The text of our Haggadah for identifying the third son is somewhat ambiguous. The word “tam” means “simple”. It could refer to someone who is simple minded. And this is the interpretation assumed in most translations of the Haggadah — “The simple son”. And then there is the frequently repeated thought on the words “At pisach lo — you shall open [the discussion] for him”, or perhaps even “you shall Passover for him”. The verb “pisach” is in the masculine, but the noun “at” is feminine. Because teaching the simple son requires a woman’s touch, or in this case, that the father be in touch with his feminine side.
However, I have seem commentaries that note that “tam” is used in the Torah as a compliment. Simple in the sense of having a pure faith, a first-hand relationship with the A-lmighty. And so while the Chakham (who may very well be a different aspect of the same person as the Tam) is taught the laws of Pesach, the Tam is given the heart of Pesach. We could say that the Chakham is the ideal pursued by the stereotypical Litvak, whereas the Chassid is trying to be this understanding of the word Tam.
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When R’ JB Soloveitchik was “Berel, the Rabbi’s son”, a boy living in the predominantly Chabad town of Chaslovitch, the cheder he attended was in a room rented from the carpenter. The carpenter was a “pashuter Yid — a simple Jew” as they would have said in Yiddish. Whenever he worked, the carpenter would say Tehillim. The future Rabbi Soloveitchik noticed that he had things timed; whenever the carpenter drove in the last nail it was just as he finished the last verse of Tehillim. Regardless of the size or complexity of the piece, the man would say Tehillim at just the right speed to match.
It is like the Zohar’s comment on the words “Chanokh walked himself with G-d, and he was gone for G-d had taken him” (Bereishis 5:24). The Zohar states that Chanokh was a shoemaker, and with every stitch he not only attached the uppers to the soles, he also pronounced names of G-d and unified the worlds. And at some point his soul simply sored upward and left this world without dying. (Similar in kind to Eliyahu’s mode of passing.)
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Rav Soloveitchik would repeat the Vilna Shoemaker Dilemma. While the Gaon studied Torah in Vilna, there was another man, not recorded by history, who was Vilna’s shoemaker. He wasn’t a gifted genius, nor capable of sleeping in half-hour installments and accomplishing work 22+ hours a day. Of course, in terms of Torah the Vilna Gaon knew more and taught more. But the shoemaker spent his days banging at his shoes and saying Tehillim with pure thought. He too accomplished everything he could with what Hashem gave him. Who was holier?
And in a statement one would have expected from a chassidic story, not this heartland of Lithuanian learning, the answer is simply “We can’t know.”
I think it’s no coincidence that Rav Chaim Volozhiner, a student of the Vilna Gaon, tells a story which concludes: “And there I hear a voice from the street. I put my head out the window and I see Eli the shoemaker running excited. ‘What happened Eli? What happened to the light of the sun? Why are the birds singing so loudly? Why are all the trees suddenly blooming?’ The shoemaker responded ‘Don’t you know rebbe?’ The shoemaker gave me a look at said, ‘Moshiach came’”
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The version of the four sons in our Hagaddah follows the Talmud Bavli. In the Yerushalmi, there is no such ambiguity — this son is call the Tipesh, the child who isn’t as bright as most of us.
As a procedural question, textual variants can be taken two ways. The first approach would be to assume there is no dispute, that these are simply two different expressions of the same basic idea. Which would imply in our case that “tam” would have to mean “simple minded”. The other is to assume that the Bavli intentionally used a different word than the Yerushalmi in order to express a difference of opinion. And therefore “tam” here would be someone who is “spiritually unconflicted”, wholeheartedly a servant of G-d.
I happen to have a son who would be called a “tipeish” if the term hadn’t been turned into an insult. Shuby has Downs. But he truly is tam in both senses of the word: because his understanding of the universe is so uncomplicated, if I tell him “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” — He is. To Shuby, when reminded of the fact, Hashem’s Presence is just as real and immediate as mine.
The Vilna Shoemaker or Chaslavitch Carpenter were not among history’s Chakhamim (although there is no reason to believe they were any less bright than most). But they were Temimim; they lived their lives with only one goal — to serve Hashem with the upmost of what He gave them.
Their worldview is captured by Shalom Aleikhem in the mouth of Tevye the Milkman. He may mangle every verse or statement of Chazal that he tries to repeat, but his life is a continuous dialog with the A-lmighty. We meet him coming home moments before candle-lighting on Friday afternoon. He is pulling his milk cart, and muttering something. As we get closer, we hear him ask the A-lmighty, “But did You have to break my poor horse’sWas that necessary? Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. Bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty, that’s all right. But what have you got against my horse’s leg?” And so he continues, his constant discussion. In his own little way, Tevye fulfills “Shevisi Hashem lenegdi tamid – I place Hashem before me constantly” in a manner matched by few who have greater erudition.
Of course, the true goal would be to have both.
“Eizehu chakham? Halomeid mikol adam.” Ben Zoma teaches us, “Who is wise? Someone who can learn from anyone.” Finding what to learn from the Vilna Gaon is trivial. But what are we to learn from the third son? “Tam, mah hu omeir?”
This temimus, this purity of belief and personality is accessible even — no, let me write “more so” — to the Yerushalmi’s tipeish, the simple boy who may not be able to understand everything going on around him, but who uses the all the beauty Hashem gave him to touch heaven with his fingertips.