Ma Nishtanah: The Story of the Four Questions

The Haggadah is the classic Jewish book used as the basis of the Passover seder. Its text was compiled during the periods of the Mishnah and the Talmud, with later medieval additions. It exists today in many forms, as different communities around the world developed their own variations.

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת? שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה (כֻּלּוֹ) מָרוֹר. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.
What differentiates this night from all [other] nights? On all [other] nights we eat chamets and matsa; this night, only matsa? On all [other] nights we eat other vegetables; tonight (only) marror. On all [other] nights, we don't dip [our food], even one time; tonight [we dip it] twice. On [all] other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining; tonight we all recline.

Why ask questions?

Exodus (“Shemot”) is the second book of the Torah, Judaism’s foundational text. It describes the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and their miraculous redemption, the beginning of their travels in the wilderness and the experience of Revelation at Mount Sinai.

(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׃

(26) And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ (27) you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to Adonai, 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.

(ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

(8) And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

(יד) וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֣ר מַה־זֹּ֑את וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֗ד הוֹצִיאָ֧נוּ יְהֹוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

(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 Adonai brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.

Deuteronomy (“Devarim”) is the fifth and last book of the Torah, Judaism’s foundational text, and it consists primarily of Moses’ final speeches ahead of his death.

(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׃ (כג) וְאוֹתָ֖נוּ הוֹצִ֣יא מִשָּׁ֑ם לְמַ֙עַן֙ הָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ לָ֤תֶת לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֵֽינוּ׃

(20) When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that our God Adonai has enjoined upon you?” (21) you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and Adonai freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. (22) Adonai wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; (23) and us [God] freed from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised on oath to our fathers.

The Talmud is the textual record of generations of rabbinic debate about law, philosophy, and biblical interpretation, compiled between the 3rd and 8th centuries and structured as commentary on the Mishnah. Tractate Pesachim (“Passover Festivals”) is part of the Talmud and discusses laws relating to Passover.

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.

What questions do we ask?

לָמָּה עוֹקְרִין אֶת הַשּׁוּלְחָן? אָמְרִי דְּבֵי רַבִּי יַנַּאי: כְּדֵי שֶׁיַּכִּירוּ תִּינוֹקוֹת וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ. אַבָּיֵי הֲוָה יָתֵיב קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַבָּה, חֲזָא דְּקָא מַדְלִי תַּכָּא מִקַּמֵּיהּ, אֲמַר לְהוּ: עֲדַיִין לָא קָא אָכְלִינַן, אָתוּ קָא מְעַקְּרִי תַּכָּא מִיקַּמַּן?! אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבָּה: פְּטַרְתַּן מִלּוֹמַר ״מָה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה״.
The Gemara asks: Why does one remove the table? The school of Rabbi Yannai say: So that the children will notice that something is unusual and they will ask: Why is this night different from all other nights? The Gemara relates: Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table from before him, and he said to those removing it: We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us? Rabba said to him: You have exempted us from reciting the questions of: Why is this night different [ma nishtana], as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.

The Mishnah is the first major work of rabbinic literature, consisting of teachings transmitted over hundreds of years and compiled around 200 CE. Mishnah Pesachim (“Passover Festivals”) discusses laws relating to Passover.

(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.

(4) The attendants poured the second cup for the leader of the seder, and here the son asks his father the questions about the differences between Passover night and a regular night. And if the son does not have the intelligence to ask questions on his own, his father teaches him the questions: Why is this night different from all other nights? As on all other nights we eat leavened bread and matza; on this night all our bread is matza. As on all other nights we eat other vegetables; on this night we eat bitter herbs. 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. As on all other nights we dip the vegetables in a liquid during the meal only once; however, on this night we dip twice.

Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim (“Passover Festivals”) is part of version of the Talmud composed in Israel, rather than the more commonly studied Babylonian Talmud. It discusses laws relating to Passover.

משנה: מָֽזְגוּ לֹו כוֹס שֵׁנִי וְכָאן הַבֵּן שׁוֹאֵל. אִם אֵין דַּעַת בַּבֵּן לִשְׁאוֹל אָבִיו מְלַמְּדוֹ מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל־הַלֵּילוֹת. שֶׁבְּכָל־הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין פַּעַם אַחַת וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים. שֶׁבְּכָל־הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כּוּלּוֹ מַצָּה. שֶׁבְּכָל־הַלֵּילוֹת אוֹכְלִין בָּשָׂר צָלִי שָׁלוּק וּמְבוּשָּׁל וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כּוּלּוֹ צָלִי.​​​​​​​

MISHNAH: One mixes him the second cup, and here the son asks. If the son does not know how to ask, his father instructs him: What is the difference between this night and all other nights? For every night we dip once, but this night we dip twice. For every night we eat leavened and unleavened bread, but this night only unleavened. For in all other nights we eat meat roasted, preserved, or cooked, but in this night only roasted.

The Dropsie Haggadah (housed at Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia) is a haggadah that dates from the 10th or 11th century and was looted from the Cairo Genizah in the 19th century. Its core elements date back to Mishnaic times, and there are several differences from today's standard text.

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

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.

Edot Hamizrah is a Sephardic Haggadah composed between 700-1000 C.E.

(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 are done 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.

Chametz and Matzah

Leviticus (“Vayikra”) is the third book of the Torah, Judaism’s foundational text. It contains many laws on various topics, but the book is unified by the theme of holiness in people, time, and space.

(יא) וְזֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת זֶ֣בַח הַשְּׁלָמִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַקְרִ֖יב לַה' (יב) אִ֣ם עַל־תּוֹדָה֮ יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ֒ וְהִקְרִ֣יב ׀ עַל־זֶ֣בַח הַתּוֹדָ֗ה חַלּ֤וֹת מַצּוֹת֙ בְּלוּלֹ֣ת בַּשֶּׁ֔מֶן וּרְקִיקֵ֥י מַצּ֖וֹת מְשֻׁחִ֣ים בַּשָּׁ֑מֶן וְסֹ֣לֶת מֻרְבֶּ֔כֶת חַלֹּ֖ת בְּלוּלֹ֥ת בַּשָּֽׁמֶן׃

(11) And this is the law of the sacrifice of peace-offerings, which one may offer unto the LORD. (12) If he offer it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes mingled with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil, and (leavened) cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour soaked.

Bitter Herbs (and Roast Meat)

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

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.

(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...

Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (the Rif) was a great halakhic authority who lived in North Africa in the 10th century.

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.

Dipping Twice

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.

קָמַשְׁמַע לַן דַּאֲפִילּוּ חֲזֶרֶת בָּעֵינַן תְּרֵי טִיבּוּלֵי כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֶיהְוֵי בֵּיהּ הֶיכֵּירָא לְתִינוֹקוֹת

Therefore, the mishna teaches us that regardless [of the vegetable used] one requires two dippings, so that there be a conspicuous distinction for the children.


(א) 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:

A person may not eat until it gets dark on the eve of Pesach [from] close to [the time of] the afternoon offering. Even the poorest person in Israel may not eat [on the eve of Pesach] until reclining [at the night's Seder]. And [the communal officers] must give them no fewer than four cups of wine, and [they must do so] even [if they receive funds] from the charity plate.

Why these questions?

Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, often referred to simply as Abarbanel, wrote his commentary in Italy, after being exiled from Spain in 1492.

Zevach Pesach by Don Yitzchak Abarbanel

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.

My People's Passover Haggadah by Lawrence Hoffman (pp. 154-155)

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?