Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Question on the Four Questions

As we were plodding our way through the Haggadah (well, I suppose this is before most of the plodding, really), I noticed something rather puzzling about the Ma Nishtana - the 'four' questions. It starts off, "ma nishtana halayla hazeh mikol haleilot?" which most people translate into, "why is this night different from all other nights?" But if you look at the actual language, what it really seems to be asking is, "what is changed on this night from all other nights?" The passage then goes into a list of the different things, "shebichol haleilot, that on all other nights..." etc. So this list seems like an answer to the question of what is different. But those four things are not the ONLY things that are different! On all other nights, we don't normally drink four cups of wine. We don't normally invite people in to eat with us. Etc. etc. etc.

Also, if the question is "why is this night different from all other nights?" we don't really get an answer in the Haggadah. "Avadim hayinu l'Paroh b'Mitzraim - We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt" is not really an answer to the Ma nishtana. True, each of the things spoken about in the Ma Nishtana can represent our journey from bondage into freedom, but that's only inferred. The Haggadah never specifically answers it. Later on in the Haggadah, when we talk about Pesach, Matzah, and Marror, it goes into why we have each of those things, but what about the dipping? And the leaning while we eat? Where is that answered?

This is not a dvar Torah, this is a question. What is up with the Ma Nishtana? What is it really asking and where are the answers?

Also, I appreciate the idea that the children are supposed to ask questions at the Seder, but does anyone else feel like it's a cop out every time in the Haggadah where there is a commentator's question about why something is done a certain way, why wine is poured at a specific point, etc. and the answer is merely, "to get the children to ask?"


the apple said...

1. I have wondered the same thing. The way it was explained to me is that ma nishtana is a statement, and then there are four questions asked on that statement - why are we eating only matza? Why are we eating marror? etc.

Another thing that has always confused me is ... how is the question supposed to know about all these things?? We haven't eaten any maror yet. We haven't eaten any matza yet. We only dipped once. How can someone ask these questions BEFORE THE FACT?

This actually bothers me about the seder in general - a lot of the questions are so rehearsed (especially when little kids spend about a month before preparing ma nishtana, and they probably don't really know what they're saying). I guess that's part of the parents' role, to make the seder seem original. Maybe it's just harder when you're older.

2. (All of our haggadot are put away, so I can't get the text, so this isn't the most scholarly answer.) I think that part of the reason that the answers aren't necessarily spelled out is so that people will be engaged in dialogue, rather than reading pat answers given. Like, someone who really thinks about avadim hayinu is going to wonder how it answers the questions, and will hopefully voice that, and then people can discuss it.

Also, for the record - I find that adults who know less about Judaism are much more curious than children are (fault of the school system or adults just tend to think more, either one, or maybe both), and tend to ask more questions. This can sometimes be at the expense of the kids at the table trying to give divrei Torah though (yeah, we had some interesting sedarim in my youth).

3. Not a copout - chinuch for the next generation. Also, children can include people who are less knowledgeable, i.e. adults who have not had a Jewish education or never experienced a seder before.

Whoa, this was longer than I'd expected it to be. :D

Josh M. said...

1) In answer to your question regarding why only these four questions are asked, one of my rebbeim noted that precisely these four/five things are associated with the key mitzvos of the night of (Pesach), Matzah, and Marror; the marror must be eaten dipped and the (pesach and) matzah while reclining. Hence, the purpose of the mah nishtana is specifically to focus the child's attention on these items, which are the core of maggid, while the mitzvos of dalet kosos and hallel, which are only accessory (and d'rabbanan) are not dealt with.

2) Your observation regarding "why" being a mistranslation is a good one, but taking it a step further, I'm not sure if it's a question at all. It sounds more like a declaration of "How different!" This could easily be read into the lashon of the mishnah, which states that following the mixing of the second cup, the son asks, and *if the son is not wise enough to ask*, the father teaches him: Mah nishtana, etc. If the son is induced to ask on his own, good. If not, the father points out to the son what should have driven him to ask. Either way, once the visual props are acknowledged, an opening exists to say what we want to say.
I'm not sure that the dipping and reclining have to be explained, as they were instituted precisely because they ought to serve as obvious signs of freedom, although in this luxurious yet rushed day and age, it's arguable that they're somewhat anachronistic (indeed, the Ra'avya holds that nowadays there's no obligation to recline, because it doesn't mean the same thing that it used to).