An Occasion for Reciting or for Inquiring?
THE CUSTOM of having the youngest child
recite the four questions has its
origin in Rabbinic sources from Second Temple times. However the Mishna
in describing the ancient seder service shakes up our usual assumptions:
They fill a second cup of wine for him (the
leader of the Seder) and here the child (the inquisitive child)
asks his father. If the child lacks intelligence (daat), his
father teaches him: How different this night is from all other nights!
For on all other nights we eat leavened bread and matza, etc..."
The surprising point here is that the four
questions are not formulated as questions but as statements of wonder.
They are stated by the parent, not by the child and only if the
child lacks the intelligence to ask spontaneously! The intelligent child
is expected to notice the changes in the routine and inquire about them.
According to the Mishna, then, if all children were intelligent and curious,
there would be no recital of a ritual text of four questions!
Ma Nishtana has earned an honored place at the seder. But one who is satisfied
with only a formal recitation of questions is far from realizing the educational
potential the Rabbis sought to develop.
Go around the table asking everyone to share one personal question about
Pesach or the Exodus.
2. Afterwards, spend some time replying
to a few questions by pooling everyones collective knowledge.
Did You Ask A Good Question Today?"
To the Editor:
Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate
in physics 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?
My mother made me a scientist with-out
ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her
child after school: Nu? 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.
(Donald Sheff, New York Times, Jan. 19, 1988)
Search of the Four Answers
often happens after the youngest child recites the four questions, the
family and guests
applaud but do not bother to answer the questions. Since a young childs
questions should not go unanswered, we shall present one answer to each
of the four questions.
ONE HAND, the matza and the maror belong to the menu of the
slaves and the oppressed:
Why eat plain matza which is hard to digest?
Poor laborers and slaves are fed matza not only because it is cheap but
because it is filling and requires a long digestion period. The diet was
designed by the oppressor to exploit the people efficiently.
Why eat raw, bitter vegetables?
Maror is eaten plain only by the most oppressed workers who are given
little time to prepare their meals. With more time they would have made
these herbs into a tasty salad.
On the other hand, dipping and reclining typify the manners of the leisure
class in Roman times:
Why dip twice before eating?
On seder night we are obligated to dip twice - karpas in salt water and
maror in charoset before the meal begins. Even today, finger foods
dipped in tangy sauces are typical hors duvres with cocktails
(the first cup of wine) at banquets.
Why recline on pillows while drinking wine?
The body language of the free reflects their ease and comfort. Reclining
on sofas or pillows, everyone big and small alike experiences
the freedom of the upper classes. On seder night these foods and these
table manners are props and stage directions in the script acted out by
(based on Don Isaac Abrabanel, Zevach Pesach)
were the Rabbis so insistent that the Exodus story open with a spontaneous
First of all, one can view this as an educational device. Teachers know
that if they can just get their students to pay attention, get their minds
working on something they find interesting, then the teachers have gone
a long way towards creating an openness to learning new things. The Rabbis
wanted to remind the leaders of the seder not just to focus on the story
but first to make sure to have an active, attentive audience.
a deeper level, the Rabbis may have reflected that questioning is an essential
part of the freedom celebrated on the seder night. The whole Talmudic
literature is in the form of questioning and dialogue not
the meek questioning of inferior to superior but the give-and-take interaction
of adamant rivals pitted against one another, and sometimes even against
God! (B.T. Bava Metzia 59 b).
essential characteristic of free people is that they notice the world
around them, make distinctions and search for meaningful patterns. They
want understanding, not inscrutability. For a slave mentality, nothing
is different all tasks are part of the same meaningless
arbitrariness. There is no point in asking if no one answers, no place
for questions in a world where the masters arbitrary orders are
the ultimate justification for the way things are.
beginning the seder with genuine (not rote) questions, the Rabbis show
that we not only tell the story of freedom, but we act like
free people. top
In Many Tongues
Traditionally the questions and answers of the seder
must be in the vernacular, a language understood by all whatever their
age or literacy. Try asking the questions in as many foreign languages
as possible (see The Leaders Guide
for many translations). top
Questions: Kibbutz Style
IN EVERY GENERATION one is obligated to ask new questions.
Though the Haggadah never explicitly makes such a demand, the Mishna does
require intelligent children to ask their own questions. Naturally these
will reflect their own era. Even the recommended four questions of the
youngest child have changed over the generations.
the early days the Kibbutz Haggadah retooled the four questions to transcend
ritual issues and to focus on contemporary historical concerns, such as
the battle with the Arabs (1930s), the Holocaust (1940s) and
the ingathering of 1,000,000 Jewish refugees (1950s).
are four questions asked by children in Kibbutz Ein Harod. It is a shame
that we don't have a copy of the answers the parents gave to these contemporary
Ein Harod 1930s - 1940s:
do people all over the world hate Jews?
will the Jews return to their land?
When will our land become a fertile garden?
will there be peace and brotherhood world over?
Needs "Ma Nishtana"?
ONCE THE YOUNG PUPIL, Abaye, was invited to the seder
of his teacher Rabbah. While still at the beginning of the seder Rabbah
ordered the servants to clear the dishes from the table. Amazed, Abaye
asked, Why are you removing the seder plate before we have even
eaten? Rabbah exclaimed, Your question has served the same
function as the usual four questions of Ma nishtana. Lets
dispense with the those set questions and proceed directly to the telling
of the story (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 115b).
singing the Ma Nishtana, prompt the youngest children to see
how different this table is from other family meals (length of table,
foods, dishes, guests, books, pillows, etc).