The Four Questions (Mah Nishtana – What makes it different?) is one of the most famous features of the Passover Seder. In Ashkenazi homes, these four lines are recited by the youngest person present, or, quite often, by all the children at the seder.
Before you start scanning your haggadah to discover four answers, wait. The haggadah doesn’t answer any of these questions directly! So why ask them?
The haggadah mimics the style of the Talmud, which is full of rhetorical questions and answers that appear not to match the questions asked. Students of the Talmud, however, learn to understand these type of strange dynamics.
The immediate answer presented in the haggadah is a paragraph known as Avad’im Ha’yee’nu, “We Were Slaves…”:
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord our God took us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Had God not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children and our grandchildren would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if we all were wise and perceptive, experienced and well-versed in Torah, it would still be our duty to tell about the exodus from Egypt. The more one talks about the exodus, the more praise one deserves.
The Four Questions are left unanswered because they are meant to encourage children (and adults) to listen for the answers. In a way, the answers are there. We eat matzah because this was the bread of affliction of our ancestors in Egypt. We eat maror, bitter herbs, to remember the pain of slavery. We dip our vegetables (first the karpas and then the maror) and we recline as we eat (except the maror), because these are the ways of free people. And the answer to all of the questions of the seder truly is…we were slaves and now we are free, all, thanks to God.
This Treat was last posted on March 19, 2013.
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