Maggid: The Four Questions ZIVA R. HASSENFELD

Anyone who has been to a seder knows that the Four Questions can often be a painful process. The tune is terrible, the questions are scripted, and, most of the time, the child doesn’t know what she is asking. Too often, the ritualized recitation feels like an embodiment of the idea that children should be obedient, following instructions and performing on command, rather than making their own meaning in the world.

But when we turn to Mishnah Pesaḥim 10:4, the source of the Four Questions, a very different picture emerges. With its words, “Here, the son asks his father questions,” this mishnah invites parents to make space in the seder for their children’s own questions:

(ד) מָזְגוּ לוֹ כוֹס שֵׁנִי, וְכָאן הַבֵּן שׁוֹאֵל אָבִיו, וְאִם אֵין דַּעַת בַּבֵּן, אָבִיו מְלַמְּדוֹ, מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת, שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻלּוֹ מַצָּה. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בָּשָׂר צָלִי, שָׁלוּק, וּמְבֻשָּׁל, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻלּוֹ צָלִי. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין פַּעַם אַחַת, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים. וּלְפִי דַעְתּוֹ שֶׁל בֵּן, אָבִיו מְלַמְּדוֹ. מַתְחִיל בִּגְנוּת וּמְסַיֵּם בְּשֶׁבַח, וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ:

(4) They mixed him a second cup, and here the son questions his father. If the son lacks the intelligence to ask, his father instructs him: On all other nights we dip once, on this night we dip twice? On all other nights we eat hametz or matzah, on this night only matzah. On all other nights we eat roasted, stewed or boiled meat, on this night only roasted. He begins with shame and concludes with praise; and expounds from “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deuteronomy 6:20-25) until he completes the whole section.

As this mishnah makes clear, in an ideal scenario, the child comes to the seder with her own original questions. If this is not the case, the child, nonetheless, remains at the center of the ritual. The parent models questions for the child. The Babylonian Talmud (B. Pesaḥim 116a) goes on to add one more level of differentiation: if the child can’t handle four model questions, give her fewer.

What emerges here is an approach to children’s learning that begins from a place of their questions, not just for the most eager or engaged child but for all children. Yes, the Mishnah and Talmud affirm a place for ritualized telling even in the questions we have children ask. But equally importantly, the Mishnah and Talmud also encourage children to come up with their own questions. Sometimes, in our own proclivity towards how it’s always been done, we forget to strive for the Talmud’s ideal— that children bring their own authentic questions to our seder table, our Jewish lives, and our Jewish learning

What might this approach to the Four Questions look like? In Opening Dialogue, educational researcher Martin Nystrand reminds us that asking questions is the key to learning.1 When we ask our children truly openended questions instead of test-questions with right and wrong answers, and when we show our children that we care about their questions, they begin to see themselves as legitimate participants in the conversation. The Mishnah’s vision of the seder is one where adults and children can come together as partners, though not always equal partners, in the project of learning and thinking about the meaning of the Pesaḥ story.

1Martin Nystrand, Opening Dialogue: Understanding the Dynamics of Language and Learning in the English Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press 1997).