Passover is the Jewish people’s most child-centered holiday. From the game of hide-and-seek during the search for hametz on the night before the seder, to the bookend game of finding the afikomen that enables the seder to conclude, children are the focus of much of the attention of the holiday. The Torah itself directs our minds to our children in the verse that forms the basis of the seder itself: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)

The Answers We Give the Child
Of course the centerpiece of the child’s involvement in the seder is in the asking of questions. The universal custom is for the youngest child at the seder to ask the Four Questions—observing “how different is this night from all other nights!” It is not simply that we tell our children the story; the point is to engage them in a dialogue, in a night of questions and answers. Again, this gesture is commanded by the Torah, which instructs, a few verses after the one we just quoted: “”In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” (Exodus 13:14) The child will ask, and the child must be led to ask.

But what answer do we give? The Mishnah tells us to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise.” The sages of the Talmud disagreed on what this meant: “Rav said: In the beginning our ancestors were idol-worshippers. Shumel said: We were slaves.” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 116a) The commentators on the Talmud offer different understandings of what the Talmud means, but the custom has already been well-established for many centuries: We first say “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” (Shmuel’s answer) and, after several interludes, we say “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol-worshippers” (Rav’s answer).

In his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides records the law as follows:

It is a commandment to teach one’s children, even if they did not ask, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child.” The father teaches his son according to his intelligence. How so? If he was a child or a fool, say to him, “My son, we were all slaves–like this maidservant, or this manservant–in Egypt. And on this night, the Holy One Blessed Be He redeemed us and took us out to freedom.” And if the son is grown or wise, teach him what happened to us in Egypt, and the miracles that were done for us by Moses. All is according to the intelligence of the child…

And one must begin in lowliness and conclude in praise. How so? Begin and tell of how originally our ancestors, in the days of Terach and before him, wrongly and falsely followed after vanity and chased after idolatry. And conclude in the true worship, that God brought us near to Him and separated us from the wayward, and drew us to his uniqueness. And likewise begin and make known that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, including all the evil that they did unto us; and conclude with the miracles and wonders that were done for us, and our freedom. And this is where one expounds from “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean” until he finishes the section. And all who elaborate upon the expounding of this section–this is praiseworthy. (Laws of Hametz and Matzah Ch. 7, laws 2 and 4)

In the first law, the Rambam focuses on Shmuel’s answer of “We were slaves,” and makes the educational task very concrete. If one has a slave in one’s house (and this is not the place to take up the question of Jews owning slaves), one uses the slave as a prop in the drama. Interesting the Rambam mentions that we teach our children about the works of Moses, who is of course not mentioned in the Haggadah.

In the second law, the Rambam seems to indicate that we begin with Rav’s answer, focusing on the wayward worship of our ancestors. Once that context has been laid, we can talk about slavery and liberation. But, showing his theological tendencies, the Rambam here emphasizes the overarching goal not only of the seder, but of all commandments: to know and serve the one true God.

Is there an inconsistency here? Is the Rambam contradicting himself?If we recall that there are two separate commands in Exodus 13, we might say no: There is, as Maimonides says, an independent commandment to tell one’s child the story of the Exodus—whether or not they have asked. But there is also a commandment to engage in conversation, which begins with the child’s question. And so, perhaps, the Rambam is signaling that there are indeed two separate acts that have to occur.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his Haggadah Shleima (p. 25), explains the Rambam along these lines: “We can explain the reasoning [of the seeming contradiction in the Rambam]: When one is telling it to oneself, one needs to state it according to the way it was, that we were originally idol worshippers, etc. But when one teaches one’s child, the obligation is to teach him only that which is the commandment of the evening, and to answer his questions of ‘How is this night different?’ and therefore he begins with ‘We were slaves.’”

What is a Child?
Kasher’s read of the Rambam seems very plausible. But it begs a larger question: If we have different goals in telling the story to adults and to children, why is that the case? And how do we distinguish an adult from a child? On the basis of age, or understanding, or something else? Bringing all these questions together into one simple and big question, we could ask, What is a child?

Maimonides himself has much to say on this subject. If we look throughout his Mishneh Torah, we find that that, of necessity, he defines children in many different areas of the law.

To begin with something close to home, the Rambam states that “All may perform the search for hametz [before Passover]… even a child, so long as the child has the intelligence to search.” (Laws of Hametz and Matzah 2:17) In the laws of divorce, he writes that, while in general we accept hearsay as evidence that a woman’s husband has died (thereby freeing her to marry another man), “we do not rely on the words of one who testifies after hearing [the news] from a fool or a child.” (Laws of Divorce 13:8)

The Rambam here distinguishes between ritual matters and civil law. In the case of the search for hametz, the task is relatively simple: know what the objects you’re looking for look like, and find them. Anyone of basic competence should be able to do this task. But in the case of testimony about something as grave and potentially complicated as marital status, and in the particular case of admitting hearsay evidence, which we already judge to be a leniency, we maintain an adult standard.

So we already have an indication that the Rambam understands the status of children to be largely about intelligence, about how they view the world. The two cases we have already seen are good examples: One deals with very concrete matters, with objects, and is suitable for children; the other deals with more abstract matters, with concepts, and is only suitable for adults of sound mind.

This distinction receives even greater treatment in the Rambam’s laws of sale. Here  Maimonides compares a fool—that is, a person without adult intelligence—to a child: “The court establishes a guardian for a fool just as it does for a child.” Yet here he also distinguishes between different types of children: “Until the age of six, a child’s transactions with others are null. From six until he is grown, if he knows how to do business, then his transactions are valid… though this only applies to movable property. He cannot transact real estate until he is grown.” Significantly, this only applies if the child does not have an adult guardian; if the child does have a guardian, then “his actions are null… unless they are taken with the knowledge of the guardian.” The Rambam sums up this section by stating that the court must examine the child, “for there is the child who is wise, discerning and knowledgable at the age of seven, and there is the child who even as old as 13 does not know business.” (Laws of Sale ch. 29, law 4-8)

In this section we see the Rambam showing some dexterity in defining who is and who is not a child—or perhaps more aptly, who is a child for the purposes of this particular law. And what makes this law unique? Perhaps it is that the sale of property stands somewhere between the object-oriented activity of the search for hametz and the conceptual awareness required for the laws of marriage. A child who is not under the care of an adult, and is of sufficient intelligence, can buy and sell objects—that is, she can change the status of objects and the rules that govern them. This is, in essence, like the search for hametz, the heart of which is understanding that this object, which has been governed by a particular set of rules up until now, is now governed by another set of rules. And, as the Rambam himself states, the essence of the search for and destruction of hametz is bitul: nullification, the point at which we could see hametz in our own home and treat it as dust of the earth. This is something a child can do.

But a more abstract understanding is required for understanding concepts like marital status, death, or the sale of land. These deal not with small objects which can be manipulated by a child, but with human subjects or, in the case of land, human rule conventions on a much larger scale. These require some greater level of intelligence, which Maimonides would define as adult intelligence. To see a woman and understand that she is married and all that that implies; to know with certainty that a person is dead; to buy land or sell land and assume responsibility for it—all of these require a level of abstraction that most children have not achieved.

Or, put another way, when one achieves that level of abstraction, one is an adult. A child then is one who lives in a world somewhere between the concrete and the abstract. For the purposes of the seder, the Rambam emphasizes the concrete nature, the objective reality, of slavery—point to your servant and say, This is who we were! But for the adult consciousness, such concretization is not necessary. The point of the evening should rather be on the more abstract reality, that of God’s ultimate sovereignty and our service of Him. When one can apprehend that reality, one is an adult. Until then, one is a child.

The Teaching of Children
When we put it this way, though, how many of us actually achieve the kind of adult consciousness the Rambam seems to be talking about? Certainly we can achieve a kind of abstract awareness of the divine. But we know from our own history that we seem to need tangible, physical objects towards which we can direct our spiritual faculties—this is a normative reading of the story of the Golden Calf and the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. So perhaps on seder night we can’t simply delve into the theological. Perhaps we adults also need to focus on the objects of the seder, on the symbols. Perhaps we are not as adult as we’d like to think (or as this reading of the Rambam would like to think).

Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, provides a wonderful counterpoint to our discussion. In his sermon on the seventh day of Passover in 1941, collected in the book Eish Kodesh (Holy Fire), he commented on the following Talmudic story:

Children once entered the study house and uttered insights that had not been heard even in the time of Joshua ben Nun: Aleph, Bet means Go and teach knowledge (Aleph Bina). Gimmel, Dalet means Be generous to the poor (G’mol Dalim). Why is the foot of the Gimmel pointed toward the Dalet? To teach that the feet of those who are generous should always be ready to find benficiaries. And why is part of the the Dalet pointed back toward the Gimmel? In order that the poor man may know that he must not hide from his benefactor. And why does the Dalet turn its face from the Gimmel? In order to teach us that the benefactor should give to the poor without ostentation, and the poor man should not be embarrassed. (Shabbat 104a)

The children’s insights continue through the entire Hebrew alphabet.

Commenting on the story, Rabbi Shapira says:

When a child first learns the shapes of the Hebrew letters, there is a fresh revelation in Heaven concerning these letters. And this fresh revelation, occurring in Heaven through the child’s learning of the letters, is drawn downwards, so the child draws down upon himself a fresh revelation as the to the meaning of the shapes of the letters.

This is not the case with adults, who are too familiar with the shapes of the letters. When we look at them we are not learning anything new, so we do not have God teaching us anything directly.

When the Talmud describes “children” who explain the mystical meanings in the shapes of the letters, it is actually referring to holy people who can still approach the text as children. They bring out new revelations even in the shape of the letters, and not just in the meaning of the text. They can still learn like children, and so are able to look at the aleph and bet and gimmel and ask, “Why is the leg of the gimmel stretched out toward the dalet?” (Translation by Debbie Miller from A Night to Remember by Mishael and Noam Zion)

Rabbi Shapira reminds us that childhood is not simply a biological reality—it is also a state of mind. Maimonides would agree. But in the wonderful language of the Eish Kodesh, we hear something very different from the Rambam, or at least the way we have been reading him up to now. In all the talk of the concrete versus the abstract—which corresponds so well with Piaget’s theories of child development—we can all too easily forget how important and real are our bodily perceptions, our ways of knowing through the senses. We can focus so much on the abstract that we minimize or even forget the importance of the physical. This is the world where children excel, and where we adults—particularly we university-educated adults—are too apt to fail.

Conclusion: A Night of Adults and Children
Passover is both our most child-centered holiday and our most physical one. The seder is the only time we are actually commanded to eat specific foods—the Passover sacrifice, the matzah, the maror, the four cups of wine. As Rabban Gamaliel instructs, actually pointing to these items and making meaning of them is the essence of the seder: that is, ingesting and imbibing the physical stuff, while noting its significance in the world of abstraction.

On this level, as on so many others, leil seder is a night that is not about children or adults, but rather about both. It is a night for both recognizing those distinctions and blurring them at the same time. It is a night that leads us to the vision of Malachi in the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol: “Behold I send you the prophet Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:5-6) On Pesach we tell both stories of freedom—physical liberation from slavery, and spiritual liberation from idolatry. On this night, especially, we are simultaneously adults and children, operating in both the physical and the spiritual worlds.