Multiple Intelligences at the Seder Table

WISE, WICKED, SIMPLE, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask … Did the rabbis know about Dr. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences when they inserted the Four Sons into the Passover Haggadah?

Gardner, a psychologist and professor of neuroscience, developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences in the 1980s, opening the doors for a new way of thinking about education. His nine “intelligences” are:

    Multiple Intelligences at the Seder Table
  1. Linguistic
  2. Logical/Mathematical
  3. Musical/Rhythmic
  4. Bodily/Kinesthetic
  5. Spatial
  6. Naturalist
  7. Intrapersonal  
  8. Interpersonal  
  9. Existential  

While Multiple Intelligences is a modern educational theory, its premise is easily relatable to the famous tale of the Four Sons. As Rabbi Jason Miller explains in a 2011 Huffington Post article:

The midrash of the arba’ah banim, the Four Children, presents four individuals who ask about the tradition in very different ways. The wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. They are four very different learners who need to be addressed as individuals. And the Rabbis of the Mishnah, in their wisdom, understood this well.

The interactive media production company G-dcast understands the parallel, too. Here, in a comic cartoon, G-dcast presents a Passover Seder put on by its interpretation of the Four Sons (we think you will enjoy a chuckle):

As you read your Passover-related PJ Library books as a family in preparation for Passover (or even as you watch your favorite ‘Four Sons’ characters on Glee!) , take some time to think about the different ways each of us learns and grows. After all, as Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer puts it in her piece, “Answering the Four Children,” each of us can at times embody traits of any one of the Four Sons.

“Each one of us is sometimes wise and sometimes wicked, sometimes simple and sometimes silent,” Spitzer says. “We are the four children. As such we ask questions and we provide answers, different answers for different needs.”

Educator and David’s Voice writer Linda Kean agrees. While “labeling” children is a turnoff for Kean, the broader message (that there are different approaches to teaching and communicating) is one that resonates.

As she explains in her blogpost, “Passover and the Four Children — It’s All Good!,” the story of the Four Sons could indicate different moods as much as different people. “Or maybe it’s not about these specific types of children at all,” she suggests, “but the types of questions that are posed to parents and the importance of how parents respond.”

In any case, Kean concludes, parents and educators must nurture a child’s strengths. “Children and adults alike are well aware of their weaknesses and our limited energy is better spent focusing on strengths. By doing this, our children will become confident, contributing members of our Seders, our families, and our communities.”

Educator Naftali Silberberg offers a similar interpretation. In her piece, “The Haggadah: The Educator’s Handbook,” a superficial reading of the Haggadah may not reveal too much about the art of education, but a closer look actually reveals quite a bit.

“The Haggadah teaches us how to respond to the unique needs of four different types of children, or possibly the same child,” Silberberg writes, “depending on the circumstances and the motivation behind the question.”

Silberberg goes on to explain that the best teachers will be those that can internalize the message of the Four Sons. Those messages, she writes, are:

  1. Answer all questions; never trivializing the importance of a child’s curiosity.
  2. Not only answer the question, but also address the unspoken issues bothering the questioner.
  3. Permeate the children with a zeal for G-d and Torah.
  4. Coach children to think on their own.
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