshiva on high,’ where the departed engage in endless Torah study.” In order to gain Chidi’s devoted study ethic, Jason would need to ask questions like the wise son, who queries, “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you,” eager to learn more for the intrinsic value of learning alone. 

The contrast between the wise son and the basic son is that, while the basic son might meet requirements, the wise son exceeds and goes beyond. Should they be graded on seder participation, one would get a C and the other would get an A, or maybe they would both get As, but the wise son would challenge the teacher’s thinking and integrate the lessons he is learning into his life. Value is ascertained not by what information each son is bringing to the table, but by which questions he asks. As Socrates once said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” It is thus how a student formulates his inquiries, not the answers ascertained from said inquiries, that he elevates from the status of basic to wise. “Simple” may be a mistranslation; modern slang has evolved to truly render the Hebrew word “tam,” but being simple or basic certainly does not mean someone is a bad student. 

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