The Story of the 4 Questions, Cups, and Children

The Story of the Four Questions

A Jewish Joke:

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

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת? 1.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה.

2.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה (כֻּלּוֹ) מָרוֹר.

3.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים. 4.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.

What differentiates this night from all other nights?

1. On all other nights we eat leavened and unleavened bread; this night, only unleavened.

2. On all other nights we eat other vegetables; tonight (only) bitter herbs.

3. On all other nights we don't dip our food even one time; tonight we dip it twice.

4. On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining; tonight we all recline.

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?

​​​​​​​Telling the Story

(כו) וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ (כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃

(26) And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ (27) you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when G-d smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” The people then bowed low in homage.

This is the origin of the Four Children, along with Ex. 13:8, Ex. 13:14, and Deut. 6:20. 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?

Getting Kids to Ask

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן הַכֹּל חַיָּיבִין בְּאַרְבָּעָה כּוֹסוֹת הַלָּלוּ אֶחָד אֲנָשִׁים וְאֶחָד נָשִׁים וְאֶחָד תִּינוֹקוֹת אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְכִי מָה תּוֹעֶלֶת יֵשׁ לְתִינוֹקוֹת בְּיַיִן אֶלָּא מְחַלְּקִין לָהֶן קְלָיוֹת וֶאֱגוֹזִין בְּעֶרֶב פֶּסַח כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִשְׁנוּ וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אָמְרוּ עָלָיו עַל רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא שֶׁהָיָה מְחַלֵּק קְלָיוֹת וֶאֱגוֹזִין לְתִינוֹקוֹת בְּעֶרֶב פֶּסַח כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִשְׁנוּ וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ תַּנְיָא רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר חוֹטְפִין מַצּוֹת בְּלֵילֵי פְּסָחִים בִּשְׁבִיל תִּינוֹקוֹת שֶׁלֹּא יִשְׁנוּ

The Sages taught in a baraita: All are obligated in these four cups, including men, women, and children. Rabbi Yehuda said: What benefit do children receive from wine? They do not enjoy it. Rather, one distributes to them roasted grains and nuts on Passover eve, so that they will not sleep and also so they will ask the four questions at night. They said about Rabbi Akiva that he would distribute roasted grains and nuts to children on Passover eve, so that they would not sleep and so they would ask. It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: One grabs the matzot on the nights of Passover on account of the children, so they will not sleep and they will inquire into the meaning of this unusual practice.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, which is about Passover.

Why are we giving kids nuts?

(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) The attendants poured (literally: mixed) the second cup for the leader of the seder, and here the child asks their father the questions about the differences between Passover night and a regular night. And if the child does not have the intelligence to ask questions on their own, their father teaches them the questions. The mishna lists the questions: Why is this night different from all other nights? As on all other nights we eat leavened bread and matza as preferred; on this night all our bread is matza. As on all other nights we eat other vegetables; on this night we eat bitter herbs. The mishna continues its list of the questions. When the Temple was standing one would ask: As on all other nights we eat either roasted, stewed, or cooked meat, but on this night all the meat is the roasted meat of the Paschal lamb. The final question was asked even after the destruction of the Temple: As on all other nights we dip the vegetables in a liquid during the meal only once; however, on this night we dip twice. And according to the intelligence and the ability of the child, his father teaches them about the Exodus. When teaching his child about the Exodus he begins with the Jewish people’s disgrace and concludes with their glory. And he expounds from the passage: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5), the declaration one recites when presenting his first fruits at the Temple, until he concludes explaining the entire section.

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?

The Evolution of the Dipping Question

מָה נִשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכׇּל הַלֵּילוֹת שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין פַּעַם אֶחָת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים מַתְקֵיף לַהּ רָבָא אַטּוּ כׇּל יוֹמָא לָא סַגִּיא דְּלָא מְטַבְּלָא חֲדָא זִימְנָא אֶלָּא אָמַר רָבָא הָכִי קָתָנֵי שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ חַיָּיבִין לְטַבֵּל אֲפִילּוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים

The mishna states that one of the questions is: Why is this night different from all other nights? As on all other nights we dip once; however, on this night we dip twice. Rava strongly objects to this statement of the mishna: Is that to say that on every other day there is no alternative but to dip once? Is there an obligation to dip at all on other days, as indicated by the wording of the mishna? Rather, Rava said that this is what the mishna is teaching: As on all other nights we are not obligated to dip even once; however, on this night we are obligated to dip twice.

מַתְקֵיף לַהּ רַב סָפְרָא חִיּוּבָא לְדַרְדְּקֵי אֶלָּא אָמַר רַב סָפְרָא הָכִי קָתָנֵי אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילּוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים

Rav Safra strongly objects to this explanation: Is it obligatory for the children? As previously mentioned, the reason one dips twice is to encourage the children to ask questions. How can this be called an obligation? Rather, Rav Safra said that this is what the mishna is teaching: We do not normally dip even once; however, on this night we dip twice. This wording is preferable, as it indicates the performance of an optional act.

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?

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?

The Roast Meat Question

(ה) רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר, כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלֹשָׁה דְבָרִים אֵלּוּ בְּפֶסַח, לֹא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן, פֶּסַח, מַצָּה, וּמָרוֹר. ...

(5) Rabban Gamliel would say: Anyone who did not say these three matters on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: The Paschal lamb, matza, and bitter herbs. When one mentions these matters, he must elaborate and explain them...

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?

(ג) דַּבְּר֗וּ אֶֽל־כָּל־עֲדַ֤ת יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר בֶּעָשֹׂ֖ר לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וְיִקְח֣וּ לָהֶ֗ם אִ֛ישׁ שֶׂ֥ה לְבֵית־אָבֹ֖ת שֶׂ֥ה לַבָּֽיִת׃ (ח) וְאָכְל֥וּ אֶת־הַבָּשָׂ֖ר בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּ֑ה צְלִי־אֵ֣שׁ וּמַצּ֔וֹת עַל־מְרֹרִ֖ים יֹאכְלֻֽהוּ׃ (ט) אַל־תֹּאכְל֤וּ מִמֶּ֙נּוּ֙ נָ֔א וּבָשֵׁ֥ל מְבֻשָּׁ֖ל בַּמָּ֑יִם כִּ֣י אִם־צְלִי־אֵ֔שׁ...

(3) Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: In the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household;... (8) They shall eat the flesh that night, roast with fire and matzah; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. (9) Don't eat it raw, nor at all sodden with water, but roast with fire...

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?

(ז) וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ֙ וְאָ֣כַלְתָּ֔ בַּמָּק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ וּפָנִ֣יתָ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וְהָלַכְתָּ֖ לְאֹהָלֶֽיךָ׃
(7) You shall cook and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose; and in the morning you may start back on your journey home.

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?

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”?

(ב)... וּמוֹזְגִין הַכּוֹס הַשֵּׁנִי וְכָאן הַבֵּן שׁוֹאֵל. וְאוֹמֵר הַקּוֹרֵא מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִלּוּ פַּעַם אַחַת וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְּעָמִים. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בְּשַׂר צָלִי שָׁלוּק וּמְבֻשָּׁל וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ צָלִי. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מְרוֹרִים. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין בֵּין מְסֻבִּין וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין:

(ג) בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה אֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ צָלִי שֶׁאֵין לָנוּ קָרְבָּן.

(2) ... We [then] pour the second cup; and here the child asks. And [then] the reader says, "What differentiates this night from all [other] nights? On all other nights we don't dip even once; but tonight twice. On all other nights we eat chametz and matzah; but tonight it is all matzah. On all other nights we eat meat roasted, boiled, or cooked; but tonight it is all roasted. On all other nights we eat other vegetables; but tonight it is all bitter herbs. On all other nights we eat whether sitting or reclining; but tonight we are all reclining."

(3) At this time, one does not say "tonight it is all roasted" - since we do not have a sacrifice.

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, because by that point the Greco-Roman custom of reclining was not in vogue anymore.

This is the next major step on the evolution of Ma Nishtana. What does it show us?

Variations on the order of the questions

אביו מלמדו מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות

שבכל הלילות אנו מטבילין פעם אחת והלילה הזה שתי פעמים

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה והלילה הזה כולו מצה

שבכל הלילות אוכלין בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל והלילה הזה כולו צלי...

One's father teaches them [to ask]: "Why is this night different from all [other] nights? On all [other] nights, we dip [vegetables] once, [but] on this night, we dip [vegetables] twice.

On all [other] nights, we eat chametz (leavened grain products) and matzah, [but] on this night, it is all matzah.

On all [other] nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, [but] on this night, it is all roasted. "...

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?

(א) מוזגים כוס שני ומסלקים את הקערה כאלו כבר אכלו כדי שיראו התינוקות וישאלו

(ב) מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה. מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת: שֶׁבְּכָל-הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מְטַבְּלִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אַחַת. וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים: שֶׁבְּכָל-הַלֵּילוֹת אֲנַחְנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ אוֺ מַצָּה. וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה: שֶׁבְּכָל-הַלֵּילוֹת אֲנַחְנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת. וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר: שֶׁבְּכָל-הַלֵּילוֹת אֲנַחְנוּ אוֹכְלִין וְשׁוֺתִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין. וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין:

(1) We pour the second cup and remove the Seder plate as if we have finished the Seder so the children will wonder and ask.

(2) Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights we don’t even dip once, and on this night, twice.

On all other nights we eat chametz and matzah, and on this night, only matzah.

On all other nights we eat many vegetables, and on this night, maror.

On all other nights we eat and drink sitting and reclining, and on this night we all recline.

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?

The Importance of Questions

גְּמָ׳ תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן חָכָם בְּנוֹ שׁוֹאֲלוֹ וְאִם אֵינוֹ חָכָם אִשְׁתּוֹ שׁוֹאַלְתּוֹ וְאִם לָאו הוּא שׁוֹאֵל לְעַצְמוֹ וַאֲפִילּוּ שְׁנֵי תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים שֶׁיּוֹדְעִין בְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח שׁוֹאֲלִין זֶה לָזֶה

GEMARA: The Sages taught: If his son is wise and knows how to inquire, his son asks him. And if he is not wise, his wife asks him. And if even his wife is not capable of asking or if he has no wife, he asks himself. And even if two Torah scholars who know the halakhot of Passover are sitting together and there is no one else present to pose the questions, they ask each other [this leads into the Ma Nishtana]

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?

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

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/)

For a longer version of this section, see this sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/226061?lang=bi

The Story of the Four Cups

עַרְבֵי פְסָחִים סָמוּךְ לַמִּנְחָה, לֹא יֹאכַל אָדָם עַד שֶׁתֶּחְשָׁךְ. וַאֲפִלּוּ עָנִי שֶׁבְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֹאכַל עַד שֶׁיָּסֵב. וְלֹא יִפְחֲתוּ לוֹ מֵאַרְבַּע כּוֹסוֹת שֶׁל יַיִן, וַאֲפִלּוּ מִן הַתַּמְחוּי:
On the eve of Passover, adjacent to minḥa time, a person may not eat until dark, so that he will be able to eat matza that night with a hearty appetite. Even the poorest of Jews should not eat the meal on Passover night until he reclines on his left side, as free and wealthy people recline when they eat. And the distributors of charity should not give a poor person less than four cups of wine for the Festival meal of Passover night. And this halakha applies even if the poor person is one of the poorest members of society and receives his food from the charity plate.

Context: This is from the Mishnah, Masechet (Tractate) Pesachim, which is about Passover. Chapter 10 gives the origins of many components of the Seder. This is the first mention of this custom.

Why four cups of wine?

(א) ערבי פסחים סמוך למנחה...ולא יפחתו לו מארבעה כוסות של יין... (ב) מזגו לו כוס ראשון...מברך על היין, ואחר כך מברך על היום. (ד) מזגו לו כוס שני, וכאן הבן שואל אביו. (ז) מזגו לו כוס שלישי, מברך על מזונו.רביעי, גומר עליו את ההלל, ואומר עליו ברכת השיר.בין הכוסות הללו, אם רוצה לשתות, ישתה.בין שלישי לרביעי, לא ישתה.

(1) On the eve of Passover... they must give a person no fewer than four cups of wine.... (2) They mix the first cup...He recites a blessing over the wine, and then recites a blessing for the day. (4) They mix a second cup for him. And here the child questions the father... (7) They mix a third cup; he blesses [after] his meal. [The] fourth [cup] is concluded with Hallel, which he says with the [concluding] blessing. Between these cups, if he wishes to drink, he may drink. Between the third and the fourth [cups], he may not drink.

Context: This is also from Mishnah Pesachim, specifically the parts of Chapter 10 that mention the four cups. The first cup is for the Kadesh step, where we say a short blessing over the wine/grape juice, and a longer paragraph over "the day", saying that Passover is now "holy" time, distinct from the rest of the year. The second cup is "mixed" (back then wine had to be diluted) prior to the Four Questions in Magid. The third cup is for Barech, when we thank G-d for our dinner after eating, and the fourth cup is at the Hallel step.

But What About the Demons?

ולא יפחתו לו מארבעה: היכי מתקני רבנן מידי דאתי בה לידי סכנה והתניא לא יאכל אדם תרי ולא ישתה תרי ולא יקנח תרי ולא יעשה צרכיו תרי אמר רב נחמן אמר קרא (שמות יב, מב) ליל שמורים ליל המשומר ובא מן המזיקין רבא אמר כוס של ברכה מצטרף לטובה ואינו מצטרף לרעה רבינא אמר ארבעה כסי תקינו רבנן דרך חירות כל חד וחד מצוה באפי נפשה הוא

We learned in the mishna that even with regard to the poorest of Jews, the charity distributors should not give him less than four cups of wine. The Gemara asks: How could the Sages establish a matter through which one will come to expose himself to danger? But wasn’t it taught in a baraita: A person should not eat pairs, i.e., an even number of food items; and he should not drink pairs of cups; and he should not wipe himself with pairs; and he should not attend to his sexual needs in pairs. The concern was that one who uses pairs exposes himself to sorcery or demons. Why would the Sages require one to drink an even number of cups and thereby place himself in a position of danger? Rav Naḥman said that the verse said: “It was a night of watching to the Lord” (Exodus 12:42), which indicates that Passover night is a night that remains guarded from demons and harmful spirits of all kinds. Therefore, there is no cause for concern about this form of danger on this particular night. Rava said a different answer: The cup of blessing for Grace after Meals on Passover night is used in the performance of an additional mitzva and is not simply an expression of freedom. Therefore, it combines with the other cups for the good, i.e., to fulfill the mitzva to drink four cups, and it does not combine for the bad. With regard to the danger of drinking pairs of cups, it is as though one drinks only three cups. Ravina said: The Sages instituted four separate cups, each of which is consumed in a manner that demonstrates freedom. Therefore, each and every one is a distinct mitzva in its own right. In other words, each cup is treated separately and one is not considered to be drinking in pairs.

Context: This is from the Gemara on the first mishnah we looked at. There was a concern that doing things in pairs might expose one to danger from demons, so drinking 4 cups was a problem. The rabbis came up with 3 answers (because that's an odd number):

1. Rav Nahman - The Torah says that Passover was "a night of watching" for G-d, so G-d will protect us from demons.

2. Rava - The third cup is used for Birkat HaMazon, thanking G-d for our food, and that's a separate mitzvah. Therefore, it's really 3 cups, plus an extra one.

3. Ravina - Really, each cup is its own separate commandment, so we're not doing 1 4-cup commandment (which is an even number), but rather we're doing 4 1-cup commandments (which is an odd number).

If you were to be concerned about demons, which argument, if any, would convince you it was OK to drink all 4 cups?

Why Recline?

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...[In the Four Questions] 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.

The rabbis wanted the Seder to remind us that we were free, no matter how poor a given Jew might be. Therefore, they modeled it on what the freest people in the world, the upper-class Greco-Romans, did -- the symposium (a Greek word for “to drink together”). There were hor d'oeuvres (dipped in liquid) and drinking wine, all while reclining and discussing important ideas. Despite what the Talmud claims, we lean to the left when we drink because the Romans reclined to the left. The reason the Romans reclined to the left is that they often were insulted by comments they misunderstand due to the wine, and by reclining to the left they had easy access (as right-handed people) to their swords.

How does it change the meaning of the Four Cups for you to know that they are modeled on the symposium?

וַאֲפִילּוּ עָנִי שֶׁבְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֹאכַל עַד שֶׁיָּסֵב. אִיתְּמַר: מַצָּה צָרִיךְ הֲסִיבָּה, מָרוֹר אֵין צָרִיךְ הֲסִיבָּה. יַיִן, אִיתְּמַר מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַב נַחְמָן: צָרִיךְ הֲסִיבָּה. וְאִיתְּמַר מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַב נַחְמָן: אֵין צָרִיךְ הֲסִיבָּה. וְלָא פְּלִיגִי: הָא בְּתַרְתֵּי כָּסֵי קַמָּאֵי, הָא בְּתַרְתֵּי כָּסֵי בָּתְרָאֵי. אָמְרִי לַהּ לְהַאי גִּיסָא וְאָמְרִי לַהּ לְהַאי גִּיסָא. אָמְרִי לַהּ לְהַאי גִּיסָא: תְּרֵי כָּסֵי קַמָּאֵי — בָּעוּ הֲסִיבָּה, דְּהַשְׁתָּא הוּא דְּקָא מַתְחֲלָא לַהּ חֵירוּת. תְּרֵי כָּסֵי בָּתְרָאֵי — לָא בָּעוּ הֲסִיבָּה, מַאי דַּהֲוָה הֲוָה. וְאָמְרִי לַהּ לְהַאי גִּיסָא: אַדְּרַבָּה, תְּרֵי כָּסֵי בָּתְרָאֵי — בָּעוּ הֲסִיבָּה, הָהִיא שַׁעְתָּא דְּקָא הָוְיָא חֵירוּת. תְּרֵי כָּסֵי קַמָּאֵי — לָא בָּעוּ הֲסִיבָּה, דְּאַכַּתִּי ״עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ״ קָאָמַר. הַשְׁתָּא דְּאִיתְּמַר הָכִי וְאִיתְּמַר הָכִי, אִידֵּי וְאִידֵּי בָּעוּ הֲסִיבָּה.
We learned in the mishna that even the poorest of Jews should not eat until he reclines. It was stated that amora’im discussed the requirement to recline. Everyone agrees that matza requires reclining, i.e., one must recline when eating matza, and bitter herbs do not require reclining. With regard to wine, it was stated in the name of Rav Naḥman that wine requires reclining, and it was also stated in the name of Rav Naḥman that wine does not require reclining. The Gemara explains: And these two statements do not disagree with each other: This statement is referring to the first two cups, and that statement is referring to the last two cups. However, it was not clear which two cups require reclining according to Rav Naḥman. Some say the explanation in this manner and some say it in that manner. The Gemara elaborates: Some say it in this manner, that the first two cups require reclining, as it is now that freedom begins. Since reclining is a sign of freedom, while discussing the exodus from Egypt it is appropriate to drink while reclining. By contrast, the last two cups do not require reclining, because what was already was. In other words, by this point one has completed the discussion of the Exodus and has reached the latter stages of the seder. And some say it in that manner and claim that on the contrary, the last two cups require reclining, as it is at that time that there is freedom. However, the first two cups do not require reclining, as one still says: We were slaves. The Gemara concludes: Now that it was stated so, and it was stated so, i.e., there are two conflicting opinions and it cannot be proven which two cups require reclining, both these sets of cups and those require reclining.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Pesachim. Note that "amora'im" are the rabbis who lived after the Mishnah, during the time of the Gemara (200-500 CE in Babylonia, 200-400 CE in the Land of Israel). This text is trying to understand the Mishnah’s statement (10:1) that one needs to recline and to drink 4 cups of wine (or grape juice) at the Seder. Reclining happens when we eat the matzah, eat the Hillel Sandwich, eat the Afikomen, and drink each of the 4 cups.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rav Levi explains, “It is the way of slaves to eat standing up, so we recline in order to know that we went from slavery to freedom.” (JT Pesachim 68b:13). The matzah reminds us of freedom because we ate it when leaving Egypt (Ex. 12:34), and the wine because that’s what free people got to do in their society.

Rav Nachman bar Ya’akov lived in Babylonia around 250-300 CE. It seems that his students couldn’t remember what he said about whether and when one ought to lean while drinking at the seder.

Which of these ideas most appeals to you?

A. Lean for the first 2 cups but not the last 2, because we’re only talking about leaving Egypt before dinner.

B. Lean for the last 2 cups but not the first 2, because we were slaves before we were free.

C. Lean for all 4 cups, because the seder helps us remember that we are free.

Why 4 Cups?

מניין לארבעה כוסות רבי יוחנן בשם ר' ר' בנייה כנגד ארבע גאולות (שמות ו) לכן אמור לבני ישראל אני ה' והוצאתי אתכם וגו' ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם וגומר והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר כנגד ארבעה כוסות של פרעה (בראשית מ) וכוס פרעה בידי ואשחט אותם אל כוס פרעה ואתן את הכוס על כף פרעה ונתת כוס פרעה בידו וגו'. רבי לוי אמר כנגד ארבעה מלכיות ורבנן אמרי כנגד ד' כוסות של פורענות שהקב"ה עתיד להשקות את אומות העולם (ירמיהו כה, טו) כי כה אמר ה' אלקי ישראל אלי קח את כוס היין החימה וגו' כוס זהב בבל ביד ה' (תהילים עה) כי כוס ביד ה' (תהילים יא) ימטר על רשעים פחים אש וגפרית ורוח זלעפות מנת כוסם מהו מנת כוסם רבי אבין אמר דיפלי פוטירין כדיפלי פוטירין אחר המרחץ וכנגד עתיד הקב"ה להשקות את ישראל ארבעה כוסות של נחמות (תהילים טז) ה' מנת חלקי וכוסי (תהילים כג) דשנת בשמן ראשי כוסי רויה והדין (תהילים קטז) כוס ישועות אשא תריין.

From where [do we know the requirement to drink] four cups? Rabbi Yochanan [said] in the name of Rav, "Rabbi Banniah said, 'Corresponding to the four [expressions of] salvation: "Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out, etc. And I will take you to Me for a people, etc."(Exodus 6:6-7). "And I will bring you out, and I will rescue you, and I will save you, And I will take you."' Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, 'Corresponding to the four cups of Pharaoh: "And the cup of Pharaoh was in my hand and I squeezed them into the cup of Pharaoh and I placed the cup onto the palm of Pharaoh... and you will place the cup of Pharaoh, etc." (Genesis 40:11-13).' Rabbi Levi said, 'Corresponding to the four kingdoms' and the rabbis said, 'Corresponding to the four cups of punishment that the Holy One of Blessing will make the nations of the world drink in the future: "For so said Ad-nai, the God of Israel to me, 'Take the cup of wine of anger, etc.'" (Jeremiah 25:15); "A golden cup is Babylonia in the hand of the Lord" (Jeremiah 51:7); "As it is a cup in the hand of the Lord" (Psalms 75:9); "Upon the wicked God will cause to rain coals; fire and brimstone and burning wind shall be the portion of their cup" (Psalms 11:6).'" What is 'the portion of their cup'? Rabi Avin said the vial of Poterion wine that is given after the bath [in the bath house]. And in the future the Holy One of Blessing will make Israel drink four cups of consolation: 'God is my portion my cup' (Psalms 16:5); 'You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows' (Psalms 23:5); and also 'I will lift up the cup of salvations' (Psalms 116:13) - that counts as two.

Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Pesachim. There are 4 explanations (surprised by that number?) given for the 4 cups:

A. Rav Yochanan: There are 4 verbs used in Exodus to describe G-d taking us out of Egypt.

B. Rabbi Yehoshua: When Pharaoh’s butler describes his dream to Joseph, he uses the word “cup” 4 times.

C. Rabbi Levi: Daniel saw 4 kingdoms oppressing the Jews.

D. The Sages: There are 4 times that the Bible mentions a “cup of punishment” for those who oppress the Jews, and 4 times that the Bible mentions a cup meant to console the Israelites (really 3 times, but the last time says “cups”)

Which explanation do you buy the most and why?

The Maharal's Take

Two 16th C. mystic rabbis identify the Four Cups with the Four Matriarchs of Israel. The Maharal of Prague (famous for the legend of Golem) and Rav Isaiah Horowitz of Tsfat explain:

(1) The Cup of Kiddush stands for Sarah who was the mother of a community of converts, believers by choice.

(2) The Cup of Maggid is for Rebecca who knew how to mother both Esav and Jacob, two opposed natures.

(3) The Cup of the Blessing after Eating represents Rachel whose son Joseph provided the whole family of Jacob with bread in a time of great famine.

(4) The Cup of Hallel (Praise) is for Leah who came to realize that the pursuit of the impossible, Jacob's love, must give way to appreciation of what one has. When her fourth child was born, Judah, she praised God: " This time I will thank God " (Genesis 29:35).

Source: https://www.haggadot.com/clip/4-cups-4-promises-and-4-mothers, citing A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, which gives the references of "Gevurot Adoshem, p.77d" for the Maharal (Rabbi Judah Levy Loew), and "Shnei Luchot Habrit, p.156a" for R. Isaiah Horowitz, both cited by Yael Levine in Kolech 31 (Nissan 5761).

Another explanation...

On Pesach the four cups are a guarantee of an ample meal. They remind some historians of a Roman custom of drinking as many cups as there were letters in the name of the chief guest.

Who is the chief guest at Seder?

Not Moses, for he barely rates a mention. Not Elijah, for Jews in Roman times were unaware that he would later play a colourful role at the Seder.

The chief guest is God Himself, who redeemed us from Egypt – and His Hebrew name has four letters!

https://www.oztorah.com/2012/04/four-cups-of-wine

For a longer version of this section, see this sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/306444?lang=bi

The Story of the Four Children

בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה: אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.

Blessed be the Place [of all], Blessed be God; Blessed be the One who Gave the Torah to God’s people Israel, Blessed be God. Corresponding to four children did the Torah speak: one [who is] wise, one [who is] evil, one who is innocent, and one who doesn't know to ask.

Context: This is from the Passover Haggadah, in the Maggid section. It comes after “Ma Nishtana” (which is based on the Mishnah saying that if your child asks why this night is different then you should tell them, and if they don’t know how to ask then you should teach them to say the ‘Ma Nishtana’ - Mishnah Pesachim 10:4), and then after the Haggadah says that it is praiseworthy to talk about the Exodus from Egypt.

It should be noted that Pirkei Avot 3:14 refers to the Jews as “children of ‘the Place’ " (not that it says others aren’t also G-d’s children). The author of the Haggadah may have had that in mind when crafting this section.

Additionally, the Biblical Book of Proverbs says that one should teach a child according to their way (22:6), and this may have been consciously or sub-consciously on the mind of the author of the part of the Haggadah (or its source texts). Similarly, the Mishnah says that according to the abilities of the child do you teach them about the Exodus (Pesachim 10:4).

Because there are 4 times that the Torah says that you should tell your child about Passover, the rabbis assumed that this must be 4 different types of children who were getting 4 different answers. Otherwise, the Torah could have said this once and been done with it.

We know that children are different. If you were to say “There are 4 types of children”, which 4 would you choose?

Step 1: The Biblical Source Texts

(כה) וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֧ן יְהֹוָ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֵּ֑ר וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ (כו) וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ (כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֽוּ׃

(25) And when you enter the land that יהוה will give you, as promised, you shall observe this rite. (26) And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ (27) you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to יהוה, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ Those assembled then bowed low in homage.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right after the instructions are given for the first Passover (painting the doorposts with blood and such) and right before the Death of the Firstborn plague actually happens.

Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?

(ז) מַצּוֹת֙ יֵֽאָכֵ֔ל אֵ֖ת שִׁבְעַ֣ת הַיָּמִ֑ים וְלֹֽא־יֵרָאֶ֨ה לְךָ֜ חָמֵ֗ץ וְלֹֽא־יֵרָאֶ֥ה לְךָ֛ שְׂאֹ֖ר בְּכׇל־גְּבֻלֶֽךָ׃ (ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
(7) Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. (8) And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, after the Israelites were freed from slavery and Moses told them to keep the holiday of Passover every year.

Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?

(יג) וְכׇל־פֶּ֤טֶר חֲמֹר֙ תִּפְדֶּ֣ה בְשֶׂ֔ה וְאִם־לֹ֥א תִפְדֶּ֖ה וַעֲרַפְתּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֨ל בְּכ֥וֹר אָדָ֛ם בְּבָנֶ֖יךָ תִּפְדֶּֽה׃ (יד) וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֣ר מַה־זֹּ֑את וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֗ד הוֹצִיאָ֧נוּ יְהֹוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃ (טו) וַיְהִ֗י כִּֽי־הִקְשָׁ֣ה פַרְעֹה֮ לְשַׁלְּחֵ֒נוּ֒ וַיַּהֲרֹ֨ג יְהֹוָ֤ה כׇּל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מִבְּכֹ֥ר אָדָ֖ם וְעַד־בְּכ֣וֹר בְּהֵמָ֑ה עַל־כֵּן֩ אֲנִ֨י זֹבֵ֜חַ לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה כׇּל־פֶּ֤טֶר רֶ֙חֶם֙ הַזְּכָרִ֔ים וְכׇל־בְּכ֥וֹר בָּנַ֖י אֶפְדֶּֽה׃

(13) But every firstling donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every male first-born among your children. (14) And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that יהוה brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. (15) When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, יהוה slew every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both human and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to יהוה every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every male first-born among my children.’

Context: This comes a few verses later, right around the first time that the commandment of Tefillin is given.

According to the Torah (Ex. 13:2, 13:12, Num. 3:13, 18:15-16), the first-born of everything belongs to G-d, including first fruits. Since G-d has no body, the way this works is that G-d gets the pleasing smells (basically of holy barbecue) and the priests with their families get to eat the meat, grains, and “fruits” (includes vegetables) that the Israelites bring. This is because the priests don’t get their own portion of land (Num. 18:20), so they are dependent on the Israelites to bring them food. The donkey was the only non-kosher domesticated animal that the Israelites had, so it got redeemed with a sheep (as in, you gave the sheep to the priests and kept the donkey). Originally, the first borns were the ones who were supposed to serve G-d, but after they succumbed to the idolatry at the Golden Calf and the Levites didn’t, the Levites got the job and the first-born non-Levites had to be redeemed with “the money equivalent of 5 shekels” (Num. 18:15-16). This is why you don’t have a pidyon haben if you are a Kohen or Levite.

Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?

(כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם׃ (כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֛ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיֹּצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְהֹוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃ (כב) וַיִּתֵּ֣ן יְהֹוָ֡ה אוֹתֹ֣ת וּ֠מֹפְתִ֠ים גְּדֹלִ֨ים וְרָעִ֧ים ׀ בְּמִצְרַ֛יִם בְּפַרְעֹ֥ה וּבְכׇל־בֵּית֖וֹ לְעֵינֵֽינוּ׃
(20) When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that our God יהוה has enjoined upon you?” (21) you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and יהוה freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. (22) יהוה wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household;

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy, right after the Shema and V’Ahavta.

Which child would you associate this verse with: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Doesn’t Know How to Ask?

Step 2: The Mechilta

(א) … ארבעה בנים הם, אחד חכם ואחד רשע ואחד תם ואחד שאינו יודע לשאול. חכם מה הוא אומר, מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו, אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן. רשע מה הוא אומר, מה העבודה הזאת לכם, לכם ולא לו. ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל כפר בעיקר, אף אתה הקהה את שניו ואמור לו – בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יב). לי ולא לך אילו היית שם, לא היית נגאל. תם מה הוא אומר, מה זאת – ואמרת אליו בחוזק יד הוציאנו ה' ממצרים מבית עבדים. ושאינו יודע לשאול, את פתח לו – שנאמר והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא וכו'.

(1) …There are four children: a wise child, a wicked child, a simple child, and one who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? "What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the L-rd our G-d commanded us?" — you, likewise, "open" to him in the halachot of Pesach — "we don’t eat after the afikomen." What does the wicked child say? (Exodus 12:26) "What is this (Pesach) service to you?" "to you" and not to them. Because they disassociated themselves from the congregation and denied the foundation (of the faith), you, likewise, blunt their teeth and tell them (Ibid. 13:8) "Because of this (that) the L-rd wrought for me when I went out of Egypt." For me and not for you. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed. What does the simple child say? (Ibid. 14) "What is this?" And you shall tell them (Ibid.) "With might of hand did the L-rd take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage." And the one who does not know how to ask, you open for them, as it is written (Ibid. 8) "And you shall tell your child on that day, etc."

Context: The Mechilta (circa 200s CE in Israel ) is an early book of Midrash (Rabbinic interpretation), in this case focused on the Book of Exodus. Similar to how the Gemara takes apart the Mishnah and examines it phrase by phrase, Midrash does that to the Torah and the Megillot. In this case, the verse in question is Exodus 13:14, which starts “If your child asks you tomorrow…”. Since there were times where the Hebrew word for “tomorrow” (“Machar”) might have actually meant “today” (Exodus 17:9), this needed to be discussed. It seemed that a clear case of “Machar” actually meaning “in the future” was Deut. 6:20, another source verse for The Four Children, and this leads us into the first discussion of The Four Children.

Note that in the Mechilta, its version of The Wise Child’s verse uses an interpretation from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Torah by 70 scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 100s CE) which says “Commanded us”, unlike the traditional Masoritic text that says “commanded you”.

Here’s how the verses line up in the Mechilta:

Wise Child - Question = Deut. 6:20; Answer = Mishnah Pesachim 10:8

Wicked Child - Question = Ex. 12:26; Answer = Ex. 13:8

Simple Child - Question = Ex. 13:14; Answer = Ex. 13:14

Can’t Ask Child - Question = None; Answer = Ex. 13:8

For the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask (and also The Wise Child in this version), the Mechilta says that you are supposed to open for them. How would you go about doing that?

Step 3: The Jerusalem Talmud

הלכה: תַּנֵּי רִבִּי חִייָה. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה. בֶּן חָכָם בֶּן רָשָׁע בֶּן טִיפֵּשׁ בֶּן שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאָל. בֶּן חָכָם מָהוּ אוֹמֵר. מָ֣ה הָֽעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְי אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אוֹתָנוּ. אַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לֹו. בְּחוֹזֶק יָ֗ד הֽוֹצִיאָ֧נוּ יְי מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃ בֶּן רָשָׁע מָהוּ אוֹמֵר. מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבוֹדָה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם. מַה הַטּוֹרַח הַזֶּה שֶׁאַתֶּם מַטְרִיחִין עָלֵינוּ בְּכָל־שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה. מִכֵּיוָן שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל אַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ. בַּֽעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְי לִ֔י׃ לִי עָשָׂה. לְאוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ לֹא עָשָׂה. אִילּוּ הָיָה אוֹתוֹ הְאִישׁ בְּמִצְרַיִם לֹא הָיָה רָאוּי לְהִיגְּאֵל מִשָּׁם לְעוֹלָם. טִיפֵּשׁ מָהוּ אוֹמֵר. מַה־זֹּ֑את. אַף אַתְּ לַמְּדוֹ הִילְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח. שֶׁאֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. מַהוּ אֲפִיקוֹמָן. שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא עוֹמֵד מֵחֲבוּרָה זוֹ וְנִכְנַס לַחֲבוּרָה אֲחֶרֶת. בֶּן שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאָל אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ תְחִילָּה. אָמַר רִבִּי יוֹסֵה. מַתְנִיתָא אָֽמְרָה כֵן. אִם אֵין דַּעַת בַּבֵּן אָבִיו מְלַמְּדוֹ.

HALAKHAH: Rebbi Ḥiyya stated “The Torah spoke about Four Children, a wise child, a wicked child, a stupid child, and a child who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? What are the testimonials, the ordinances, and the laws, that the Eternal, our God, commanded us? Also you shall tell them, with a strong hand did the Eternal lead us out of Egypt, the house of slaves. What does the wicked child say? What does this service mean to you? What is this exertion which you impose on us every year? Since they excluded themselves from the community, also you shall tell them, because of this did the Eternal do for me when I left Egypt. For me, God did it, for that child God did not do it. If that child had been in Egypt, they would not have been worthy ever to be redeemed. What does the stupid child say? What is this? Tell them the rules of Passover, that one may not eat after the afikomen. What does that mean? That one not leave one group and join another group [to keep eating]. With the child who does not know how to ask, you have to begin and initiate with them.” Rebbi Yose said, that is what the Mishnah says, “if the child does not know how to ask, their parent instructs them.” [regarding the Ma Nishtana].

Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, commenting on the Mishnah and finishing around the year 400 CE. It is after the Mechilta was written, so it seems to be in conversation with that text. In the Jerusalem Talmud, we get an attribution of this section to Rabbi Hiyya, a student of Rabbi Judah HaNasi. There were 3 Rabbi Hiyyas; this one was probably Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, not Rabbi Hiyya the Great, or Rabbi Hiyya bar Yoseph, since only Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was called "Rabbi H​​​​​​​iyya". This lines up with the timeline of the Mechilta.

Note that in the Jerusalem Talmud, The Wise Child’s verse (Deut. 6:20) is still using “commanded us”, not “commanded you”.

Here’s how the verses line up in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Wise Child - Question = Deut. 6:20; Answer = Ex. 13:14

Wicked Child - Question = Ex. 12:26; Answer = Ex. 13:8

Stupid Child - Question = Ex. 13:14; Answer = Mishnah Pesachim 10:8

Can’t Ask Child - Question = Ex. 13:8 (allusion, since the verse doesn’t say that your child will ask you); Answer = Not in the Torah

How do you feel about the change from “The Simple Child” to “The Stupid Child”? Adopt, Adapt, or Abolish that change?

“The Wicked Child” has an extra line only found in the Jerusalem Talmud - “What is the exertion which you impose on us every year?” When have you felt like The Wicked Child when it comes to preparing for Passover?

The Jerusalem Talmud and the Haggadah switch the answers for the Wise and Simple Children. Which do you prefer?

Step 4: The Modern Haggadah

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן:

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם. לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: "בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם". לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:

תָּם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה זּאֹת? וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו "בְּחוֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים".

וְשֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.

What does the wise [child] say? "'What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?' (Deuteronomy 6:20)" And accordingly you will say to them, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, "We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice (Mishnah Pesachim 10:8)."

What does the evil [child] say? "'What is this worship to you?' (Exodus 12:26)" 'To you' and not 'to them.' And since they excluded themselves from the collective, they denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt their teeth and say to them, "'For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt' (Exodus 13:8)." 'For me' and not 'for them.' If they had been there, they would not have been saved.

What does the simple [child] say? "'What is this?' (Exodus 13:14)" And you will say to them, "'With the strength of [God’s] hand did the Lord take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves' (Exodus 13:14).'"

And [regarding] the one who doesn't know to ask, you will open [the conversation] for them. As it is stated (Exodus 13:8), "And you will speak to your child on that day saying, for the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt."

Context: This is from the Haggadah in use today. The Haggadah used to be a supplement to the siddur (as in Saadia Gaon’s siddur of the 900s) before becoming a stand-alone text in the 1300s with the Birds’ Head Haggadah (1300ish, Ashkenazi), Golden Haggadah (1320, Sephardi), and Sarajevo Haggadah (1350, Sephardi). The text of the Haggadah evolved over time, starting with 40 CE when Rabban Gamliel said that one must mention Pesach, Matzah, and Maror, until the late 1400s when “Chad Gadya” and “Echad Mi Yodea” are added. For more about the fascinating evolution of the Haggadah, see here: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/pb-daily/a-brief-history-of-the-haggadah

Note that in the modern Haggadah, The Wise Child’s verse is now using the traditional Masoritic text (set in the 800s, after the Mechilta and Jerusalem Talmud), so the verse now reads “commanded you”.

Here’s how the verses line up in the Haggadah:

Wise Child - Question = Deut. 6:20; Answer = Mishnah Pesachim 10:8

Wicked Child - Question = Ex. 12:26; Answer = Ex. 13:8

Simple Child - Question = Ex. 13:14; Answer = Ex. 13:14

Can’t Ask Child - Question = None; Answer = Ex. 13:8

What do you take from the fact that “the Wicked Child” and “The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask” get the same answer?

What do you take from the fact that both “The Wise Child” and “The Wicked Child” ask about “you” getting commanded, but only “The Wicked Child” takes heat for it?

Other Ways of Getting at the Same Idea

The Ballad of the Four Sons
(to the tune of "Clementine")
written by Ben Aronin in 1948

Said the father to the children
"At the Seder you will dine,
You will eat your fill of matzoh,
You will drink four cups of wine."

Now this father had no daughters,
But his sons they numbered four,
One was wise, and one was wicked,
One was simple and a bore.

And the fourth was sweet and winsome,
He was young and he was small,
While his brothers asked the questions,
He could scarcely speak at all.

Said the wise one to his father
"Would you please explain the laws.
Of the customs of the Seder
Will you please explain the cause?"

And the father proudly answered
"As our fathers ate in speed,
Ate the Pascal lamb 'ere midnight,
And from slavery were freed"

"So we follow their example,
And 'ere midnight must complete,
All the Seder, and we should not
After twelve remain to eat."

Then did sneer the son so wicked,
"What does all this mean to you?"
And the father's voice was bitter
As his grief and anger grew.

"If yourself you don't consider,
As a son of Israel
Then for you this has no meaning,
You could be a slave as well!"

Then the simple son said softly,
"What is this?" and quietly
The good father told his offspring
"We were freed from slavery."

But the youngest son was silent,
For he could not speak at all,
His bright eyes were bright with wonder
As his father told him all.

Now, dear people, heed the lesson
And remember evermore,
What the father told his children
Told his sons who numbered four!

Context: Ben Aronin was the Educator of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He was known as “Uncle Ben” to everybody and also did the Bar and Bat-Mitzvah tutoring for everybody. Uncle Ben wrote many books, plays, songs (like “The Latke Ditty”, which is to the tune of “Oh Chanukah Oh Chanukah” and starts “Each Chanukah we glorify brave Judas Maccabeus” - https://youtu.be/v1A8v8Xz2sM), and even city-wide pageants. This song was written in 1948 and published in his Haggadah in 1954.

Which version works for you better, the traditional text or the song? Why?

For a longer version of this section, see this sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/394320?lang=bi