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:
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).