Thoughts on the Four Questions

Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question? Why not? We are a tradition which encourages questioning. Our major works of law, the Mishnah and the Gemara which make up the Talmud, each begin with a question. The Mishnah opens with the question, “From what time do we recite the Sh'ma in the evening?” The Gemara responds by asking, “On the basis of which verse does the teacher of the Mishnah ask this question?” When it comes to Passover, the Torah teaches, “When your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'” This is one of four places in the Torah where we are instructed to tell our children about the Exodus and in three of them it is because they ask about it. This is the source of the Midrash of the four children described later in the Haggadah, three who ask and one who does not know how to ask. Maimonides includes the telling of the story on Passover night among the 613 mitzvot in the Torah and to get things off to a proper start, the custom has arisen for the youngest child or children to ask what we call the “Four Questions.”

To start with, it is not at all clear that these are questions. They first appear in the Mishnah without punctuation and may in fact be statements. The leader of the seder may be the one who exclaims, “Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh, mikol haleilot! How different this night is from all other nights.” He proceeds to enumerate four differences, two based on laws from the Torah, eating matzah and maror, bitter herbs, and two from rabbinic custom about dipping vegetables and reclining at the seder meal. It seems that, according to the Mishnah, there is indeed an expectation that the child will ask questions. However, the Mishnah states, “If the son lacks the intelligence to ask, his father instructs him, “Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh....” The passage is intended to draw out questions from the children, not necessarily to be a required text that they recite.

In the Midrash of Mekhilta on Exodus, the emphasis is on the telling, whether or not there are any questions raised and parents and children are urged to spend the night grappling with questions about Passover and the Exodus. Other sages require a question of any kind to get the ball rolling. Modern scholars see in this back and forth an echo of the Roman tradition of the symposium meal where important questions are dealt with through dialogue of question and answer. In the Talmud, we find a story of the child Abaye, later one of the great sages of the Talmud. He was sitting at the table of his teacher Rabbah when they, following the ancient custom, removed the table set before the participants. The child asks, “We still haven't eaten, why are they taking the table away?” Rabbah replied, “you have exempted us from reciting Mah Nishtanah.” By posing this question, the child had fulfilled the requirement of asking and the seder could then proceed.

Of course, in post-Talmudic times, Mah Nishtanah becomes an established part of the seder liturgy and no longer optional. By the time of Maimonides (12th century), even if the child asks a question, we still recite Mah Nishtanah. However, it seems at first that this is not left to a child to recite, but is done by the leader of the seder himself. Some authorities, however, stick with the idea of a child asking, such as in the teaching of Rav Saadia Gaon, ' If there is a child who knows how to ask, he stands up and asks, Mah Nishtanah, and a sage in the group answers him... If there is no child who knows how to ask, behold the sage is the one who asks and he is the one who answers.” Clearly, by medieval times, regardless of what one might think the halacha is, the custom becomes established that the child asks the questions, if there is a knowledgeable child, and the text is the established version of Mah Nishtanah.

However, we should note that the text has a history as well. It was not always four questions. It started off as three and the customs that were commented on varied a bit through the centuries. In the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Mishnah, the “questions” are, “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.” The last question takes us back to Temple days when the main course at the seder was the korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb, eaten only roasted. These three questions parallel the teaching of Rabban Gamliel that one needs to mention three things on Passover: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror. The Pesach or Paschal lamb and the Matzah are clear, while the dipping refers primarily to the dipping of Maror into Charoset.

The dipping question appears in a variety of forms partly due to changing customs regarding the dipping of food at the table. The Talmud Yerushalmi mentions that on other nights we dip it (the bitter herbs, i.e. lettuce) with bread, and here we dip it on its own. The Babylonian Talmud also discusses how many times one normally dips food at the table. Perhaps we should say we are not obligated to dip even once, but tonight we dip twice. Rav Safra gives our version, on all other nights we don't dip even once, on this night we dip twice. I always mention to my students nowadays, that we might dip twice even today, French fries into ketchup and chips into salsa, but there is no religious obligation involved. In the days of the fondue parties, people were dipping all sorts of foods into melted cheese or chocolate. The point is clearly that only on Passover night is it a ritual custom to dip food, karpas into salt water or vinegar and maror into charoset.

The question about chametz and matzah has withstood the test of time, it has always read the way we read it today, however, it is currently at the top of the list of questions rather than in second place.

As mentioned before, the question about roasted meat does not make sense in the post-Temple period when we no longer offer the Paschal lamb. However, some scholars point to a custom in certain communities to continue serving roasted meat after the destruction of the Temple as a remembrance of the sacrifice. The Ashkenazi custom nowadays is not to eat roasted meat, or at least not to serve roasted lamb, lest we be accused of offering sacrifices outside the Temple. Rabbi Isaac Alfasi and Maimonides both rule that we no longer ask this question even if the local custom was to have roasted meat.

Added to the question of dipping as revised and of Matzah, we have two post-Talmudic questions. The first is “on all other nights we eat other vegetables, on this night, bitter herbs.” This question appears in the Geonic period and after in Babylonian Haggadot. It is a rather strange question because it seems to imply that we are not to eat other vegetables which is not the case at all. It is suggested that this question was added to make sure we covered the required eating of bitter herbs among our questions. At this period when the question was added, lettuce was no longer used for the first dipping, we instead dip karpas (parsley, celery or some other greens) into salt water or vinegar. Thus the dipping question no longer applied exclusively to maror, the bitter herb, the lettuce, and there was a need felt for a specific question about the mitzvah of eating maror.

The final question also arose at this later period when it was no longer customary to recline during banquets as was the case in Roman times. Back then, it would not have aroused curiosity in any of the children to see their parents stretched out on couches around the table. But at this later period, reclining became a unique feature of the Passover meal and was something to remark upon, hence the new fourth question in the Haggadah.

It has been suggested that a number of the traditions at the seder were intended as a response to Christian teachings of the Talmudic era. Rabban Gamliel's three symbols for example were given a Christological meaning by the Church which Gamliel emphatically rejects by his explanation of each symbol. This lamb bone is not a symbol of the suffering of Christ, agnus dei, but a remembrance of God's passing over our homes in Egypt. This matzah is not the body of Christ, corpus christi, but the bread of affliction which was hastily removed from the ovens on the way out of Egypt as a sign of faith and so forth. The number three as a reminder of the Christian Trinity is replaced frequently in the Haggadah with the number four, thus we find the four questions, the four cups of wine, the four promises of redemption, the four children and others.

The four questions as we have them today, it seems to me, continue to remind us of the importance of parents and children conversing about the meaning of our faith and transmitting the traditions of the past from one generation to the next. We want to encourage our chldren to ask questions and we need to strive to help them find answers. On Shabbat HaGadol, the sabbath immediately preceding Passover, we read the special haftarah from the concluding section of the book of Malachi, the final prophet, who ends his teachings with the promise of Elijah's return and says, “Behold I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents...” Elijah's coming, seen as heralding the beginning of the Messianic era, will be a time of reconciliation of the generations, when parents and children will again gather to share the knowledge of the Lord. We begin that process each year as we await Elijah's arrival at the seder, when the children ask their parents, Mah nishtanah and the parents reply, Avadim Hayinu, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord has brought us forth with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This is the season of redemption and we resolve at the seder to begin by bringing our families together, sharing a meal, and sharing the teachings of the Lord.

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