A Jew is going to be knighted by the Queen of England, and as part of the ceremony he must say a phrase in Latin. At the ceremony each person is knighted by the queen and says their phrase in Latin. The Jew is knighted and then suddenly forgets the phrase. He quickly says the first non-English phrase that comes to mind, "Ma nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot?" The queen turns to her advisors and asks, "Why is this knight different from all other knights?"
- Traditional Jewish joke
A Quick Refresher on the Text
Context: This is from the Passover Haggadah, in the Maggid section, right after Ha Lachma Anya where we have invited anybody who is hungry to come join us. Ma Nishtana effectively kicks off the storytelling part of the Maggid section (which is where we tell the story).
Besides the fact that this is really The Four Answers, what questions does this text raise for you?
The sources in the Torah that relate to the mitzvah of telling the story
This is the origin of the Four Children. Clearly, we are commanded to tell the story to our children when they ask.
What if they don’t ask? How can you fulfill your requirement to tell them the story?
Context: This is from Maimonides, from the “Laws of Passover” part of the Mishneh Torah.
Educational psychology tells us that people learn better when they want to learn. If your child doesn’t ask the question spontaneously, what can you do in order to have a reason to tell them about Passover?
Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, which is about Passover.
Do kids need to drink 4 cups of wine? What about grape juice?
Why are we giving kids nuts?
Context: From Tractate Pesachim, again. When it says “remove the table”, it means “remove the Seder plate”. When it says “from before the one reciting the Haggadah”, it means “from the leader” because before the 1400s all Haggadot were handwritten, so there weren’t many copies.
What elements of the Seder do you notice in this text?
Why do you think they are taking away the leader’s plate at this point?
Context: This story, right after the previous text, takes place in Babylonia in the middle of the Talmudic period, perhaps around 350 C.E.
What can we learn from this story about how these rabbis understood the function of the Mah Nishtanah?
Why would someone be exempt from saying the Mah Nishtanah?
Context: This is the Gemara, commenting on the Mishnah’s version of Ma Nishtana (which we’ll see in a minute). Hebrew has no gender-neutral word for “offspring”, so when it says “his son” that can also be read as “his child” (especially in this day and age). This text is particularly important when you are at a seder without a young child; Judaism is not a pediatric religion.
If it’s not just about the child, why are questions so important?
Context: This is from the Mishnah, Tractate Pesachim, which is about Passover. It is in Chapter 10, which is about how the Seder is supposed to go (as of 200 CE). When it says “Mix the cup”, it’s because wine back then was super-strong and had to be diluted.
What is different about this first iteration of Ma Nishtana?
Who said Ma Nishtana originally? What was the purpose of it? Was it mandatory?
The Mishnah could be read as saying that Ma Nishtana was originally a set of prompts for the leader to ask the child in order to start a discussion about leaving Egypt (per the Biblical mandate). How would things be different if we did it that way today?
Eating Chametz and Matzah Together?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Leviticus, where it is talking about the different types of sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and Temple.
During the time of the Temple, were they eating chametz and matzah together?
Given that the Mishnah is oral tradition, what does this tell us about how far back the Four Questions might go?
The Evolution of the Dipping Question
Context: This is from Tractate Pesachim, trying to understand the text of Ma Nishtana in the Mishnah.
What is the original wording of the dipping question in the Mishnah, as repeated in our text?
How does that wording evolve in this text? What is the thinking that makes it change?
Context: This comes from Tractate Pesachim. The Talmud is trying to figure out if chazeret, which is sort of like karpas and sort of like maror, still requires two dippings.
Why is it so important to have two dippings?
How does this connect to the Torah commandment to tell your child about leaving Egypt?
The Seder is the Jewish version of festival banquets common throughout the Greco-Roman world called symposia. These dinners began with a meal and then turned to conversation, often prompted by a rhetorical question posed regarding the food just consumed. Originally, the Seder meal was eaten first...In the second century, however, as a response to guests who "ate and ran" without staying to hear the Passover story, the meal was postponed until later in the evening...the Palestinian [Jews] did not ask why people reclined, since reclining took place at all fancy dinners in Roman society. The Babylonians added that one, since reclining was unusual where they lived. Similarly, dipping lettuce as an hors d'oeuvre was usual at Roman banquets...So Palestinians asked why [on all other nights] people dipped once, [but on this night] twice. In Babylonia, where no dipping was the rule, the question became, "Why [normally] do we never dip, whereas at the Seder, we dip twice?"
Lawrence Hoffman in My People's Passover Haggadah p 154-155
Context: Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman wrote an explanatory series about the siddur called My People’s Prayerbook, which brings together a wide range of commentaries about each prayer. My People’s Haggadah is an addition to that series.
What have you learned about the Seder and its development from this text?
Context: This is from the Mishnah, Tractate Pesachim, right after Ma Nishtana, and it continues the discussion about what should be in the Maggid section of the Haggadah.
What do you notice about the things that Rabban Gamliel prioritized and the things mentioned in Ma Nishtana?
So what’s up with the roasted meat?
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, describing the first Passover when the Jews huddled in their homes as the plague of death passed by outside.
What do you notice about the things eaten on that first Passover, compared to what Rabban Gamliel and the original Ma Nishtana emphasize?
Context: This comes from the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy, where it is talking about the Passover Sacrifice. “The place that G-d chooses” would later be determined to be the Temple.
What does this tell us about where the Passover Sacrifice could be offered?
What does this mean for a time when that place wasn’t around?
Context: This is from Mishnah Pesachim, right before the part where it talks about Ma Nishtana. Chazeret is romaine lettuce; some people have it on their Seder plates today (if there are 6 spots). Dipping in vinegar is something that some Sephardic Jews do today for karpas during the Seder.
What does this text tell us about when the Roast Meat question was relevant?
Context: This is from the Gemara of Pesachim, commenting on the Mishnah of Pesachim. This part is commenting on the text where Rabban Gamliel said that you had to mention 3 things or you didn’t really do it right (matzah, maror, and the Passover Sacrifice).
What does this text tell us about when the roast meat question was relevant?
רי”ף פסחים כה ע”ב
והשתא לא לימא בשר צלי דלית לן פיסחא.
Rif Pesachim 25b
Nowadays one is not to say (the question) about roasted meat since we don’t have a Pesach.
Context: R. Yitzchak Alfasi (the Rif) was a great halakhic authority who lived in N. Africa in the tenth century.
Why don’t we “have a Pesach”?
Zevach Pesach, Don Isaac Abravanel
In the Four Questions, which mentions some of the things that are 'different' on this night, we mention eating matzah, bitter herbs, dipping twice, and leaning. We don't mention the Passover offering which our ancestors ate on this night, nor do we mention the four cups of wine, nor the numerous times we wash our hands. Why do we ask specifically about matzah, maror, dipping, and leaning?
We make mention of those things that remind us that we are free, like royalty and the King's advisors and we make mention of other things that are the exact opposite, that remind us that we were slaves, humiliated and ashamed. "On all other nights we are not obligated to dip even once but tonight we dip twice." We do this because tonight we are treated like free people and people of the upper class, as is exemplified by the fact that we eat our food with all types of appetizers. Dipping is the practice of royalty. On the other hand, we can eat any type of bread or matzah we want but tonight we must eat matzah, the bread of affliction, which is the food of slaves and laborers as has been mentioned. Similarly, on all other nights we can eat whatever vegetables we want but tonight we must eat bitter herbs, and it must be raw so as to be a sign of slavery and great poverty. And yet we also lean, a sign of leisure and freedom. Eating while leaning and in a leisurely manner is a sign of honor. Matzah and maror are symbols of slavery, while dipping and leaning are symbols of freedom and leisure. We mention them all at the seder to draw attention to the contradictory nature of this evening. There are two symbols of each because of the principle that two witnesses are needed to testify in any manner. The Passover offering and the wine do not testify to these matters.
Context: Abravanel was an advisor to the Spanish monarchs of King Ferdiannd and Queen Isabella, and he tried to convince them not to expel the Jews in 1492. He was also a Biblical commentator and wrote Zevach Pesach about the Haggadah.
What is Abravanel’s explanation about why we don’t say the Roasted Meat question now?
Context: This is from Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, which is his compilation of the rules in the Talmud with all the discussion taken out. Maimonides lived from 1135 to 1204 (“about half an hour” is the best way to remember that) in Spain and then Egypt where he was the Sultan’s physician. The reclining question was introduced by Saadia Gaon, the leader of the Babylonian (Iraqi) Jewish community in the late 900s.
This is the next major step on the evolution of Ma Nishtana. What does it show us?
Context: The Bartenura is Ovadiah ben Avraham from Bartenura; his nickname is from the place has was born. He was the leader of the Jerusalem community in the 1500s and wrote a commentary on the Mishnah. And yes, Bartenura wines are named after him because they are sourced from all over Italy and he was born there (https://www.wine.com/list/wine/bartenura/7155-6576#). Here, the Bartenura is commenting on the Mishnaic text that gave us the original Ma Nishtana.
Given what the Bartenura is saying, how far back do these questions seem to go before they were written down in the Mishnah?
Context: This is from the Mishnah, Tractate Pesachim. It kicks off Chapter 10, which tells us about how the Seder was supposed to go. It is followed by 10:2, which talks about the Kadesh step and Hillel and Shammai debating if you first “bless the wine” and then “bless the day” (Hillel’s position) or vice-versa (Hillel wins).
Coupling this with the Lawrence Hoffman text (reclining was a normal thing in the world of the Mishnah), why wasn’t reclining part of the original Ma Nishtana?
Speaking of reclining....
Context: This is from the Gemara of Pesachim, commenting on the Mishnah of Pesachim that mentions reclining (10:1).
When do we have to recline?
Why are we reclining to the left?
Variations on the order of the questions
Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, redacted around the year 400 CE in Tiberius. It is commenting on the Mishnah’s version of Ma Nishtana.
What do you notice about the order compared with the Mishnah (which was matzah, maror, meat, dipping)?
1.מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות
2.שבכל הלילות אין אנו מטבילין פעם אחת והלילה הזה שתי פעמים
3.שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים חמץ ומצה
הלילה הזה כלו מצה
4.שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בשר צלי שלוק ומבשל הלילה הזה כלי צלי
from the "Dropsie Haggadah"
1. Why is this night different from all other nights?
2. On all other nights we don't dip things one time; this night, two times.
3. On all other nights we eat leaven and matzah; this night, only matzah.
4. On all other nights we eat meat roasted, grilled, and boiled; this night, only roasted.
Context: This is from the “Dropsie Haggadah” a 10th or 11th century Eretz Yisrael haggadah looted from the Cairo Genizah in 19th century. It’s another landmark on the evolution of Ma Nishtana.
How does this text compare to the Jerusalem Talmud’s version?
Context: This is from a Sephardic Haggadah.
How does this version compare to the Jerusalem Talmud’s version?
How does it compare to the Ashkenazi version?
So why are questions so important, anyway?
Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11 (1988), was once asked, ''Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?''
His answer has served as an inspiration for me as an educator, as a credo for my son during his schooling and should be framed on the walls of all the pedagogues, power brokers and politicians who purport to run our society.
The question was posed to Dr. Rabi by his friend and mine, Arthur Sackler, himself a multitalented genius, who, sadly, also passed away recently. Dr. Rabi's answer, as reported by Dr. Sackler, was profound: ''My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!''
From a letter to the editor in the NYTimes by DONALD SHEFF New York, Jan. 12, 1988
Primo Levi (Holocaust survivor)
Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.
Questions are a Paradox
The key to Jewish exegesis is to assume that nothing is obvious. Questions are the great cultural paradox. They both destabilize and secure social norms. Nikita Kruschev, onetime leader of the Soviet Union, once explained why he hated Jews. He said, "They always ask why!"
Questions tend to democratize. Ease with questions conveys a fundamental trust in the goodwill and the good sense of others. Autocrats hate questions. We train children at the Passover seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty is won with a good question. It is for this reason that God loves it when we ask why.
Consequently, we celebrate challenging the Torah to make sense, and above all to be a defensible expression of Divine goodness...When we ask good questions, the Torah is given anew on Sinai at that very moment!
- Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God and Men
Throwing Candy at Seder
At the beginning of seder night, Jerusalem's Professor Reuven Feuerstein, world renowned special needs educator, always warns the children around the table: "Tonight is seder night. This is an important occasion and we have much to read, so we cannot be bothered with all sorts of questions. If you ask any questions, I will be forced to punish you: I will throw lots and lots of candies at you. Understood?"
Unsurprisingly, the children spend the rest of the night asking many questions, stopping only to collect the candies thrown at them by the old professor...
Which of these 4 “question ideas” appeals to you the most? Why?
What about the tune?
Traditionally, Ma Nishtana is recited in the chant form called the major lern-steiger ("study mode" – a chant used for reciting lessons from the Talmud). One of the current tunes widely used for the Ma Nishtana was written by Ephraim Abileah in 1936 as part of his oratorio "Chag Ha-Cherut". - Wikipedia, “Ma Nishtana”
Context: Ephraim Abileah was born as Leo Nesviski in Russia in 1881. The son of a cantor, he co-founded The Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg in 1908. A Zionist, He emigrated to the Land of Israel in 1922 and changed his name. He wrote a Passover oratorio to help move Jewish music away from the Diaspora and toward a Zionist Hebrew approach. His oratorio was only performed once, in Haifa in 1936, but the children’s chorus singing this tune left a lasting impression. In time, his tune supplanted the Yiddish version of Ashkenazi Jews and spread to many Sephardic, Mizrahi, and even Ugandan Jewish homes. (Http://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/passover/melodies-four-questions-mah-nishtanah-tunes-passover; https://www.myjewishlearning.com/jewish-and/the-global-history-of-ma-nishtana/)
With appreciation to Ori Bergman, Rachel Buckman, Lee Buckman, The Conservative Yeshiva, Seth Kadish, Rabbi Alan Litwack, Meyme Nakash, Josh Franklin, Phil Bressler, Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Amitai Adler, Sam Blumberg, Ephraim Diamond, Brett Lockspeiser, Nelly Altenburger, Rabbi Amy Loewenthal, Ari Elias-Bachrach, Sara Zober, Scott Bolton, Rona Shapiro, Russell Neiss, AlphaBeta.org, Wikipedia, the URJ, and MyJewishLearning.com.