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The Four Questions •
An Occasion for Reciting or Inquiring?Eliciting QuestionsIzzy, Did You Ask A Good Question Today? In Search of the Four AnswersThe Questioning PersonalityQuestions in Many TonguesFour Questions, Kibbutz StyleWho Needs "Ma Nishtana"Find the Differences

The Four Questions —
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..." (Pesachim 10:4).
     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!
     Nevertheless, 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.

Eliciting Questions
     1. 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 everyone’s collective knowledge.

"Izzy, 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)   top

In Search of the Four Answers
s 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 child’s questions should not go unanswered, we shall present one answer to each of the four questions.
     ON ONE HAND, the matza and the maror belong to the menu of the slaves and the oppressed:
     1. 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.
     2. 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:
     3. 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 d’œuvres with cocktails (the first cup of wine) at banquets.
     4. 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 all.
(based on Don Isaac Abrabanel, Zevach Pesach)

The Questioning Personality
Key to Freedom
     Why were the Rabbis so insistent that the Exodus story open with a spontaneous question?
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.
     On 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).
     An 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 master’s arbitrary orders are the ultimate justification for the way things are.
     In 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

Questions 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 Leader’s Guide for many translations).   top

Four 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.
     In 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 (1930’s), the Holocaust (1940’s) and the ingathering of 1,000,000 Jewish refugees (1950’s).
     Below 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 questions.
     Kibbutz Ein Harod 1930’s - 1940’s:
     • Why do people all over the world hate Jews?
     • When will the Jews return to their land?
     • When will our land become a fertile garden?
     • When will there be peace and brotherhood world over?   top

Who 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’. Let’s dispense with the those set questions and proceed directly to the telling of the story” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 115b).   top

Find the Differences
efore 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).